During the editing process for Olivia Snyder’s review of Hulu’s Monsterland, it came to my attention that the fifth episode of the series, Plainfield Illinois, dealt with the difficulties in a marriage between two lawyers in which one of the partners has Bipolar Disorder Type 1. To anyone distracted by the superficially progressive move of making the couple lesbians in this case, let me state upfront, the depiction of Bipolar Disorder in this episode is flat out sensationalized and bad. I mean, really bad. While I can respect the fact that the show had about 15 minutes to establish the characters’ backstory before setting up the “monster” element, the show’s utterly normalized depiction of homosexuality is so completely at odds with its extremely fetishized vision of mental illness that one wishes the script had omitted this element entirely. To sum up: Kate and Shawn are gay lawyer ladies who fall in love while debating each other to a draw in law school. 16 years in which no effort is made to show them aging later, Kate and Shawn get done fucking in a bar restroom and then go buy drinks. Up till now, pretty standard television.
The trouble begins when Kate surprises Shawn with tickets to Italy during the ensuing conversation, a surprise greeted with ominous music and awkward laughter by Shawn. Kate, as we are soon to learn, has bought the tickets on impulse because she has Bipolar Disorder, which in this universe seems to entail being manic all the time for years on end despite being a highly educated upper middle class professional who can afford pills and therapy and canonically does avail herself of both forms of treatment. Leave aside the fact that Kate’s description of her diagnosis in a flashback scene is such melodramatic yet bloodless rubbish that it reads like someone explained Bipolar to Taylor Shilling on an index card ten minutes before shooting. Leave aside also the fact that Shawn’s role in the relationship is to effectively serve as Kate’s surrogate parent, which is ridiculously infantilizing, even if these cycles of dependency do often play out in the romantic lives of those who live with such a disability ( a statement I make out of both personal experience and from doing years of group therapy with others who suffer from Bipolar 1 and 2). Leave aside even the fact that, yes, when you are in love, it almost always does get worse due to the heightened intensity of the emotion. The damning flaw of this depiction is that it begins from the premiss of equating a person with bipolar as a raging, unstable adolescent with no agency and then beating the Kate character over the head in the form of Shawn’s exasperation with her wife’s inability to control a medical condition the show has likened to demonic possession.
When Kate speaks hysterically of the disease “clawing through her brain”, I literally burst out laughing, because the script and Shilling’s performance is so exaggerated and absurd that it borders on the mental health equivalent of that scene in the pilot of Barry where the character Ryan Madison played a Black man by speaking ebonics and wearing dreadlocks. Except that was a satire of White male acting hubris and the vapidity of Hollywood in a show about a hitman who wants to redeem himself by by taking up acting, a skill he is conspicuously terrible at. Barry is a multilayered satire of a broken man escaping deeper and deeper into a world of delusion to escape from the crushing guilt of being a mass murderer. Monsterland S1E5 is a minstrel show, the very sort of foray into delusional idiocy in the service of ART that Barry loves to ridicule.
I have Bipolar Disorder Type 2, which I began displaying symptoms of at age five or six, and Complex Trauma Disorder. I have known numerous people, male and female, with Bipolar Type 1, having encountered them often in the psychiatric hospitals and residential therapy programs I spent my late teens and the entire first half of my twenties revolving in and out of on a yearly basis. Because Bipolar in both types heavily correlates with a higher predisposition to substance abuse and risk-taking behavior, about half of all the other persons I’ve met with Bipolar Disorder since beginning mental health treatment seven years ago were addicts. Among those who were women, virtually all spoke at some point in group therapy or casual conversations of having been sexually abused in the past. The co-occurence of Bipolar with addiction and/or trauma is extremely common. I can name absolutely no instance, however, where anyone who was receiving the level of active treatment that she is said to receive in this show behaved with the level of continuous and exaggerated histrionics that Kate does.
Look, much of the depiction is superficially accurate. It took me years to find an effective medicinal regimen, in the absence of which I would, at least 3-4 times a year, spend weeks in a state of hypomania where I thrived on the ability to write songs and poetry for 6-8 hours a day and sleep less than 4 hours a night before crashing into a months-long, insuperable depression. Had I not spent the majority of those years in a lockdown facility in Coeur d’Alene Idaho suffering from crippling self-esteem issues due to childhood trauma, I guarantee you I would be an addict, have HIV, be in jail, or dead of an overdose at this point, because in addition to making art, my only serious desires during such periods of hypomania were to go clubbing and fuck, all day, everyday. Sadly the last two never came to much, but I digress.
In focusing on the most extreme aspects of the disability, however; in doing so in an utterly cartoonish manner; and in focusing not on Kate’s humanity but Shawn’s exasperation with “managing” Kate and grief over her eventual death, the episode does an immense disservice to just how banal, manageable, and nuanced Bipolar Disorder is. This in no way denies the reality that it remains in many ways devastating if improperly managed; that the antidepressant and antipsychotic medicines used to mitigate it are fallible, inexact, and often have negative side effects, such as increased risk for weight gain and obesity; nor the brutal reality that, as in all aspects of American healthcare, racial and class disparities remain massive in respect to access and quality of treatment. If I go more than a few days without my medication, I am indeed running a severe personal risk to myself and a mild one to others. Nobody should undersell the seriousness of Bipolar. The fact of the matter remains, however, that people with Bipolar Disorder are not a “type”. We do not lurch delusionally from crisis to crisis on a moment to moment basis. We do not lack any personality or identity beyond our disability. We are not all famous, self-destructive geniuses like Kurt Cobain or Kanye West, though many of us are creatively gifted nonetheless. In my experience, those of us who have sought and received treatment do not actively dick around and do nothing when we sense the onset of mania, hypomania or depression. We are not slaves to our condition. Contrary to stereotypes, virtually all of those with Bipolar I’ve had the ironic pleasure of healing with were well aware that our financial privilege and, in many, though not all, of our cases, its concomitance with Whiteness, gave us life-saving access to care that most Americans with mental illness never receive. The notion of an upper class millennial professional like Kate who has been diagnosed for decades not treating her condition with the utmost seriousness is absurd. A real Kate would understand the brute reality that in order to save her marriage, her family, and her career, she would use the resources at her disposal to get her shit together and manage things as best as possible. She would learn this lesson or wind up alone on the streets, in jail, or in the morgue.
There are too many depictions of mental illness in all its varieties that fetishize us as “crazy”, as victims, or as monsters for the sake of ignorance and spectacle. There are too many depictions of male mental illness that portray us as malignant killers incapable of reason or, like Joker, actively apologize for the worst possible responses to the rage and pain that come with the inner and outer marginalization of such conditions. The dramatic arts community, never hesitant to spout the most pious platitudes, sincere or otherwise, in regards to obvious marginalizations in regards to gender, race, and sexuality, makes no sustained effort to incorporate accurate depictions of mental illness and neurodivergence in its productions, despite the fact that these subtle, frustrating, but liveable conditions don’t care whether or not those they afflict have money or adhere to intersectional critical theory. When mental illness is so much as mentioned in the arts, it is done so largely in isolated utterances of established icons, not sustained campaigns of accurate representation or awareness. I am not an outrage troll. I don’t adhere to the notion that every character with Bipolar must be some uber courageous, desirable hero, though even one of those in mainstream fiction would be nice. I am not calling to cancel Monsterland or anyone in it. The fact of the matter is though that in the absence of virtually any depictions of mental illness and neurodivergence in mainstream fiction beyond vague nods to PTSD here and there, fetishitic portrayals like those found in Monsterland S1E5 are not simply kitschy, they are actively stigmatizing.
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