If pop culture is a reflection of the values and mentalities of a given era, none is more ironic nor more authentic in its depiction of mental illness in teenagers than the 1988 dark comedy “Heathers.”
The film follows the “The Heathers,” a clique of popular mean girls and their latest recruit Veronica, a bitingly clever skeptic. After a fight with the head Heather, Veronica and her new sociopathic boyfriend J.D. kill Heather and make it look like suicide. In doing so, they accidentally spark the latest school trend: suicide.
One of the most telling lines quips about eating disorders with ease, “Grow up, Heather. Bulimia’s so ’87,” is a warranted critique of social negligence of mental illness.
Mental illness, the film highlights, can manifest in anyone from the uber popular chicks to the hunky outcast, in any number of forms. It does so without being overtly preachy or stigmatizing.
Adopting a similar tone, one of the most relatable depictions of clinical depression on television can be seen in Gretchen Cutler, the snarky protagonist of the FX TV show “You’re the Worst.”
Her self-destructive habits can be difficult to watch. At her lowest, she is rendered catatonic, isolated and numb, completely confined to her couch. At her peak, she dons a cool but detached exterior. A trusty bottle of vodka accompanies both states as she drinks to feel and later to forget. Beyond the binge drinking and sardonic worldview, when she allows for cracks in her shell, we witness a deeply broken but compassionate individual.
And somehow, even animated horse man protagonist of Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” presents a more insightful and authentic understanding of mental health than most contemporary politicians. The show deals with anxiety and depression through humor.
These individuals are not defined or shamed by their illness. Instead, they accept it as a part of their identity. They learn to manage and treat it within their day to day lives. It’s inconvenient. It’s messy. It’s heartbreaking. It’s human. It’s horseman.
Beyond the fictional, like most marginalized groups, those with mental illness have become the latest social sideshow to ogle and mock, condemn and ostracize, glorify and distance.
Recently there has been a propensity to romanticize mental illness. Tropes like that of the tortured artist are upheld by unintended icons of mental illness like Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain. However, this view robs them of their complexity, branding them one-dimensional martyrs whose dark and broody suffering drove their creative endeavors. Any trace of happiness is erased. Any dull realities are glazed over.
Of course, as in any capitalist society, corporations have caught on to the idolatry. Stores like Urban Outfitters readily assist in the commodification of mental illness with “depression” crop tops and “eat less” t-shirts. Xanax and tears are perfect accessories for the season’s latest look.
A more traditional trope still lingers that casts individuals with mental illness as dangerous and uncontrollable, conjuring visions of sinister asylums and the sounds of tortured moans, the stuff of horror movies. This antiquated stereotype has experienced a revival in light of the recent mass shootings. But this is an act of erasure, of fabrication, of bipartisan bias, effectively warping the narrative.
Shooters suddenly become sympathetic, victims of their own minds. The real victims become objectified, collateral damage of a freak tragedy. And the shooting becomes far removed from the gruesome national trend.
The motives behind their entanglement are largely driven by politicized rhetoric. Politicians and their constituents knowingly employ charged phrases that elicit damaging stereotypes in order to seize public interest from the real issues.
Following the school shooting in Parkland, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch described the shooter as an “insane monster”, effectively tethering mental illness with acts of violence.
This is particularly damaging considering that the opposite is true. Individuals with mental illness are “more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime”, according to a study by the Institute of Medicine.
Since approximately 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness in a year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health, political attempts to ‘other’ mental illness are rendered absurd and hint at the strategic fear mongering at work. They exploit this heavily charged language, banking on a historicized ignorance toward mental illness in order to divide and distract us from more glaring means of prevention: gun reform.
Stricter gun regulations are a necessary and practical response to the heightened number of mass shootings. We could start by banning the sale of semi-automatic guns, the weapon of choice for the majority of shooters, according to data by Statista. Less access will inevitably lessen the number of opportunities for violence.
Though idealistically, there is a grander narrative at play, one that is daring us to ask why these shootings keep occuring.
The numbers are high but not necessarily surprising considering the glorification of men with guns courtesy of Rambo. They endow the owner masculinity, the height of social power and influence.
Rather than cowering behind mental illness, let’s reevaluate societal norms and customs that feed male entitlement while actively subjugating others in its wake. Shootings are not a result of illness. Instead, they’re largely a result of male infantilization. Our society, which fundamentally promotes male privilege, instills the importance of retaining masculinity at gunpoint.
Let’s eradicate the tired tropes of the angry black man, crazed terrorist, and hysterical woman, all haunting acts of violence. Instead, let’s acknowledge the villainous trope of our reality: the entitled white man.
Gun violence will end when we stop pandering to the perpetrator and hold them and ourselves accountable for our negligence. In the long term, this means relegating patriarchal values and stereotypes to the nearest dumpster and combatting stigmatizing notions of mental illness.