Identity is a huge aspect of our lives and makes us who we are; for better or for worse. It’s made up of numerous things one of which being disability. Mental and physical disability is something that can be a huge part of our identity and learning to live with it and embracing it as part of our individuality is an even bigger task. We often learn and sometimes become ignorant towards mental health through misrepresentation in popular culture and mass media. I have chosen to investigate OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) as it’s something I’m very passionate about and suffer with myself. To further this, I have chosen 3 fictional characters who suffer with the illness and how they are portrayed on screen; and the damaging effect it can have on the representation of the illness. These kinds of images are so readily available and are broadcasted almost everywhere to a variety of different people. A lot of what makes up our identity is aided heavily by the media and its influence upon us. Therefore, it’s so important for accurate representation. In this essay I intend to challenge the misrepresentations of OCD within popular culture, and the effect this can have in the construction of our identities.
The tv show Monk was released in 2002 and was marketed as a new and unique comedy-drama detective mystery series. The show was very highly received by the general public and broke 9.4 million viewers in its series finale. The shows over arching theme is based around Adrian Monk’s (the protagonist) battle with OCD, and each episode comments on his daily life as a detective with the illness; this is usually through the shows use of humour. The way the show portrays OCD seems as though it has come from common assumptions and stereotypes, which creates and aids the viewers idea of someone with the illness; their identity then becomes skewed. In the show, Monk is “afraid of 312 things” (Wikipedia, 2002-19), giving him such a high number makes it seem ridiculous, and that people with OCD are ‘just silly’. He also has various traits that are actually more common of perfectionists and ‘neat-freaks’; as Wortman writes “those are Hollywood’s very favourite OCD symptoms” (Wortman, F. 2013). Monk isn’t that deeply troubled by his compulsions, they’re simply added by the writers to create unique and humorous problems in the ongoing mystery murder plot. What I find annoying about the show is that the actor that plays Monk (Tony Shalhoub) can sometimes come across as quite believable in more serious episodes such as “Mr. Monk Takes His Medicine”, creating an almost convincing portrayal of the illness. Wortman also writes “When the show isn’t depicting Monk with scorn and derision, Shalhoub’s performance is convincing and compassionate” (Wortman, F. 2013). I agree with this statement because if the entire show was like this instead, the construction of Monk’s identity would be more accurate and empathetic to the audience, as well as being easier to understand by the masses.
Although most who choose to comment on the show tend to display their distaste with the way that it’s written, I did find a few examples of people that believed the show was accurate and that it aided in the discovery of their own identity. In an article published in 2017, Emily Stanley wrote
“Monk and I didn’t share all the same compulsions or fears. I don’t clean as one of my compulsions. Monk doesn’t turn lights on and off. But I was finally not alone, even when the ‘person’ I shared this experience with was a fictional character”. (Stanley, E. 2017)
I understand her point here and it’s wonderful that the show was able to help her, and allow her to fell less alone, but in the case of Stanley I think this may be one of the only times this rings true with Monk. On a personal level the show just made me feel angry; portraying my personal struggle as something to be laughed at and judged. This has a massive effect on your identity as a person, as it can lead you to believe that there is something wrong with you. Especially when we consider the core promotional advertisement which features the phrase “the real OCD”.
Sheldon Cooper is a character from a popular television show called: ‘The Big Bang Theory’, though he isn’t the main protagonist, he’s the most memorable personality in the show. Even though it’s not explicitly mentioned in the show it’s commonly accepted that Sheldon suffers from a multitude of issues. The most prevalent being Asperger’s syndrome, Narcissistic personality disorder, and Obsessive compulsive disorder. Although Cooper displays symptoms of OCD, such as repetition (knocking on the door of another character’s apartment reciting her name three times in succession across most episodes), and washing hands, which are all obvious traits met with humour. Cooper’s character encourages viewers to poke fun at both perfectionists and real OCD sufferers. This leads to many people questioning their own identity and false claiming they suffer with the illness. You often hear them share phrases such as “I’m so OCD, I cleaned the house twice this week” and “Omg my OCD is so bad today, I reorganised my sock draw”, implying that OCD is just something that can be turned on and off. Because of these inaccurate stereotypes and portrayals that are blasted through both the media and day to day conversations between the general public, people who suffer with the illness often go undiagnosed. As Kaufman writes “because of these harmful stereotypes, and false conceptions of what it means to live with OCD, especially in the media, I went undiagnosed for years” (Kaufman, S. 2018). I believe this can have a drastic effect on a person’s identity, as it’s such a core part of who we are when we are able to recognise our personal battles, rather than shake them off as being ‘neat-freak’ behaviours.
In the same article Kaufman also writes:
“Over the last decade or so, parts of society have become more comfortable talking about certain mental illnesses, like depression and anxiety, OCD however, remains a highly mockable mystery…” (Kaufman, S. 2018).
I agree with this statement because depression and anxiety are more commonly acknowledged and represented in a way that is accurate and true. Although we all experience mental health uniquely, I believe that OCD as part of an identity is most commonly misrepresented in todays age. Most of the time OCD is represented as ‘Sheldon Cooper’ characteristics. His quotes are often plastered over t-shirts, notebooks, and posters without any empathy towards the OCD community. You wouldn’t have a poster with symptoms of depression on your walls, so why OCD? This media and merchandise ignorance heavily support my point that popular culture misrepresents our identity as mental health strugglers. Whilst some of Cooper’s traits can be accurate, the compulsive and damaging thoughts that go along with them are missing. People that suffer from OCD often have rituals and routines that must be completed for the damaging and upsetting thoughts in their heads to go away. Ignorance in mass media such as ‘The Big Bang Theory’ are partly why people don’t seek help when they should. This negative and comedic skew on OCD is what leads to a personal identity becoming inaccurate and damaged.
My final source is the character Monica Geller from the tv series ‘Friends’. Part of a group of 6, each character has their own distinctive personality and identity. Monica’s traits lean towards being high strung, perfectionist, and obsessive. She has the main traits of OCD albeit in a very mild sense, but I find her to be the most relatable example. The comedy surrounding her compulsions and obsessions are done with a lot more empathy compared to the previous examples. I think this is because they are less obvious, or because they are normalised through the humour. The writers portray her OCD as being mild rather than debilitating, when it’s not. What’s also good about this character is that the group of friends around her often keep her in check and shine a positive light on her compulsions; releasing some of the stigma that surrounds OCD. Most of Monica’s compulsions are often shown as being closer to a perfectionist or ‘neat-freak’ so there isn’t much debate over whether she has serious OCD or not and most people’s comments are generally positive. A lot of the negative commentary surrounding the character tends to come from outside sources. Websites such as ‘Buzzfeed.com’ details lists like “Top 5: Monica’s OCD” which further the ignorance of the media, but luckily this seems to be separate from the show itself.
In an article by Meg Hanson, the author writes about Monica’s “(in)visible OCD” (Hanson, M. 2014), and how we’re able to see her obsessive compulsions subtly without ever a mention of mental health. Some of her compulsions are also quite relatable like in figure 3. For example, Monica will: hoover her hoover, only eat Tic-Tacs in even numbers, and fold her toilet paper into a point. These are accompanied by a laughing track, but because they aren’t that significant it’s less of a misrepresentation. Any occurrence when Monica’s mild OCD is shown it’s often quite jovial and an obvious joke rather than a comment on mental illness. For example, in the episode “The one with Joey’s Porsche” Monica details a time when she cleaned 6 dirty cars in the street with her extra cleaning supplies. There are people in real life that may have actual compulsions to do this but ‘Friend’s’ description of this kind of behaviour feels a lot more empathetic compared to that of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ or ‘Monk’. Hanson writes
“Although Monica’s behaviour fulfils the diagnostic criteria for OCD as stated in DSM IV TR, it is consistently depicted as quirky and amusing. The other characters never treat her obsessive compulsiveness as abnormal. They either ignore it or accommodate her peculiarities by finding humour in them” (Hanson, M. 2014).
Characters constantly normalise her behaviour in the show, rather than deeming her as crazy or ill. This is such a huge part of identity normalisation and I’m so glad that ‘Friends’ was able to do it.
Overall, I feel that OCD is massively misrepresented within popular culture television shows and the mass media. Both contribute significantly to the construction of our identities in the age of technology. They create a negative skew on mental health and OCD generating ignorance and false claim over the illness. This kind of occurrence de-normalises actual sufferers of the illness and creates a stigma that they are ‘sick’ or ‘crazy’. Even though ‘Friend’s’ has a somewhat accurate portrayal of the illness, it isn’t enough, especially as the program is now quite dated. In my opinion I think that a lot of the problems tend to arise over the hype of the TV-shows which encourage the writers to exaggerate and poke fun at the various traits the characters have. In the current age we live in this is a lot easier to do, due to outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. The true and accurate construction of our identities comes from seeing accurate portrayals and relatable representations within the media and in order to embrace who we are with our mental illnesses, these need to be correct so that we don’t become ignorant and misinformed.