It is easy to find mentally ill characters in pop culture. There’s the casual alcoholism of the titular character in Archer; and the revolving door of the sanitarium constantly admitting and releasing characters in Pretty Little Liars. Orange is the New Black has Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, whose very name shows the stigma mental illness still has, and Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, who punctures her eardrum in an anxious compulsion to get her ear completely clean. The characters in Silver Linings Playbook find that love conquers all, even mental illness, and The Dark Knight’s Batman battles the schizophrenic Joker. The examples go on and on.
While there are exceptions, portrayals of mental illness are cartoonish, based on caricatures. The mentally ill are villains or victims. They are homeless. They are violent. Their mental illness is a story arc, there one season and gone the next. Sometimes it is a gag, played for laughs. Ultimately, it is a plot device to provide dramatic tension or move the narrative in a certain direction.
I closely watch these depictions of mental illness, thinking of conversations with friends who have OCD, family members working in social services, coworkers with anxiety. I’ve heard so much about mental illness, but the on-screen depictions rarely match what it’s like off-screen and in real life.
For my birthday, my boyfriend gave me a book called Big Hard Sex Criminals. It’s ten issues of comics about Suzie and Jon, a couple who stop time when they orgasm. Naturally, they use this ability to rob a bank and steal money for Suzie’s library.
Judging from its cover, it would not be expected to yield insight on anything, much less mental health. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home it is not.
Image: Matt Fraction.
It is funny and it is obscene, but it also tackles some serious topics: rape, safe sex, porn. It shines when addressing these topics in entertaining ways. Desperate to learn about sex, a young Suzie turns to the resident middle school dirty girl, who teaches her about sex acts such as bloobing and swaffling. At an appointment with an attractive gynecologist, Suzie’s imagination turns a lesson on birth control into a striptease.
Well into the volume, Jon tells Suzie he has ADHD and a related mental disorder called Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I paused when I read this. I knew it was a big part of why my boyfriend had chosen the book for me.
Michael has had depression for years. When he is himself, he is funny, engaging, and outgoing. When he’s in a “slump,” as he calls them, he fades away. He is blunter and less affectionate. Since we have been together, I have read every article on depression I have come across, trying to better understand. And I have started to evaluate every portrayal of mental illness the media presents me, sizing them up with the same intensity of someone on a first date. Are you what I’m looking for?
Like me, Suzie reads up on Jon’s disorders, trying to learn what she can about things she has never experienced. Then the mental illness thread recedes to the background for a bit amidst all the orgasms and bank robbing. But it returns when Jon takes himself off his medications and stops going to therapy.
Michael once told me that depression is apathy. This sounds innocuous until thinking it through. What if you were apathetic about your friends? About seeing your family? Making it to your job? Feeding yourself? Existing at all?
Big Hard Sex Criminals conveys this apathy in frames where Jon is grey while everything else around him is colour. The grey is the nothingness, the apathy.
While Suzie drives Jon to the therapist and is supportive as he gets the help he needs, the comic portrays Jon’s mental illness as his, something he navigates on his own. Suzie and Jon may be able to wander their strange orgasm world together, but they can’t take on his mental health as a couple; that is something Jon must do on his own. When Jon backslides, Suzie moves out of his apartment.
The scene in the gynecologist’s office opens with Suzie describing her decision to leave. I wonder how quickly she made it. “I don’t want to fix anybody,” she says, looking up at the reader from her position in the stirrups. He has to take care of himself, she asserts.
Which is true. I can’t fix Michael’s depression and I can’t take the burden of his self-care upon myself. It doesn’t work. I occasionally, tentatively ask if he’s remembered to take his meds in the mornings, and I make sure he has regular meals when I’m around, but I try to quell the impulse to fix him. There is no fix. He does the heavy lifting, knowing there are only things that make it a bit better. Sometimes when he does enough of those things, it is a lot better. Sometimes it isn’t.
Suzie and Jon reconcile. They go on a quest to find others who can stop time like them. Jon goes to therapy, and Suzie meets him afterward. He’s no longer grey, but the colours in the frame are muted tones of green and brown. He’s tired when he says, “It’s hard but it’s probably worth it.”
Suzie doesn’t respond, because there is no response to that.
It’s hard to depict mental illness, whether in a graphic novel or a movie. As Vox’s Todd VanDer Werff put it, “Comedies are supposed to resolve in punchlines, and depression is irresolvable.” In his view, Jimmy and Gretchen navigating Gretchen’s depression on FXX’s comedy You’re the Worst is one of TV’s best portrayals of clinical depression. VanDer Werff’s wife is clinically depressed and he sees her in Gretchen. My boyfriend sees himself in Gretchen, too.
You’re the Worst and Big Hard Sex Criminals know mental illness is not a story arc that can be neatly resolved. They know it isn’t cured by true love, and that it influences everything.
I need Big Hard Sex Criminals and You’re the Worst to understand my relationship. I need to see Suzie reading up on disorders she never knew existed, and Jimmy saying to Gretchen: “I still can’t understand. Can you explain it to me?” These scenes show me I’m not alone as I try to love someone going through something I don’t fully understand, something that will always be part of his life, and now part of mine for as long as we are together.
It’s encouraging to see comedies presenting something I can relate to. They show that while depression influences every aspect of life, sometimes it doesn’t. Like Suzie and Jon and Jimmy and Gretchen, Michael and I have a full relationship, with stupid fights and hilarious conversations and all the highs and lows and humour that accompany other relationships. It’s just the lows are a bit more frequent and a bit lower.
Big Hard Sex Criminals shows pop culture can represent mental illness well, in ways that empathize with how hard it is. I want more of these portrayals. It’s hard, but it’s definitely worth it.