The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.

Chuck Palahniuk

There are very few things that unite a people, or a country, and encourage them to work towards the common good. The citizens of the United States of America generally abide by the laws and regulations drafted by their founding fathers in the United States Constitution. Further, when the populace believes that laws and policies need to be changed, they advocate for change in the streets and in the judicial system. In 2019, a very powerful common meeting ground exists: the cinema. Globally, the American film industry is a powerhouse. Ticket sales, including streaming and DVD purchases, suggest that Americans are united as consumers of this visual medium. Given the power this confers upon producers of film, from the writer of a spec script through the producer who greenlights a project, a number of filmmakers can use their medium to promote what they believe is meaningful change, including, but not limited to, the idea that mental health is a necessary good, both for the individual and for society. There are those who would argue that film is “entertainment” and filmmakers only have a duty to entertain, not inform or persuade. However, an overview of many films, which address issues of peace and inequality, would suggest otherwise. Film often uses metaphors to appeal to the viewers’ emotions, argue for the need for change in society, and as a result of their narrative structure (and prescience in many cases) establish credibility for the viewer. In short, films can and do change individuals, and by extension, the world.

Ethics, the third branch of philosophy, concerns the ways we try to obtain our individual and collective happiness. While much has been written about the ethical duty of the average person, what is less clear is the ethical standard for achieving happiness that applies to those who live with mental illness. Aristotle, from whom Abraham Maslow borrowed several concepts, suggests that every human being has the intrinsic ability to flourish. However, in order to develop strength of character, a healthy person must be aware not only of virtue, but of vice. There are filmmakers who believe they are not obliged to create works with “meaning.” From their perspective, the entertainment value of film is enough (see Michael Bay). In this respect they may believe, like Kant that “…we are duty bound to respect other people’s sanctity and to act in the same way that we would want all other people to act” (Collins). Or, more simply put, they would more than likely refrain from asking other filmmakers to do what they do. In respecting the autonomy of the other, such artists embody Kant’s moral focus which is a more complicated version of the Golden Rule with which many people are all familiar. The failure to ask others to extend the art form beyond its simplest value, entertaining the masses and breaking box office records, may well align with a noted philosopher. Nevertheless, this paper will make the case that in today’s society, the impact of film on an individual can change how they interact with the world and teach them the power of resiliency. Consequently, it is a moral failure not to use film as a means to an end.

We have a right, as citizens, to live in a world that mirrors our values and belief systems, including accepting that mental health is health and as such, should be “normalized,” or, at the very least, destigmatized. Unlike previous generations, members of iGen would appear to embrace a level of authenticity, whether it is with respect to mental health or politics, that has been somewhat lacking in previous generations. This is not to say that other generations lacked the will to advocate for change; it is simply a recognition of the fact that the silence that often-governed taboo subjects seems to have been lifted in recent years. This may be due, in part, to social media, which provides a forum for self-actualization that has heretofore not existed.

Society, even a heterogeneous one, can only survive when the majority of its members agree on the rules, laws, and expectations that can reasonably guarantee a peaceful and equitable standard of living for all its members. This assumes, of course, that the majority agrees that the absence of peace and equity is not good for society. The Declaration of Independence includes these hallowed words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Tsesis goes so far as to note that while the Declaration has often been viewed as a purely historical document with no legitimate legal force or power, “[t]he Declaration’s aspirational vision has had a remarkable influence on American notions of liberal equality, even in the days when only white males could formally participate in politics” (698). Extended to its natural conclusion, it can be argued that three films may, as Palahniuk noted, provide the viewer with the power to shape his/her world and provide a space for those living with mental illness to experience equality: Gattaca (1997), Inside Out (2015), and Split (2016). This argument must, by design, provide a starting point from which to engage filmmakers who entertain in a deeper conversation about their moral duty, given the reach of the medium, to create films that positively transform individual beliefs and worldviews.

In 1952, the Supreme Court held in Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson that motion pictures were a form of expression protected by the Constitution (“MPAA’s History”). This, in large part, freed members of the industry to create visions and address content without fear their words or ideas would be subject to censorship. As the studio system gradually gave way to independent producers, the content of films began to reflect, albeit slowly, what America really looked like. Admittedly, change for all groups has been slow in coming; but women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBTQ population can point to recent successes as proof that their films “have legs,” power, and a place in film canon. Unfortunately, those who live with mental illness still have a battle on their hands as they are either portrayed as violent, or, perhaps even worse, as special cases, whose crazy transcends fear and catapults them to a place of giftedness (see: Rain Main or Shine). While it can be argued that Split falls into the first category and does an inadequate job of portraying dissociative identity disorder, I will argue that stripping away the fantastical elements of the film leaves the viewer with a unique and aesthetically meaningful way to consider survivorship versus victimhood among the mentally ill.

In 1997, Andrew Niccol’s film, Gattaca, was released. While not an immediate success, over time, the film has garnered a legion of fans and Niccol has gone on to create a solid body of work, most notably The Truman Show. The premise of Gattaca is that the world has come to practice a new form of discrimination, genoism, where a person’s value lies in his genes. Parents can design a child and eliminate any imperfections. Children born the natural way, without the help of a geneticist, are marginalized by their abnormalities and predicted lifespan. Ironically, those created by science are, like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) blandly homogenous. While they may appear to have distinct personalities, a savvy viewer may note that their inability to fail is a failure in and of itself. For, if one cannot fail, how then do we measure their success? The dangers inherent in this sameness are ignored for the sake of crushing any God-given weakness. The brilliance of Gattaca is found not only in its over-riding themes, but in its tagline: “There is no gene for the human spirit.” Here, the idea is that eradicating what makes us different/broken does a disservice to a person’s will. Many people who live with mental illness have always felt that the ability to harness their power has helped them survive their brokenness. That it is only in overcoming what you have, that you can become who you were meant to be. Or, as, Hemingway so eloquently stated, “[t]he world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” From a purely epistemological point of view, Vincent, the main character in the film, looked beyond what he was told he was in order to become more than a label, more than a certainty to fail. I submit to you that if taught in classrooms made up of students who are not expected to reach higher than the lowest rung, Gattaca could serve as a steppingstone to greatness. And, for those who live with mental health diagnoses that suggest wholeness is not possible, the film can instill in them the belief that the sum of our parts is often much greater than the whole.

Pete Docter, the co-director and co-storywriter behind Pixar’s Inside Out, consulted with psychologists in order to do justice to the neurobiology of emotions. One of the professionals he consulted, Dacher Keltner, 

pointed out the prevailing Western metaphors for emotions have been mostly negative: they’re wild animals or diseases, they’re uncontrollable forces, they can make you crazy. “Now here comes a movie that says, ‘No, emotions have an important role to play,’” he said. “’They help us adapt and serve our well-being.’” More specifically, Inside Out suggests that even negative emotions have an important purpose.


Ever since Freud pioneered the idea that psychoanalysis could help us connect with our unconscious and become more fully aware of how and why we behaved as we did, Americans have explored a myriad of options to “find themselves.” Yet, the idea that negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, serve an important function has long been anathema. Buddhism teaches that the first noble truth is suffering; therapy asks us to forgive that which we have suffered in order to become whole. This schism, between eastern and western philosophy is important as it goes to the heart of why mental illness is still taboo: the failure of those who are not broken to recognize the value of existing in a broken space.

Hegel would suggest that this process is valuable in and of itself because it provides the opportunity for a person to critically think about what is not working and to form a new path/thesis upon which to build. In short, growth requires both sunshine and rain, joy and sadness. And in order to be truly beneficial, it requires awareness of the value inherent in both spaces. Or, as Joseph Campbell noted,

I tell you, there’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful, but of the sublime. And what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. And they represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive.

Campbell, Transcript

More simply put: God is grace and grace is born of the monstrous in order to make you sublime. For those who travel a road strewn with mental health stumbling blocks, this statement is revelatory simply because it posits that the opportunity to be fully human, completely normal is not only possible, but also a part of God’s plan. If you take Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead” literally, never fear, for you can still become, negative emotions notwithstanding, a fully functioning human. Simply dig deep enough to understand that Nietzsche’s rejection of God was a rejection of a higher power as a guiding compass. For him, all you need to self-actualize is already within you. If, like Inside Out’s Riley, you give all your emotions equal space to be, you stand a fair chance of being exactly what the universe expects: brokenly, sublimely you.

M. Night Shyamalan’s film, Split, is a bit more problematic as it has been accused of misrepresenting dissociative identity disorder (DID). I will concede, for purposes of this essay, that critics of the film have a valid point. However, the central idea of the film, that those who have suffered are, by virtue of their survival, more than those who have seldom, if ever, known bone-wrenching pain, is an important one. James McAvoy was universally praised for his acting in the film. Yet, those who live with and advocate for those with DID are, rightfully so, frustrated by the fact that filmmakers use the diagnosis as a quick shorthand for crazy killer. While noting the injustice in these portrayals, McAvoy’s included, the author wishes to focus on the ending of the film and the suggestion that the character of Casey was an important one for anyone who has ever self-harmed. That her character was also necessary for anyone who has ever self-harmed as a result of childhood sexual abuse.

Young people, particularly women, who are diagnosed as “cutters” are not to be confused with people who suffer from suicidal ideation. While some people who self-harm (cut, hit, or burn themselves) may commit suicide; in general, the majority self-injure in order to release anger or pain. Cutters have reported experiencing a biochemical release that provides them with a sense of control enabling them to cope with stressors. Stanley et al, in a 2009 study, found that “several converging lines of evidence suggest the endogenous opioid system may play a more prominent role in self-injury where there is no suicidal intent.” In short, the harm provides chemical pleasure.

In Split, of the three young women who were kidnapped, Casey initially presented as the weakest. However, a closer reading of the film, and her ability to wait, to watch, and to think, would suggest that her weakness was resiliency. Having survived her uncle’s sexual abuse and the clear marginalization by her peers and adults in her school, Casey could only count on her own survival instincts. Psychology Today states that resilient “…people have access to their own cognitive resources, enabling cool-headed analysis of what might have gone wrong and consideration of behavioral paths that might be more productive. Resilience is not some magical quality; it takes real mental work to transcend hardship” (“All About”). Throughout the girls’ captivity, Casey thinks. She watches. She pays attention. In the end, she harnesses her own power, cultivated over time and through deeply painful experiences, to be more than the crazy she exudes. Her resiliency allows her to not only outwit her captor, but, as implied in the film, to finally own her power and unmask her abuser.

If, as originally claimed, individuals can be positively impacted by film and in turn spread that positivity to others, a viewer would need to see Gattaca, Inside Out, and Split as films that do more than entertain. They must be viewed as message films. Fritz Lang, one of the leading talents of the German Expressionist movement in film, and one to whom lovers of science fiction films owe a debt for his contributions to the genre (the idea of weightlessness in space and the T-minus countdown still used by NASA), was a firm believer in the idea that from darkness, one can create something aesthetically pleasing. It is not incorrect to suggest that one who views the three films referenced in this essay can find enough aesthetic value in the art form, so as to dispel darkness (mental illness) and replace it with a more positive world view — one that argues for the value of listening to your dreams (Gattaca), fully experiencing all of your emotions (Inside Out), and finding strength in extraordinary pain (Split). Even accounting for the fact that values and belief systems in the United States are not uniform, particularly given the cultural, religious, gender, racial, and age differences that exist, data indicates that we are seeing an increase in conversations about mental health. Consequently, using film to find solutions is not in and of itself odd. As society changes, the art we create does as well. We are seeing the rise in films directed towards women (Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel), people of color (Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians), and members of the LGBTQ community (Call Me by Your Name). These films, whether blockbuster or arthouse fare, create spaces for our changing communities to see themselves in artistic spaces. The pride and sense of self-worth that provides cannot be discounted.

In 2019, as each group fights for its place in the world, the time is ripe for visual conversations about mental health. For cinematic representations of the mind, and dare I say it, the soul, that endeavor to show the “valids” how truly powerful those who live with mental illness can be. For who better to show the world how to continue living when you constantly feel as if you are walking on the razor’s edge, then the person who has learned how to master the madness and turn it into strength?

Sarah Kaufman, in a piece for The Washington Post, notes that “[Pushkin]… taught Nureyev about art’s greater purpose.” The article, a reflection on The White Crow, a film directed by Ralph Fiennes, is an ode to the idea that the visual medium is, indeed, transformative. It can entertain by capturing the essence of a vibrant personality like Rudolf Nureyev and inform simply by committing the drama of his defection to the United States to film. The article highlights the fact that Pushkin, in the film, “…prods Nureyev about the purpose of dancing. [i]t’s not technique…but ‘What story do you want to tell?’” What better way to end than to note that reel life can serve as a template for real life. It is time to call on those with stories about mental health to answer the call: create the art and tell your story.

What do you want the world to know?

Works cited entries available upon request:

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