Mental illness has been portrayed in many and varied ways in movies. In this paper, I will focus on movies with female protagonists who struggle with mental illnesses. It is worth noting that in them, an especial focus is granted to the female body itself, though overtly the topic discussed and portrayed is mental illness. Even in the 2011 film, Sucker Punch ‘Baby Doll’ performs an erotic dance which puts the viewers in a kind of trance, and running parallel to the mental institution is the brothel and the body allows the protagonist to transcend to the fantasy world through which she can fight the hospital and her institutionalization.
A relationship can be traced between mental illness and body and thereby on institutionalization itself. What is institutionalization supposed to do? Does it help the mind or restrain the body? After a brief exposition of some other movies which highlight the importance of body though mental illness is ostensibly the ‘problem’, I would like to discuss Girl, Interrupted the 1999 film based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of the same name, starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.
In the 1959 film, Suddenly, Last Summer, Elizabeth Taylor’s character Catherine Holly is best understood through her body and not through the severe emotional disturbance or memory loss or even what her aunt, the villainous Mrs. Venable alleges she has-dementia praecox. The physical presence of the body coupled with her memory loss lends some credibility to Mrs. Venable’s accusations. When this is followed by her mother approving a lobotomy to be performed on her daughter, it shows the extent to which the body is subject to control, under the pretext of a mental illness. Even when she steps into a men’s ward accidentally, the body rouses the male patients, showing her objectification despite her special status as a patient. When she walks to a woman’s ward planning to throw herself to her death, she is stopped by a young doctor- Catherine Holly has absolutely no control over her body as long as she is inside the mental institution.
In the 1961 film, Splendor in the Grass, the character Deanie suffers from manic depression because her boyfriend follows his father’s advice to be with a girl who will satisfy his sexual desires easily. The body is even more central here, because for Natalie Wood’s character Deanie, sexual desire and passion are dilemmas no one helps resolve. When Deanie asks her mother if she ever felt the same desires as she feels for her boyfriend, her mother quickly replies that ‘no nice girl has such feelings’. Thus Splendor in the Grass shows Deanie’s manic illness as a direct result of the sexual repression on the body imposed by the society. The solution is a curious mixture of resolution and deception. Falling in love with a fellow patient resolves the earlier question of passion by replacing it with a more mature emotional relationship which gets consummated only off screen and deception which is highlighted in Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode” from which the title is taken:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of Splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
The solution then has manipulated the body to submit only to ‘acceptable’ levels of passion which can also keep mental illnesses at bay.
The 1974 movie A Woman under the Influence treats the topic more centrally and shows the unique subject position of the woman and her body. Though her husband argues in the beginning of the movie, “Mabel’s a delicate, sensitive woman. Mabel’s not crazy. She’s unusual. She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.” The aberrant behavior that leads to her institutionalization can be interpreted through her primary roles in the movie: as a mother and a wife. These roles are important to her and they fail her in two ways; she is constantly worrying if she is a good mother to her children which makes her body functional as the site of struggle where every deviant act fails the role and secondly the role of the good wife. Even as she desperately tries to please her husband, her behavior in what appears to be flirting with her husband’s friends and her inappropriate dressing style is almost completely antithetical to the prescribed role. The movie challenges the hospitalization of Mabel by showing us how her husband looks after the kids, which is not better and much more reprehensible considering he has the society-granted label of ‘sanity’.
Girl, Interrupted works through doubles and binary oppositions to cure the protagonist Susanna Kaysen, played by Winona Ryder who is identified with Borderline Personality Disorder. Because of a suicide attempt, Susanna is forced to sign in to the hospital by her parents. What is voluntary commitment is not that at all. Susanna who wants to become a writer makes an undramatic entry as opposed to the character of Angelina Jolie, Lisa Howe, who has to be given shocks when she gets violent. They embody then the mind and the body respectively, the passivity of the mind and the immediate charm of the body.
From the very beginning of the movie, Susanna is taken by the same influence Lisa exerts over the other inmates of the same ward. Their relationship grows to be more equal producing a bond different from the awe and terror Lisa inspires in the other inmates. One of the acts which show the viewer this is when her old boyfriend Toby played by Jared Leto comes to visit her and they get intimate in her room, and Lisa tries to block the nurse from interrupting them. This is a symbolic gesture upholding a value-free affirmation of the body only to be ruptured by the authority in the form of the RN Valerie played by Whoopi Goldberg. Lisa and Susanna quickly become friends, but Lisa’s influence on the latter shows in more subtle ways.
For instance, in a conversation with the head psychiatrist, Dr Sonia Wick she questions the gender discrepancy in the label of ‘promiscuity’. Susanna notes that while a woman has only to sleep with 5 or more men to be labeled promiscuous whereas a man can sleep with as many as 109 women and only then be labeled so. Thus she rejects the active labeling process involved in psychiatric treatment as evident in Sonia Wick’s extension question: has she had many female friends before? While rooted in the behavior affecting social relations, psychiatric treatment in this case becomes a process of charting the body.
This is similar to what Thomas Szasz argues in Ideology and Insanity: Essays on the Psychiatric Dehumanization of Man when he argues how mental illness has become a ‘convenient myth’ to confine patients who act outside the conventional psycho-social, ethical and legal precepts. He argues that the concept transforms ‘problems in living’ to what looks like objective facts of an illness consequently making hospitalization, and involuntary commitment even the next logical step. He points out that such a move is not taken for the patient, but is rather taken for the good of the society so that s/he can stop hurting people around her. In the scene where Lisa breaks in to the psychiatrist Wick’s office, two aspects emerge, and one of them is this.
Lisa gives them their case files and Susanna’s borderline personality disorder is defined in this way- “Instability of self-image, relationships and mood; uncertainty about goals. Impulsive in activities that are self-damaging such as casual sex….Social contrariness and a generally pessimistic attitude are often observed”. When the psychiatrist enters the picture, it becomes a power relationship where the body can be controlled for therapy and questions such as whose agent is the psychiatrist must also be taken into account. In Madness and Civilization, talking about the Hospital General in the 18th century, Foucault says that it is not a medical establishment. “It is rather a sort of semi-judicial structure, an administrative entity which, along with the already constituted powers, and outside of the courts, decides, judges, and executes.” He calls it the third order of repression and what it represses materially is the body.
The RN is such a figure. Not a psychiatrist, she can control even Lisa because of the authority invested in her inside the hospital. In an early scene she does not let Susanna shave her legs without supervision and the body must be understood only as a suicidal patient’s and thus subject to restrictions. Of courses she transforms into a benevolent figure by the end of the movie once Susanna is cured. Her diagnosis of Susanna’s condition is more unscientific than pop psychology: “I think you are a lazy self indulgent little girl who is driving herself crazy. You are throwing it away”. What this does is significant however; a personal relationship between Susanna and the RN grants her a modicum of individuality.
In Madness and Civilization Foucault argues that confinement has become the ‘abusive amalgam of heterogeneous elements’. Indeed, the mental illnesses affecting the inmates are diverse. One of them is a sociopath, one bulimic, another, a pathological liar; they all group together to form a body collective which labels them as mentally ill without any individual distinctions as far as the outside world is concerned. Such an erasure of identity makes the body the only common factor. In delineating the drawbacks of a term such as mental illness, Thomas Szasz argues in The Myth of Mental Illness that there is no duality corresponding between the bodily symptoms of a disease and the symptoms of a mental illness. Yet a more useful category of understanding mental illnesses would be to understand the difference of restrictions placed on the body by different diseases and differentiation between how the society places limitations on patients with diseases and those with mental illnesses. For example, violence is one of the commonly ascribed traits to the mentally ill.
In Girl, Interrupted Lisa is the only violent patient. Thomas Szasz has argued in his books that what is called mental illness is often communicating unacceptable ideas in an unusual idiom. This is characterized in a negative light whenever Lisa talks about the other patients to them. When Lisa and Susanna run away together she tells Daisy the ‘truth’, that she hasn’t recovered and that she is only living on her father’s money getting fat. This spurs Daisy in to committing suicide and Lisa comments that she was just waiting for an excuse to kill herself whereas Susanna feels that any ‘decent person’ would have stood up to her and comforted Daisy. This is the point where Susanna’s ‘recovery’ begins. Her remorse over Daisy’s death leads her to divorce her self from the body and she seeks to repress the body in corrective ways.
Foucault has stated that ‘language is the first and last structure of madness’. Lisa talks truths and confronts people about them whereas Susanna can only write them down in her diary, and Lisa verbalizes them by reading out from her notebook in the end, and telling Susanna that she always plays the villain so Susanna can come out looking like the innocent one. The end morphs the movie into a tale of forgiveness and ‘all is well’ but the last shots are symbolic. The body is restrained and confined to the hospital, as shown in the figure of Lisa. The body suppressed and the narrative from the notebook talking, Susanna returns ‘home’ having completed her recovery. What is achieved then is a capitulation to society’s demands, not individual freedom.
Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Routledge Classics, 2001. Print.
Szasz, Thomas. Ideology and Insanity: Essays in the Psychiatric Dehumanization of Man. Syracuse University Press, 2001. Print.
Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness. Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.
Zimmerman, Jacqueline. People like Ourselves: Portrayals of Mental Health in Movies. The Scarecrow Press, 2003. Print.
Susan Harris is a third year student of English Literature in St Stephen’s College. Her interests change quickly but some of the more consistent ones are poetry, cinema and theory.