In my last post, I highlighted a particularly glamorised portrayal of mental illness – that of the depression suffered by the Lisbon sisters in the film ‘The Virgin Suicides’ – and the potential consequences of this kind of portrayal. The film’s director and producer might argue that theirs was an artistic, dramatic choice; that their responsibilities end when the credits roll. But there are ways to pursue a more accurate portrayal of mental illness without sacrificing entertainment and dramatic integrity.
It is no secret that terms relating to mental illness have increasingly become carelessly and clumsily tossed around by the general public. Some are a little more forgiving than others; we understand when someone says they are “depressed” after the season finale of their favourite TV series that they are not actually suffering from clinical depression, and that experiencing anxiety before presenting to a room-full of people is not the same as possessing a diagnosis. That being said, you can’t help but flinch a little when words like “schizo,” “bipolar” or even “autistic” are too casually thrown around. [Ed. – see Thalia’s recent post on the language of mental health for more on this].
One in particular that I heave heard all too often is “OCD.” The term is an acronym intended to refer to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but has become casually interchangeable with adjectives such as “organized,” or “very clean.” This is done with every intention of remaining light-hearted and is often used in a joking sense but, considering the gravity of such an illness, misusing the term is the first step onto a slippery slope. Those who suffer from it are then immediately brushed off, and their symptoms are simply diminished to quirks and “strange habits”.
The reality of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be a bleak one. It is characterized by anxiety caused by obsessions that take the form of thoughts, doubts, ruminations, mental images and perfectionism. As is often seen in stereotypical depictions of OCD, to relieve this anxiety, an OCD sufferer will engage in a number of compulsions such as excessively counting, repeating words or actions, and going through rituals like washing your hands or checking that switches are turned off. This is done with the irrational understanding that engaging in such behavior will rid the person of their obsessions, and keep them “safe” from imagined consequences. Understandably, feeling compelled to carry out these actions in numerous situations can make daily tasks unmanageable and potentially disrupt a person’s life. This disruption, despite arguably being the key element to the diagnosis of OCD, remains an aspect frequently ignored in mainstream depictions of the illness.
All too often we are presented in cinema with funny, quirky characters that are meant to embody the symptoms of OCD, but instead end up ridiculing it (think, overly clean and fun-loving Monica from Friends, or the excessively fastidious “defective detective,” Monk from Monk). When the HBO hit series Girls therefore released an episode where its protagonist, Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham), is shown experiencing the symptoms of her OCD during a stressful period in her life, it was finally the accurate portrayal of OCD in cinema that we needed. Instead of the show brushing over this mental episode, and reducing her experience to simple passing feeling , Girls dedicates the last chapter of the second season to an unapologetic account of the ugly truth behind OCD.
It begins by offering a realistic setting for the manifestation of Hannah’s symptoms. Hannah finds herself at a difficult point in her life after ending a strained relationship with her recovering alcoholic boyfriend, distancing herself from her friends when she realizes they are getting further ahead than she is, and slowly breaking under the pressure of a looming publishing deadline that she cannot realistically make. We understand in seeing her in this tough position that OCD recurrences can increase in high-stress situations, making it difficult not to empathize with Hannah when we realize it is in her lowest, most vulnerable moments that her mental illness strikes hard. This empathy translates into a very real, hard-hitting message; supporting sufferers of OCD is crucial.
As is typical of Girls, Hannah does not aim to embody the stereotypical popularized but highly unrealistic image of a 20-something-year-old living in New York City, who despite being fresh out of college and very inexperienced in the world, finds a way to glide effortlessly in NYC, landing dream jobs and living in large apartments. Instead, Girls removes all the glamour of life in New York, and replaces it with the reality; in the first season alone, we are presented with controversial scenes touching on issues of STDs, sexual harassment, and abortion. The show therefore does not disappoint, when it accurately portrays the content of obsessions occasionally experienced in OCD. Obsessions can range from homicidal to pedophilic thoughts, and therefore would normally be a taboo in television. Girls is however known to blatantly ignore taboos, and we see that especially in the scene where Hannah confesses to her therapist that the nature of her obsessions are often sexual, making her feel deeply ashamed of herself and her actions. Again, instead of taking the safe route and providing us with a more fun-loving OCD character who arranges ribbons and organizes folders, we are hit with the unspoken truth, and forced to discuss a subject rarely tackled in cinema.
The key scene in Girls’ ruthlessly raw portrayal of OCD is the horrifically cringey “cotton bud scene.” In it, we see Hannah cleaning her ear out in the middle of her dimly-lit, dingy bathroom, when her obsessions creep in, and unable to stop herself, begins to aggressively dig the cotton bud into her ear, damaging her ear drum. We are then left to watch in horror as despite her pain, struggling, and fear, she is forced to take a second ear bud and shove it it into her other ear, as a result of her uncontrollable need for symmetry. Hannah is forced to walk herself to the emergency room, barefoot and still in her pyjamas. The scene is so painful that we are left realizing a crucial message; having OCD is not merely “inconvenient,” but actually life threatening.
The episode wraps up in perhaps a cornier way than expected, with Hannah’s ex-boyfriend running across New York City to be by her side, when he realizes she is re-experiencing her OCD. In an episode so dark, however, an ending like this one was most definitely welcome. The scene then ends with her knight-in-shining-armor handing her her medication, and reassuring her that he will be there to support her.
The take-home message remains powerful. The ugly truth behind a serious mental illness is done justice, with the show making sure that nothing gets in the way in the most brutal portrayal possible. This was my first confrontation with a less sugar-coated image of OCD, and I can imagine it to be the same for many people who watch the episode. I think this is therefore a perfect example of cinema at its best; sparking discussion, reaching a wide audience, and providing this audience with an important message.