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Madness, Power and the Media

Madness, Power and the Media

by Susan Rosenthal

BOOK REVIEW: Madness, Power and the Media: Class, Gender and Race in Popular Representations of Mental Distress (2009), by Stephen Harper*, Palgrave Macmillan, 240 pages, $68 (USD)

Madness is best understood in relation to its social, political and economic contexts rather than the medical model of ‘mental illness.’ (p.1)

With this opening salvo, author Stephen Harper expertly challenges common assumptions about mental distress and how it is portrayed in the media.

Madness, Power and the Media situates mental distress in a historical context,

Designating mental illness as a punishable abdication of God-given reason, the Christian Bible can be seen as the earliest ‘media text’ to stigmatize mental illness. (p.2)

As Foucault observed, while ‘mad behavior’ has been documented for centuries, the ‘mad person’ was created by the 19th century practice of incarcerating those displaying such behavior. Harper concludes, “psychiatry constituted a powerful means of ideological and physical containment” (p.5).

As early as the 14th Century, psychiatric labels were used to discredit social revolt.

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, for example, was described within official discourse as an outbreak of diabolical madness which threatened to overturn the supposedly natural and divinely ordained feudal hierarchy. (p.2)

Psychiatric diagnoses continue to be used to persecute and incarcerate social and political rebels (i.e., the 1930s eugenics purges in the US, the UK and Nazi Germany and the designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s).

Alongside the religious condemnation of madness, there also developed a secular image of the hero, driven mad by suffering, who rebels against an oppressive social order. As a result, the media not only equates madness with violence, but also with genius and understandable responses to oppression or persecution (Pi).

The media can both villainize and romanticize mental illness.

…by embracing a sense of victimhood and vulnerability, Western culture has succumbed to an infantilising celebration of mental fragility, a development which undermines the capacity of human subjects to take control of their lives or to engage in political activity. (p.7)

Harper cites television series (Profit) and movies (American Psycho) to show how the media sometimes uses individual madness to illustrate the insanity of the capitalist system. These media

… feature conscience-free anti-heroes who epitomize the values of corporate capitalism and who are nonetheless – or perhaps therefore – merciless killers. (p.6)

While the State raises the spectre of the ‘mad rebel,’ the pharmaceutical industry prefers to portray mental illness sympathetically, and the mentally ill as victims, in order to expand the market for its remedies.

Madness, Power and the Media is unique among the many books that address these issues, because it

…attempts not simply to applaud or condemn media and film images of madness as ‘positive’ or ‘ negative’ from the inevitably narrow perspective of medical discourse, but to also understand how these images can underline or reinforce the unequal relations of class, race and gender which characterize contemporary capitalist societies. (p.7)

Harper emphasizes that the media portray mental distress differently depending on the race, gender and social class of the sufferer, and these portrayals reinforce class, race and gender oppressions.

Madness in men and upper-class individuals tends to be portrayed as more heroic and creative (Shine) than madness in women, which is shown as more tragic and irrational (The Hours) and madness in working-class individuals, who are typically portrayed as social rejects and deranged killers.

With the odd exception (The Soloist), non-white characters rarely appear as protagonists on television and in films that feature mental distress, even though visible minorities are disproportionately represented in psychiatric institutions.

I especially appreciated the way that Harper challenges both the media portrayal of the mentally ill as more violent (which has no social context) and those who protest that they are not violent (which also ignores social context).

There is… a clear link between violence and poverty…[P]eople suffering with mental distress often belong to a lower social class than those who do not; their higher rates of violent behaviour might therefore be explained in terms of their frustration or anger at their lack of social power… Understanding violence as a response to social coercion is strategically useful, dislodging the stigmatizing notion of violence as an individual act of evil. (p.46)

Harper contrasts the violence of the mentally ill individual with the systemic violence perpetrated by politicians (war, imprisonment, unemployment, strike-breaking, poverty, etc.).  While these ‘pillars of society’ are considered sane, they are far more dangerous to society. He concludes that violence can be both oppressive and liberatory, depending on which social class is wielding it and for what purpose.

On reading this book, one is struck by the extent to which mental distress is featured in film, television and print media and the different ways that it is portrayed – as comedic, tragic, heroic, criminal, vulnerable, violent, admirable, despicable, endearing and threatening.

When it comes to treating mental distress, the media universally promote individual solutions and the personal cultivation of happiness while excluding any discussion of social change.

Harper provides a detailed and informative discussion of how men’s and women’s magazines handle mental distress differently, while both obscure the social sources of distress.

As a Marxist, Harper views mental distress as a reasonable response to social inequality, insecurity and alienation, and he questions how psychological equilibrium can be achieved in a context of unequal social relations. He identifies capitalism, rather than neoliberalism, as the problem and argues,

…for the suppression rather than the reform of capitalism; alienation and poverty are structural features of capitalism itself rather than the side-effects of any particular phase of its development. (p.198)

Madness, Power and the Media is rich in detailed, thought-provoking analysis. Harper has done an excellent job of organizing a huge amount of material into a comprehensive social context that is both sensitive and astute.

The biggest problem with this book is its academic language and price ($68) which limit its readership. This is unfortunate, because the ideas contained in Madness, Power and the Media should be broadly discussed among working-class readers who can solve the problems it identifies.

*Stephen Harper is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

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