BOOK REVIEW: Stephen Harper (2009) Madness, Power, and the Media: Class, Gender and Race in Popular Representations of Mental Distress. Palgrave Macmillan.
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 are still used to ‘manage’ social deviants and political rebels. Examples include: the eugenics purges of the 1930s, the Nazi Holocaust, and the designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
The media villainize and also romanticize ‘mental illness’ with the image of the hero, driven mad by suffering, who lashes out against an oppressive social order.
…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 portrays the ‘mentally ill’ as victims in order to expand the market for profitable 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.
Harper challenges both the media portrayal of the ‘mentally ill’ as more violent as well as those who argue that they are not violent.
There is… a clear link between violence and poverty…People 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 the ruling class. 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 comic, tragic, heroic, criminal, vulnerable, violent, admirable, despicable, endearing, and threatening. Harper also provides a detailed discussion of how men’s and women’s magazines handle mental distress differently, while both obscure the social sources of distress.
When it comes to treating mental distress, the media promote individual solutions and the personal cultivation of happiness while excluding any discussion of social change.
Harper is a marxist who views mental distress as a reasonable response to social inequality, insecurity, and alienation. He rightly questions how psychological ‘balance’ can be achieved in a context of unequal social relations. Identifying capitalism rather than neoliberalism as the problem, he 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)
Harper has organized a huge amount of material into a comprehensive social context that is both sensitive and astute. The downside of his book lies in its academic language and its expense. Both limit its readership. This is unfortunate, because the ideas it contains should be widely discussed.
Stephen Harper is a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK.