This month I started teaching AS Media Studies. What a treat. I’d forgotten the delights of delving into the signs and representations that we are bombarded with in daily life, and unpicking the institutions behind them, the messages they send us, and why. Of course, it can lead to a few rude awakenings. Poring over Lynx’s ‘ironic’ adverts depicting a scantily clad woman pulling a turkey out of the oven, it was clear that some of my students were already hyper-aware of the skewed views we are exposed to every day. Others, perhaps more worryingly, were not. For their coursework, they need to come up with a range of media products. One of the areas they need to research and analyse is representation. Keen to link into modern debates, I talked to them about black representation in the music industry, and the distorted view of mental health and its institutions in the film industry. From psychotic killers to psychiatrists who are just waiting to meet the right patient so they can marry them, Hollywood does very little to broach the myriad issues surrounding mental health and stigma.
To be honest, it seems that the system is frightening enough, without needing to be fictionalised. I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Wore A Dress. It’s a memoir of the teenage years of Daphne (now Dylan) Scholinski. You’d be forgiven for thinking it told a series of events that happened in the fifties, back when electric shock therapy and lobotomies were still considered normal practice. Alas, no. We are in the relatively recent time of the early eighties. A time when Channel 4 arrived, mobile technology was in its infancy, and a young girl was hospitalised for three years for not fitting into socially accepted standards of what it meant to be a ‘girl.’
On reading this, perhaps its easy to forget how recent a more globally accepting culture has become. Gay characters on TV, transvestites hosting chat shows, it wasn’t that long ago that these people were used as freak value, rather than the very normal members of society they actually are. I also have to remember that, as a Londoner, I perhaps have a slightly unusual view of the world. But still, the book is heartbreaking. From an abusive and neglected childhood, a young Daphne enters into highly risky behaviour. She is deemed unmanageable by her parents and school, and turfed off to a mental hospital. What is most distressing is that, rather than take the time to develop trust, dig into her issues and help her, the doctors quickly slap an odd diagnosis on her, and spend the rest of her time incarcerated trying to get her to behave in a more ‘appropriately’ girly way.
The technical term, taken from the American Psychiatric Association, as recently as 1994, is ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’ Included in the diagnosis are references to clothing and play behaviour, that do not fit with the ‘gender identity’ of the individual. Excuse me? If that’s the case, then frankly, I was a disordered child. I wore jeans or dungarees for most of my childhood, was forever climbing trees, making bow and arrows, riding my bike, generally going against what is apparently my ‘gender identity.’ And don’t we all? My sister loved her chemistry set, while I had male friends who liked plaiting hair.
For most of us, this behaviour will lead to little more than social disengagement. Perhaps teasing, bullying, until we learn our lessons and revert to a more ‘acceptable’ way of behaving. For Daphne, she had to pretend to like makeup, show interest in boys and plaiting hair, in order to earn ‘points’ that allowed her to leave the confines of her ward, if only for a few minutes. It made me feel sick.
Why are we so obsessed with males and females acting in certain ways? And persistently suspicious of those who fail to meet our expectations? A recent study by Lancet has, not at all shockingly, found that the mental distress that many transgender people face is largely due to social reactions to them, not because being transgender is a ‘mental disorder.’ With so many deaths associated with this issue, it’s surprising that it has taken so long to challenge the WHO’s classification.
The signals young people get from all around them are not helpful. The media tells them to conform, the establishment tells them that variance is a mental illness. As someone who has received enough gender-biased issues solely based on being a woman, I cannot imagine the level of persecution that might get levelled at me if I didn’t fit with the gender binary. But you know what, I can, and should, have a go. Empathy is a powerful tool, and literature a brilliant way to create it. Through reading this book, and sharing in the writer’s experience, I can try to understand the world through a different lens.
Perhaps in years to come, Media students will look back on the programming, advertising and news media of our generation and be terribly amused at how limited it was. Until then, marginalised voices need to be amplified and celebrated, so another young girl is not subjected to the same tortuous treatment.