In the movie Barbie, a reference to Depression Barbie is mostly a joke. But could some toys foreground mental health and help children understand that encountering someone with a mental health condition is normal?
In the Northwestern University Pritzker Pucker Studio Lab for the Promotion of Mental Health via Cinematic Arts, we’ve investigated how media can help normalize mental health. We’ve noticed that movies and TV have successfully incorporated characters with physical disabilities into storylines, and that by seeing people in wheelchairs in films, audiences slowly have accepted that image and, by extension, have started to see people in wheelchairs as a regular, everyday occurrence. Could it be because, in the toy world, they’ve encountered toy figures in wheelchairs? Children played with a doll in a wheelchair, which paved the way for children to accept seeing such characters in movies and TV and, ultimately, in life. Or maybe just seeing wheelchairs in these various terrains – TV, movies, and toys — has slowly helped to normalize that sight.
Similarly, we’ve seen characters with mental health conditions highlighted in movies and TV — I’ve tried to teach student filmmakers how to do so nuancedly — but what is it about mental health conditions that prevents us from creating psychologically-centered dolls? Why is Depression Barbie a joke? Why would Schizophrenic Barbie or OCD Barbie be offensive or just something to laugh about?
Well, first of all, and most obviously, it’s the reductive labeling. In my courses, we’ve discussed whether a mental health condition should be a defining identity, something you have rather than something you are. The answer is often complex and sometimes based on personal preference. But more than this, is it because, at the core, we still feel that mental health is a laughing matter, connected to shame — or perhaps frightening, so it’s easier to laugh? Or maybe we are suspicious about such conditions, that they aren’t real in the way that paralyzed legs requiring a wheelchair are real? Or perhaps it’s because psychological states are internal? It isn’t easy to visualize them. A Barbie that comes with a pill bottle? Or a Barbie that comes with fantastical (injured or homicidal?) versions of herself representing intrusive thoughts? Difficult.
In a movie or TV show, we can spend a long time developing a character and how a psychological condition reveals itself. A doll (and any psychological aspect of that doll) can only be represented in the simplest way possible. Movies, TV, and dolls working together could help spark a child’s imagination to create scenarios representing what’s going on inside a doll’s mind. In the past, we've seen accompanying dolls representing aspects of psychology from the movie Inside Out. Those dolls may have helped children to think about joy, anger, shame, and, yes, depression. But what other dolls have referenced characters with psychological conditions? Why can’t there be more? And what would the effect be? Wouldn’t it be great if children weren’t afraid of people with OCD, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia? In fact, most people with such conditions are functioning members of society, representing the diversity of human experience.
In my new role as Dean of The Media School at Indiana University Bloomington, I hope to continue to highlight that comedy is often a way in to discuss serious concerns: So not just Inside Out, but Fleabag (denial of grief), Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel (trauma associated with sexual identity), and Get Out (trauma created by racism). Why can’t we laugh and think and laugh and imagine? Maybe someday, some toy inventor will figure out that complicated dance between what’s helpful and what’s offensive in the world of the psychological.
But for now, I’m thankful for toys featuring wheelchairs and movies and TV focusing on physical dis/ability and mental health. Depression Barbie is funny, and, like most screenwriters, I enjoy works that test boundaries, but I am sad that that’s all it mostly is: a joke. Or maybe that joke will be the start of a longer, serious conversation. You’re up, Mattel.