“Classic” Stigma: Great Sitcoms of the 90s, Pt. 2

A few days ago, I published a post about an episode of Will & Grace, the premise and script of which were pretty stigmatizing to the mental health community. I broke down the plot points and dialogue that were particularly harmful, and attempted to explain the episode’s flaws within the context of the portrayal of mental health in comedy. Tonight, I do the same with an episode of another great show from the same era: Seinfeld.

All things considered, Seinfeld just might be the greatest cultural icon, ever. Like I said in my previous post, it changed the face of situation comedy. But, like most art from decades past, reveals some signs of being the product of a different cultural landscape. I bring you the season seven episode, “The Gum,” which aired December 14, 1995.

Stigma synopsis

About two minutes into the episode, we find out that Lloyd Braun, a childhood friend of George’s (Jason Alexander) and one of Elaine’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) many ex-boyfriends, has experienced a “nervous breakdown,” and had an extended stay in “an institution.” Kramer (Michael Richards) has now taken Braun on as something of a personal project. He urges his friends to support Braun and treat him as though nothing as happened.

Kramer assures Lloyd Braun that he is not “crazy.”

While Kramer over-indulges Braun out of misplaced friendly concern, George is fascinated with Braun’s mental state, taking a certain degree of joy in it. He wears a smile as he tells Elaine, “they had to lock him up.” Elaine is now worried that she was an impetus in Lloyd’s episode.

Jerry, like always, is content to stand back and quip about everyone else’s reactions, rather than actually get involved. He mocks George and Elaine with some typical mental illness jokes.

The plot thickens when George runs into another childhood friend, the lovely Deena, and tells her about Lloyd: “Speaking of crazy, did you hear about Lloyd Braun?… He’s completely bonkers!” It turns out that her grandfather had a similar experience. George becomes very concerned upon hearing this, because that same grandfather is working on George’s car as they speak.

Throughout the remainder of the episode, comedic mishaps lead Elaine to inadvertently hit on Lloyd several times. Kramer continues to over-protect Lloyd, comforting him with “you’re not crazy.” George experiences a series of coincidences involving a cashier on a horse and a car fire, confirming Deena’s concerns that he’s exhibiting the warning signs of a nervous breakdown. George objects, saying that he doesn’t belong in “the nut house,” but Deena is entirely sure that there’s something wrong when she catches him wearing a King Henry VIII costume. She runs away from him, and the storyline closes.

So What?

Unlike the Will & Grace episode in my prior post, this one doesn’t come across as a blanket condemnation of people with mental illness. Actually, Lloyd Braun and the grandfather character are both portrayed as likeable, rational, and intelligent, three qualities often eschewed in media portrayals of mental illness. On the negative side, Lloyd is shown socially inept and unintuitive, a far cry from his former self as portrayed in the season 5 episode “The Non-Fat Yogurt.” To be fair, he was being portrayed by a different actor this time (the original actor was not available for filming), but there was a vast disparity in the way the character was written and depicted. This signified to the viewer that we are to believe that people who have experienced mental health difficulties have major personality changes that are perceptible even after recovery. This is, it should go without saying, not the case.

Most of the jokes in the episode rely on the audience sharing certain beliefs about people with mental illness. For example, when we see George’s reaction to finding out that retired mechanic ‘Pop’ has had a nervous breakdown, the audience laughs because they, like George, are afraid that a mentally ill man will certainly damage his car.

The stereotype that people with mental illness are incompetent is, as you know, still around today. We see it in places like this 2009 ad online gambling ad, where a group of psych hospital patients, shown as childish and erratic, can’t even make it through a game of poker.

The premise of the episode also relies on the assumption that there is reason to be socially uncomfortable around people who have experienced mental illness. Actually, mental illness isn’t technically the issue at play; it’s the hypothetical concept of “mental imperfection,” that most people are in perfect mental health and that those who aren’t are lesser, when in reality, we all struggle with our mental health in some way.

All four main characters, possibly excluding Jerry, behave differently around Lloyd than they would around anyone else, because of his supposed mental imperfection. They actually exhibit pretty common reactions to a friend with mental illness: Elaine’s needless guilt, George’s schadenfreude, and Kramer’s over-protection are all archetypes for the way people really do often behave in that kind of situation. The episode almost seems to want us to believe that these are the right reactions.

Impressively, the episode is actually really funny, and as such serves as a light look at stigma in our world. Now that general understanding of mental illness is somewhat more nuanced than it was 1995, I wonder what this episode would look like it had been made today.

“Classic” Stigma: Great Sitcoms of the 90s, Pt. 1

Times sure have changed, and they’re changing fast. Will & Grace and Seinfeld are two of the most influential sitcoms of the past twenty years: one changed the face of television comedy forever, and the other joined Ellen DeGeneres in opening the door for gay men and women to be visible on mainstream television.

But looking at these gem of the ’90s through a ’10s lens, we can see that they’re far from perfect. More specifically, we can see that each series has contributed at least one episode worthy of a Mental Health Stigma Hall of Fame, if such a dubious honor did indeed exist. Let’s take a look at the missteps each show took in their treatment of mental health and where the episodes in question fall in the grand scheme of mental health in comedy.

First up is the Will & Grace episode aptly titled “Crazy in Love.”

When Karen and Jack think that their friend has borderline personality disorder, they fear for their lives, and laughs ensue. What does this say about the way we see mental health in our culture?

Stigma Synopsis

In this episode, which aired February 1, 2001 (the ’90s are, by my definition, the period between the debut of Rocko’s Modern Life and the day Chandler and Monica got married, so this counts), we find Grace (Debra Messing) lying to get out of jury duty. To do so, she’s concocted a fake doctor’s note, on which she’s written that she has borderline personality disorder, with “high risk for psychotic break, particularly under stressful situations.” This description, of course, has no connection to borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by impulsivity, black-and-white thinking, turbulent relationships, and unstable self-image.

The BPD bit is dropped until nearly halfway through the episode, when Jack and Karen (Sean Hayes and Megan Mulally, respectively), find the faked letter. They read aloud some snippets from the note: “personality disorder,” “job-related stress,” “prone to aggressive outbursts,” and simultaneously gasp “she’s a psycho!” Cue audience laughter.

Now hold up just a second. Karen has known Grace for about three years now, and Jack’s known her even longer. Surely they know her well enough at this point to understand that, even if the diagnosis of BDP were real, she’s not the type of “psycho” they’re picturing? Sure, they’re shallow and judgmental people with little regard for logic, but they’re making a pretty big leap off of one letter.

In his next scene, Jack uses some sound effects and hand gestures to demonstrate the kind of “crazy” that he’s always suspected Grace to be (the universal “cuckoo” sign) and the kind of crazy that he now believes her to be (Psycho theme and stabbing motion. Cue audience laughter. Karen replies, to more laughter, “My mother’s crazy. That’s why I had her committed.” (I’m sorry if I’m going into too much detail on this episode, but there’s just so much.)

Jack and Karen are worried. Not for Grace, of course, but for themselves. As Jack points out, “Ninety percent of assaults are committed by someone you know.” Karen points out that maybe Grace isn’t violent though, because (now get this): “She doesn’t even have one personality, let alone six or seven.”

In classic sitcom fashion, unrelated events are meanwhile causing Grace to behave strangely, feeding her friends’ suspicions even more. They play it safe, feeding her compliments and staying a few steps away from her at all times. This is all played for more laughs. When Grace realizes where the misunderstanding’s come from, she decides to use it to her advantage.

Enter Will (Erin McCormack), who helps Grace decide “what kind of crazy” she should be. She can’t be “Barbra Streisand in Nuts,” he says, because “crazy people don’t have French tips or $600 highlights.” Grace decides that the best route is to “kiss the wall and hum.”

Once Grace has finally gotten what she wanted (free rein in designing Jack’s apartment), she confesses to her ruse and everyone lives happily ever after.

So What?

This TV episode takes a classic theme in horror and drama – fear of people with mental illness – and applies it to comedy. In the process, it commits some major offenses.

First off, it fudges the facts a little. Throughout the episode, Grace’s alleged diagnosis is discussed as though it were a mental illness, but it’s not. A personality disorder is a set of traits and behaviors that, over time, threaten a person’s daily functioning. They can be managed but, unlike a mental illness, are not treated with medicine.

While inappropriate anger is a symptom of BPD, violence toward others is not especially common. All four characters seem convinced otherwise, based on three telling false assumptions:

1. That all psychological disorders and personality disorders are alike

2. That only a certain type of person has these disorders

and

3. That these people are prone to violence

I don’t know whether these unfortunate notions were shared by the writers, but the nature of the show is such that they were certainly assuming that said notions were shared by the audience.

The episode also makes light of mental health, somewhat cruelly. Karen should never be expected to be politically correct, but she speaks of having her mother committed so callously, it’s a little chilling.

So’s the way Karen and Jack have their entire perception of Grace changed after knowing her for years. They’re quick to judge and cast their friendship aside in favor of more selfish concerns. (Granted, that’s how they always behave, but seeing it applied to mental health might just be too real to be funny).

In fact, the episode offers a pretty realistic look at how two completely uninformed people might react to finding out about their friends’ mental illness. The fear and confusion that Jack and Karen feel is very real, but, like I said, it’s not funny. We, as the audience providing that ever-charming background laughter, should not be relating to the sentiment that Grace is a “psycho.” We shouldn’t be laughing at the mockery they employ to cope with the fear, or as Grace exploits the fear for her own gain. There’s comedy in the darkest of circumstances, but this episode tries to make us laugh viciously at the expense of others, rather than healthily at the things in life we can’t control.

This episode says a lot about how we react to mental illness. It may be intended to be funny, but it’s more effective as a tool for examining stigma than it is as comedy. I’d like to say that this aired just eleven years ago with little outcry is a strong indicator of how far mental health advocacy has come in that time, but I wonder whether there would have been much more reaction if this episode aired today.

The things we laugh at can speak volumes about our fears and insecurities. When mental illness is exploited for comedy, what are we really laughing at?

I’ll be back for Part 2 of this series on Monday, to explore a classic episode of Seinfeld.

Mental Health in the Media: Worst of 2012

Content Warning: mentions of suicide

I can’t deny that the major portrayals of mental health in the media have come a long way. We’re seeing accurate, sensitive, and responsible looks at mental health and illness across genres, and it’s thrilling to see the silence broken in such an impactful and visible way.

But we’re not quite there yet. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most misguided and unfortunate portrayals of mental health that have crossed my desk in the past twelve months.

“Are You Happy Now?” – SpongeBob SquarePants

Areyouhappynow.PNG

In this episode of the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon, the cantankerous Squidward copes with feelings resembling depression after realizing that he doesn’t have a “happiest memory.” The episode features two blatant and disturbing suicide sight gags, a far cry from the more subtle humor of the show’s early days. Mocking suicide is never appropriate, and doing so alongside a visual representation, on a children’s show no less, is unconscionable.

“Lids” – Saturday Night Live

And while we’re on that particular subject, SNL committed a similar crime this year when it, too, joked about suicide in a sketch. After a faux-PSY performed a rendition of “Gangnam Style,” host Seth MacFarlane, as a Lids employee, said, “Man, if you’re not in a better mood after that, you’d might as well just hang yourself in the stockroom.”

Bipolar – Chinkie Brown ft. Lil Scrappy

The sultry singer tells a lover goodbye. Why? Because he might “be bipolar… Bye, polar, bye.”

Pitch Perfect

“Kill yourselves,” charming villain-turned-love-interest Bumper Allen says to his female a-ca-mpetitors. And that’s supposed to be a punchline.

that one line in Perks of Being a Wallflower

The film adaptation of Perks was outstanding, and I hate to nitpick here, but there was one moment that was really didn’t sit well with me. You guessed it, it’s Emma Watson’s non sequitur “I love bulimia” line. I don’t understand what a line like that, which makes light of a serious eating disorder with absolutely no explanation (if we later found out, for example, that Watson’s character was actually dealing with bulimia and was using attempted humor to cope), was even doing in a film about youth mental health. It’s been four months, and I’m still waiting for an explanation.

“Sheer Madness” – Raising Hope

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend is back in town, and he realizes that he likes her more now that she’s off her mood stabilizers. Because she’s a lot more fun.

Jacintha Saldanha death – almost everyone

This one speaks for itself. After the death of Jacintha Saldanha by apparent suicide, countless news agencies speculated that her death was the direct result of the infamous “Royal Radio Prank” of which she was an unsuspecting victim. By pushing blame for her death onto a single isolated incident, the countless tabloid-style stories that ran about Saldanha trivialized both the mental health aspects contributing to the tragedy and the seriousness of suicide. News coverage of suicide tends to mystify the act and depict it as inevitable, rather than offering insight into prevention or showing even the least bit of respect for the life of the deceased.

Lark Vorhies rumors-  People and Entertainment Tonight

In October 2012, when People Magazine published a story based on interviews they conducted with former Saved By the Bell star Lara Vorhies and some people close to her, they took an angle that the actress wasn’t expecting, claiming that Vorhiees had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Voorhies, 38, would frequently stop mid-sentence and stare off, often mumbling to herself or to others who weren’t there,” the magazine reported in its sensationalist and ill-informed story about Vorhiees’ “sad spiral.”

It got messier when Entertainment Tonight picked up the story, and aired a series of pieces centered around an interview that was, as one online commentator put it, “bitchy.” And I couldn’t agree more. Vorhies was visibly flustered by the interviewer’s accusational tone, irrelevant line of questioning (“Do you hear voices?” she asked, apropos of nothing), and intrusive aim of making the actress out herself.

The exploitation continued when ET had the interview analyzed by a “respected psychiatrist” (with Lark’s permission, they said) who, thankfully, stated that he was unable to speculate on her diagnosis based on the interview.

The story was picked up elsewhere on the web, where some bloggers implied that Vorhies’ idiosyncratic manner of speaking, characterized by misused words and run-on sentences, was proof that her alleged diagnosis was valid.

Honorable Mention: American Horror Story:Asylum

As the National Alliance on Mental illness opined in October, the latest season of American Horror Story, set in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, just might be too over-the-top to be stigmatizing. Sure, there’s nothing positive about the ongoing ‘trend’ of casting mental healthcare as the setting for horror entertainment, but no one watching the series is likely to mistake its events and characters for mental health reality. The series perpetuates existing stereotypes about mental health and violence, and the nature of psychiatric hospitals, but is produced in such a way that viewers with even an ounce of media literacy will understand that what they’re watching has no connection to the reality of mental health.

That said, the coverage of the show in the entertainment news media was probably more stigmatizing than Asylum itself. Headlines like “New Cast Goes Nuts” and “Back to the Loony Bin” offer some examples of the mental health slurs and clichés that writers on the TV beat chose in discussing the program.