Our television schedules have always been packed with crazy characters, but recently there’s been an uptick in characters with diagnosed crazy. Television shows that feature mentally ill characters have recently been receiving a lot of positive attention from critics, experts, and audiences alike. Many have identified this growth in depictions of mentally ill characters, and most pieces on the topic have been congratulatory, and in some sense, rightly so: some of these shows have been doing an excellent job of portraying mental illness accurately. But for all the good that real, human portrayals of mental illness on TV can do, this trend is troubling on a whole different level. Looking at the array of mentally ill characters on TV right now and in recent years, it’s impossible not to notice that the majority of them are female.
Carrie Mathison on Homeland is bipolar. Hannah Horvath on Girls has OCD. Monica Gallagher on Shameless is bipolar. Tara Gregson from United States of Tara has dissociative identity disorder. Waverly Grady on Friday Night Lights is bipolar. Emma Pillsbury on Glee has OCD. Erin Silver on 90210 is bipolar. There are male exceptions (Billy Chenowith on Six Feet Under is bipolar), but in most of their cases, their mental illness makes them into geniuses—à la Monk, or Dexter. For their female counterparts, however, mental illness does not add to but detracts from their successes. With some it may enable a kind of brilliance—witness Carrie Mathison—but it also casts any triumph in a dubious light. These female characters do not succeed because of their peculiar minds but in spite of them. Below, we discuss this bad men/mad women television trend from different angles: why do we see male characters as “complicated” but female characters as “crazy”?
The most popular television shows of the past few years have revolved around bad men—their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their foibles. Because of their complexities, these bad men have become some of the most exciting and memorable characters on television. The trend began to reach its current popularity with Mad Men’s Don Draper and expanded most noticeably to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, though many other male leads meet this criteria: Dr. House on House, Sherlock on Elementary, Dexter from Dexter, Fitz from Scandal, and Brody from Homeland (and more, to be sure). But are television’s new anti-heroes really bad, or are they mad?
Sergeant Nicholas Brody’s case most obviously shows how storylines of mental illness do not find execution in male characters, even when such a connection seems obvious. On Homeland, Brody, a Marine, is held captive and tortured for ten years by terrorists. When he is rescued, he is put through cursory psychological testing and deemed mentally healthy, and the matter is put to rest. Although his behavior jeopardizes his marriage, his family, and even the country, no one even ventures to suggest the possibility that—maybe, just maybe—instead of a terrorist, Brody could be suffering from pretty serious PTSD, in desperate need of help.
On shows that tend towards romance instead of violence, the “complicated man” provides a sharp contrast to the compassionate women who surround him. Mad Men, Scandal, and Nashvilleare populated by strong female leads who are almost entirely without reproach. They are perpetually wronged, and perpetually rising above these slights, batting their beautiful eyelashes. The men are not evil, necessarily, but damaged, struggling against their inherent darkness, their tortured soul. Even on more light-hearted shows, like Girls, men are nothing but problems for the good women who love them. I once watched an episode of Girls with my mother, who afterwards turned to me and asked what the point of the show had been. “That dating is hard?” I suggested. My mom looked weary. “To me,” she said, “it just seemed to be saying that all men are a waste of time.”
Much of the hype surrounding these male characters is speculation. We can’t help but ask: what exactly is wrong with them? The Internet is full of critics and fans suggesting that this character has PTSD, or this one has depression, or this one has OCD. On the one hand, this is one of the best things about television today: devoted fans, wrapped up in the storylines around these flawed and sometimes dangerous characters, get to add their own voice to the discussion of just how complex they are. Taking these characters seriously is part of the fun. But on the other hand, there is rarely any gender balance. With female characters, diagnosed with mental illness already, not only is something definitely wrong with them, we know exactly what it is.
Nicholas Brody as anti-hero presents an especially alarming case study of what this unbalanced gendered portrayal can mean for us, living actual lives in the real world. Sure, he doesn’t officially have PTSD: the writers are trying to make political and moral points, and mental illness would gum up the works. But in real life the failure of doctors to diagnose PTSD has had serious and often tragic consequences. The story of a veteran returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, struggling to readjust without adequate mental health treatment, and harming himself or others is increasingly and sickeningly familiar. When men like Draper, White, and Brody struggle in the name of a single version of masculinity, and are denied redemption or diagnosis, it’s no wonder they snap.
If a man is crazy on television, we call him “complicated” or “difficult.” And oftentimes even “brilliant.” But if a female character acts similarly, she has a diagnosed mental illness. In many ways, that’s an excellent development. If a character on TV is mentally ill, and the illness is portrayed accurately, that can be a great thing for our culture (a culture which, despite some strides, still speaks about mental illness in hushed tones). Carrie Mathison’s Bipolar Disorder on Homeland and Hannah’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder on Girls are two excellent examples of human portrayals of mental illness on TV today. The two women lead upright, stable lives when not experiencing peaks of their symptoms. And their mental illness is not all there is to them. Viewers with no experience of those illnesses in their own lives can come away with an enhanced understanding of the issue.
But this gendering of mental illness on television bears no resemblance to real life. A relatively equal number of men and women develop bipolar disorder, OCD, depression, and other diseases. More than a quarter of all Americans will experience some trouble with mental illness in a given year, and the genders divide equally. But if you watch a lot of TV, that’s certainly not the sense you would get.
In her piece “TV’s New Wave of Women: Smart, Strong, Borderline Insane” in The New York Times, Heather Havrilesky concludes that “maybe this era of ‘crazy’ women on TV is an unfortunate way-station on the road from placid compliance to something more complex—something more like real life.” Maybe that’s true, but I think this trend might be a different type of way station: one on the path to our nation becoming comfortable talking about mental illness. But so far, we’ve only warmed up to the idea of female mental illness. We’re only comfortable with discussing and addressing it if a woman is unwell. If it’s a man, we sweep it under the rug. Evidently, in TV land, mental illness is something women must seek help for, but men can just power through.
Consider Hank and Marie, Walter White’s brother and sister-in-law on Breaking Bad. Both struggle with clear mental issues, but only Marie’s is addressed formally. In the first season, Marie has a problem with stealing. After she is confronted about it, she begins to see a therapist who we hear about from time to time. Hank is a major proponent of his wife’s therapy, but when he has clear mental issues—anxiety attacks, and flashbacks that seem to hint at post traumatic stress disorder—they aren’t addressed. He never goes to see someone and he’s never diagnosed. Instead, he toughs it out. Or take Silver and Liam on 90210. Many of Silver’s storylines focus on her diagnosed and oft-discussed bipolar disorder. But when Liam is kidnapped and later experiences clear symptoms of PTSD, he barrels ahead and returns to “normal” almost immediately.
This is true for so many other shows too: the mental health challenges faced by female characters are explicitly articulated, while those faced by male characters are only speculated about by critics and fans. We know when female characters have a mental illness because their diagnosis is brought up again and again on the show, with specific clinical terms like “bipolar” and “OCD,” and often with scenes of discussions of their therapy. But (with very few exceptions) when we attribute mental illness to male characters, it’s not because any diagnosis was ever identified on the show. If you think of Hank on Breaking Bad as having PTSD, that’s because you read something about it that speculated on this diagnosis based on his portrayal—not because the show ever came close to saying anything.
To sum up, we seem to like it when men are bad and accept it that women are mad. It makes perverse sense to us. We rationalize that men are doing what they have to do—for themselves, their careers, and their families—no matter the cost. With women, these sacrifices are disturbing instead of compelling. Instead, the question—and it’s a loaded one—is whether women can and should succeed if they are anything less than perfect. When television denies women the kind of complexity and nuance that men are accorded, there’s a subtle suggestion that women are inherently good, simple creatures, easy to love and even easier to understand. We may be more comfortable with mentally ill women on TV because the men in our culture still have to be the strong ones, and the women apparently still have the room to be weak. Or maybe it has nothing to do with us at all and everything to do with Hollywood. The majority of the writers’ rooms for the shows we have discussed here are male-dominated, and what group of men wants to accurately portray a mentally ill man? Perhaps it is just too unnerving to see themselves in them. Be that as it may, it’s time for Hollywood to address this issue itself – maybe a therapist would help.