Women deserve fair mental illness representation

Photo by Dani Sisson Student Publications

To be a man with mental illness is to be a man with mental illness, but to be a woman with mental illness is to be a mentally ill woman.

For a woman to grapple with mental illness, it must be all-consuming. The stories we tell of women with mental illness are not happy ones. We do not tell stories of women in recovery or women who live despite their mental illness. 

Rather, we tell stories of women who are consumed, women who are emotional and women who are hysterical. We don’t like hearing stories of women getting better because that means we have to see them as people, not just something to be condescended and idolized. 

Would any of the boys have liked the girls in “The Virgin Suicides” if they weren’t so tragically beautiful? 

Would Joel have fought so hard for Clementine in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” if she wasn’t in pain? Would Charlie even want Sam in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” if she already knew the kind of love she deserved?

Men in the media want broken women who in fixing — in coddling, chasing and winning — them, they can fix themselves. 

A woman is only as useful as the problem she presents for a man to solve, and once it’s solved, what’s left for him to conquer? The key to this, though, is you have to be the right kind of mentally ill. 

Be depressed, stay in bed for days mentally ill and suddenly you’re the main character of a novel focused deeply on the internal self-reflection of what it means to be a woman. 

Be the traumatized and scarred mentally ill, and suddenly men only exist in your story for you to have sex with as a form of punishment or a meaningless habit. Or, the worst of all, you could be angry, and then the narrative will spend an exhausting amount of time telling you how unlovable this makes you.

It seems that a woman cannot even be in pain in peace.

It is exhausting to see men’s stories of redemption — to stare at a screen and wonder why their mental illness can be treated with a quiet nuance and care that never seems to be extended to women. We get to see alcoholic fathers find their solace in passion and come back changed.  

We get to see men get their redemption arc — to get their love interests not because of their mental health, but despite. 

We get to see men allowed to be complex characters with issues and problems they solve all by themselves. 

One of the most gripping portrayals of mental health I have watched is “Moonlight,” and I have so much respect for what goes into telling main character Chiron’s story of pain and growth; the ebbs and flows of discovering himself and confronting his own mental illnesses shape the story in a way that allows Chiron to tell it. 

All I ask is that we extend the same empathy to the stories we tell about women because, even when we do get these stories of women being imperfect and growing to fill their cracks, they are often met with heavy criticism and dislike from audiences. A great example of this is Devi from “Never Have I Ever” who is consistently shown on screen grappling with her mental illness and often, making morally questionable choices as a result. We see her as a complex character; she makes mistakes and grows and gets better. 

However, the mere fact that she has made a mistake, irrespective of her mental illness, is damning. Audiences don’t want to hear her redemption story or see her get a happy ending; they’ve already deemed it too “cringy” to watch.

Both creators and audiences need to let women just be messy. Only once we stop drawing women into these lines of what we view as palatable can we start drawing women as people.