Saturday, February 09, 2008

Herschel Walker, Shakespeare, and the Joker

While a few brave souls may have predicted a New York Giants Super Bowl win or a John McCain GOP nomination, I'm not sure anyone predicted that Herschel Walker would be a news story in 2008. Aside from University of Georgia fans, who remember the way he dominated college football, or Minnesota Vikings fans, who may try unsuccessfully to forget him, he has been outside of the public consciousness for years.

And though we know very little about his autobiography, which will go on sale this summer, what we do know has resulted in his name briefly re-emerging into the public sphere. The revelation that he will claim to be a victim of multiple-personality (or disassociative identity) disorder is one that has been met with shock and skepticism. Considering the increasing rate of diagnoses of this disorder, it was only a matter of time before the first celebrity came forward with the claim of having the condition. I am quite interested in seeing how the book is received, whether the concept of MPD is explored more in the media, and in general how the public discourse of the subject will play out.

While the late 20th Century saw a re-examination of the way that fiction has traditionally portrayed women and minorities, more recently I've noticed a backlash against the way that mental illness is portrayed. Explorations of what we now call "mental illness" have been around for centuries. It's interesting to consider if Shakespeare would have become the central writer in the literary canon if he had not been allowed to portray what was then called "madness." Not only is mental illness critical to our reading of plays such as Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear, but his use of insanity even crops up in many places as a comical device, as audiences presumably thrilled to characters who spouted non-sequitors and violated proprietary social conventions.

In the modern acting pantheon, the actor who stands out as the embodiement of mental instability is Dennis Hopper, who once said:

by the time I was 13 to 18, I did Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, a replica of the famous Globe Theatre, built for the World Fair. And the great roles that you want to obtain in Shakespeare are Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Iago, Othello all the leads, all the great parts in Shakespeare are almost all mad men, insane murderers. These are the parts I've grown up wanting to play, so it's not terribly different for me to be drawn to the parts that I play now.
So after he had a well-established niche portraying derangement, the marketing wizards at Nike no doubt thought they were on to something by building a mid-1990s ad campaign around Hopper as a deranged football referee, culminating in a bizarre Super Bowl ad that received criticism for its portrayal of the mentally ill: (it starts about two minutes in):

More recently, the upcoming Batman film started to build an ad campaign heavily around the insanity of the Joker, a character created decades ago and portrayed in comics and films for decades as a psychopath's psychopath. In fact, the entire Batman mythology has been built around characters exhibiting extreme mental illness--when he defeats his enemies they are not sent to jail, but to Arkham Asylum. Critics have speculated that Batman himself is mentally ill, and certainly the Frank Miller version of the character qualfies. This summer's Batman flick will likely be a huge hit, but a vague discomfort with some of these subtexts is entering the public conversation, aided in part by the death of Heath Ledger, who played the Joker. Although insensitive and reckless, there have been many on-line posts speculating about the possibility that the role contributed to Ledger's death. The basis for these speculations are comments Ledger made about the mental toll of playing a psychopath.

Re-examination of media representations of mental illness coincides with an awareness that biology and brain chemistry are powerful determinants into the cause of these disorders. Previously, when character flaws were supposed to account for mental disease, it was rather easy to create fictional characters who exhibited a tenuous grip on reality because they chose to break from reality. As it becomes apparent that there is less choice involved than previously thought, it becomes increasingly unlikely that another Dennis Hopper will ever emerge, or that another Hamlet will ever be written (though in the latter case, if it hasn't been achieved in 400 years, there was little liklihood that it would have happened anytime soon, anyway).

However, the one mental illness that has only proliferated in fiction in recent years has been MPD, as evidenced by this Wikipedia list. Even when MPD is not being expressly depicted, it has been hinted at in many other media, such as the recent Todd Haynes Dylan film (in which Ledger and Christian Bale, the Joker and Batman respectively, played different sides of Dylan). The reason for this proliferation seems rather obvious: we live fractured lives and present different identities to different people. Take that concept to the extreme, and you have unlimited narrative potential. The question is whether we will continue to regard the disorder largely as just that- a fiction that is a useful exagerration of our everyday condition. Or will we come to regard it as we do other mental illness- a sensitive topic that must be carefully considered before given fictional representation? And who would have ever thought Herschel Walker would help us to work through this question?


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