Elements of a hip “teen girl wasteland” culture saturate the tumblr dashboards for many young millennials. Posts promote a blasé attitude in conjunction with a carefree yet curated style. However, some bloggers tread into what they perceive to be darker territory when their posts include odes to teen suicide on pastel backgrounds à la Virgin Suicides, satirical quotes pasted on images of celebrity “breakdowns,” and stills from films such as Girl, Interrupted. These entries intertwine “fashion,” celebrity worship, and “breakdown” into a social media phenomenon that callously builds on the existing structural oppression of mentalism: that is, discrimination against people who have or are perceived to have mental health conditions. Tumblr bloggers who post these entries perpetuate an insensitive romanticism as well as a public rubbernecking of people experiencing severe psychiatric episodes.
Perhaps these bloggers seek some kind of cultural catharsis. Or perhaps they feel completely disconnected from the conditions and experiences their posts portray. Others too, may have themselves romanticized the mental states that color their daily lives. Whatever the case may be, this reverence for some kind of sarcastic grunge-girl culture both romanticizes and subtly mocks lived experiences of severe mental health conditions. This trend demonstrates entrenched sanist or mentalist attitudes in a mass society abound with insensitivity, stereotypes, and ignorance regarding people with mental health conditions. These attitudes leave little room for the public to examine sociopolitical structures of mentalist oppression in conversation with those who experience them.
On “Crazy” and Mentalist Semantics
The word “crazy” is often used in many relatively innocuous ways. For example, in Britney Spears’s beloved pop song “You Drive Me Crazy,” she sings of her experience as a 90’s love-struck teen. In “Crazy in Love,” Jay-Z raps about his feelings for Beyoncé in describing what friends say about his comportment: “Crazy and deranged/They can’t figure him out/They like hey is he insane.” Though this song is quite innocent, “deranged” and “insane” are incredibly loaded words and walk a fine line between fun rap and sanism. Employing “crazy” truly enters mentalist territory when one uses it in characterizing someone struggling with a mental health condition.
Britney Spears’s highly visible–and summarily mocked–mental issues surfaced on and off between 2006 and 2008. She went to rehab several times and in January 2008 Spears was placed on a 5150 psychiatric hold. A 5150 psychiatric hold allows for a hospital to hold a person involuntarily if the individual is deemed a harm to themselves or others. Using “crazy” to mock a person experiencing a severe mental health condition (such as one that requires a 5150 hold) serves as a sanist slur.
Of course tumblr users are not the only ones guilty of mentalist linguistics. Besides using words like “crazy,” “psycho,” or “basket case” to describe both those experiencing mental conditions and those who do not, public figures or news sources like The Atlantic use diagnostic labels such as “bipolar” or “schizophrenic” as descriptors for a variety of topics having nothing to do with mental health conditions. These diagnoses are never used in a positive way. In 2010, Senator Lindsey Graham referred to President Obama’s State of the Union address as “a little schizophrenic at times.” He went on to “urge the President to be more consistent in his tone.” Here “schizophrenic” describes an erratic way of forming and communicating one’s thoughts in a political speech and has nothing to do with the experiences or actual symptoms of schizophrenia. In a 2012 article reviewing Nicky Minaj’s album “Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded,” journalist Spencer Kornhaber writes, “Nicki Minaj isn’t crazy, but she acts like she is…. When rapping, she caterwauls from valley-girl scoff to Count Chocula bellow. When singing, she veers from competent croon to a purposefully incompetent karaoke warble. But Minaj’s new album is getting labeled “bipolar” and “schizophrenic” for none of these reasons. Yes, she, as usual, feigns crazy, but the really disconcerting thing is the breadth of the record.” By comparing the elements of a Nicki Minaj album to these disorders and attempting to line up her singing styles to certain kinds of perceived symptomatic highs and lows, the description only perpetuates ignorance on what these conditions involve. This review draws on metaphoric conclusions between the imagined symptoms of these conditions and—that word again—“crazy.” These kinds of misguided semantics only underscore the lack of knowledge and sensitivity around mental health conditions in the media and public discourse at large.
Obsession with Celebrity “Breakdowns”
Armed with the semantics of sanism, the media rabidly “reports” on celebrity mental “breaks” and these stories are rampant throughout tumblr. Images of celebrity “breakdown darlings” Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Bynes are presented in the forms of various kinds of collages, photos, or kitsch.
A few examples include:
All of these celebrities have experienced varying kinds of inpatient psychiatric treatment for issues such as substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Celebrity gossip is one thing but posting images of t-shirts, iPhone cases, and “art prints” which depict human beings in the throes of a mental health struggle is abhorrent and offensive. When bloggers gawk and jest about the celebrity’s symptomatic behavior they mock the behavior and severe struggles that millions of Americans experience.
Perhaps the most recently offensive “news coverage” and popular tumblr topic was that surrounding Amanda Bynes’s behavior leading to her hospitalization (following a 5150 hold.) She was later diagnosed as having symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Tumblr users pounced on the opportunity to create images almost idolizing Bynes’s struggle as a piece of apathetic kitschy tableau. Users continue to reblog these images today, well after her diagnosis.
These posts promote a cultural commodization of people with mental health conditions, particularly a cultural commodization of women with mental health conditions. Here mentalism and sexism intersect and play on essentialist notions that female-identified people are naturally prone to more extreme emotional behaviors. Furthermore, the concept that behaviors such as irritability or delusions stem from one’s female identified status blatantly ignores the fact that some of these behaviors are symptoms of serious mental health conditions. It is both sexist and sanist to state that these behaviors occur solely due to one’s gender identity.
Examining the intersectionality of sexism and mentalism through the lens of celebrity “break downs” is complicated further when one turns to recent male celebrity “break downs.” 19-year-old singer Justin Bieber was recently charged with drunk driving and a toxicology report revealed a mix of alcohol and prescription drugs. Many talk show hosts and newscasters have mocked his behaviors, saying, “boys will be boys.” Bieber’s behavior suggests potential substance abuse concerns but figures in the media brush away any severity of the behaviors. In discounting the possibility of substance abuse issues, the media in this example characterizes male substance abuse as a non-event that both invalidates male experiences of mental health conditions and demonstrates that female celebrities who exhibit similar behaviors receive harsher scrutiny.
Romanticizing Hospitalization and Suicide
In depicting psychiatric hospitalizations, tumblr posters often focus on an aesthetic; those with mental health conditions become stock characters or caricatures of some kind. In these images we see the fallen starlet, the misunderstood grunge girl, or any number of “troubled” female teen/twenty something tropes (and these being generally straight, white, cis women). One such example comes from a tumblr account titled “Teen Suicide Superstar” (teensuicide.tumblr.com). Accounts such as this one focus on certain aesthetics associated with individuals with mental health conditions as they appear in paparazzi photos and film stills from movies and novels like The Virgin Suicides, Girl, Interrupted, or It’s Kind of a Funny Story.
The following post from thestylecult.tumblr.com references the bracelets that a character from The Virgin Suicides wears over bandages from self-inflicted harm. The caption to the post reads: “Here are some totez rad DIY bracelets inspired by The Virgin Suicides, one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s pretty self-explanatory, just some basic preschooler beadwork. They’re super 90z and you’ll be looking kewl when you’re rocking a piece of Cecelia Lisbon’s accessory collection.”
By focusing on the “cuteness” of these troubled, bejeweled virgins, tumblr posters situate themselves outside of the reality of suicide. Last year in the U.S., 713,000 people went to the emergency room for self-inflicted injury, and 38,364 people committed suicide. In focusing on the “grunge” aesthetic of characters played by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, visible effects brought on by a mental health condition are painted as a form of “style” of some kind. Outside of these films, a person in a psychiatric facility may look “grungy” due to dangerous self-neglect or harm, or even neglect from staff (as evidenced by recent deaths in Massachusetts psychiatric facilities.)
In this Tumblr film still of Jolie, the hashtags “beautiful, grunge, crazy, and pale” sum up a superficial view of a mental health condition, punctuated by mentalist linguistics.
Emma Roberts in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Here she’s pictured in a psychiatric inpatient unit where she meets a crush.
These examples illuminate the dearth of knowledge amongst a general public that both admonishes behaviors associated with mental health conditions and idolizes them as a foundation for a #beautiful #grunge look. Furthermore, by focusing on young white waifs and celebrities experiencing psychosis, we never fully explore the rampant nature of mentalism in our society, nor how mentalism interacts with other forms of oppression.
Not all discussions of mental health on tumblr (or the internet at large) are detrimental. Blogs and message boards can facilitate empowering conversations among people with mental health conditions. They can assist in opening up dialogue among the community at large on how to better address stigmas. However, when we gawk at, laugh at, or even “glamorize” experiences of mental health struggles we perpetuate stigmas, essentialize people according to both their diagnoses and their gender identities, and move away from discussing true experiences of living with mental health concerns. We cannot begin to move forward in dismantling mentalism as a form of structural oppression if we continue to dwell on the outer aesthetics of what we think people with mental conditions look like instead of who they are, the intersecting identities they hold, and the real experiences they have.
Image Courtesy of Tumblr