One Step Away from Authentic Representation of Mental Illness?
A colleague asked what I thought of the representation of mental illness on Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (2023). Some people take casual questions casually. Six hours of Netflix, two hours watching interviews, and [however long it took me to write this blog post] later, I can state with utmost certitude: I am not one of those people.
Full confession: period melodrama is not usually my thing. I have seen zero Bridgerton (2020-present), of which Queen Charlotte is the prequel/sequel spin-off. To boot, this is my first venture into in Shondaland. And I am only one person. My own experiences of mental illness and of the mental healthcare system are not universal. I’m a part-time historian, but don’t give two flying flips if writers take liberties with the past when they write fiction. (Black German nobility in the 1700s? Natürlich!) Within those admitted limitations(?), my viewing of Queen Charlotte has left me feeling generally impressed and inspired, but with a profound sense of just how much work remains to be done for authentic and inclusive representation of mental illness.
“We are untold stories.”
More and more historical fiction on screen has appeared with racially diverse casts; for example: Bridgerton(2020-present), Fantastic Beastsspin-offs (2016, 2018, 2022), and the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp(2019). These have been rightly criticized for presenting versions of the past as multiracial utopias, as if Black folk magically showed up in Europe and North America, and racism has never happened. By contrast, Queen Charlotte offers an organic narrative for what the intersection of race, racism, gender, sexism, sexual diversity, and political power could look like in the early moments of an integration process. Series creator and writer Shonda Rhimes, character co-creator Julia Quinn, and co-writer Nicholas Nardini deserve significant accolades for that alone.
The protagonists’ position on the margins is especially striking. “It’s very much about: How do you survive in a world in which you have no power?” Shonda Rhimes declared in a Netlix interview. “How do you find the power in that?” Specifically, how do two Black women empower themselves and each other in a white- and male-dominated environment? The title character and Lady Danbury serve as protagonists, as both their newly elevated younger selves and as well-established leaders, looking back later in life (played respectively by India Amarteifio/Golda Rosheuvel and Arsema Thomas/Adjoa Andoh). Lady Danbury herself puts it well: “We are untold stories.”
I recently came across an old black-and-white photograph of my Grandma Ruth Jane Faithful and her mother-in-law, my Great-Grandma Natalie Rutledge Jones Faithful, gladhanding four-term Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes. They knew the score and weren’t afraid to have more than a few awkward conversations with Nixon-era Republican power brokers in order to make sure that their family line had a chance thrive. Part of what made me fall in love with Queen Charlotte is seeing an echo of my own family story, however technically historically inaccurate in its details. In spirit, it rang true, at least in depicting what it can be like for women of color to strive for greater equity.
“Some days he has good days. Some days he has bad days.”
Add mental illness to the aforementioned, groundbreaking, intersecting social, political, and personal differentials. King George III (Corey Mylchreest/James Fleet) has persistent anxiety, occasional panic attacks, at least one manic episode (with delusions), and, in the end, dementia. His mother, the Dowager Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairely), and the royal staff scramble to cover up the king’s “madness” as long as possible. As Reynolds (Freddie Dennis), the king’s man, explains, “Some days he has good days. Some days he has bad days.”
Queen Charlotte’s version of King George is painfully aware that he is losing touch with reality, that there is no effective treatment, that his relationships with everyone are in jeopardy, and that his crown may be forfeit. This understandably compounds his anxiety. Much of his narrative functions as a tragedy, as he risks his own personal wellbeing in pursuit of a cure. Viewers witness him submit to ineffective and inhumane psychiatric treatment. (“Torture!” psychiatrist Dr. Elliott Carthy rightly observed in the context of outstanding show commentary on “Dr. Elliott Reacts.”)
In real life, King George III of England was intermittently incapacitated, necessitating the reign of his oldest son in his stead as regent; hence, in the “Regency Era.” The film The Madness of King George(1994), like the similarly titled play upon which it is based, offers another version of his struggles (assumed diagnosis: porphyria).
“Nobody knows what King George had,” Rhimes explained. (Bipolar is the current chief contender, unseating porphyria.) “It was about figuring a way to honor the illness that he had […] and think of this from that era’s point of view. We don’t know what he has. […] We wanted to be respectful of the man who he was” (interview with Tony Ruiz on Gold Derby). Such intentions are admirable. Because of them, she was able to offer a humanizing character study that does not cast George exclusively as a victim. However, the decision to present him with a kind of generic mental illness had a ripple effect, to the detriment of the production.
If you’re offering, as Rhimes insists (in the same interview) “not a history lesson” but “fiction based on fact,” the fiction needs to be specific. Just because we don’t know now and people at the time didn’t know (or even have a name) for it then, doesn’t mean that the writers shouldn’t choose a precise diagnosis. (Optimal example of mental illness handled especially well on screen: anxiety and alcoholism on The Bear (2022-present)).
The Case for a Proper Manic Rant (and Other Missing Pieces?)
If the illness is vague, its depiction will risk incoherence and undermine the authenticity and therefore impact of the narrative. In this case, the vagueness gives King George’s constellation of symptoms a haphazard, tropey quality. Rather than helping inform viewers of what symptoms to look for in others or in themselves, the show’s depiction contributes yet further misinformation on the topic.
Perhaps through little fault of his own (misinformation, stigma, directorial choices, etc.), Mylchreest sometimes seemed to be pretending rather than really demonstrating in a credible way the kinds of actions and words that someone like me might have done and said in a similar kind of crisis before the advent of modern treatment. When viewers and Charlotte first meet him, there isn’t the faintest hint of restrained struggle. Just the slightest hint (not too much!) of plausible, potential, occasional unhinged-ness in that first encounter would have gone a long way to make what happens next seem more believable. In this instance, there is such a thing as too much charm, calm, and composure.
We writers are accountable to the communities we represent, both our own multiple, overlapping communities, and others’. By representing no-condition-in-particular in King George’s illness, Queen Charlotte failed to represent as such those suffering with porphyria, bipolar, or any other specific chronic mental health condition.
This was a missed opportunity, both in service to public awareness and to the drama. When George III was manic (depicted in episode 3, “Even Days”; could be a symptom of either bipolar or porphyria, apparently), the following ingredients could have strengthened the character’s depiction:
- More words, delivered at a quicker pace. Mania is known for its interruptive, hasty, disjointed wordiness.
- Some implied connection between the different strands of the character’s delusions. The connection doesn’t need to be real, but it should at least seem real to the character.
- Reckless spending. After all, he has an effectively unlimited spending account. (Is this where the king’s private observatory is from?)
- Heightened libido.
- A manic episode will least anywhere from several weeks to several months. (Why rush through a perfectly good fictional crisis?)
At no point in Queen Charlotte did King George deliver a proper, verbose, unnervingly swift manic rant. A good one (if I may be so bold) might have sounded something like this: “Farmer George, man of the earth, son of Gaia, geo, geosphere, King of England, Church of England, Anglican, not angelic, an Anglo-Adam, from dust I come, to dust I go, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I must speak to Venus, Aphrodite, goddess of love. Speak! I am listening! But how to reconcile love and earth? How can the king reap and sow! So I must farm. By starlight! In light of the light of love!” Etc. Instead, we simply get a few repeated phrases (“I see you!” to Venus. “I knew you would come!”). We don’t even get to see what George has scrawled on the walls or get a hint of what it might mean to him. (A Beautiful Mind (2001) offers one model for how to do that well.)
The question of heredity (whether bipolar or porphyria; or, at the understanding of the time, “madness”) could have added to the drama, too. Are none of Charlotte and George’s children concerned about that possibility? Is this part of what has held them back from embracing the pressures of succession? But all we get is a brief question from Dowarger Princess Augusta about Prince George IV: “Are there any signs?” (Not a great question to ask about a newborn.)
Questions and Best Practices
Just as Rhimes promotes “color-conscious [instead of ‘color blind’] casting,” showrunners should employ psych-/neuro-diversity-conscious hiring. At a minimum, showrunners, writers, directors, and actors need to engage in dialogue with people whose ways of thinking and personal psychiatric history are similar to the characters they will portray. (Hire consultants! Those of us who teach have extra flexible schedules in the summer and very modest compensation expectations….) Such research simply isn’t possible if the character’s illness isn’t specific. Optimally, the writers and actors depicting people with mental illnesses themselves will have some personal, lived experience of mental illness (in whatever forms are relevant to the narrative).
In most ways, the dynamics aren’t any different from depicting any other marginalized community. Have you read some articles online but talked to zero living people whose life experience is comparable to what you’re attempting to depict? That constitutes fraud, no matter how well-intentioned. Do you have just one person in the cast or in the writers’ room with relevant experience of mental illness? Congratulations. You’ve ascended to the realm of tokenism. In order to portray an authentic mental health crisis, a good writers’ room should have at least two people who have experienced psychiatric hospitalization at some point in their lives….
…Which Is Why We Need Strong Unions
I recognize that, to the uninitiate, my claim that there should be not one but multiple psychiatrically-experienced writers involved might seem wildly unrealistic. Such is the power of stigma. I assure you, those of us who have chronic mental health diagnoses are more numerous and more capable of productive lives in society than stereotypes allow.
Statistically, it seems likely that dozens of writers with bipolar, for example, already work in Hollywood. It seems equally likely that few are open about it. In our current creative-economic climate, in which securing a livelihood is as tenuous as ever (thanks, streaming!), there are few incentives for all but the most established writers and actors to take such risks.
The more’s the pity. Good writing saves lives. When they come from a place of authentic personal knowledge, stories of mental illness and other potentially traumatic life experiences can give real hope to some of those who need it most.
“I care not for his sanity. I care for his happiness. I care for his soul.”
In the end, Queen Charlotte succeeds—not in being perfect, but in being many things all at once. No less, many things that few shows have been at all. By offering a fun, sexy, thoughtful look at the intersection of power, privilege, race, class, gender, sexuality, marriage, family, stigma, secrecy, and mental illness, the show is utterly extraordinary.
Despite its flaws in depicting mental illness with utmost authenticity, it succeeds in depicting the struggles of caregivers. In her fight against the Royal Physician (Guy Henry), Queen Charlotte succeeds in intervening and in ending George’s torture. As she asserts at the peak of the conflict, finally learning to assert her royal prerogative, “I care not for his sanity. I care for his happiness. I care for his soul.”
Charlotte’s love is not enough to resolve the intermittence of George’s sanity. He laments at one point that he’s “only half a king.” I worry that his was only half a character. His illness dominates his portion of the narrative. “If you notice in a show, if it’s a mainstream show, and there’s one person of color, that’s all their storyline is allowed to be,” Rhimes noted (interview on Sway’s Universe). At least King George is allowed to be several things: a husband, a king, an amateur astronomer, an aspiring farmer, and someone wrestling, truly wrestling, with an insurmountable mental health condition. The first and last of these dominate his role.
“I wanted to tell a story about complicated love,” Rhimes explained (interview on Gold Derby). His and Charlotte’s love for each other is ultimately what redeems his narrative. We see the fruit of that love in the person of their numerous children, regaled in period dress, spanning the spectrum of melination. (Dear Hollywood: more of this, please!)
Queen Charlotte represents immense progress. But I’m still waiting for a psychiatric Black Panther moment—a narrative that gives us for bipolar, schizophrenia, schizoaffective, obsessive compulsive, porphyria, and/or borderline, etc., what Ramonda, T’Challa, Shuri, N’Jadaka, Nakia, Okoye, M’Baku, Zuri, Ayo, Aneka, and their whole society have given us for Blackness. We’re not there yet but at least we’re making progress and the assignment is clear.