By Dawson White
It was 1995 when Shirley Manson first crooned those sacred words, a hymn for the pre-teen girl too intense for her blissfully unburdened peers:
I’m only happy when it rains.
Growing up, I wasn’t opposed to asking how things worked—why grass is green, how planes fly—but I didn’t have the vocabulary or life experience to know to ask about the nuances of interpersonal relationships. I didn’t know to ask if Lizzie’s anger toward Miranda for not picking out the green M&M’s was justified or if all friends really possess the humility to perennially reconcile. Instead, I perceived patterns that grew into prescriptions for how life should be and how I should be in life.
Garbage’s I’m Only Happy When it Rains was a synopsis of a worldview I didn’t realize I had adopted, one where sadness legitimizes intellect and garners the zealous worship of those around her. I liked being sad, because, as I’d quietly deduced from film and television, sadness was valiant, sadness was magnetic and—most important in the throes of puberty—sadness was sexy.
Until recently, most depictions of mental illness were relegated to delicate female love interests viewed through the lens of a male protagonist. Looking through his love-struck eyes, we don’t see the down and dirty details of a life afflicted by depression or an eating disorder, but the illness in its very cordial, very performative public mask; a quirky parrot on the shoulder as opposed to a millstone around the neck.
Take the character Maureen. In Center Stage, the iconic 2000 ballet film, Maureen is the star of American Ballet Academy. She’s bagged an attractive and understanding pre-med student and her future as a star ballet dancer is set. However, Maureen suffers from bulimia nervosa, which we only know because she makes regular, swift departures to the bathroom throughout the film. She, along with the eating disorder-stricken Cassie of MTV’s Skins, never loses her hair or references any reproductive repercussions from her illness. Rather, both characters, armed with that fragile beauty that makes men want to save them, find unconditional love.
For Maureen and Cassie, their mental illnesses are the whole of their personalities. They are not humans afflicted, but rather, the superficial personifications of their afflictions. They serve as tools for depicting their love interests’ goodness and power. Whether he ‘heals’ her or accepts her as she is (what a saint), the love interest has shown himself to be a very good, very capable boy, who generously wields his magic wand of transformative love.
As Center Stage ends, Maureen is miraculously healed of the mindset that contributed to her disorder. The credits roll and the film does not have to reckon with the fact that the writers had not given her an identity outside of her eating disorder. Perhaps this is why her ‘recovery,’ in my young eyes, was a somber moment. With her illness went her whole personality, her initiative, her ambition. She no longer danced or held an enviable position in American Ballet Academy. Instead, she giggled as she chatted with friends by her locker. She let down her hair and replaced her dance bag with a backpack. Maureen was just… normal.
And what is more frightening than normalcy? Even to a teenage girl who longs to fit in, is the goal really to just be normal? Or is to be so extraordinarily normal as to transcend all previously erected bounds of normalcy and set a new bar to which all teendom must rise?
There was nothing special about Maureen’s normalcy and that scared me. Her uniqueness had been tied to her illness. It was only while suffering from bulimia that she presented with traits that I and characters in the film responded to—focus, intensity, drive. Maureen was on a trajectory toward greatness and I, too, wanted to be great. I wanted to be a brand of special my peers could recognize and I believed that meant that I must be afflicted. Steadfastly and incurably afflicted.
“Sometimes I think I was born backwards,” Skins’s Effy Stonem says. “You know, came out my mum the wrong way. I hear words go past me backwards. The people I should love I hate, and the people I hate…”
Effy’s condition (there’s some debate as to whether she’s bipolar, depressed, or suffers from borderline personality disorder) is presented as a fixture that always has been and always will be, forever and ever, amen. Treating it would be both futile and tragic because it’s just who Effy is. But we like her that way. She’s traditionally beautiful, she’s burdened (which reads like purpose), and she’s pursued by nearly every male character on the show. In her sadness, she has it all.
Again, we see few of the arduous, terrifying symptoms of her illness. We do not feel her apathy, but, because of it, both men and women seek her affirmation. We do not feel her cravings, but her addictions win her friends and facilitate some truly spectacular parties. Eventually, Effy does seek treatment, but treatment proves even more dangerous and damaging than her myriad conditions. So captivating is Effy in her sadness that her psychotherapist holds her hostage and kills her white knight boyfriend when he tries to break her out of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad treatment center. Effy was safe before she sought treatment. We should have just let Effy ‘be Effy.’
The suicides of the Lisbon sisters in The Virgin Suicides are equally as inevitable. The very definition of ethereal, the enigmatic Lisbon sisters are fair-haired and skinned and dress in flowing pinks and whites. It’s as if they were made to die, what with their wispy otherworldliness, all spirit and barely body. We buy into their gauzy Gnosticism and find ourselves thinking that perhaps their deaths were good and right—their spirits freed. It was always going to be this way.
While we know better in theory, I am evidence that we don’t always know better in practice. The beliefs I formed as a child habituated into adulthood and I had to learn to avoid accidentally pursuing some warped idea of desirability that I had appropriated from the thin, cinematic depictions of others’ anguish. I had to accept that joy is not delegitimizing but rarer and more precious than intelligence and desirability, traits I sought to manifest with my stolen sadness.
I want to call writers to do better, and they should, but writing is hard. A character, just by virtue of not being a flesh and blood human, will vent whiffs of trope and caricature. A movie will unintentionally glorify depression. Someone will always be getting it wrong and many of us will be attracted to their errors.
I implore us, then, to be discerning as to how we metabolize media depictions of mental illness. If we allow ourselves to be shaped by these shallower, more palatable depictions, we condition ourselves to believe that the struggles of those around us are social tools or not as taxing as claimed, that they can be easily resolved with a little well-placed affection. But I can guarantee that when your friend is hit by a depressive episode, she doesn’t feel like a moody sex goddess. She’s wondering if she’ll see tomorrow. She’s feeling ashamed of having to wonder. She’s hoping not to act in her sadness.
Mental illness is not a new dress or a good haircut. It’s not sexy or romantic. It’s painful. It’s war. When we appropriate the suffering of others for social gains (that don’t even exist), we only fortify the hardships of those who are truly suffering and cheat them out supporters, listeners, and friends.