When Betty Draper, the oppressed housewife from “Mad Men,” who is probably named after Betty Friedan and her Feminine Mystique, feels depressed and cannot express her distress, her hands start shaking uncontrollably. Her husband Don sends her to a psychiatrist. Both husband and doctor agree that Betty has the emotions of a child. Her breasts, however, are obviously mature enough for the psychiatrist to gaze at.
This has been a great decade for women in television. It seems like every other show has a strong female lead. Women are breaking the mold of what jobs they can do, and do well (police officers, detectives, brain surgeons, and if it’s the 50s, copywriters). And they are breaking the mold of what womanhood and femininity look like. Women can now be antiheroines, too.
The antihero character is not your typical superman who is noble, selfless and strives for the higher ground, the protagonist we admire and look up to and want to be like when we grow up. The antihero is a tormented, flawed character, who is driven to achieve perfection in what he does, but not in who he is. He is usually self-destructive in some way, and sometimes destructive to others, but we enjoy watching him because he is complex and interesting and oftentimes more relatable than the hero.
So now, just like men have their Walter Whites and their Don Drapers, women have their Carrie Mathisons and their Nurse Jackies.
But if you look closely you will discover a disturbing pattern. It appears that more often than not, the strong female lead, the complex and flawed woman who doesn’t have to be the perfect wife, the devoted mother, or the hostess with the mostess, is only allowed to be that way because she suffers from a mental illness.
Take Carrie Mathison from “Homeland.” Carrie is a top CIA agent. Right now she is running her own crew in Pakistan. Her instincts are always right on target, and her commitment to her job is unfailing. But Carrie’s secret (and secret weapon) is that she suffers from Bipolar Disorder, a disorder that sends the brain to extreme highs and lows.
Her near-clairvoyant abilities are often attributed to her mental disorder, which is why she sometimes has been reluctant to take her medication. The endless energy that she devotes to her job seems to come from her obsessive-compulsive problems more than from high work standards. During the whole four seasons, I have never once seen her eat, and if you see her sleep, you know she has hit rock bottom. Wine and, when she takes them, her medication, are what keeps her going.
We have seen Carrie go through ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), which on television is always displayed as a horrific, Dark Age way of putting the crazies under control. (it is, actually, a rather effective form of treatment, which is given in extreme cases when other forms of treatment have failed. It is done in a far more humane and painless way than it used to be, and the patient usually suffers no ill-effects, except for some short-term memory loss.)
We have seen her in a manic high, solving some of the great mysteries the CIA deals with, and we have seen her taken to the psychiatric ward shortly after. We have seen her finally taking her meds, and we have seen the enemy manipulating those meds and driving her crazy.
Carrie’s abilities and decisions are forever doubted because of her dual fatal flaw: she is a woman, and she has a mental disorder. There are only very few men around her who have learned to whole-heartedly trust her, and even they have failed her several times. The rest of them enjoy playing the crazy card whenever they want her conveniently put away. She prevails, of course, but she does that working against the people who are supposed to always have her back.
Dr. Catherine Black from “Black Box” is also torn between the need to be a professional doctor and a good fiancé, and the appeal of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries she makes when she is off her drugs. She treats the most difficult brain enigmas, and whenever she gets one she cannot solve, she just goes off her meds and two minutes later she is mapping out the human brain and curing diseases no one has ever cured before.
Catherine is, of course, a failed mother. She had to give her daughter up. Was it because she was Bipolar? Was it because her work values are stronger than her maternal instinct? Does television consider those one and the same?
Whichever it is, if the show had been given a second year, we would have, no doubt, seen her daughter, who is raised by Catherine’s brother and his wife, start showing signs of Bipolar Disorder herself because there is nothing television likes more than a hereditary mental illness.
So we have a female CIA agent and a female neurologist, two high-powered jobs that have traditionally been considered male-dominated, but both of them are struggling with mental illness.
Jackie Peyton, on the other hand, is a nurse, a profession that has always been considered women-dominated. But Jackie is not just any nurse. Jackie is the best nurse you’ve ever seen. In fact, she probably could be a doctor. In her mayhem of a hospital, where most doctors and administrators don’t even come close to her level of intelligence and competence, she is the Alpha-dog.
And what makes her so calm, collected and brilliant in the midst of crisis? What makes her catch misdiagnosed illnesses and win over all of her patients’ admiration? Jackie is a drug addict. She takes anything and everything she can get her hands on, and she will commit crimes to get it, too.
She is a terrible mother, whose daughters are developing their own mental disorders (Grace, the oldest, suffers from severe OCD and is now getting into drugs herself); she cheated on her husband with a pharmacist (fittingly) and is now divorced. She drove away her new and unbelievably supportive boyfriend because she couldn’t stand the thought of being happy. And she doesn’t really know how to be intimate with her friends. She even chased away her NA sponsor. In other words, Jackie is a horror.
Her one redeeming quality is that she is an excellent nurse, which accentuates even more how inept she is in her personal life. A nurse’s job is one where women are traditionally compassionate, patient, supportive and caring. She values being a kind of a mother to her patients, but at the expense of being one to her actual children.
Sarah Linden on “The Killing” suffers from depression. I think we’ve only seen her smile about three times during the show’s four seasons. The show takes place in Seattle, where it is always gloomy and rainy. Maybe poor Sarah just suffers from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, an organic disorder that happens from lack of exposure to sunlight, which leads to low levels of serotonin in the brain).
Even if that were the case, it still wouldn’t explain her extreme OCD. But her OCD is what makes her such a relentless detective. Once Linden gets a case, she will not rest, and I do mean that literally, until she solves it.
She is such a bad mother, that her son left her to be with his dad. She alienates everyone around her, and she wears a constant tortured look on her face.
The only person who understands her is her partner and soulmate, Holder, who is just as committed to his job as she is, is a recovered drug addict, and—to the show’s credit—seems just as inept in his personal life as Sarah is.
“United States of Tara” is a show wholly based on the exploration of a mental illness. Tara suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, what people used to call split personality, and what many people still confuse with schizophrenia. Tara has “alters,” personalities or identities that come out when she is in distress.
I only watched the first two episodes of “Tara,” but, in general, I find those to be the two most important. The pilot is the one where the show presents its premise and shows the network what tricks it can do. The second episode is the one where the show starts creatively exploring the real issues it wants to put forth to the viewers.
Already in the first episode we get to meet three of Tara’s alters: a skanky teenager, a proper housewife, and a low-life man. This last gender-bendeing alter earns points for the show because it allows it to explore the core of gender identity and how much of that is biological or environmentally-trainable.
However, the show seems to again perpetuate the idea that women can only let go and be who they truly want to be, or explore who they will never allow themselves to be, if they suffer from a mental illness. Or is it the other way around, and women break down with an illness because of the stifling of their real desires and needs?
If you are going to depict mental illness as the result of “putting baby in a corner,” then it is irresponsible to not deal with, or even barely mention, the number one trigger for a Dissociate Identity Disorder, which is sexual abuse in childhood. It has been seen that in some cases young children who suffer sexual abuse dissociate themselves from the atrocities that are being done to them by creating alters. Granted, I did not watch the whole show, but I have spoken with people who have and they assured me the show did not deal with this issue at all.
Interestingly, in these first two episodes, Tara does not seem to have a job. Her primary role is to be a wife and a mother to her extremely understanding and supportive husband, son and daughter. Her family even enjoys some of the alters. Her daughter likes going shopping with the teenage alter; there are great baked goods when the perfect housewife is around; and they all go bowling with Buck, the dude.
Everyone seems so very well-adjusted, and the house is always neat. The only one who expresses any kind of discomfort with Tara’s many faces is her sister, obviously the one who has been there from the beginning and who probably understands the origins of this disorder much better than the other family members. The husband accepts that it was his choice to marry Tara fully knowing of her disorder; the son has learned to think of his mother as the reason for his family being special and unique; and her daughter is mouthy to her mother, but defends her to the rest of the world.
The most interesting dynamic on the show is between Tara and her daughter. Kate is a horrible teenager, who practices free love, freely takes the Morning After Pill and is proud of having no “Back Door Shame” (her words). Her daughter’s sexuality seems to be Tara’s worst trigger.
When she finds out Kate has taken Plan B, she switches to T, the teenager whom her daughter loves and confides in. When she thinks her daughter’s boyfriend is mistreating her, she turns into Buck beats the crap out of him. And when other parents from the school pity her for how her daughter turned out, she turns into the perfect mother/housewife and washes Kate’s mouth with actual soap.
This could have been a fascinating exploration of the dilemmas women face in this new age, when the message they get is that they can have it all and be it all, while still having to please everyone around them and not threaten male superiority. Women are now expected to be both the virgin and the whore, and that is by definition impossible.
I don’t know if the show ever managed to achieve such depths, but the problem is that I have no desire to find out. By choosing a comedic, half-hour style, the creators may have thought they could make the premise more palatable. But I found that it took away from its potential. And as much as I adore Toni Collette, now that I’ve seen Tatian Maslany’s nuanced performance playing multiple versions of the same character, Collete’s choices seem less refined. Collette, by the way, was nominated twice and won an Emmy for “Tara.” Maslany, on the other hand, has been completely snubbed by the Television Academy.
Laura Linney also won an Emmy for her role as a terminal Cancer patient in “The Big C.” No, cancer is not a disease of the mind, but it affects it in every way. Cathy, who suffers from depression from the disease, is also set free by it. Dying Cathy can do anything she never allowed herself to do back when she was too busy conforming to realize that life was too short.
Cathy dies in the end (not really a spoiler). That is the only reason she can have four remarkable seasons of letting go. She lives the most fully after she finds out she is dying.
What inspired me to write this piece was HBO’s recent outstanding miniseries, “Olive Kitteridge” (look for Frances McDormand at all the television award shows next year). The show takes place in a small town in Maine, where most residents really do suffer from SAD, and even the ones who try to be cheerful get knocked down by life’s cruel jokes.
Olive (McDormand) suffers from clinical depression that is far more deeply rooted than could be fixed by a change in the forecast. What bugged some viewers and some critics is that Olive seems (ironically) happy with her depression. She doesn’t try to be nice to anyone, she is mean to the students she teaches, and she is obviously to blame for everything that’s wrong with her son.
But that is not the case. Olive doesn’t choose to be depressed; she merely sees it as the only realistic existence. To Olive, people put on happy faces and optimistic dispositions to try to distract themselves from the harsh and unfair realities of the human condition.
Olive can only relate and show kindness to people who are as broken as she is: her depressed neighbor and her suicidal schizophrenic son, for example. Even to her own saint of a husband, who has shown her kindness that no other man would, she can only be truly loving after his stroke, when he is in an almost vegetative state.
Olive Kitteridge manages to be highly functional, despite her disability, not because of it. She struggles with her pain, but she accepts it. Her misery doesn’t give her any special powers, but it is not her downfall, either. It is a part of her; it doesn’t define her.
Olive is simply depressed. She is bitter and miserable and that shows in every interaction she has. Her disease is not glorified or pitied or romanticized. It just is, right there, bare and exposed for us to learn about, perhaps identify with, and hopefully understand a little bit better.
Olive Kitteridge is the real deal.
Though I did not include this show in the piece because it was not officially about mental illness, I salute “Desperate Housewives” for its fine depiction of the quiet lives of desperation that many people, and in particular women, live.
Creator Marc Cherry said he wanted to capture the kind of life that he had witnessed in his mother, a desperate housewife in 50s America. Even though the show has comedic overtones, what Cherry managed to do was bring forth an ensemble of complex and layered women (who were also older than the ones usually depicted on television) who told the stories of what really goes on behind the cheerful façade.
Stories of women struggling with addiction, depression, Obsessive Compulsive tendencies, self-destructive behaviors, sexual orientation questions. Stories of women who struggle with their feelings about their children and their regrets for having them, with the ambition to go back to work and the difficulty in asking their husbands to make sacrifices; who want to be in a relationship, but not trapped in one.
Marc Cherry managed to do all of that, in a show that is predicated on a suicide, without making any of his characters crazy. They managed to stay away from falling into the abyss because they had one another; they had strong female friendships, a thing that is so rarely seen on the screen. And that is truly empowering.
The Biggest Let Down of the Season:
I feel like I’ve given “How to Get Away with Murder” enough second chances, and it is finally time to officially declare it my biggest disappointment of the season. This show, that had been hyped as the best new show we were going to get this year, has not only been discombobulated in its narrative and character construction, but it is also downright unlikable. There is absolutely no character to root for. They are all obnoxious, self-centered kids, desperately trying to please a sociopathic, badly written monster queen.
Annalise Keating has no redeeming characteristics, nothing to make us feel for her even a little bit. The lame attempt of humanizing her by making her weak around the men in her life has only served to anger me more. When it comes to her students, she uses sex and niceties to communicate with the men and disdain and merciless competition with the girls. And did you notice that she will only let her top five students speak in class? If I were any one of the other 100 or so students, I would be asking for my money back!
The cases can be interesting, but the underlying story of the murder is not. And again, why should we care if we don’t even like the characters involved?
The one moment in the show that was truly compelling was Annalise’s scene in front of the mirror, when she removed her wig and makeup, but that turned out to be Viola Davis’s idea, not the show’s. And the only character who seemed to be genuinely human, Bonnie (Liza Weil), doesn’t appear to be sticking around for much longer.
The only reasons I’ll be sticking around are curiosity, my love for Viola, and sheer inertia.
Your turn: How do you feel about “How to Get Away with Murder?” What do you think about the depiction of mental illness in women on television? Discuss!