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No one can accuse Hollywood of being overly sensitive to mental illness and bipolar disorder. Whether movies or TV shows, Hollywood productions frequently use bipolar disorder as a plot device to spin the action forward. Too often they achieve this result by falling back on stereotypes about the disorder, depicting movie or TV characters with bipolar disorder as overly violent, most often because they’ve failed or refused to take their medication.
However, studies have shown that people who have bipolar disorder are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. The number of people who refuse their medication is also small. In the abstract of her study titled An Analysis of Bipolar Disorder Stereotypes in 21st Century Television Programming, Declan O’Hern of Elon University discusses how the most frequent misrepresentation of mental illness involves violence.
According to O’Hern, “The most common stereotype associated with mental disorders in general, bipolar disorder included, is that sufferers are dangerous and violent. According to psychologists who’ve studied the depiction of mental health on both the large and small screens, most patients are neither violent nor dangerous, and when it does occur, violence is seldom directed toward strangers. Were this concept widely understood, it’s likely media depictions of the mentally ill would be far different.”
Misrepresentations like these color public attitudes toward people with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses. And it’s not that Hollywood can’t make a good film about bipolar disorder or mental illness. Movies like Trainspotting and The Basketball Diaries do an excellent job. The problem is that these films are few and far between.
Here are some TV shows and movies that used a misrepresentation of bipolar disorder as a plot device.
The CIA agent at the center of Homeland, Carrie Matheson, was perhaps the most bipolar individual on television. Carrie’s bipolar disorder was front and center during the show’s nine-year run. While in many ways the show accurately depicted Matheson’s manic episodes, such as when she hounded her colleagues by declaring she could only write a report using a green pen (“My kingdom for a green pen,” she cried), there were other times when her disorder was used to create more dramatic tension and drive the action forward.
While the show initially depicted Carrie as intelligent, competent and astute, as it progressed, it fell back upon the usual stereotypes. Carrie was portrayed as unstable, unpredictable, irrational and often violent or dangerous.
Law & Order: SVU
While critics regularly praise this long-running show for being unafraid to tackle complex subjects such as sexual violence, assault and human trafficking, it dropped the ball when it tried to depict bipolar TV characters.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this occurred in the show’s seventh season with the case of Jamie Hoskins. Jamie uses her car to randomly attack a group of people, killing one, when she tries to commit suicide after making a false allegation of rape. Jamie is portrayed as a violent character who refuses to take her medication, making her bipolar disorder worse and creating a more dramatic plot twist.
In an interview with VH1, Dr. Ruth C. White, a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, talked about how the depiction of bipolar disorder in media isn’t accurate.
“It is a skewed and uni-dimensional picture of bipolar disorder,” according to Dr. White. She goes on to say, “There is the typical portrayal of non-compliance with medical advice that leads to disaster.”
Dr. White described how she teaches her students about this misrepresentation in her USC course, saying, “I use specific examples from shows like Law and Order or even ER, where the characters with bipolar disorder wouldn’t take their meds and ended up committing serious crimes against others.”
TV soap operas, or “my stories,” as your grandmother may have called them, often use bipolar disorder as a means to drive the story line forward. Perhaps the best example of this is the character of Michael “Sonny” Corinthos Jr. on General Hospital. Michael’s character displayed some of the most common tropes about bipolar disorder, such as having a violent temper and self-destructive tendencies.
Silver Linings Playbook
This movie tries hard to get the depiction of bipolar correct, and it does an excellent job for most of the film. However, it ultimately fails in its representation of a cure for bipolar disorder. Suggesting that Bradley Cooper’s character solve his bipolar disorder by falling in love with the eccentric character played by Jennifer Lawrence isn’t realistic. It’s not that people with bipolar disorder can’t fall in love; it’s that doing so isn’t going to make their disorder go away. Plus, maintaining a stable relationship is often very difficult for people with bipolar disorder.
While Silver Linings Playbook challenges many of society’s stereotypes about mental illness, its feel-good ending that love conquers all makes it an unrealistic portrayal.
This 2007 legal thriller was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Tilda Swinton won for Best Supporting Actress. Unfortunately, it falls back on one of the most common tropes about bipolar disorder as a plot device. Arthur Edens, a senior attorney at his law firm, has bipolar disorder, and he stops taking his medication. This leads to a dramatic breakdown in the courtroom, which spins the action forward into the hands of the Michael Clayton character.
As noted above, the depiction of a bipolar character in movies who either fails or refuses to take his medication is common. It’s especially egregious in this case as the character, played by Tom Wilkinson, has had bipolar disorder for a long time and would be used to the regimen of taking his medication.
More Realistic Depictions Are Needed
Recently, there’s been a movement in Hollywood toward more accurate depictions of minorities and individuals from other cultures. Many people believe it’s also time for the entertainment industry to present more realistic portraits of individuals who have bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
Finding Effective Help for Bipolar Disorder
If you think you may have bipolar disorder or another mental illness that’s affecting your daily life and interactions with your family, friends and coworkers, we can help. Our compassionate counselors are standing by 24/7 to guide you on the road to recovery. Don’t wait to reach out — call us at (844) 299-0618.