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Guest Post: Media representations of women with mental health issues

Cara is a Glaswegian woman with experience of bipolar. You can follow her on twitter @cmacdowall. Here, she explores how women with mental health issues are depicted in the media.

According to Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year [1]. So that may lead you to think that the media would be awash with representations of women with mental health conditions. It’s not.

In this blog I intend to discuss specific examples of mental health representation in the media. This is a snapshot – not a comprehensive analysis. I’ll leave that to academics.

Lack of diversity

When researching for this piece, I came up with a list of women in the media that I knew were open about their mental health. They consisted of one character and a handful of prominent women that had suffered predominately from bipolar. I couldn’t name a woman in the media with for example, schizophrenia or OCD. It seems that the stigma is incredibly strong and perhaps only acceptable to have a zeitgeist diagnosis like ‘bipolar’.

So, why does this matter? Why is it necessary to see women in mental distress on screen, in books or any other media? But, when you think of the amount of drama on television, for example, or stories supposedly reflecting real life, it’s simply odd that women with mental health conditions seem to have been edited out – especially given the statistics in the population of incidences of the illness. When they aren’t edited out, however, it’s still sketchy.

Sylvia Plath

I was on Twitter the other day having been asked to write this blog post. This tweet appeared about Sylvia Plath-a photo shoot of clothing and shoes to give you her ‘look’.

In the corner of the article was a pink Smeg oven.

I had read The Bell Jar earlier in 2018 and although was aware that Sylvia had taken her own life, I didn’t know how. I felt it was highly inappropriate and shocking to me that such an esteemed writer’s death would be treated in such a callous and shallow way.

Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the biopic Sylvia (2003). Frieda Hughes, now a poet and painter, who was two years old when her mother died, was angered by the making of entertainment featuring her parents' lives. She accused the "peanut crunching" public of wanting to be titillated by the family's tragedies.

In 2003, Frieda reacted to the situation in the poem "My Mother" in Tatler:

Now they want to make a film

For anyone lacking the ability

To imagine the body, head in oven,

Orphaning children

[...] they think

I should give them my mother's words

To fill the mouth of their monster,

Their Sylvia Suicide Doll

Eastenders

Compare and contrast that depiction with another – Stacey Slater/Fowler. I watched Eastenders from the opening titles back in 1985 when I was 10 until my mid 30s (I’m in my mid 40s now). When researching this piece I went back, because I had missed some of the episodes of Stacey once she had returned more recently and wanted to see how they were depicting a bipolar woman. Judge for yourself using this potted history of Stacey’s fictional life from Wikipedia.

Stacey does have some characteristics of a woman with bipolar. High and low episodes, promiscuity – there’s a lot of drama in her life! But there is very little about ‘recovery’ to show that you can live a relatively normal life with the condition but coupled with the potentially unending need to be medically monitored. The lack of diversity of women’s voices or even different portrayals of mental health issues means it’s easy to be critical.

In the media spotlight

It’s perhaps when turning to new media – or social media - we hear from real life humans – not character portrayals. Carrie Fisher, Ruby Wax, Kerry Catona, Susan Calman and Lily Allen have openly talked about living with depression. It is perhaps through this that women living with mental health conditions can see themselves reflected more realistically. Twitter proves a powerful medium in which to get a better understanding of the nature of mental health issues – with prominent people discussing their own experiences of these conditions. All power to them.

The more women in the media spotlight feel emboldened to be brave and open about their mental health issues, the easier it will be for other women in less powerful positions. Or at least, that’s the hope.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own. Bloggers have received some editorial support from Engender, and may have received a fee from our commissioning pot. We aim for our blog to reflect a range of feminist viewpoints, and offer a commissioning pot to ensure that women do not have to offer their time or words for free.

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