Roxanne: Regarding Girl, Interrupted ‘s success as a mainstay in stylistic film, few people realize that it is also based on the actual accounts of Susanna Kaysen, a patient at McLean hospital for two years. What makes Kaysen’s memoirs so relevant is also the background story of this era. The 1960’s, can be cited as one of the most pivotal times in American feminism, as it was the brink of the radical feminist movement. Among other ideologies, feminism focused on dismantling workplace inequality, such as denial of access to better jobs and salary inequity, via anti-discrimination laws. Thus, this time period can be marked as a feat in moving away from inequality and oppression.
Colleen: Girl Interrupted gives a lighter shade of the mental health system during the 1960s, with Valerie (Whoopi Goldberg), a nurse, and the staff that accompanies her as mental health professionals who were, for the most part, just trying to help. Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) is sent to Claymoore, a psychiatric hospital, after a suicide attempt that is triggered by a sexual assault. Coincidentally, in Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, Ester Greenwood, is assaulted while she is living in an urban area, and is later brought to a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. While in Claymoore, Susanna befriends another patient, Lisa Rowe (Angelina Jolie), after she first gets a taste of Lisa’s antics—Lisa is brought back to the hospital after she escapes and, after spotting Susanna in her new room within the ward, beside Georgina (Clea Duvall), proceeds to scream at Susanna “Where’s Jamie?!” She is quickly subdued by the staff, attendants that were meant to protect patients and staff from the more “violent” patients, with a syringe. Another patient, Polly (Elizabeth Moss), explains, matter-of-factly, “Jamie was Lisa’s best friend. She was sad last week when Lisa ran away, so she hung herself with a volleyball net.” To many patients, in this film, and in the real world, these were everyday occurrences within a psychiatric hospital, whether it was the extreme of suicide or another form of mental stress, instability, and/or breakdown. Roxanne: The story focuses on wounded, ‘emotional’ young women, which perpetuated the stereotype of the teenage female in current media. The characters that Susanna meets in the institution suffer from self- harming tendencies, eating disorders, and erratic, and non-conventional behaviors. As the story progresses, the audience is able to see that many of these “illnesses” that these women suffer from began after experiencing traumatic, violent events at the hands of the men in their lives. Additionally, many of the characters began to show symptoms of psychiatric disorders as a result of not fitting in to the social systems that were so elegantly laid out for women at the time. For instance, Kaysen is diagnosed as having “borderline personality disorder,” but these symptoms also coincidentally mimic a woman resisting and reacting to harmful restrictions placed upon her. This includes, but is not limited to; impulsiveness that is potentially self-damaging , recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior and inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger, as listed by the DSM IV. Colleen: While reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, one can see that the female protagonist, Jane, is apparently abused as a child, by her aunt and cousins—she is tormented in the “Red Room,” locked in by the fear of entrapment. After Jane is sent to Lowood, a school for girls, she is also subjected to unreasonable torment by the male in charge, Mr. Brocklehurst, including standing on a stool for an unreasonable amount of time, after she is unrightfully called a “liar,” as a form of punishment. She befriends Helen Burns, another orphan, who later dies of consumption in Jane’s arms. Helen teaches Jane the importance of forgiving those who have done wrong to her and prioritizing her sincere worship of God before her dedication to other human beings. In the scene before Helen passes away, Jane asks Helen if she knows where she is going to go after death. Helen replies that she is going to God and states, “I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness.” There’s a similar friendship in Gail Carson’s Levine’s book Ella Enchanted. Ella Enchanted takes readers through the life of Ella of Frell, who is an allusion to Cinderella—later in the book she is called “Cinders” by her step-sister, Hattie. Unlike Jane, Ella initially has a lot of love in her life—a mother and magical cook who love her. Her father, a merchant who is often away on business, hardly sees her, and when he does, he tries to change her, to make her more presentable for prospective suitors. After her mother dies, Ella is sent, by her father, to a finishing school that is similar to Lowood. Here, she meets Areida, who becomes a great friend to Ella of Frell. At one point in the book, Ella sits with Areida, as she cries in the courtyard. She asks Areida to watch her nose, to make sure it isn’t red, so that she isn’t embarrassed by the laughing girls who listen to her step-sister’s rule. Cursed with obedience, a spell by a fairy named Lucinda, at birth, Ella is ordered by Hattie to defriend Areida. Ella chooses to leave, with her good friend in her thoughts, on a quest to break the curse that has succumbed her to control. Ella Enchanted was later made into a movie with Anne Hathaway as Ella. It has a humorous tone that is found within the book, but Gail Carson Levine’s Ella still remains darker, and less comedic, with Ella often subjected to abuse that cannot be charmed with laughter. Gail Carson Levine, although original in her own way, was not the first person to make an allusion to The Brother’s Grimm’s fairytale Cinderella. Anne Sexton wrote Transformations (1971), with a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut, an adaptation of The Brother’s Grimm’s stories written in poetic, free-verse form, with a confessional persona. Anne Sexton wrote Transformations with the intention of modernizing traditional horrific fairytales, while simultaneously incorporating current social norms that have in the past and in her time, stereotyped women. The princess is beautiful, the witch is evil. But Anne Sexton, the witch, tells the tale—she is the teller of this story. Anne Sexton herself, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, committed suicide, a few years after her friend and colleague, Sylvia Plath, did. She explains her sadness for Sylvia’s death, the death that they tried to beat, in her poem “Sylvia’s Death.” The film, Sylvia, with Gwyneth Paltrow portraying Sylvia Plath, depicts more of the inner world, the family life of Sylvia Plath, more similar to Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical collection, Letters Home, rather than the graphic horrors Victoria Lucas described of Esther Greenwood’s life.
Roxanne: But it is unfair to critique a movie based on psychiatric medicine, without examining the scientific practices and standards during this time period. First of all, psychiatric medicine during this time was exclusionary towards women. Drug developers only used men as their test subjects in their drug trials and studies, meaning women were not evaluated equally, (and in science how on earth can you give a proper diagnosis without a fair evaluation?) This disregard for men and women’s biological differences paid no mind to how diagnoses and therapies would differ between sexes with all other variables equal. On another note, it is important to keep in mind that medicine had once coined the term “hysteria” or “hysterical.” It was derived from the word hysterectomy, which refers to a medical practice particular to women due to irregularities in the uterus. Today it is often used colloquially to dramatize people for having emotional reactions, which is a gender specific stereotype. The fact that pseudo- science (which was once thought to be factual) lays claim to a bigoted slant is just one example of how the field of medicine regards women.
Colleen: “Hysteria” was present in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. While staying at Thornfield with Mr. Rochester, a brooding, dark male, as a governess for his French “niece,” Adele, Jane notices strange activities in the night, with an unknown figure retreating to the attic. Jane later finds out, as she is about to marry Mr. Rochester, that the unknown in the attic is actually Mr. Rochester wife, Bertha. Bertha has been locked in the attic by Mr. Rochester, for she seems “unfit” to mingle with society. Her dark persona, animalistic qualities and behaviors disallow her from functioning in the real world. In 1966, Jean Rhys’ postcolonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea was published to reveal the “truth,” as Jean Rhys saw it, about who the “Madwoman in the Attic” really was. Bertha is Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, a female from the Caribbean who had been assigned an arranged marriage to Mr. Rochester. In love with another man, Antoinette, is resentful toward Mr. Rochester’s control and feigned interest in her, to obtain the last of her family’s land and funds—marriage isn’t important to Antoinette, or if it once was, it isn’t anymore. Her religious background was tainted at an early age. Girl, Interrupted is held highly among female movie goers, not only because it was a well-produced movie, but because women in general are highly subjected to similar experiences that are depicted in the film. Although this particular account of mental illnesses is rooted in the oppressive earlier half of the twentieth century, inequalities in assessment, treatment and access to care, biases in research and lack of education and training of health care professionals can be cited as common practices in modern medicine as well. The social implications that 1960’s psychology held dear are not quite dead, but merely a microcosm of a bigger picture which reinforces harmful stereotypes and prejudices today. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:
Roxanne: The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is based off a novel written by Ken Kesey. The plot centers on the character McMurphy, who is institutionalized because he “fight and fucks too much.” McMurphy boasts that he was deceived into committing statutory rape, by a teenaged girl. “But Doc, she was fifteen years old, going on thirty-five, Doc, and, uh, she told me she was eighteen and she was, uh, very willing, you know what I mean.” He goes on to say, “I practically had to take to sewin’ my pants shut.” And this is definitely a good point when considering sleeping with a 17 year and 364 day old woman is plain wrong, but an 18 year old makes much more sense, (especially when your genitals do the rationalizing.
Colleen: The character of McMurphy is controversial. Not initially, because he is blatantly a sex offender who is posing as a mentally ill patient so that he can get out of jail time for his crimes. As time passes in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, we realize that he is not as sane as he thinks. Or did the hospital that contained him make him less sane? His apparent misogynistic ideologies show the sickness within him that had been generated by a male dominated society. Men ruled the world at that time, and I’m sure many who are bitter enough to disagree can disagree, but such unequal gender gaps had been prevalent even during the time of Plato, and continued to pass through time as a known fact. That men were stronger, better than women. John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, an allusion to The Bible that not only confirms its relevance in modern times, but also criticizes it heavily, brings the saddened Eve to a new world of night for women. Later, in her poem, The Moon and the Yew Tree, Sylvia Plath writes “The moon is my mother, she is not sweet like Mary.” Plath’s mother, in this poem, is the moon, and the brightness against a dark sky is the contrast of a patriarchal society, with the brightness of a mother shining against it.
Roxanne: The female characters in the story are an example of the extreme, restrictive and stereotypical dichotomies that women in film face. It seems that almost all of the female characters can fit into either one of two categories: whores or ball cutters. Whores Candy and Sandy’s aim is to pleasure men and do what they’re told, while the latter seems to be intent on dominating men by emasculating them. In the movie, emasculation is stigmatized as the ultimate sin against a man by symbolizing the loss of freedom that they endured in the institution. Colleen: The character of Nurse Ratched is important, as she is a female with a higher power role who exemplifies a “ball cutter.” She is terrible to the patients she is supposed to treat. Rather than making them feel better about themselves, she turns them into children with the way she feeds them their medication. It’s similar to how Susana Kaysen attempts to refuse her medication initially while she is locked in her own prison, but the staff seems more inclined to help her, than hurt her. She initially, just doesn’t seem to understand that she needs help. Nurse Ratched torments McMurphy until he is sick, just like he torments others. I suppose she finds that he should be punished for his outrageous behavior against women. What was the old saying? An eye for an eye (Lex Talionis), but I have to say I do agree with the one that came after: “An Eye for an Eye makes the whole world blind” Gandhi might’ve been right. Regardless of how badly a person is to another person, retaliation against them in vulgar ways can result in injuries, including mental injuries, that could be life altering and most definitely permanent if one doesn’t seek the right help. Later in the film, McMurphy realizes that he cannot leave, because a psychiatric hospital is not a prison, and the rules are different once you commit yourself and become part of the institutionalization that the mental health system reinforces. How different are they really? Exactly. Another century, because the abuse didn’t start in Kings Park. The abuse started in an attic, long before attics existed. Upon cave paintings upon walls. In rooms that were shared, not owned. The only people who were really owned were the ones who were “hysterical.” In the early 21st century, Virginia Woolf wrote her critical essay, A Room of One’s Own, and soon after women started demanding rooms. To write in, to paint in, to exist in without the bantering of a sad tale. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” published in 1899, the female speaker is locked away, at her husband’s command. The wallpaper begins to peel, and she feels trapped. Trapped in a room that is not her own. It is a room that she has been confined to. In relation to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the character of Bertha is similar. The character of Antoinette elaborates on the “madwoman” in the attic who is animalistic, but chained. It is revealed through Rhys’ story that she was actually made the way she was by the way she was used and abused, and locked away with no key but a man’s. (In Magic Trip, a documentary that includes real footage from Ken Kesey’s cross-country road trip with his friends, it is revealed that Kesey didn’t really agree to the film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s nest and its making. The character of Chief’s importance was somewhat downgraded in the film throughout, until the very end.)
Roxanne: For example, after group therapy, according to the novel, one of the patients, Harding, is compelled to declare; “We are victims of a matriarchy here,” which is almost as plausible as the oppression of unicorns. McMurphy quickly asserts [Nurse] “Ratched ain’t pecking at your eyes. That’s not what she’s peckin’ at.” Although Harding argues “No, that nurse ain’t some kinda monster chicken, buddy, what she is is a ball-cutter. I’ve seen a thousand of ’em, old and young, men and women. Seen ’em all over the country and in the homes — people who try to make you weak so they can get you to toe the line, to follow their rules, to live like they want you to. And the best way to do this, to get you to knuckle under, is to weaken you by gettin’ you where it hurts the worst.” Still, the movie was able to effectively polarize the battle between repression and freedom in a mental institution as a battle between negative generalizations of femininity and positive generalizations of masculinity.
Colleen: Oppression within the mental health field, specifically within large institutions did not help the mentally ill. Sure, the stories we are told are “fictional” but they are based off of real occurrences. These aren’t stories, really…they are life in a world that has dominated the sick. In Kings Park, a documentary based on real life occurrences, we see the trauma that had been put on the mentally ill patients at the psychiatric center in Kings Park. As Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s character once said: “‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.’”
Leon: The Professional.
Roxanne: The ambiguity of Leon and Mathilda’s relationship is what provides most of the contention in Leon: The Professional. During the scene where twelve year old Mathilda exclaims that she wants to play charades, the stark contrast between Mathilda’s quirky and carefree personality versus Leon’s monotone and serious exterior becomes ever present. Mathilda proceeds to play dress up in thongs and undergarments in an innocent attempt at cos playing as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe, (which doesn’t seem overtly mature for her age when compared to wielding a pistol.) But Leon is so far removed from society he doesn’t even seem to be familiar with the characters, and instead he stares uncomfortably with his jaw hanging open. On another note, although Mathilda is twelve, she has an almost infantilized stylization, clinging to a teddy bear at times, and most notably, the haircut every three year old girl had, complete with bowl cut and bangs. It is pretty clear she is fulfilling the trope of a sort of mini-“manic pixie dream girl,” which is yet another example of the lack of professional female characters in film. Moreover, the scene where Mathilda tells Leon she loves him also builds tension between the two characters. The audience has already been asking themselves throughout the whole movie what a twelve year old girl and a middle aged strange man have in common. At this point, he begins to question what their relationship is, but in the end he admits he loves her too. We are not supposed to be caged in, as humans. As humans, we should come and go as we please, as we see fit. There needs to be a perpetual option. Colleen: If people are institutionalized, do they ever have a room of their own? In Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of one’s own,” the goal is focused on feminism, but in other writings Woolf really focuses on androgyny. It’s important to remember equality, with whatever term is used or misused, abused or taken for granted. As people, we are not terms to be fit into carefully cut up movie frames, but the movies that help us to remember this are great with their own power. Can individuals exist without rooms of their own? They do, but the metaphor for this is more important. Just remember, that when all else fails, you can choose to take your own path, no matter what.
Disclaimer: We do not own any of the rights to the films mentioned.
Photographer: Sarah Kathryn
Co-photographers: Colleen Rowe and Montsy Perez
Models: Sarina Penza, Suzanne O’Regan, and Montsy Perez
Director: Colleen Rowe
Co-Directors of photography: Jordan Danner and Sarah Infranco
Writers: Roxanne* and Colleen Rowe