Madness, Power, and the Media

Stephen Harper, a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth, UK, is the author of Madness, Power and the Media: Class, Gender and Race in Popular Representations of Mental Distress (2009), published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Madness is best understood in relation to its social, political and economic contexts rather than the medical model of ‘mental illness.’ (p.1)

With this opening salvo, author Stephen Harper expertly challenges common assumptions about mental distress and how it is portrayed in the media.

Madness, Power and the Media situates mental distress in a historical context,

“Designating mental illness as a punishable abdication of God-given reason, the Christian Bible can be seen as the earliest ‘media text’ to stigmatize mental illness.” (p.2)

As Foucault observed, while ‘mad behavior’ has been documented for centuries, the ‘mad person’ was created by the 19th century practice of incarcerating those displaying such behavior. Harper concludes, “psychiatry constituted a powerful means of ideological and physical containment” (p.5).

As early as the 14th Century, psychiatric labels were used to discredit social revolt.

“The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, for example, was described within official discourse as an outbreak of diabolical madness which threatened to overturn the supposedly natural and divinely ordained feudal hierarchy.” (p.2)

Psychiatric diagnoses continue to be used to persecute and incarcerate social and political rebels (i.e., the 1930s eugenics purges in the US, the UK and Nazi Germany and the designation of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s).

Alongside the religious condemnation of madness, there also developed a secular image of the hero, driven mad by suffering, who rebels against an oppressive social order. As a result, the media not only equates madness with violence, but also with genius and understandable responses to oppression or persecution (Pi).

The media can both villainize and romanticize mental illness.

…by embracing a sense of victimhood and vulnerability, Western culture has succumbed to an infantilising celebration of mental fragility, a development which undermines the capacity of human subjects to take control of their lives or to engage in political activity. (p.7)

Harper cites television series (Profit) and movies (American Psycho) to show how the media sometimes uses individual madness to illustrate the insanity of the capitalist system. These media

“… feature conscience-free anti-heroes who epitomize the values of corporate capitalism and who are nonetheless – or perhaps therefore – merciless killers.” (p.6)

While the State raises the spectre of the ‘mad rebel,’ the pharmaceutical industry prefers to portray mental illness sympathetically, and the mentally ill as victims, in order to expand the market for its remedies.

Madness, Power and the Media is unique among the many books that address these issues, because it

…attempts not simply to applaud or condemn media and film images of madness as ‘positive’ or ‘ negative’ from the inevitably narrow perspective of medical discourse, but to also understand how these images can underline or reinforce the unequal relations of class, race and gender which characterize contemporary capitalist societies. (p.7)

Harper emphasizes that the media portray mental distress differently depending on the race, gender and social class of the sufferer, and these portrayals reinforce class, race and gender oppressions.

Madness in men and upper-class individuals tends to be portrayed as more heroic and creative (Shine) than madness in women, which is shown as more tragic and irrational (The Hours) and madness in working-class individuals, who are typically portrayed as social rejects and deranged killers.

With the odd exception (The Soloist), non-white characters rarely appear as protagonists on television and in films that feature mental distress, even though visible minorities are disproportionately represented in psychiatric institutions.

I especially appreciated the way that Harper challenges both the media portrayal of the mentally ill as more violent (which has no social context) and those who protest that they are not violent (which also ignores social context).

There is… a clear link between violence and poverty…[P]eople suffering with mental distress often belong to a lower social class than those who do not; their higher rates of violent behaviour might therefore be explained in terms of their frustration or anger at their lack of social power… Understanding violence as a response to social coercion is strategically useful, dislodging the stigmatizing notion of violence as an individual act of evil. (p.46)

Harper contrasts the violence of the mentally ill individual with the systemic violence perpetrated by politicians (war, imprisonment, unemployment, strike-breaking, poverty, etc.). While these ‘pillars of society’ are considered sane, they are far more dangerous to society. He concludes that violence can be both oppressive and liberatory, depending on which social class is wielding it and for what purpose.

On reading this book, one is struck by the extent to which mental distress is featured in film, television and print media and the different ways that it is portrayed – as comedic, tragic, heroic, criminal, vulnerable, violent, admirable, despicable, endearing and threatening.

When it comes to treating mental distress, the media universally promote individual solutions and the personal cultivation of happiness while excluding any discussion of social change.

Harper provides a detailed and informative discussion of how men’s and women’s magazines handle mental distress differently, while both obscure the social sources of distress.

As a Marxist, Harper views mental distress as a reasonable response to social inequality, insecurity and alienation, and he questions how psychological equilibrium can be achieved in a context of unequal social relations. He identifies capitalism, rather than neoliberalism, as the problem and argues,

“…for the suppression rather than the reform of capitalism; alienation and poverty are structural features of capitalism itself rather than the side-effects of any particular phase of its development.” (p.198)

Madness, Power and the Media is rich in detailed, thought-provoking analysis. Harper has done an excellent job of organizing a huge amount of material into a comprehensive social context that is both sensitive and astute.

The biggest problem with this book is its academic language and price ($68) which limit its readership. This is unfortunate, because the ideas contained in Madness, Power and the Media should be broadly discussed among working-class readers who can solve the problems it identifies.

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Susan.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on January 6th, 2011 at 7:33am #

    Claiming that mental illness is caused by capitalism and then citing the Bible and the Peasants’ Revolt is contradictory inasmuch as both antedate capitalism.

  2. Don Hawkins said on January 6th, 2011 at 8:57am #

    “The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering—a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons—a nation of warriors and fanatics, marching forward in perfect unity, all thinking the same thoughts and shouting the same slogans, perpetually working, fighting, triumphing, persecuting—three hundred million people all with the same face.” Orwell

    That’s silly who would ever think like that come on get real. I can think of a few people anyway going to watch the House today as they read the Constitution I think it’s today then do some research into mental illness as we all go down the drain in not such slow motion. Maybe just read a little history go back about 2,500 years.

  3. Don Hawkins said on January 6th, 2011 at 9:35am #

    On third thought maybe just watch the movie “What About Bob”, again I just like the ending.

  4. bozh said on January 6th, 2011 at 10:19am #

    can i say this in ten words or less? let’s find out?
    supremacism causes ?all ills; includes best among us going bananas.

    one more observation or evaluation, please! in ten words or less, mind u:
    the worst-thinking-behaving among us get rich!

    here’s a few more like the above: laws=diktats=lawlessness!
    personal or nat’l ‘truth’= personal or nat’l ‘truth’.
    in other words: what’s in my head is in my head and nowhere else.
    also: know that u don’t know!
    ignorance of ignorance= worst ignorance!
    first a meri gos knew this in their bones> language was superfluous if not downright perilous in hands of some people.
    in hands of what people? priests and ‘nobles’! tnx

  5. 3bancan said on January 6th, 2011 at 1:00pm #

    MichaelKenny said on January 6th, 2011 at 7:33am #
    “Claiming that mental illness is caused by capitalism and then citing the Bible and the Peasants’ Revolt is contradictory inasmuch as both antedate capitalism”
    Ie MichaelKenny read the article from bottom upward to top. That the author claims that it’s ONLY capitalism that causes mental illness is MichaelKenny’s own – unsubstantiated willful mendacious – interpretation…

  6. Don Hawkins said on January 6th, 2011 at 1:49pm #

    Noble metals include gold and silver and platinum.

    “Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.” Cree

    When it comes to treating mental distress, the media universally promote individual solutions and the personal cultivation of happiness while excluding any discussion of social change.
    Susan Rosenthal

    Social change any thought’s on jellyfish as the main source of protein from our oceans. Boiled, fried, processed. I saw a person eat gold once on TV gold flakes over chocolate syrup with ice cream, heavy. Probably no different than a hamburger I had once with sawdust in it. I had trouble breathing for about 10 hours after words. Funny well that jellyfish part once it starts will not be all that funny and when will it start; it already has.

  7. bozh said on January 6th, 2011 at 2:29pm #

    don, correct,
    teaching people to become comletely independent [a futile hunt] estranges all such seekers or hunters from each and every other human.

    now, not all people actually seek to become independent. such people are probably more peaceable, peaceful, ready for dialog-compromise, etc.

    independence, dependence, or interdependence r ok at diff times and under diff circumstances.
    mostly, we r interdependent!

    one can chew gum and walk at the same time all by lonesome self. if u want a baby u may need a woman. nowdays, who knows what one needs? a tube might do.
    i.e. if ur clooney, pitts and u even get to make money from ur sperm.
    they call buying or choosing sperm donor “eugenics”.

    damn it! i cldn’t get a penny for mine! tnx

  8. Rehmat said on January 7th, 2011 at 6:08am #

    I think the writer should have included Zionist culture as one of the facter in mental illness.

    Remember last year, Israeli prime minister, Benji Netanyahu’s psychiarist Moshe Yaton committed suicide, leaving a note for Netanyahu: “You sucked the life right out of me. I can’t take anymore”.

  9. kanomi said on January 8th, 2011 at 9:12am #

    I’m a big fan of Susan Rosenthal’s work, ever since it was introduced to me via Lynn Gerry”s old radio show. She is very precise and modern in her class analysis.

    I’m not familiar with this book though, and while I’m sure there’s a lot to be said about dissent being classified as madness, I’m more concerned about madness that classifies normality as dissent; I’d be uninterested in a political examination of mental illness that did not consider psychopathology at all. It’s the dominant, perhaps the defining trait of civilization itself.

    Talking about mental illness and politics without discussing psychopaths is like talking about oceans while ignoring the Pacific.

    Political Ponerology, The Mask of Sanity, et al.

  10. Sven said on January 10th, 2011 at 8:07am #

    Michael Kenny said: “Claiming that mental illness is caused by capitalism and then citing the Bible and the Peasants’ Revolt is contradictory inasmuch as both antedate capitalism”.

    There’s no contradiction here. The argument is that the unequal social relations of capitalism are responsible for mental distress today, while power inequalities in ancient and medieval times ensured that madness was associated with social and political deviance in the past.

    I think you’re getting confused here. Nobody is claiming that capitalism is the only system that ‘creates’ madness.