On the one hand, characters with bipolar can demonstrate that treatment leads to stability. On the other, manic extremes make for better drama.
“Surely there is someone out there who will take me for who I am: the good, the bad, the full story of love.”
That’s award-winning actor Anne Hathaway as Lexi, prognosticating optimistically about her romantic future as a woman with bipolar disorder. Lexi’s adventures take up the third episode of Modern Love, an Amazon Prime Video streaming series that debuted in October 2019.
At the splashy New York City premiere that Amazon hosted to launch the series, Hathaway did a bit of optimistic prognosticating herself—namely, that her Modern Love segment would help make it easier for people to put bipolar on the table.
“I think those conversations are starting to happen,” she told Variety, adding that people weren’t putting off those talks because of shame, “but because we don’t know how to start.”
Hathaway brought up another important point about seeing characters with bipolar on TV: Making the condition, and those who live with it, visible in the mainstream.
“This episode is going to mean so much because it offers some form of representation,” she said.
For viewers in 2020, the question isn’t so much whether people
with bipolar are represented on TV shows, but rather what form that
representation takes. Is it more like reckless Ian Gallagher on Showtime’s Shameless? Or more like Kat, the
struggling figure skater at the heart of the Netflix original series Spinning Out?
Ian (played by Cameron Monaghan) embraces denial and mostly avoids
treatment. Over the show’s 10 seasons, he’s been prone to poor judgment and rash
acts—including trying to steal an Army helicopter. He’s gone through stints of
sexual promiscuity and fallen into religious fanaticism. (Truth to tell, though,
he’s far from the only troubled member of the dysfunctional Gallagher clan.)
Over on Spinning Out, which
debuted this past January, Kat (Kaya Scodelario) couldn’t be more different.
Sure, she’s got her romantic difficulties, her mother-daughter drama, her angst
over where to take her skating career. But managing her bipolar slots quietly
alongside all the other challenges in her life.
Lest we miss out on negative stereotypes, however, Kat’s mother
also has bipolar. She’s shown behaving unpredictably and aggressively when she
gets lackadaisical with her meds.
So, another question: Do these representations help or harm?
For Anita of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, portrayals of bipolar on TV do
more to mislead than to educate because there’s no way they can be well-rounded
and realistic. For one thing, there’s a lot about living with bipolar that just
doesn’t make for good drama—or comedy.
“There is absolutely nothing glamorous, hilarious, or entertaining
about actually having bipolar illness,” says Anita, 49, who received her
bipolar II diagnosis at age 15. “The audience would not be interested in a
character who just lies in bed [onscreen] and cries for 30 minutes straight.”
For another, the time limits on television programming make it
impossible to accurately show the long, arduous arc of maintaining wellness.
“People are conditioned to believe that all of life’s problems can
be resolved in less than an hour because television and movies have taught us
that,” Anita says.
people around us who are ‘enter-trained’ to believe that their favorite beloved
character got through her panic attack in the last episode with flying colors
does not help the rest of us at all,” she says. “Real life does not work that
AIMING FOR ACCURACY WITH BIPOLAR BIOS
Within the constraints of the genre—and the selective editing that necessarily
goes into shaping a script—the people who produce and write TV shows nowadays try
not to let gross inaccuracies filter through. Actors do their research, too, reading
up on bipolar and consulting with people who actually walk the walk.
Each of Modern Love’s eight episodes is based on a first-person essay from the weekly New York Times column of the same name. Hathaway’s episode was inspired by a piece titled “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am,” by Hollywood entertainment lawyer-turned-author Terri Cheney.
Translated to the small screen, we have Hathaway as an attractive,
successful Manhattan attorney hoping to move beyond dating into a meaningful
relationship. That’s not so easy while trying to hide her bipolar moods.
Instead of dishing up a happily-ever-after romantic finale, the
episode ends on a hopeful, truthful note. Hathaway’s character decides to be
upfront about all aspects of herself, adding her diagnosis to her online
profile on a dating website.
Of course, the hope and the truth originally belonged to Cheney. Before her essay was published on January 13, 2008, Cheney kept her bipolar I on the down-low. Publishing in the NYT column was her loud-and-proud moment.
“At that time, there wasn’t a vocabulary for the way it really
feels to have bipolar disorder,” recalls Cheney, who went on to publish the
memoirs Manic and The Dark Side of Innocence. “Writing
helped me feel like I control the experience, that I own it and it doesn’t
control me anymore.”
For the TV adaptation, Amazon’s production team sought Cheney’s
input. She also had discussions with Hathaway, who pored over Manic to get a better feel for her role.
Is the episode perfect? Cheney wouldn’t change a thing about it—and especially adores the musical elements, a trademark of director John Carney—but concedes that “you can’t be all things to all people. A 30-minute episode has to be condensed for dramatic purposes. For example, my own mood switches are not that instantaneous.”
Daytime Dramas’ Truth about Bipolar Treatment
In 2006, half a decade after prime-time TV took
the plunge, mob boss Sonny Corinthos was diagnosed with bipolar I on ABC’s iconic
soap opera General Hospital. Maurice
Benard, whose own bipolar was diagnosed at age 22, has played Sonny since
1993—netting two Emmys over the years.
his character brought bipolar to the notice of the show’s viewers, Benard spoke
candidly about real-life experiences in interviews and other public settings.
In his new memoir Nothing General About It: How Love (and Lithium) Saved Me On and Off General Hospital, Benard writes more in-depth about the challenges of controlling his mood symptoms while filming on a daily basis and about the support he received from colleagues.
Benard, 57, has told bp
Magazine that he “gave a ton of input” on how a mood episode and managing
bipolar might play out. For example, he insisted Sonny be shown taking his
On occasion, Benard objected to elements in certain scripts. As an industry insider, however, he accepts that the nature of a melodrama sometimes works against accuracy.
The Young and the Restless, aka Y&R, gave long-running character
Sharon Newman a bipolar diagnosis in 2012. Josh Griffith, co-executive producer
and head writer of the CBS soap, put considerable thought into responsibly
portraying a character with bipolar.
“I looked at some of the emotional journeys the character had
taken over the years, picked up what seemed to be a pattern of up-and-down
behavior that might fit with bipolar disorder, and saw a chance to, (a) tell a
compelling and dramatic story, and (b) explore an important and topical issue
that affects millions of people,” he says.
“We wanted to be medically
accurate with both behavior and treatment, and as dramatic as possible,” he adds.
NORMALIZING OR SENSATIONALIZING THE REALITY OF BIPOLAR
As far as greater representation in mainstream programs, Cheney doesn’t think television in general has normalized bipolar because stereotypes still prevail most of the time. Notably, “plotlines when a character goes off their medications and becomes manic.… I felt it inferred blame on people for their condition,” she explains, apologizing if she sounds “cranky” about it all.
Nevertheless, Cheney remembers being “so excited that bipolar
disorder was being acknowledged at all” when the NBC hospital drama ER introduced the character of Maggie Wyczenski 20 years ago.
Sally Field won an Emmy for her portrayal of Maggie, who first appeared in the November 16, 2000, episode called The Visit. She dropped in on her daughter, Abby Lockhart, one of the show’s main characters. Maggie returned in another 11 episodes over the following seasons, usually demonstrating some extreme or disruptive behavior feeding into a dramatic conflict.
“Now I sort of cringe to see how over-the-top her character was
when she was manic—wearing a skimpy red dress and flirting shamelessly with all
the young interns,” Cheney says. “It’s not exactly inaccurate, just less
nuanced than we are today.”
Maggie seemed to blow open a door for the industry. In 2001, the HBO comedic drama Six Feet Under went even further, including a character with bipolar as a regular part of the ensemble cast. While not one of the central figures, Billy Chenowith (Jeremy Sisto) familiarized viewers with the fact that bipolar is a treatable condition.
Over the show’s five seasons, however, Billy sometimes went off
his meds with stereotypically destructive results. As the Los Angeles Times
noted, “Billy can be sullen, seductive, filled with rage or decimated by
self-loathing, depending on whether he’s taken his medication.”
Throughout the decade, that remained the motif on
a variety of programs: a minor, recurring or ensemble character exhibiting manic
behavior if not in treatment—but also demonstrating that medication can pave
the way to stability.
Then came Homeland.
The Showtime spy thriller, premiered in October 2011, puts its
character with bipolar front and center. That would be CIA officer Carrie
Mathison, played by high-profile actor Claire Danes. Carrie is a top-ranking
counterterrorism agent, operating in a high-pressure environment. Her bipolar
is an integral aspect of her characterization and a seamless element in the
would put Carrie on a pedestal for carefully managed wellness, but she
introduced viewers to a more complex view of living with bipolar. She is shown
choosing to go off her meds in order to exploit the sharper thinking of
hypermania. She demonstrates obsessive behavior during manic episodes. Her depressive
episodes get written into the script.
Some critics slammed Homeland
for sensationalizing the disorder. Hannah Jane Parkinson, a columnist for the
British newspaper The Guardian, was
one viewer who argued back. Parkinson, who has bipolar, found Danes’ portrayal “accurate
The 2014 opinion piece continued: “Most of the time, the show gets
it right… In a world in which mental health stigma is still devastating, it’s
fantastic that films and TV programs are upping their game when it comes to
REPRESENTATION & PORTRAYALS OF MOOD EPISODES
Dane captured two Emmys for her work on Homeland. As with Hathaway on Modern
Love, she turned to Cheney’s memoir Manic
as part of her research on how to play the character.
“Claire is a terrific actor, and yes, there were episodes of [Carrie]
going off her meds, but she paid more attention than usual to her character’s
bipolar disorder,” says Cheney. “She did a very good job at representing
Showtime initially consulted Julie Fast, an author, speaker, and personal coach specializing in mood disorders. Homeland’s showrunners enlisted Fast’s help before filming the pilot and used her book Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder to help develop Danes’ character.
“Claire was wonderful, lovely, down-to-earth and very welcoming,
and tried really hard to get bipolar right,” says Fast, a longtime bp Magazine columnist. “She treated me
beautifully as an equal and asked very intelligent questions, especially about
Unfortunately, Fast says, her own illness didn’t sync well with the stressful demands of that job.
“I love the work, but have to find a balance between the TV world and my own stability. This creates a lot of loss—and [that’s] not something the TV shows talk about very often,” she muses.
One thing Homeland did
get right, Fast says, was illustrating “the superpowers we feel during a
euphoric manic episode.”
She adds, “Going off meds to intentionally get manic is a very realistic portrayal of how we want the meds to help with depression, but often we miss the high energy of being manic. Mania makes us feel invincible. And as always happens, Claire’s character made terrible decisions when she went off her meds.”
Fast praises Homeland for
showing the fallout of Carrie’s decisions when they didn’t end well or safely.
Alas, we won’t see more of Carrie after Homeland’s eighth and final season wraps this spring. Ditto for
Andre Lyon, eldest son of Lucious and Cookie Lyon on Fox’s Empire. That series about scheming music executives in New York
City, which first aired in 2015, won’t be returning for a seventh season.
Andre moved depictions of bipolar a huge step forward. He has a
successful management career, nimbly navigating the treacherous waters of the family
dynasty. He has a business degree from the prestigious Wharton School. He’s in
a stable marriage with his college sweetheart. (He’s also a black man, bringing
a whole new dimension to representation.)
Mental health activist Ruth C. White, PhD, MPH, MSW, singles out Andre as a more realistic example of someone with the disorder than is usually seen. He’s active and effective, follows his treatment plan, and is able to successfully manage stress.
“He sees his doctor to tweak his meds on occasions and… doesn’t fall
apart when his baby dies,” White, a clinical associate professor of social work
at the University of Southern California, told VH1.
STORYTELLING & SOCIAL AWARENESS OF BIPOLAR
“On screen, it’s really important to continue to reinforce what bipolar disorder is and what it is not,” says Marie Gallo Dyak, president and CEO of the Entertainment Industries Council.
“Stories tell us that people can be accurately diagnosed, can be
safely treated, be productive, and sustain a lifestyle they are comfortable
with,” she says. “These are really important stories that need to be told.”
The council is a Hollywood watchdog group established in 1983 to
promote accurate depictions of behavioral health and social issues in films, TV
shows, and other media. It provides science-based resources to scriptwriters
and their colleagues.
Dyak has definitely seen big strides forward. She says bipolar “is more mainstream than when we first started talking about it—especially in a clinical way.… Now, when someone says something about bipolar disorder, it’s not uncomfortable.”
Some advancements may be more subtle, she notes. For example, “instead of someone asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ [in a scene], a character can ask, ‘What’s happened to you?’”
keeps her finger on the pulse of how bipolar is shown in various media and
measures progress in increments. In her opinion, greater representation on the
small screen has increased awareness of mental health challenges.
to a decade ago, she sees more open and uplifting dialogue in both post-show
chatter on social media and in general. Despite the limited lens on living with
the illness, every character we see on TV does a little bit to chip away at
silence and stigma.
“Is it positive?” Fast asks rhetorically. “Absolutely.”
O’Hern noted that at least 16 TV shows since the early 2000s incorporated bipolar characters either as a protagonist or recurring character. She tracked the accuracy of depictions in ER, Friday Night Lights, Shameless, Homeland, Empire, and the Canadian franchise Degrassi.
Factors included how treatment and recovery were shown, the
character’s social and professional functioning, and incidents of dangerous or
violent behavior blamed on the illness.
O’Hern cited earlier entertainment tropes that linked “the
actions of murderers, molesters [and] egomaniacs” to mental disorders. That was
in the dark ages before mental health awareness campaigns and school curricula
on mental wellness. However, more recent TV scripts still rely on exaggerated
behaviors—as might be expected from writers looking to provide a dramatic hook.
“All shows collectively hit on almost every stereotype at least
once and, in general, television depicted violent and criminal behavior far too
often,” O’Hern concluded.
Furthermore, the shows frequently failed to put such behaviors in
context to make the actions more understandable.
On the plus side, O’Hern added, viewers were given more realistic exposure to the existence of professional incompetence, unwillingness to accept treatment, and the fact that recovery doesn’t happen instantaneously.
The final verdict: “Despite recent progress, contemporary
bipolar protagonists still have progress to make before depictions can be
classified as wholly realistic.”
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