2 February 2010
Mental Illness on Television
In her essay “Disability,” Nancy Mairs argues that the media, such as television and movies, fail to show physical disability as a feature of normal life. Instead, Mairs says, they show disability consuming a character’s life or they don’t show disability at all. Mairs wrote her essay in 1987, and since then the situation has actually improved for depiction of physical disability. At the same time, another group—those with mental illness—has come to suffer even worse representation.
Mairs’s purpose in “Disability” is to persuade readers that the media should portray physical disability as part of everyday life because otherwise they deny or misrepresent disability and leave “Temporarily Abled Persons” (those without disability, for now) unprepared to cope if they become disabled (14-15). Two decades later, Mairs seems to have gotten her wish for characters who have a disability but are not defined by it. The title character on House, for example, walks with a cane. Artie Abrams of Glee uses a wheelchair and also sings and dances with a show choir. Joe Swanson of Family Guy is also paraplegic. Jimmy on South Park uses crutches. Medical examiner Al Robbins on CSI has prosthetic legs. The media still have a long way to go in representing physical disability, but they have made progress.
However, in depicting on type of disability, the media are, if anything, worse than they were two decades ago. Mairs doesn’t address mental illness, but it falls squarely into the misrepresentation she criticizes. It has never been shown, in Mairs’s words, “as a normal characteristic, one that complicates but does not ruin human existence” (15). Thus people who cope with a psychological disability such as depression, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder as part of their lives do not see themselves in the media. And those who don’t have a psychological...