Midsommar Madness: the problematic portrayal of Bipolar Disorder in Film

  • Midsommar

    Ari Aster

    B-Reel Films, 2019

Midsommar has been turning heads since it debuted in theatres earlier this month, and the jury is still out on whether it is incredibly scary or incredibly offensive. However, if you or someone you love suffers from bipolar disorder – you probably consider it the latter.

Midsommar centers on Dani, a young girl who follows her arguably shitty boyfriend and his friends to Sweden to escape a family tragedy. The group attends a pagan summer festival that has been going on in Sweden for centuries. Idyllic at first, horrific in the end - Midsommar is a slow building roller coaster that’ll have you feeling like you just took a bucket of mushrooms (and not the kind you find in the produce aisle).

The trajectory of our hero’s story begins with her undergoing a life altering event; in this case, her entire family dying – at the hands of her sister. Understandably for the plot, they wanted Dani free of emotional ties before exploring the weird Swedish pagan cult. The problem is, Midsommar has the protagonist’s bipolar sister murder their entire family in a double homicide-suicide, and uses her disorder as the rationale for the killing. It is an unnecessary plot device meant to drive home the tragedy, but instead drives home a stigma.

Misconceptions in the media surrounding mental illness are nothing new. The portrayal of anorexia in Netflix’s To the Bone was irresponsible and thoughtless, and the portrayal of depression and suicide in 13 Reasons Why downright disturbing. As problematic as these representations of mental illness have been, the characters suffering from those ailments were not portrayed as a murderer. This seems to be reserved for discussing bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, Midsommar is not the first to employ bipolar as an entry way into horrific events; the disorder has been used as a horror device for decades. Let’s not forget the thriller horror hybrid Repentance wherein the lead literally tortures their life coach for half the movie. Why? Because he’s bipolar – this apparently gives you irrepressible murderous tendencies. In the popular movie The Roommate, we see one college roommate stalk the other, ultimately murdering the other’s boyfriend. It’s revealed later in the film that this too is due to untreated bipolar disorder.

The problem with these depictions of bipolar disorder, beyond the gross misrepresentation, is the stigma they create around mental illnesses generally and bipolar specifically. The consequences of the stigma manifest long after the credits have rolled. For the average audience member who may not know much about bipolar disorder, these movies set a precedent. A precedent where the viewer walks away, and knowingly or not, brings these uniformed and hurtful representations of a serious mental illness into the wider world. Next time the viewer meets someone who shares their bipolar diagnosis with them, their only previous “knowledge” about the condition will be what they saw in these films. This is too often congruent with violence and puts up a wall between human connection and more importantly, empathy.

Most movie critics and audience members thus far seem to be unfazed by this tangibly distasteful story telling device, as Midsommar continues to be both criticized and praised, for everything other than their portrayal of bipolar disorder. It is easy to consider something as benign as a horror film to be inconsequential, but unfortunately films like this play directly into how we treat our sick friends and family. With the world hyper focused on opening the dialogue surrounding mental health (#BellLetsTalk), you would think that our media would adjust. Unfortunately, horror fans are not so lucky.

The way to solve this is simply to make it clear; mental illness is not a plot device. Writers need to develop characters without taking the easy way out. Using bipolar disorder or any other mental illness as a shortcut to explaining a character’s murderous motivation is too easy and ultimately wrong. Your neighbor, friend, or coworker with bipolar disorder is not some blood thirsty killer just waiting to emerge when the meds wear off. They are people just like the rest of us, with unique personality traits that probably don’t include the insatiable desire to kill, kill, kill.

Theresa-Anne Clarke Harter is a restauranteur by day, a feminist pop culture junkie by night, and a part-time communications student in between.

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