An initiative of the National Women’s Council of Ireland


Women’s Mental Health with The Antiroom

January 22, 2014 at 1:26

Last week as part of First Fortnight, an arts festival designed to challenge prejudice around mental health, Dubin based journalists The Antiroom led a discussion panel about the depiction of female mental illness in the media and popular culture.

That the media has a gluttonous appetite for young women and particularly for young women who are struggling in the public eye is hardly a groundbreaking revelation but it opens the door to questions about how women’s mental health is treated.

From Marilyn Monroe to Britney Spears the media revels and delights in documenting the fragilities of women who are experiencing mental health difficulties. Sinead O’Connor, who has vast first hand experience of this type of prurient, salacious speculation, spoke to Time magazine last year about the media’s irresponsible portrayal of these women. She pointed out that if any of these celebrities had broken a leg there would be no paparazzi crush to put them on display and point to them as examples of how women will inevitably let themselves down. And she is spot on.

The painfully narrow scope that the media allows women to exist in is restrictive for everyone but it leaves no space at all for women who are having problems. Women who show any signs of deviation from the suffocating role of decorative and diminutive, whether their behaviour is a result of genuine mental health issues or simply the result of doing things a little differently, become public property to be mauled and maligned by a sleazy media.

The stigma surrounding mental health is slowly but surely dissipating. Dil Wickremasinghe, a mental health activist and Newstalk broadcaster, noted during the discussion that things are improving by degrees but that for women, returning to routine and work is more difficult when their difficulties are public knowledge. For women it is still not “ok not to be ok”. This can cause women to feel as though their suffering must be silent and deters them from getting help.

Popular culture fares no better. The tropes that we are all familiar with can be dismissed with a harried eye roll but upon more careful consideration they are enough to make you extremely angry. Poor mental health of any kind is too often linked with the over sexualisation of women. A woman’s sexual preferences and decisions are used as both a diagnostic tool and a point of reference when highlighting the “symptoms” of said female’s mental unwellness.

The panel talked about Penelope Cruz’s character in Vicky, Christina Barcelona who was portrayed as a “crazy bisexual”. Gay women are often depicted as predatory, mentally “unstable” women. This shows a reluctance to create three dimensional characters who happen to be, among many other things, gay.

As Irish Times journalist Una Mullally pointed out the general depiction of women across popular culture is so lacklustre that in the niche area of depicting women experiencing mental health issues things just “fall apart.”

Women are painfully under-represented and misrepresented in popular culture and this is in part due to the dearth of female screenwriters and directors. Data released this week by San Diego State University shows that the number of women working in key roles behind the scenes in top grossing movies is at a depressing 16-year low. In 2013 just 16% of those employed in these roles were women.

The panel applauded the Netflix original series ‘Orange is the New Black’ as an example of a show that is doing everything right. The show deals excellently with mental illness in the form of the character ‘Crazy Eyes” (despite the insensitive name). OTNB was written by Jenji Cohan who admitted that she had to twist the truth of the show’s premise to sell it in the first place as there is still a reluctance to make a show solely about women that falls outside of the usual moulds.