So Mental Illness is Actually a Superpower?
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So Mental Illness is Actually a Superpower?


black box There’s a new drama called Black Box debuting tonight. I want to watch it, because I like to watch any show, or read any poem, or devour any memoir, that concerns “crazy” women and mental illness. Though this show doesn’t sound like anything particularly different or new, whatever, I’m going to watch it anyway.

Predictable Mental Illness Portrayal

Apparently Black Box is about a fancy-pants big-shot neurologist named Catherine Black. She’s special because she’s bipolar, and her illness magically equips her with a weirdly divine sixth-sense type thing that allows her to see more deeply into the lives, minds, and troubles of her troubled patients. “Catherine has an insight into her patients that no one else has, allowing her to communicate with them on a different level,” ABC’s press notes explain.

I’m not surprised that the show, at least according to this New Republic review, falls back on the tired old trope that’s been thrown around in film and literature and art and, well, pretty much anything and everything creative, for pretty much all of time: that insanity is a superpower, a type of godly gift. That brilliance and illness are inextricably linked, always and forever. That the best minds of any generation are also the most f*cked up and self-loathing. That artists of any ilk are bereft of “material” if their lives aren’t brimming with loneliness, misery and pain. The tragic hero(ine) is real, at least in our cultural fantasies.

And when you think about it, don’t most of our supposed artistic heroes—usually the tragic ones, duh—have some kind of mental pitfall that keeps them forever stuck in otherworldly amounts of excruciating pain? Both fictional ones and real ones. Oh, and they tend to commit suicide. Think Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Diane Arbus, Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh, Anne Sexton, Mark Rothko, the list goes on and on and on.

Nothing New Yet

So yeah. To me, Catherine Black just sounds like pop culture’s latest incarnation of the nutty messed-up wild child gone straight, via the world of medicine—but not too straight, never too straight, she’s only been kissed by madness, remember? And the mad ones are the most alive. Err…until they’re dead by their own hand.

It would be great if we could start conceiving some new tropes, Hollywood. Though I’ll admittedly keep watching and reading all the crazy-woman crap until you do.

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.