Despite its pervasiveness, mental illness remains stigmatized. It’s estimated that a quarter of Americans suffer from some form of mental disease; by that measure, nearly all of us have personal or second-hand experience with sickness of the mind. Yet we hesitate to discuss our depressions and anxieties and the people who possess them. A recent study concluded that mental health remains the strongest cultural taboo: many people find copping to it more overwhelming than coming out of the closet.
This paradox interests me not merely because I suffer from chronic depression. As an attorney and writer, I’m interested in the way we communally confront societal problems and am of the view that popular culture is one of the safer, thus more accessible, venues for discussing difficult topics.
It’s why I watch Intervention, Breaking Bad, and a string of other shows devoted to troubled individuals and situations. These stories are immediate enough to impact us but distant enough to keep us feeling adequately removed from their underlying drama. With a proliferation of acclaimed shows featuring mentally ill characters, I can’t help but wonder what the pop culture barometer says about our emotional health.
More interesting than abundance and success is how dramatic television handles mental illness. With Homeland, viewers see that genius can underlie mental illness. Claire Danes took home an Emmy for playing Homeland’s Carrie Mathison — a bipolar CIA agent who doesn’t reveal her illness for fear of losing her security clearance and job, even though her professional achievements almost always occur during manic episodes.
Although her illness comes at a steep cost, it’s clear that Mathison’s ingenuity is inextricably linked to her bipolar disorder. Her first big break occurs in a jazz bar: she discerns a pattern in Brody’s seemingly benign hand movements, her perceptiveness encouraged by the music’s loud, spastic pulsations. Even when Mathison isn’t manic, she’s reckless. She forgoes sleep and food and regularly risks everything to pursue intuitions, but her tenacity pays off, and watching her is mesmerizing. We may want her to take better care of herself, but we also know that her success - and overall conflict resolution - depend upon the continuation of her "troubled" mental state.
A similar paradox evolved in The Killing, with Sarah Linden obsessively seeking to resolve the Rosie Larsen murder case. She too landed in the psych ward, though justice depended on her mental peculiarities.
I have to think that the gender of these mentally unstable protagonists is not accidental. Although television shows depict male protagonists coming unhinged (The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, to name a few), there's something decidedly different about the way mentally unstable men and women are portrayed.
The men tend to verge on the psychotic - with violent and narcissistic traits. Female counterparts are emotional and intuitive.
Interestingly, Mathison seems to be the least gender-specific of any of these characters. She's thoughtful and brash; intuitive and manipulative. Although she employs her sexuality when it's advantageous, she doesn't possess typically feminine trappings (children; spouse; strong friendships or family ties).
Her gender neutrality makes her a unique - and more accurate, I think - character study. What does Showtime have in store for our mentally ill protagonist? We'll find out this season.