Warning: epic sweary rant alert. This is very much a rant about an issue that boils my blood. Possible trigger warnings for mentions of abuse and mental illness.
The first time I had the trailer for ‘Split’ thrown in my face like a scalding coffee, I’ll admit, it took me a moment to understand what was going on. And then the anger came. Rage, really.
The premise, for those yet to be greeted by this particular steaming load, is that a man with ‘multiple personalities’ abducts three girls for a reason only he knows. To survive, the girls will need to figure out which personalities they can exploit or manipulate into helping them escape. Also? One of his personalities is called ‘The Beast’ and might be an actual monster!
All good, scary fun, right?
Except for the part where Disassociative Identity Disorder is an actual condition that actually exists and impacts actual people. It’s still at times a controversial diagnosis, sure, but it’s still an actual, valid diagnosis. (I’m saying ‘actual’ a lot here, because far too often, we forget that these are problems impacting real people, not just fictional ones).
Except for the part where the otherness of mental illness is held up in a way designed to inspire fear and mistrust in viewers. AGAIN. Or the part where fear or ridicule are still the recommended responses to mental illness that get perpetuated in our popular culture. Except for the part where mental illness is over-represented in the crime and horror genres as a signpost for evil-doing without there being a counterbalance of clearly labelled heroes with issues. No, really: we hesitate to label our heroes with disorders (though Sherlock has been argued as having a lot of autism related quirks, Benedict Cumberbatch, among others, shuts that idea down fast), but hot damn will we throw labels on the bad guys with reckless abandon. And yes, Sherlock cheerfully calls himself a sociopath- but that’s using a title as a weapon, not an actual problem that gets a lot of airtime in the show. It’s a vaguely threatening- and certainly belittling- act towards someone he hates and enjoys showing up intellectually. Maybe he is a sociopath, but it’s just as likely he’s just being an ass because he knows the power of the label he’s adopting.
Except for the part where M. Night Shyamalan ramps up the idea of the monstrous (‘a person with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry with just a thought!’) and ties it right in with an actual medical diagnoses that, again, actually exists and impacts real people. Except for the part where sufferers of DID have been consistently disbelieved in the medical fields for a very, very long time, belittled and shamed and called liars until science actually caught the hell up with reality. That? That still freakin’ happens. People still struggle to be believed, let alone get help, for this condition. If you’re being demonised in the doctor’s office, do you really need it on your screens as well?
Except for the part where DID is generally a survival mechanism for extreme trauma, and our media responds to incredible acts of survival by demonising people and acting as though the victims of extreme trauma and abuse are the monsters in the scenario. Let me be clear here: oftentimes, DID stems from horrific child abuse. In many cases, the personalities actually protect the child, taking control during the worst of the abuse and allowing the child mental distance from what’s happening. Violent or predatory personalities aren’t common, even though they’re an image that is certainly over-represented in popular culture.
Except for the part where statistics show that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the instigators or perpetrators. And when they have been victimised, oftentimes their stories aren’t taken as seriously because society is less likely to believe someone who has a mental illness.
Except for the part where perpetually making monsters out of the mentally ill makes it harder for people to feel like they can get help for their mental illness, makes it harder to be open and honest with the people around you about your mental illness, makes it harder to explain mental illness to people, and is an act of social exclusion against an already vulnerable member of a community. Which, let’s be brutally honest here, can be an additional layer of trauma for people with more than enough already.
Except for the part where a freakin’ Convention had this trailer on a loop at the start of presentations, meaning that if you wanted to see an actor or writer talk, you had to grit your freakin’ teeth and deal with this rage inducing phlegm wad of a trailer. Meaning that there’s a chance that someone who has DID, or who cares for someone who does, just got emotionally sucker-punched to see an issue close to their hearts demonised in the name of another lazily written horror. I know for an absolute fact that the latter has happened. I really hope it hasn’t been a trigger point for anyone with DID.
Take a moment and think about that. Think about struggling your way through the shit storm of even getting a diagnosis, let alone working towards the healing needed. Imagine working your ass off to try and live a normal life and to manage your mental health, rather than letting it control you. By the way, if you’ve never had to do that- it’s really fucking exhausting. And one day, you decide to take a day to yourself, go to a Con, go have some fun. You settle in to see a talk that you were really excited about. And then this shows up, and you’re reminded, again, that you’re an outsider even though you physically fit into the crowd. You hear the excitement, the whispers of fear and revulsion, and they’re tied into a part of your identity you had no control over creating. The apparent monster on the screen, yet again, is designed to be you.
Tell me how that’s okay.
This isn’t an argument that you can never write the bad side of mental illness, because that’s stupid. It’s saying that we need to balance the scales when it comes to a lot of depictions within popular culture. Sure, make the mentally ill character the villain. But make them heroes more often, too. Let people see positive depictions of their reality for once. It’s not that big an ask, and if you can’t figure a way to put a positive spin on a mental illness (or, y’know, anything outside of the typical cis, white, hetero, able-bodied man POV), then burn your pens and laptops, and go the fuck away.
One of the best things Marvel does in its movies, especially Iron Man, is show the aftermath. Iron Man 3 is chock-full of PTSD storyline- it acknowledges that we need our heroes but they’re paying a hell of a price for that job title. Tony is unstable and troubled- and still a gorram hero. In Age of Ultron, you see Steve’s PTSD. You see Natasha’s struggle to move beyond an abusive past- you see characters with tragic backstory working towards a better life, rather than being stuck in a hospital somewhere being tragic and stoic.
Seriously, quit kicking people when they’re already down. Quit having trans stories played by cis white guys. Stop having lesbian relationships used for reasons of titillation only. Stop making the characters of colour either randomly white (*cough*Gods of Egypt*cough*) or background characters (don’t you even tell me Falcon shouldn’t get his own freakin’ movie) or the sacrificial lambs (because only Rhodey was permanently impacted physically in Civil War, and only Sam looks like he’s being tortured for intel while they’re being held). Let more female heroes get their own movies. And easy to find fucking merch, you gobshits. Rey is literally the protagonist in the latest Star Wars and her merch wasn’t even in the first wave of products. They released a game that used Darth Vader and Young Luke Skywalker rather than use Rey. Stop shoving girls and women in boxes to await rescue (and again, I’m fucking scowling at you, ‘Split’) and let them rescue trapped guys instead. Let the little girl bring the weapon to the hero, or recognise them, or be mentored by them. Let autistic kids see heroes labelled as being on the spectrum, without it being played for laughs about how ‘normal’ people struggle to tolerate them. Let the quirky characters not be outsiders until they conform- let them be accepted, not forced to be someone else. Let characters who are introverts or who suffer with anxiety not be ‘cured’ by a romance subplot. Let the male characters emote without being called gay (and quit using ‘gay’ to mean ‘bad’ because it’s a stupid slur and makes you look stupid, too). Disabled superheroes- gimme. Why can’t Hawkeye be deaf, like in the comics?
Spend, like, an hour online and you’ll find a heap of stories of kids getting really, really excited to see themselves represented- give kids those representations and quit being an asshole.
Stop fucking reaffirming the BS idea that DID means ‘scary’. It doesn’t. The names of mental illnesses are not writerly short-hand for ‘scary’, ‘dangerous’, or ‘violent’. Having DID can make life confusing and complicated and messy- but then again, the same is true if you have a cat or a kid, and I don’t see a 90-something% horror focus on either of those. You cannot tell me there’s not some superhero level badassery in the personality who keeps stepping in, sacrificing themselves over and over again to protect a child- who puts themselves through hell to make sure the kid survives. Tell me that story for once.
Hands down, for me, the best part of the Con was the moment that a room full of creatives called out the ‘Split’ trailer as a wholesale gathering of tropes that need to die. An entire room of people looked at the idea of DID as scary and said ‘fuck no’, and I nearly cried. There is a large number of consumers desperate for diversity and balanced storytelling- so why aren’t we getting it?
Tell me a story that matters, and stop wasting my time with fear mongering, hateful shit.