Today, I explain why it is a bad idea to try to apply real life mental health standards to fictional characters.
This is “Just a Reminder,” a feature where I just point out some stuff, typically in relation to a recent controversy in the world of pop culture.
Now, let me be up front here, when I talk about this, I’m talking from a well-learned experience, as I’ve done it myself, so I totally get the appeal of writing about how “Fictional character X is a sociopath/psychopath” or whatever (and, to be honest, obviously there are plenty of times when the TV shows or films specifically ADDRESS this specific topic, and that’s obviously a different thing. It isn’t unreasonable to debate Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lector. Their mental health is the point of the story, and the writers are ASKING that discussion to take place).
No, what I mean is the kind of thing where someone takes a seemingly heroic or comedic figure and does one of those, “Well, actually, character X is a sociopath/psychopath.”
I once did a post like that about Cyclops, and a professor sent in an excellent rebuke of my article which I think was very spot on. He wrote, in part:
I don’t normally send out critical emails about misapplied scientific concepts in comics or comics criticism. Hell, I’d probably lose my job if I went down that road. This case is a little bit more sensitive though. Neurodivergent folks and people suffering from mental or neurological disorders often have to deal with stigmatization, armchair diagnoses, and superficial treatment as a fact of life. That’s kind of an obvious point, but I think it might indicate why casually dragging in something like the PCL-R might come across as flippant at best (and really hurtful at worst). I think that the topic is an interesting one, but I hope you might reconsider the approach.
He was absolutely correct. It IS overly flippant and it is just bad form. It is not clever or cute to be, all, “Oh, hey, character X in that comedy is actually a psychopath.” This is because comedic characters are almost inherently exaggerated (heck, most movie characters are). They do not live in a realistic setting, and thus applying real life settings to them is absurd and, again, way too flippant for something that is an actually important issue in real life. Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, for instance, is essentially a cipher of a character, he’s the basis for a plot hook, not someone that is well formed enough to be diagnosed like a real person.
That a fictional character can inspire people to think about their various personality traits and put those traits into the context of their own life or life, in general, is totally fine, of course, but when you go about diagnosing comedic characters with real life mental disorders, I think you’re going a step too far and almost assuredly are crossing a line past good fun (a lot of this is tied to my old post about contrarian takes in general, really).