Updated: Nov 5, 2022
Media depictions where the villain is often a character with a mental illness
Mental health and the media. What can I say that’s more informative, more inspiring, more helpful on the matter? I’ve often felt I wanted to join the discourse but couldn’t find a way in. From Jaffar from the 1992 version of Aladdin, to the Joker, there are already a million blogs out there that dabble in the psychoanalysis of dozens of villains who are all depicted as having a mental illness. So here are my few, disturbing realisations. One in particular troubles me – why do baddies always seem to laugh?
It’s all fiction
I recently read a scientific study that found that fifty percent of people get their information on mental health disorders through pop culture – so the fact that so many characters who have mental health issues are displayed as having villainous, or even criminal qualities is definitely helping perpetuate certain stigmas surrounding mental health. One of the most terrifying, false stereotypes is that those who suffer from more rarer mental health disorders such as psychosis or schizophrenia are dangerous, and therefore more likely to commit harmful crimes. This couldn’t be further from the truth, when you take two seconds to look at the medicine – a quick google search brought up these illnesses on the National Health Service website. Under ‘symptoms of schizophrenia’, it explicitly says ‘schizophrenia does not cause people to be violent.’ So, why the fictional falsity? The result of the issue is that those with these mental health disorders feel isolated and shut out from their community, often resulting in a worsening state of their health. For those of you who studied an English Lit degree and were criticised for not ‘actively helping society’, take heart. Fiction can damage people in a very real way, and the more we try and understand it, the more we can speak up and implement change. Stories matter.
Clowns, clowns everywhere
If we delve a little deeper, there seems to be a disturbing pattern - these ‘baddies’ (a quite possibly problematic term but that’s for another blog post) who are depicted as having a mental health problem always seem to laugh when they succeed in their evil endeavours. When I was younger and too frightened to watch Doctor Who along with my older siblings, I used to watch The Sarah Jane Adventures. There was one episode that haunted me for weeks. It depicted a villain based on The Pied Piper of Hamelin – the titular character of a legend that dates back to the Middle Ages from the town of Hamelin, Germany. This sadistic shapeshifter was painted as a clown and had a laugh so evil and so haunting it paralysed me. I’ve hated clowns ever since. I didn’t understand why children were supposed to love clowns – especially as this one was a child snatcher. Clowns were evil.
But it’s not just literal clowns I’m talking about.
All baddies always seemed to laugh. There’s the Joker, Maleficent, or even Lotso from Toy Story 3, all who are not clowns but have an ‘evil clown’ laugh. It’s a juxtaposition that dates back eons, sad clowns, evil clowns, clowns that do evil and laugh about it. Perhaps someone who’s entire personality revolves around laughter and joy but is somehow also evil makes a good or enjoyably disturbing movie, but there are real problems here.
Three, in particular, stand out. First, the most obvious one. All the characters I listed are simultaneously portrayed as having symptoms of specific mental illnesses and committing crimes – Lotso, for example, shows symptoms of self-loathing and self-hatred and it is this that causes him to hurt the other toys. This connection is based on nothing medical, realistic, or scientific. It may all be just fiction, but the pattern creates a harmful image. Second, the baddies seem to take a lot of pleasure in their crimes, and in hurting people. A trope depicted throughout entertainment media history, this is what makes the baddy bad. This helps perpetuate a rising, just as an awful false stereotype: that those with mental health issues are not only more likely to commit crimes or cause harm to people, but that they enjoy doing so.
But I think the biggest problem of all is that the baddies all seem to be really happy. Generally. Their character profiles include all these symptoms of specific mental health illnesses, but it often doesn’t seem to affect their emotional wellbeing, their happiness. This creates a dangerous, celebratory stance towards villains. Not only does this oxymoron of ‘baddie’s being ‘happy’ belittle people in real life who suffer from mental health difficulties and how much they suffer on a daily basis, but it also misinforms. It’s the character’s mental struggle that seems to give them so much pleasure, so much power, so much hunger, so much energy. The exact opposite of what poor mental health does to a person.
Just for the record
There are, thankfully, plenty of comparisons that can be made between classic ‘hero’ type characters and mental health struggles they might have. You could, for example, say that Spiderman’s character (the oh-so-lovable Tom Holland version) has social anxiety. In fact, it’s often the heroes who are portrayed as feeling lost in life, burdened with the weight of saving the world.
I think the real takeaway is that it’s all too easy to dismiss these issues, excusing them under this umbrella of ‘it’s all just fiction.’ Fiction is just the truth within a lie, and we’re getting these facts about mental health disorders quite wrong.