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Sex and the University: Mental illness in media more sexualized than serious

By Imaani Cain
On February 26, 2013


In film, mental illness has been ramped up to the point where it has become something strangely alluring. It has metamorphosed from something negative that nobody wanted to admit to having to something that seems almost a requirement for being "interesting." It's most frequently seen in doe-eyed, thin, fashionable women who smoke cigarettes while looking tearfully outside the window. An example of this is "Girl, Interrupted," wherein Susanna Kaysen is played by the gorgeous Winona Ryder. Although this is no fault of Ryder's, it encourages the audience to feel more empathy for her than they would if Ryder was more of a "Hollywood homely" type or even just "unattractive." There is a deeper degree of sympathy extended towards the trembling, wide-eyed Winona Ryders in films about mental illness, which is seen further by portrayals of fellow emotionally unstable women by Brittany Murphy and Angelina Jolie. Their struggles towards sanity become romanticized and sexy instead of traumatic, and serve only to show how misogynistic the film industry has become. 

This concept is also seen in Sofia Coppola's film "The Virgin Suicides." The boys in the movie prey upon the Lisbon sisters and are attracted to them because of their "enigmatic qualities" (depressive behaviors reminiscent of Shakespeare's Ophelia) and their beauty. The story probably wouldn't progress if the Lisbon sisters weren't beautiful. 

There is a particular concentration on the eldest Lisbon sister's sexual exploits-in fact, the boys watch her from across the street and never alert her to the fact that she can be seen by other people. She is, in a way, a highly sexual version of the "manic pixie dream girl."
Her personality is not relevant at all in the film, with the exception of her depression. It is more so about her body and facial features, and how it creates a sort of mystery around her. 

In the popular UK series "Skins," Cassie's eating disorder is seen as being cute and appealing. The psychological side of it is completely ignored, instead of seeing her struggle with it, or even begin the path to recovery from it. 

The audience sees Cassie, instead, having sex, popping pills, falling down drunk. Her mental illness seems to fall by the wayside and only exists as a furtive, extra part of her that only adds to her sex appeal. 

This is even being depicted in books now. In John Green's "Looking for Alaska," part of Alaska's allure is her emotional instability. Of course, this is due to her physical appearance-there is less of a desire to deal with "homely" emotionally unstable women. It ceases to be "quirky" or "cute" when the girl herself is not, when the seriousness of mental illness becomes the reality instead of the idealized notion. 

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