Netflix has, undoubtedly, burst onto the scene of the movie and television world as one of the front-running producers of content there is. Ranging from comedy specials to old classics, original series and made-for-Netflix movies, the former grocery store DVD dispensary has it all. It’s hip and youthful, which adds mightily to its popularity and allows its products to virally explode. Two recent productions- the one-episode Black Mirror special titled Bandersnatch, and the movie Bird Box- have done just that, and they have something in common; they both deal with mental illness. Not only that, but they do so with just about the elegance of a niffler.
I enjoyed these productions on the surface. Bandersnatch was creepy and philosophically fascinating, while Bird Box elicited a similar, though more disgusted reaction in me. However, when I spent just a bit of time considering how the mentally ill characters, and mental illness in general, were depicted, I admit to losing my taste for the films, just a smidge. Let’s start with Bird Box.
The basic premise of the movie, though you’ve likely already seen it and remember it better than I do, is that the world has been overtaken by some dark entity that, when it embeds itself into you, makes people see things that immediately compel them to kill themselves. It spreads very quickly and by sight, meaning that if your eyes are open, you’re susceptible. Those who survive do so by boarding themselves indoors. Simple enough.
Unfortunately, among one of the more useless and harmful plots of the movie is its creation of a foil to the average victim of the entity; the mentally ill population. Around halfway through the film, the protagonist and her gang of survivors, who have hunkered down into a safe routine in a suburban McMansion, are interrupted by a strange man in a suit. The man begs to be let in and is granted entry by a sweet, emotionally susceptible woman. We later learn that this man is an escapee of a nearby mental institution and that his mission is to force open the eyes of normal folks, making them see and be invaded by the entity, to immediately kill themselves. The man, and others like him, believe “seeing” to be the ultimate freedom.
According to this plot construction, the protagonists, the good folks, the ones you root for, are neurotypical. They don’t want to die and they have no mental/emotional afflictions. This would have been acceptable if the movie didn’t needlessly introduce an evil actor other than the obvious suicide-inducing entity. The mentally ill, those who hail from mental institutions, are the second set of bad guys! They want to spread their affliction to others, force normal people to be like them. What weirdos, right? How dangerous they are.
Of course, this spits in the face of not only mentally ill folks, but science and data. Severely mentally ill folks are up to eleven times more likely than the average person to be a victim of a violent crime, and the link between violence and the mentally ill as perpetrators is murky at best. All that this portrayal does is perpetuate the root of many a horror movie; senseless, unpredictable, unpreventable violence. Whether slasher, supernatural, satirical, or anything in between, most horror movies come down to this universally frightening premise; you can be hurt at any time, anywhere. A common perception of mentally ill folks is that they are wild and unpredictable, and to a scriptwriter with little regard for the perpetuation of those unfair stereotypes, the association is easy and effective horror fodder.
The trouble is, that harmful association has now been viewed by eighty million Netflix “member households,” and counting. The Bird Box challenge has gone viral, and memes about the movie abound. Not only will neurotypical people consume the movie and, whether subconsciously or consciously, internalize the message that mentally ill people are to be feared, but mentally ill people will watch the movie and feel even more alienated than being a member of everyday society already makes them.
And now, to Bandersnatch. I personally thought this Black Mirror spinoff is a much cooler concept than Bird Box, with its main premise and conflict not even being about mental illness, necessarily, but on the real consequences of the mysterious multiverse theory. I was first introduced to the multiverse theory, a subset of string theory, by Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and futurist who has given some popular talks on the subject.
I’m possibly butchering this explanation, and here is the link to Kaku’s version, but the multiverse theory essentially says that the Big Bang was, in fact, a splitting of universes, and that there is an infinite number of universes in existence. Logically, this means that there is a universe in which every scenario you can possibly imagine for universal existence is true.
From this springs Bandersnatch. The story goes that there is a nineteen year old boy named Stefan who is something of a programming, video game making prodigy. From this simple setup springs a long list of potential outcomes for the show, because in a novel twist, Netflix allows the viewer to choose a few dozen courses of action for our dear Stefan. They range from benign “yes” and “no” to following a friend to “kill dad,” and Stefan is clearly suffering from some form of psychosis, a condition that is accompanied by his treatment by a therapist (slash psychiatrist?) and resulting medication.
Many of the actions that the viewer can select lead back to the beginning, or back to before the action needed to be taken. For example, when I was given the choice to “kill Dad” or “back off,” backing off led to a tame result that was a dead end of sorts; the show rewound itself back to the same choice, and unless I wanted to see the same outcome that I just watched, I had to click “kill dad.” Before all of the killing and chopping up takes place, however, a perhaps more troublesome plotline is presented to the audience.
The ultimate goal in the series is for the video game that Stefan is designing to be a success. If the audience chooses an outcome that leads to a game that gets poor reviews, the show rewinds and has you pick again. The choices that lead to a successful game launch all involve Stefan refusing medication, spurning his well intentioned and worried father, skipping therapy, and burrowing himself into his work and delusions. These acts are depicted as the only way that Stefan is able to eventually succeed in what is billed as the ultimate goal; produce a hit game. If he takes his medication, the game fails. If he listens to his father or goes to therapy, the show restarts.
This goes back to a trope that I’ve discussed before, and one that I believe to be significantly harmful to the mentally ill community; that of the “tortured genius” who is only able to produce art for others’ awed and appreciative consumption if they sacrifice their sanity to do it, for the more insane the artist, the more groundbreaking, the more original the work.
It should go without saying that art that comes at the expense of the artist’s sanity isn’t art at all, it is a cry for help and should be rejected by the art loving community. Mentally healthy people are perfectly capable of producing good works of art. The “Van Gogh Syndrome” is nothing but a societal go-ahead for artists to neglect their mental health in favor of achieving notoriety and riches.
How does it make you feel when you consider that Starry Night was painted while its creator was deeply suffering? Would it make you feel confident in your choice to play Bandersnatch if you knew that its maker was only able to produce it because he was slipping into a psychotic state? In one of the outcomes, the murder of Stefan’s father is discovered and the game is pulled from shelves, but if it came out that Stefan was simply hospitalized or ill, no such recall would have occurred. It takes violence, the very violence that is caricatured in Bird Box, to make mentally ill people disgusting, dangerous, in need of quarantine. Until that point, they are invisible unless they can produce brilliant works for public consumption. Even then, they’re fetishized, as Vincent Van Gogh and his sorrowful demise is.
I’m not going to tell you not to enjoy such shows and movies. I enjoyed them myself, and they’re perhaps inevitable. I simply ask of you not to take their depictions of mental illness to heart. The mentally ill people that you surely know do not act violently, and science says that the general community doesn’t, either. Not only that, but the mentally ill deserve recovery and to be able to be their true, healthy selves.
So please, don’t be like Stefan. Take your damn medication; who you are, with the right medication, is who you truly are, and no viral art is worth the erosion of that.