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Depictions of Mental Health On TV Have a Class Problem

While shows like 'Fleabag' successfully reckon with the psychological and existential crises facing young people today, they fail to acknowledge the financial one.

by Emma Garland
Mar 27 2019, 12:54pm

Brett Gelman and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 'Fleabag'.

The 2010s have been dominated by TV shows that prominently feature characters with mental health problems. From Mr. Robot to Big Mouth, it's become an inescapable plot line in modern television, for obvious reasons: there's hardly a person left on Earth who hasn't experienced – or knows someone who's experienced – some sort of mental health issue.

The simultaneous rise of mainstream feminism has also helped clear a path for these issues to be explored specifically through women's lenses. Girls, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag – all incredibly successful in their progressive representations of more common diagnoses like OCD, anxiety and depression, all rightly venerated as a result. In different ways, they depict a similar reality: millennial women "being messy" against a backdrop of identity politics and artisanal coffee shops. They are self-involved and self-destructive; shitty friends and shitty feminists. Their relationships are dysfunctional, their sex lives are abject and their parents are either absent or just as bad. The appeal of the characters is that they aren't written to be "likeable", and the appeal of the shows is that they are so brutal with them. As scathing tragicomedies, humour tends to stem from a character’s objectively terrible actions, while moments of poignancy arrive when they’re made to pay for them. They're the kind of shows critics tend to describe, not incorrectly, as "moving, hilarious and honest". They're also all inescapably middle class.

When Fleabag first aired in 2016, it captured something unique about being a total (and very English) piece of shit. The nameless protagonist is an angry, aimless sex addict who is expertly repressing the death of her best friend while somehow running a cafe in north London that was – in the first series, at least – frequented by no one. She is born into and surrounded by privilege, but intended to be seen as a failure in that context. Conversely, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend uproots Rebecca – a Yale graduate with BPD – from a New York law firm and dumps her in a Californian suburb full of regular people whose more generally relatable (but less entertaining) problems often serve to highlight Rebecca’s advantages without counting them against her. As the forerunner of the genre, Girls is an exquisite takedown of young, white, college-educated women as a largely insufferable demographic. While, more recently, Netflix’s Russian Doll finds software developer Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) trapped in a perpetual loop of her 36th birthday party until she learns to face the trauma of her past and open up to people in the present.

All of these shows deal with the feelings of precariousness, incapability, isolation and general disappointment that define your twenties and thirties. As a result, they are beloved largely by millennials. But while they successfully reckon with the psychological and existential crises facing young people today, they fail to properly acknowledge the financial one.

Whenever we see people with no money and mental health problems on TV, it's usually in soap operas, "gritty" multi-part documentaries or post-war dramas where at least one of the male characters has PTSD. When middle class people are "mad" it's considered whimsical; when working class people are "mad" it usually results in death or a visit from child services. Even BoJack Horseman – a cartoon that deals with depression better than any other show on air – has a financial security net written in that allows BoJack to disappear for extended periods of wallowing. Their problems might be relatable, but their circumstances aren’t.

A TV show doesn’t need to be relatable to be good. Imposing politics on art is a simple way to make it super fucking boring, but it does seem odd that as the UK and the US are both facing both mental health and financial crises, the only stories being told through comedy are ones of a very similar ilk. There is a general sense of whimsy about these day-dreaming, inappropriate-at-dinner-parties, bad-at-life protagonists that we enjoy, but that enjoyment is predicated on the knowledge that they can only fall so far. Fleabag’s unsuccessful business, for example, would be less of a funny reflection of her Bernard Black-style "can’t be arsed" nature if she spiralled into crippling debt as a result.

Obviously, you can't ignore the fact that these shows are also about privilege. Class is built directly into their framework, and their characters are examples – and, you could argue, victims – of entitlement. At some point in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca – a former lawyer and Yale graduate – runs out of money and has to learn how to budget for the first time in her late-twenties. Hannah also learns to "struggle" in season one of Girls when her parents cut her off for being two years out of college with only an unpaid internship and a series of underwhelming memoirs to show for it, while the current series of Fleabag opens with a bottle-episode of a family dinner where one of the main jokes is her dad slipping her what everyone assumes to be a cheque but is actually a voucher for counselling. Lack of money, sometimes, is a plot device – but it’s never the setting.

Contrast that to a show like Satellite City or My Mad Fat Diary and you have an entirely different tone of comedy. A short-lived sitcom set in the Welsh valleys in the 1990s, Satellite City centres on a couple, Gwynne and Moira, who share a terraced house with Gwynne's dad, Idris, and Randy – an American lodger studying a doctorate in "Celtic mysticism and Welsh culture". Gwynn is vocally depressed, Moira is addicted to "tablets", and almost everyone is unemployed, except Dai, who runs the local pub. Rather than being centred as important plot points, mental health and addiction are baked deep into the show. However, there is an entire episode in season two dedicated to the collapse of Gwynne’s mental state as he struggles to cope with his 40th birthday, culminating in the family attempting to get to the root of his trauma by hypnotising him with a statue of Neil Kinnock.

Satellite City Gwynne
Gwynne mid-breakdown on Satellite City – screenshot via YouTube

Similarly, My Mad Fat Diary follows 16-year-old Rae Earl after a four-month stint in a psychiatric hospital. Made in 2013 – but set in Stamford, Lincolnshire, also in the 90s – Rae has to navigate the complexities of everyday teenage life while dealing with poor mental health and body image problems largely on her own, having told her best friend she’d spent the last few months in France. In a review in The Independent, Brian Semple writes that Rae "has a mental illness, but it doesn’t define her. It’s just something that she has to deal with and try to manage on a daily basis." The same is true of the characters in Satellite City, whose solution to their problems is usually to go to the pub about it.

Ultimately, shows like Fleabag are written from places of experience, and that’s exactly what makes them so good in the first place. When people try to write outside their own experiences it rarely goes well – like when Lena Dunham responded to criticism of the overwhelmingly white cast of Girls by writing in a black Republican character just so Hannah could say she "doesn't see colour", which only opened the show up to even deeper criticism by excusing its shortcomings as satire. The experiences of their creators are usually ones of great privilege – Lena Dunham was born directly into the New York art world; Phoebe Waller-Bridge has baronesses on both sides of her family; Rachel Bloom has described herself as "objectively upper-middle class" – but they hardly lack self-awareness. Comedy thrives on a deep understanding of its subject. It does all of these shows a disservice to lay the blame of representation – as far as class is concerned – at their feet, because it’s not their story to tell in the first place. We don’t need more working class characters, we need more working class writers.

It's largely unhelpful to politicise art, but politics does inform the environment in which art exists. Despite its fond beginnings, even the beloved Shameless struggled towards the end of its lifespan – seeming to play into negative working class stereotypes peddled by New Labour and then Conservative austerity, rather than simply portraying a community with humour. Frank Gallagher's "We are worth every penny for grinding your axes / We're off our 'eds but you pay the taxes" mantra didn’t really land as well after the financial crash, and the show's end in 2013 was a death knell for a brand of British comedy that has yet to be given the opportunity to reinvent or update itself.

There are comedies set in working class communities, and there are dramas about working class people with mental health problems, but for some reason the two rarely come together. There’s no reason not to celebrate the likes of Fleabag, but it’s also worth asking what our almost exclusive veneration of this type of character says about how we view mental health more broadly; whose voices we can laugh with, and why. The whole point of comedy is to alleviate the tragedy in the first place, but beyond that, it's humanising – but only one section of society is currently benefitting. It's become a widely accepted default at this point that people of little means are expected to sympathise with people of many, but never the other way around.

For all the time it spends fobbing off the problems of its characters, because that’s what they would do, Satellite City had a pretty devastating hour-long finale in which Moira announces she’s infertile at her own "congrats you’re pregnant" party, and Gwynne tries to kill himself. He fails, of course – he lies down in the road and walks into traffic and gets increasingly angry as drivers successfully avoid him, then heads for the coast. The family find his clothes by the sea, the camera pans out to the sound of screaming and you're led to believe he's dead until the last second, when Gwynne pops out of a bush naked and Moira yells "YOU STUPID BUGGER". Then it cuts to the credits.

I'm not saying we need more poverty-stricken characters failing to end their lives on TV, but if there's one thing comedy could stand to see more of it’s normal people being mad and then dealing with it in normal ways. For most people, that doesn’t include their dad paying to send them on a luxurious women's-only silent retreat.

@emmaggarland

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.