Hollywood disparaging representation of mental disorders is notoriously misconstrued. The industry takes opportunities for awareness and empathy but continues to manipulate disorders into unrealistic portrayals just for entertainment value and box office sales. I recently saw Split in theaters and was deeply disappointed by the development from understanding to satire and mockery.
The 2016 film directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan, follows a doctor and her relationship to one of her more complicated patients dealing with dissociative identity disorder. We are introduced to Kevin, played exceptionally well by James McAvoy, when he kidnaps three teenage girls leaving a birthday party and locks them in his basement. As the girls plan an escape and slowly realize his intentions, the audience is introduced to Kevin’s disorder, his relationship to each of his personalities and his relationship to Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Dr. Fletcher expends a great deal of energy, time and resources to spread awareness, understanding and compassion for people living with dissociative identity disorder. Throughout her career, she strives to create an awareness and a true understanding for people who live with DID. However, there is something very wrong with the way Shyamalan continues with the plot.
Dissociative identity disorder “is a severe condition in which two or more distinct identities, or personality states, are present in—and alternately take control of—an individual.” The disorder is extremely complicated for people living with the disorder, and their family, friends and support systems. These disorders are often triggered by severely stressful events in a person’s early life, namely sexual and physical abuse at a young age. This is a survival coping mechanism. Although Dr. Fletcher’s speech in the film offers some truths, the exaggerations of the disorder, for example alluding to physical changes in the different identities. Different identities may have different ages, genders, self-images, and personal histories, but the concept of them being able to physically change their external self is not a symptom.
Although it is characteristic of Shyamalan’s films to have a supernatural twist at the end, it does not excuse the appropriation of mental disorders and people’s lived experiences with this disorder just to make a quick million. The manipulation and abuse of mental disorders for film only further perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness. Creating a man with DID into a Mutant Ninja Turtle/Hulk hybrid creature does not exactly help people understand. Making a mockery a very real and very difficult reality bullies people into remaining silent about their experiences. Joking about suicide, making fun of people for having eating disorders, and telling people that their mentality is purely for the entertainment of others is what makes living with illness so much more difficult and, for some, impossible.
Although the film at first disguised itself as an opportunity for millions of viewers to learn about the complications this disorder through dramatization, the depiction fell flat on its ass when it used a mockery of a serious mental disorder into the newest member of the Fantastic Four.