Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Bad at blogging.


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

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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LGBTQ and the media: why Hollyoaks is the best show on television

A couple of weeks ago, same-sex marriage became legal in the UK. You may have heard about it. Of course, the law is not without it’s faults – let’s not forget that trans people are being significantly discriminated against, that heterosexual couples still can’t enter into civil unions, and that there is a quadruple lock on opposed religious groups performing such marriages, so that LGBTQ members of the Church of England couldn’t be married in their faith, even if they wanted to.

I am not forgetting those things. However, it has to be acknowledged that the change in law is still a huge step forward for human rights in this country, and emblematic of positively shifting attitudes.

However, just as in the law surrounding it, society’s attitude towards LGBTQ people still has its issues. They are still bullied, mocked and degraded for being themselves, and as long as this site still exists, you’re never a google search away from a nice little reminder of how far left society has to come.

Today, however, I am going to talk about one specific problem, because it’s one that’s been bugging me lately – and that is the way in which we understand LGBTQ characters on TV. It was a topic often discussed in my Queer Theory class at UEA last year, and one which continually comes up in the TV I watch now.

The thing is, the growing number of LGBTQ characters is something of a red herring. Of course more representation is a good thing, and the fact that openly gay characters are appearing is a step forward in itself. But why are they so often presented as minor side characters, there to throw out a good one liner, but never actually take on any strong storylines themselves? Why do they still play up to stereotypes which don’t actually help anyone? And why do the lesbiansalwaysALWAYSdie? [warning: violence, illness, spoilers]

It’s a commonly recurring theme that tvtropes.org refers to as “bury your gays link”.

Of course there are always exceptions. But no matter how great it is to have LGBTQ characters on TV, there are still only two messages being sent about queer relationships. Either they must fit perfectly into the roles society has dictated for them in order to be legitimate (one flamboyantly camp man and his long-suffering partner/two hot babes), or they must ultimately end up doomed and their partners left grieving forever.

 

A Case Study

Let’s compare Channel 4’s Dates. It was well-promoted, billed as an edgy contemporary drama/comedy, and the link with Skins creator Bryan Elsley was continually pushed.

Overall, the series was pretty good; the “straight” episodes portrayed interesting, layered characters who were struggling with various emotional issues as they attempted to navigate the awkward seas of dating in a complex contemporary world.

But then we got to the “lesbian” episode – and presumably even having lesbians was presumed to be edgy enough without actually bothering to push any more boundaries. Instead, when one admits to having previously been with men, we get the line “I’m so sick of women who go this way and that on a whim; it’s not complicated, it’s annoying and not honest … Maybe you’re just straight and bored?” In response: “you seem like an angry lesbian with a dick complex.”

Neither of these stereotypes is anything the viewers haven’t heard before, and repeating them isn’t edgy; it’s lazy. To top it all off, the two women later do sexy dancing and sleep together anyway, despite the fact that neither seems to particularly like the other, making it a lesbians-on-TV hattrick.

Gay stories can’t just rely on their own gayness to keep them interesting. They need as many twists, turns and surprises as straight stories. How else will they ever seem like legitimate stories to tell?

And that is just the gay, bisexual and lesbian characters who are, finally, beginning to exist on our screens; for those who are trans, genderqueer, pansexual, asexual, or one of the many other non-heteronormative identities, there is still the battle to get their stories represented on television at all.

The only reference I found to trans issues in Dates was this passing comment from a man in a later episode, on the number of dates he has had in his life: “two including this one, and the other ‘so-called’ girl turned out to be … never mind”. A face is pulled, the subject changed, and the subject never mentioned again. To make matters worse, this is from a man who claimed to have an academic interest in sexuality, and who even went so far as to explain a rough version of the Kinsey scale. Admittedly, the character is portrayed as racist and sexist throughout. But even in the one area in which their character appears to be somewhat enlightened, trans jokes are still too easy a shot for the writers to take.

So what can we do? What possible direction is left to take?

 

That’s where Hollyoaks comes in

Moving to a new town is hard. You don’t know where things are; you don’t have any friends yet; there are millions of roundabouts everywhere for no discernible reason (although maybe that’s just in Colchester).

Luckily, I am privileged enough to be housesharing with an extremely friendly and generous couple (and their puppy).

Unluckily, their favourite TV show is Hollyoaks.

Now, I’m not judging those who enjoy trashy soaps – not at all. But Hollyoaks though? That’s the worst one!

So what do you do? Do you watch bad TV with wooden acting, farcical storylines, and awkward sets? Or do you hide in your bedroom, carry on learning to knit, and not bond with the people you’re sharing your living spaces with for the foreseeable future?

Honestly, it was a tough call to make. But I’m pretty bad at being on my own, so in the end, against all the odds, Hollyoaks won.

At first, I was just vaguely fascinated by how terrible the plots were, and how hilariously bad the acting was.

Then, I started to notice something odd.

First, two men in a relationship kissed without any particular fuss – the same everyday peck that we see between straight couples on TV all the time. Oh, I thought. How nice! I didn’t even realise they were together until the end of the scene, because they were talking about something completely different!

Then, I began to realise that there was also a love triangle between a third man. Brilliant! These two aren’t just together because they’re the only gay men on the show – the drama of the relationship doesn’t come from their sexuality alone, it comes from jealousy and affairs – just like all the other couples! Best of all, from my limited viewpoint, it didn’t seem like any of the LGBTQ characters were being portrayed with the usual stereotypes.

Later in the week, the same thing happened again – but this time with two teenage girls! As we have established by now: usually if female LGBTQ characters exist at all, they are almost always presented through the lens of a wider male fantasy, and are highly unrealistic as a result. But here they were, at 6.30pm on weeknight, right in front of my eyes! And once again, their storyline included mental health issues, fears for a relationship that is moving too fast, and parents catching them in compromising positions. All slightly hammy versions of the sort of issues teenagers face every day; but the girls’ sexuality itself wasn’t commented upon once!

It may seems like a relatively small complaint in a world where LGBTQ people people face physical threats and violence on a daily basis. But it’s all part of the same problem. The way certain identities are presented in the media is always going to significantly affect how we think about those identities. If we are only ever shown two or three varieties of gay relationships and characters, they will never be truly accepted by everyone. And the same goes for all oppressed minorities – the more variety we are able to see, the less they will be considered minorities at all.

For years I have been complaining that we need LGBTQ characters on our TVs whose sexuality is not their primary characteristic; and for years I’ve been continually disappointed. We are often drawn to anything that is new in the hope that, this time, it will have all the answers. But perhaps we are looking in all the wrong places – and something like Hollyoaks, which is so often dismissed for its low-budget, quotidian nature, has been giving us those answers for years.


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The internet is stupid: my existential ParaNorman crisis

So yesterday I did my first film review of the year for Concrete, the student newspaper that someone (for some reason) put me in charge of. I was super excited about it. A lot of what I’ve been doing since becoming editor involves answering emails and passing on the more interesting work to other people so that I can free up time to answer more emails. So when the film editors desperately needed a ParaNorman review at short notice, I jumped at the chance to go back to basics (and get a free trip to the cinema).

It was a pretty good film. There were better animations this summer (bravebravebrave) but overall it was funny and smart and cute.

Now for the angry ranting.

Before I went into the film, my housemate told me it was the first kids’ animation with an openly gay character. Awesome, I thought. I can totally write about that in my review!

In the end, I didn’t think it was really worth mentioning. The two “older sibling” characters are set up as a potential romance throughout the film (by which I mean the seemingly-shallow sister outrageously tries to get the attention of the oblivious older brother whose shoulders are four times as wide as his waist). After all the zombie shenanigans are over, she finally gets the courage to ask him to see a movie with her. He responds positively, and tells her that she’ll really like his boyfriend, who loves chick-flicks.

Awks.

I thought this was pretty cool, but ultimately not really something I wanted to write about when there was so much else going on – the storytelling, the humour, the cute stop animation effect. With only 200 words to play with, Mitch’s sexuality was not really relevant to my enjoyment of the film.

And then I started reading all of the other reviews people had written. My aforementioned housemate found this terrifying collection of responses from parents who were outraged at that one line which had very little to do with the rest of the plot. Let’s illustrate this point with a randomly selected sentence: “had to try explaining it to a nine year old that we hate the sin, love the sinner, and that some boys are just confused by their gender.” Followed by more exclamation marks than could fit in a single line of text.

God dammit, mothers on the internet.

My immediate response was to completely rewrite my own review in defence of a children’s film’s choice to not only include a gay character, but to include a gay character whose sexuality is of absolutely no consequence. Sort of like, you know, everyone in real life who is defined by more than one aspect of their identity, which is in itself a fluid and ever-changing process.

But then, after the second half of my review became a thinly-veiled backlash to the film’s politicised responses, I realised exactly what I had done. Part of what annoys me most about those other reviews is that they let something which shouldn’t even be important colour their whole opinion of the film. So by giving such a disproportionate amount of space to defending the action, I was really doing the same thing.

The fact that Mitch is gay is not a big deal. He admits it freely, and clearly no one else in the film has an issue with it. His line takes up maybe four seconds of screentime, in a film which is 92 minutes long (roughly 5,520 seconds). That means that Mitch’s sexuality makes up 0.072% of the movie.

I’m so mad about this issue that I did maths, you guys.

In the end, for me, or anyone else, to spend most of my supposedly objective review talking about 0.072% of a movie actually does it a disservice. And it politicises something which shouldn’t be political in the first place.

Chris Butler, who wrote and co-directed the film, had this to say on the matter when speaking to Indiewire: “I wanted it from the start, absolutely. It seemed like the best bookend to that whole tolerance thing and to do it as a joke, a kind of throwaway thing, but something that has NEVER been done before. I think we’re telling a story about intolerance, so you have to be brave about it.”

And he’s exactly right. It’s important that gay people are included across the media, and it may be even more important that their sexuality is portrayed as only a small part of their identity. Not every gay character on TV or in movies needs to struggle with coming out and defy ignorant bullies by spreading glitter and rainbows wherever they go. A lot of people just happen to also be gay, and that should be reflected too.

In the end, I took the response to the film’s responses out of my official 200 words. For me to rise to the unfairly negative reviews and focus on that one issue would just invalidate my own argument, and ignore everything else about the film which I enjoyed.

Cue angry blog post instead.


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Not quite the same thing: HBO’s Newsroom and my week at work experience

Stay classy.

This week, two significant things have happened to me so far:

1) I finally started work experience at my local paper.

2) I finally started watching HBO’s The Newsroom.

Now, I should point out that by “started watching”, what I mean is I watched all five episodes available so far in just two nights. For some reason, I can’t stand that much TV in a row when I’ve got nothing to do with my time, but going out and having a purpose makes me feel perfectly justified in coming home and doing nothing.

Plus, I need to entertain myself while I finish knitting the tea cosy I promised my aunt and uncle six months ago.

ALMOST THERE.

Anyway, it was only logical that while I am doing journalism again for a week, I should also start watching TV about journalists. You know, as inspiration in case the residents of my town suddenly decide to overthrow their local council and govern themselves in a quaint ex-manufacturing town revolution. Power to the people! If you don’t mow out our publicly-owned grass right, we will mow YOU right! (Note: I am pretty sure this hasn’t happened yet, and that if it did they would have better slogans.)

Despite my optimism, my newsroom and HBO’s portrayal of an American broadcasting newsroom are a little different. While Will informs America on primetime TV that BP has caused the biggest environmental disaster in many years, I inform the local area that a questionnaire is being sent out to pensioners and disabled people asking what they think of their free bus pass. I don’t write about the results, mind you. Just that it’s being sent out and here is how you can have your say.

There are some other key differences: Will gets paid millions; I do this for free (in fact, I am beginning to have nightmares where endless faceless figures chant “It will look great on your CV!” as they dangle a career on a stick in front of me, and I am left eating raw potatoes for all of my adult life). Their team tries to come up with the most accurate and moral way of informing a nation about complex international events; I try to think of puns about woodchipping. The staff in America are caught in a series of complex love triangles and rivalries; we throw grapes at each other across the desks.

(Side note: what is it with America and cute floppy-haired Jims tortured by unrequited love? I keep expecting Steve Carrell to show up and do an inappropriate impression of Gadaffi on national TV.)

Pam, is that you?

Basically, there are highs and lows each way. The point I’m trying to make is that I really enjoy them both so far. I love being at a proper local paper, and I’m actually learning a lot about what makes good news articles. And The Newsroom is also pretty fantastic. Did I mention it has Dev Patel being an adorable nerd? Because it does.

Plus it is well-written and intelligent and saying some cool things about journalism, even though a lot of journalists apparently hated it. But if my life does not end up like Mackenzie MacHale’s, I will just be really sad.

Maybe now that I’ve been spending so much time reading about local council decisions, I will also get around to catching up on Parks and Rec.


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“Kill them all!”: a first-ever post about endings

Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings recently – partly because another academic year is over (with only one left before “the real world” happens, whatever that includes – I am hoping for more wine and pizza), partly because all the TV finales just happened. Or, they happened a couple of weeks ago, but it’s a new blog. Please forgive my lateness.

As the idea of graduation next year is far too scary, I am just going to ignore it and complain about Glee.

Spoiler alert.

To set the scene, Glee used to be my absolute favourite thing on earth. (Songs! Jokes! Gays!) However, as even its most die-hard fans acknowledge, quite soon it began to slowly self-destruct until it reached the point at which racism and domestic abuse became episode themes, just in the same way that Lady Gaga and Madonna had tribute episodes in the good old days. But, while Gaga songs continued to be covered long after we first saw Kurt in a “likes boys” t-shirt, these sensitive issues were rarely revisited, and everything was handled about as well as Rachel Berry handles rejection.

Rachel grieves for the good old days.

So when season 3 finally ended, I was actually relieved. I’d been threatening to quit for months, but Glee was like a drug which, no matter how depressed it made you, was somehow too addictive to ignore. There were still characters I cared about, the songs were still catchy, and when it occasionally gets things right, it can be pretty great. Besides, my bedroom is covered in Glee merch people bought me when the madness was at its peak; I had to see this through.

The thing is, overall, the finale wasn’t that bad. I mean, sure, it was bad, but not in comparison to all the awkward storytelling and outright offensive decisions that had been made beforehand (remember when that episode about not stereotyping Latin America also introduced a character who was most commonly referred to as “black Sue”?)

And okay, there were a few dubious decisions. Spoiler warning: Rachel choked her audition to NYADA, apparently the only theatre school in the US, but still got in; meanwhile Kurt, who I assume is the only reason there are any viewers left at all, did a perfect audition and was rejected with no explanation. Also, Mercedes randomly got a recording contract without even trying, and apparently every minor character was actually a year younger than everybody else the entire time, because CONTINUITY.

This is an accurate Glee-watching face.

All in all, however, it was not as bad as it could have been. Yes, I refuse to watch it ever again because I just can’t take the skin-crawling agony any longer. But if a balance of emotions is what you’re after, there was enough bitterness in the finale to offset the sweetness – although I still threw up in my mouth a couple of times. It may not have made any logical sense, but if nothing else, it wasn’t just a long series of happy endings and people getting exactly what they want.

Unlike, for example, the train wreck that was the Desperate Housewives finale. (Spoilers.)

When the penultimate episode wrapped up an excellent season with mostly happy endings for all, I was convinced that the final episode would bring it all crashing down. After all, the show has never shied away from killing secondary characters, and now that it’s definitely not coming back, surely they would bump off at least one housewife in a freak accident? Right? The show’s popularity has come from its willingness to make those kinds of decisions.

Wrong. Everybody lived happily ever after, and went their separate ways. Who wants to watch that? What was the point of all the trauma that came before if everything ends up totally fine?

The thing is, dear readers, I’ve had a bit of a thing about killing off characters recently. Personally I blame Joss Whedon, and a conversation I had after watching Cabin in the Woods about how Toy Story 3 would have had a better ending if they’d all gone into that giant fire pit and then the credits had rolled.

(Just sit and think about that for a minute. What is the inevitable outcry that would have occurred in comparison to how absolutely fantastic an ending that would be?)

So. Damn. Fantastic.

Thanks to Whedon and all the years I spent watching Buffy and Firefly, nothing is emotional any more unless your favourite character is senselessly murdered, just to remind you that happiness can only ever be temporary, and the world is a place of totally random needless violence.

After all, if you’re not being reminded of your own mortality in your downtime, what is even the point?

And that is why, people of the internet, I am going to start watching Game of Thrones instead.

Wish me luck.