Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.

The Many Layers of Lizzie Bennet

Yesterday I received my very own copy of The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet. And today I finished reading it. All 377 pages of it.

I have loved the Lizzie Bennet Diaries ever since my freshman year of college (NOTE: If you have not watched them, stop reading right now, go to YouTube, and watch them. All of them. Right now.), and have only grown to love them more as I rewatched them over and over again (occasionally I find myself just binge-watching all 100 episodes plus the related secondary arcs in a matter of 48 hours. Much like reading the book. But I digress). At first I simply enjoyed watching the creativity of updating Jane Austen’s classic novel and translating it into modern media. Then, on the second or third go-round, I started to think about the online community Lizzie was creating. So I started scrolling through the comments section below the videos, reading the conversations people were having, the reactions. I even commented a few times.

I was absurdly proud when my comment became the top one on Episode 18.

Then came the watch-through at the beginning of my junior year of college, right when all the undergrad stuff starts to give way to the “better plan something for after graduation in two years” pressure. Even though Lizzie’s story takes place in grad school, the connection between her fear of departing the Bubble of Academia and mine had strengthened. I was staring down similar questions of what I wanted to do with my life, battling similar tendencies toward prejudice, struggling with a similar workload.

Reading the book has added another layer to my experience of the LBD as a whole. Besides adding new twists to the plotlines and revealing specific details in settings we never saw on camera, the book even better translated Lizzie’s inner turmoil, not only over her sister’s love life, but over what to put online, what content she wanted to generate, what she wanted to contribute to the world.

And damn. As much as she procrastinated some of those decisions, girl got stuff done.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been…stuck.  I might elaborate a bit in future posts, but for now suffice it to say that I was sorely lacking in motivation to even go to class, let alone answer my professors’ questions about whether or not I’m considering grad school or what internships I’m pursuing for this summer.  All I ever wanted to say to them was, “I don’t even have a complete resume right now.  Leave me alone.”

As sappy as it might sound, reading about Lizzie Bennet’s success in pursuing what she loved, both familial and career-wise, helped jolt me at least a few inches back toward reality.  I’m going to make the most of this vicariously earned productivity – and not just by making blog posts.  Hopefully.

Honestly, that’s what amazes me about multimedia storytelling these days.  I adore books; they were the background to my childhood, and will always hold a special place in my heart.  But there’s a big difference between reading something and sitting down a week later around a cheese plate in someone’s family room to talk for a few hours, and being able to contribute to an immediate and growing shared forum. It’s fascinating to watch the communities that spring up around projects like LBD and Vlogbrothers.  Even SnarkSquad, the blog that got me re-interested in blogging and online content, has its own little band of followers.

Membership in such communities around multimedia projects extends well past mere Internet fame; because the narrative originates in a platform that allows immediate sharing of reactions to the content, a viewer also becomes a contributor in real time.  Passivity becomes a choice rather than a fact of the medium.

And discussion of the content is no longer confined to whoever else is in the living room while you control the remote.  Worldwide critical discussions take place every day around every type of narrative possible.  It’s beautiful and intriguing to watch as the swirling conversations on Tumblr connect with the YouTube comments which intertwine with the Facebook and Twitter threads.  We get to watch and read and listen to these amazing creative things – and then we get to join in.

Over here in my own little narratively nerdy corner of the Internet, I’ll be trying not to take that for granted.