January 26, 2013

"Women and Mental Illness: Why The Virgin Suicides is Still Relevant Today" by Alissa Fleck

How often do “chick flicks” deal with serious mental illness? The truth is, all the time, just not directly or realistically. It’s usually more of a static undertone, a fair-weathered eccentricity, employable when it’s charming.

Take, for instance, the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term recently coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe the giddy, overly-hyper female protagonist of so many gender- and hetero-normative chick flicks and romantic comedies.

The MPDG is a prototype embodied by the likes of Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman, in movies like Yes Man and No Strings Attached.

While this stock character may be adorably impish, with seemingly endless reserves of energy, the implications of this label are not. At the risk of being a buzz-kill, I must point out mania is, in fact, a component of serious mental illness, characterized by an inordinately elevated mood and compulsive -- sometimes dangerous -- behavior.

Anyone who’s experienced a true manic episode can tell you it’s nothing like being the sexy star of a rom-com, with not a strand of tousled hair out of place. These “manics” have a shocking capacity for resilience, in a way the veritably mentally ill do not. They maintain, by all accounts, a grasp on reality.

But chick flicks aren’t the proper arena for tackling the manifold, loaded discussion of debilitating mental illness, you say. Chick flicks are about romping, rollicking fun and happy endings with sloppy kisses. Things get messy, yes, but they always wrap up nicely -- sometimes with a gleeful tune! (Zooey Deschanel, part of a two-piece band in real life, has been known to incorporate musical numbers into her flicks.

 Furthermore, does The Virgin Suicides, which prompted this whole discussion in the first place (wait -- you’ll see) even count as a chick flick?
What sort of chick flick incorporates five graphic suicides, a father’s immeasurable grief when he discovers his daughter’s been impaled on a fence post and unapologetic use of the male gaze? Okay, scratch the male gaze part, that’s a given. 

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know The Virgin Suicides is as relevant as ever, at a time when mental illness has a disastrously public presence but is arguably no better understood in many ways than in the 70s, the decade in which the 1999 movie, directed by Sofia Coppola, is set. 

Mental illness has a strange presence in the film, which is a fitting depiction for something so alien and misunderstood despite its prevalence. We literally see the five Lisbon girls, who hazily revolve around Kirsten Dunst’s protagonist character like a dynamic backdrop, as outsiders ourselves, the whole film narrated through the ambiguous, retrospective lens of an unidentified male voyeur. 

We know the warning signs prior to suicide -- if any exist -- are often unpredictable. But do they like look what we witness in the film? We are also forced to examine questions of nature and nurture -- is there something innate that would drive five sisters to suicide, is it tied to their oppressive upbringing or is it an extreme, condensed case of the contagious suicide theory?

I say The Virgin Suicides is as relevant as ever, because in the era of tragedies like those of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Tyler Clementi (all extremely distinct cases) and so many more, we have to accept the terrifying fear that a parent’s influence, and a community’s influence, only extend so far, that mental illness -- what it is and how it manifests -- is far from well understood. Notably the examples I’ve provided have all been national news cases in the past few years. 

More notably, they all involve men.

We have to wrack our brains to think of similar cases involving women. When we think of women and public representations of mental illness, there seem to be fewer examples. They still exist, but women are less statistically inclined to commit a very public act, in the throes of a psychotic episode or otherwise.

So we turn instead, perhaps, to representations in television and film. We think of Claire Danes’s character in the popular contemporary television show Homeland, a depiction of mental illness not without its flaws but which I believe does some work at least toward doing bipolar disorder a justice. If we’re looking to media like film and television to understand mental illness in women, we damn well better make sure we’re giving it a fair, multidimensional shake. That is our burden, for society’s wellbeing. 


Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, the parental figures in The Virgin Suicides, a bit like clueless, hovering planets, are by all accounts good parents in the conventional sense. They are overbearing and stringently religious but they genuinely want the best for their daughters. Their grief after the suicide of their youngest is immeasurable. They don’t understand the first thing about their children, but they try. Their inability to access their children is magnified by our own inability as viewers to process or filter what we see.

Sometimes bad things just happen and no one can say exactly why. We can examine a life longitudinally, tear it apart from limb-to-limb, blame the parents, the upbringing, but that brings us no closer to a truth.

The Virgin Suicides is not perfect, but it’s refreshing to re-watch a film where women’s neuroses aren’t always dainty, where they don’t flatly and easily pass in and out of them, where all is not resolved in the end. Despite the movie’s glamorization of suicide, it’s refreshing to see a portrayal where mental illness is not adorable in the end, where the “hysterical woman” does not learn her lesson or become rehabilitated by the love of man. It’s refreshing to see a film where mental illness is torturously inexplicable yet real.    

Men can’t save the women in this movie, no one can, and sometimes that’s the reality of mental illness. Understanding that reality is what brings us closer to a truth. 

Alissa Fleck is a freelance writer for NY Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Houston Chronicle, thenest.com and more. She hosts a monthly reading series at Cornelia Street Cafe in the Village. 


Anonymous said...

Really, really thoughtful look at the glamorization and subsequent trivialization of mental illness. Thanks for this.

Alissa said...

Thank you for reading!