What does our film culture tell us about young women struggling with depression? And how does society's message affect real life girls struggling to become women? Whether one is diagnosed in a mental institution or struggles with problems on one's own, young women may be either over-diagnosed or not diagnosed at all.
Girl, Interrupted, released in 1999, starring Winona Ryder as Susanna Kaysen, is the story of an eighteen-year-old's transformation in a mental hospital. Susanna ends up there by chasing a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka and explaining it by saying, "I had a headache." Crazy/Beautiful, released in 2001, starring Kirsten Dunst as Nicole, never takes us inside of any hospitals or therapy sessions, rather it shows how one woman begins her recovery without any diagnoses through normal everyday life. Crazy/Beautiful is set at Pacific Palisades High and focuses on a poor Mexican boy, Carlos Nunez played by Jay Hernandez, who falls for Nicole and the ensuing complications that occur. Through their relationship Nicole faces up to her out-of-control life and the woman she is becoming.
Girl, Interrupted, based on a true story, is set in the sixties while Crazy/Beautiful takes place present day. Both girls face personal and societal pressures to live up to in facing womanhood. Susanna's parents expect her to be social and mingle with their friends. The one time she did, she ended up having an affair with one of her father's married friends. It seems as though it is the outside world that is crazy, not Susanna. The same is true for Nicole's situation. She is not so much crazy as trying to find a way to deal with the craziness of life around her. Nicole is sexually promiscuous, but her parents have given up trying to help her. It is not until she has a responsible boyfriend that she can settle down long enough to catch a glimpse of herself.
Both characters are artists. Susanna is a writer and Nicole, a photographer. Perhaps it is the artistic spirit in the female body that allows the two to recover, or perhaps it is what pushed them over into their "craziness." How many opportunities are available for female artists? Are they taken seriously? In both movies, the characters express themselves through art, which acts as a safety valve. Susanna's character is internally directed; hence her brooding depression and internal art form -- writing. Nicole's character is outwardly directed, hence her angry and defiant personality and a more external and visual art form -- photography. Their art will play a major part in their return to wellness.
Susanna's diagnosis of borderline personality disorder is a common description of what many girls feel as they try to navigate their way from childhood to womanhood. Susanna's core issues erupt from the pressures put on all girls to grow up as respectable and independent women, but at the same time to find a man to take care of them. Nicole is a seventeen-year-old wild child from a wealthy family who drinks, does drugs, skips school and doesn't give a damn about what society wants from her. She's tried to kill herself a few times and is currently on medication. Both young women are lost in a world that can present them many choices, but offer next to no direction. Their ways of shutting out the chaotic world with alcohol and suicidal tendencies are cries for help in an uncaring world.
The circumstances may differ for each, but both Susanna and Nicole have a lack of self-esteem. Susanna expresses it through acute depression and withdrawal while Nicole explodes outwardly instead. Nicole's mother killed herself when she was twelve and she's the one who found her. Obviously this is the major factor in Nicole's emotional problems, but the fact that she hasn't dealt with the pain has just compounded onto her daily life. Nicole believes she's found her answer through a romantic relationship. Carlos tells her she is loved, and it is enough for her to begin to experience a sense of self, but one defined by another.
Girl, Interrupted does not allow a man to be the impetus for healing in Susanna's life. Susanna's boyfriend comes and offers her an out, to go to Canada with him because he's been drafted for Vietnam. He says the magic words that Nicole needs to hear to recover, "I love you."
Susanna says, "I want to leave, but not with you." She is able to turn and walk away.
Nicole is not so strong. She is escorted to school to collect her stuff before being sent off for rehabilitation, but when Carlos utters those three magic words, she sneaks off with him rather than own up to herself.
Susanna and Nicole both come from wealthy families. Nicole's boyfriend can't afford to blow off life; he rides a bus two hours to school. He lives in a rough neighborhood, but he's emotionally stable. He knows what he wants from life and knows what must be done to get it. Nicole, on the other hand, is unwilling and unable to face her past or future. Is it Carlos' poverty that makes him strong or his being a man in a patriarchal society?
Nicole will eventually recover because she has money and a loving father. She could afford to be torn apart by life, but what about real life girls who suffer from this same angst and aren't so lucky to have parents who love them or wealth to cure them? What does their depression do to them? And what does it feel like to watch movies in which rich girls experience the same things they do, but with help offered at every turn?
Girl, Interrupted had this tag line in previews, "Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to go a little crazy." When the world around one is in a state of flux, it's hard to not find oneself in the same state. The ability to go a little crazy may be what saved Susanna and Nicole from actually committing suicide. If one isn't a little crazy, the least fluctuation in life can send one past her emotional limits.
The tag line for the film Crazy/Beautiful says, "It's not what's in your life but who." The only problem with this is that it places Nicole's responsibility for freedom onto somebody else. She does finally make the decision to reform on her own, but a man prompts it. The film places too much emphasis on a love relationship's strength to make up for strength of individual character. It's a mixed message in the end. Did Nicole emancipate herself, or just find temporary happiness through a man?
When Susanna begins recovery the nurse Valerie recommends that she rid herself of all her past feelings. "Put it down in your notebooks -- so you can't curl up with it anymore." Artistic expression will help Susanna rid herself of built-up emotional junk, so that she can move on. Nicole will no doubt experience the same release as she explores life through her camera's lens.
As long as we live in a troubled world in which women are treated as a second sex, we will continue to see problems of mental health expressing themselves in young women. Technology keeps us always three steps in front of ourselves -- always crossing borders that we might not yet be ready to cross. Young girls have a plethora of choices to make, which affect every area of their lives
"When you don't want to feel, death can seem like a dream," Susanna explains at the end of the film.
Sometimes there can be too many feelings and not enough "you" to process them. Death then seems to be an answer to the world that is splitting one apart. Many confused girls find themselves embracing insanity in some form as a way of dealing with the pressures of coming-of-age. Hopefully, films like Girl, Interrupted and Crazy/Beautiful will help young women realize that even when death seems like the best option, there are other choices to struggle towards and they usually lead to finding oneself, although it may end up being a sane self living in an insane world.