Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.

Hannibal, My Mad Fat Diary, and mental health on television

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We need more relatable and fair representations of mental health problems on TV, just as we’ve had with sexuality and race.

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in Hannibal - a protagonist with mental health problems. Photo: Tabercil/Flickr

Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham in Hannibal – a protagonist with mental health problems. Photo: Tabercil/Flickr

I love the TV show Hannibal. I love that the cannibalism is shot like food porn, that every line of dialogue can be interpreted in a thousand different ways, and that it’s one of the few shows left that’s gruesome enough to have me squeaking and covering my eyes like a terrified toddler.

I wouldn’t recommend binge watching it though – especially not alone. There’s something in the darkly surreal, theatrical spectacle of the show that, after a few episodes, you’re craving sunshine and candyfloss.

It’s not just the horror but the constant foregrounding and analysis of mental illness. We’ve been delighting in horrible murders on television for years, but when was the last time we saw a careful, thorough representation of a troubled mind, without its owner being portrayed as a monster or a helpless victim?

Will Graham, the show’s protagonist, has an “empathy disorder” which allows him to think and feel exactly like other people – a dangerous talent for someone who hunts serial killers for a living. Unbeknown to him, Will also has a physical disorder called encephalitis which causes him to hallucinate and lose time. Will also has Hannibal for a therapist – the combination of all three makes for intense and troubling viewing.

Representing mental illness on television is a step in the right direction. Last week, Jonathan Freedland argued that just as 24’s David Palmer “prepared” America for an African-American president, Modern Family’s gay parents Mitch and Cam prepared it for same-sex marriage. In essence, the world that we see on our TV screens is not just a reflection of society, but a mould for it. The feminist adage that “You can’t be what you can’t see” springs to mind.

I’m by no means saying that well-off psychiatric professionals are going to start eating their patients at elaborate dinner parties after an ill-timed season two marathon. Nor am I arguing that Hannibal’s presentation of mental health is unproblematic. But the show’s candid discussion of these issues might help prepare its viewers for later, real world discussions. As a society we’re long overdue an open dialogue about mental health and the stigmas surrounding it, but hopefully, Hannibal will serve as a conversational aperitif.

It’s an eloquent show, and one that’s constantly discussing how it feels when your mental health is slipping. In the very first episode, Hannibal gives a perfect explanation of an anxiety disorder:

“Our brain is designed to experience anxiety in short bursts, not the prolonged duress your neuroses seem to enjoy. It’s why you feel as though a lion were on the verge of devouring you… You have to convince yourself the lion is not in the room.”

This is a valuable description of the kind of feeling that millions of us face every day, in slightly less dramatic – but no less terrifying – circumstances. It doesn’t matter where your anxiety comes from. If you feel like there is a lion in the room, the symptoms are the same. And the more the world gets to see that in relatable characters, the more it might be understood when it happens in real life.

Hannibal has its flaws. Not so much monster-of-the-week as it is “psychosis-of-the-week”, the show presents a veritable conveyor belt of mentally ill patients-turned-serial-killers – not exactly poster kids for recovery – and the show’s indulgence in fantastical melodrama makes it hard to argue that it’s giving a realistic portrayal of these issues.

That’s why we need protagonists who we can really relate to – who could be us, our sister, or our best friend. Thankfully – finally – we are getting them.

Rae Earl, the main character in Channel 4’s My Mad Fat Diary, is a funny, sharp, and relatable teenage girl. While Rae’s struggle with depression and anxiety is the show’s main plotline, time is devoted to her problems with friends, her mum, and her weight, schoolwork and love life.

At last: a real character whose illness does not define her intelligence, confidence, or relationships, but neither does the show shy away from discussing it.

As a diary format, there are constant doodles super-imposed on the action, so even when Rae’s face remains a pillar of cool disdain, we can see what she’s really thinking. In the midst of a panic attack, the marker pen effect begins drawing circles around the edge of the frame, which get faster and closer, encroaching on her terrified face until half the screen is obscured by angry black lines.

I can’t think of a more accurate representation of that feeling – the feeling that the entire world is pressing in, that you could stop it if you were just strong enough, that you can’t see anything outside of your own head. The show also gives hope that you can learn to control those feelings and they don’t have to determine the way you live your life.

But My Mad Fat Diary ended in March, and tonight so will Hannibal (at least for a while). It’s great that two shows in such disparate genres are dealing with these issues in their own way. Like minority races, sexualities, and genderqueer people, people with mental health problems should be found across all of our media, not just gritty issue dramas. If parents are more understanding of their children’s differences because of a character on TV, then TV is doing something right. Let’s have more of that, please.

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