Mental Illness, Media, and the “Beautifully Broken” Woman

by thethreepennyguignol

Trigger warning for self-harm, anorexia, suicide.

Recently, as you can probably tell, I’ve been thinking about mental illness and it’s representation in the media. While it’s certainly gotten better in the last few years, there’s still a certain subset of representation on TV and in movies that seems to have left a particularly indelible impression on society. And one of those little snapshots of mental illness in the media is that of the “beautifully broken” girl- the sexy young chick whose mental illness is directly connected to her desirability.


Maybe that’s putting too fine a point on it, but hear me out- take characters like Effy and Cassie from Skins, like Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook, Violet from the first season of American Horror Story. All these are characters who are, to some extent or another, defined by both their mental illnesses and the romantic relationships to the man (or men) in their lives. Cassie appears for the first time in Skins fresh out of treatment for her anorexia, at which time Sid falls for her and spends the rest of the series trying to help her through her mental health problems as she spirals further and further back into her old habits. Effy shares a kiss with Cook after she attempts to jump under traffic. Violet is revived by Tate after she tries to slit her wrists in the bathtub. It’s Tiffany’s depression that initially interests Pat in her, though her mental illness takes a back seat as the film centres in on Pat’s bipolar diorder and his father’s OCD.


In all these cases, the mental illnesses that these women suffer from are directly connected to their abilities to catch and maintain the interest of male characters-they are not the actors, but the acted upon.Yes, shows like Girls and You’re The Worst deal with women with mental health problems in more nuanced ways, but the enduring image seems that media seems to have left us with is that of the delicate, damaged mentally ill girl who just needs the love of a good man to keep her sane and on-track. The Virgin Suicides does a great job deconstructing this fetishization, this obsession that turns young, conventionally attractive women with mental illness into blase objects of desire and fascination, but that image still seems to be the one that has stuck.

How can I prove that? Well, browse through any big social media site- Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr- under the self-harm, depression, or anorexia tags, and you’ll see hundreds of posts of black-and-white images of sliced-up legs or women who’ve reached unarguably unhealthy low weights, accompanied by slogans (and I quote) like “Maybe if I’m skinnier he’ll love me”, “I want to be so skinny people are scared”, “I would break myself to fix you”…they go on and on, these posts that externalise mental illness, that turn it into something romantic and glamorous, something that people outside the person suffering with it can validate and exorcise. It falls back on the examples pop culture has thrown at women for years- the one that says your mental illness won’t get better until someone else comes along and gives you a reason to fix yourself, or takes it upon themselves to patch you up themselves.


And that’s pretty unsettling. Mental illness, it goes without saying, isn’t glamorous or romantic or sexy or going to get that special someone interested in you. Mental illness is, at the end of the day, your problem- not in the sense that no-one else can help with it, but in the sense that you’re the one who calls it what it is and takes steps to change the way you feel inside your own brain. Externalising mental illness and turning it into a performance for all of social media to see is surely a dangerous thing, turning mental health problems into a competition for validation and likes and reblogs. 

The wider community that social media has provided for people with mental health problems is, broadly, a good thing- anything that makes talking about mental illness more commonplace helps chip away at the stigma that’s becoming weaker every day. But when, within these communities, there exist a large subset of people who insist of romanticising, glamorising, or even sexualizing mental illness, the stigma remains. Because when you create a bubble that makes mental illness special, precious, and different, you’re only serving to put a stronger divide between those with mental health problems and those without. And no amount of gifs of Tate from American Horror Story are going to make that any more palatable.