Monday, November 7, 2011

Potential for Stigma-Smashing Greatness

I enjoy Glee, a lot. What’s not to love about a television show highlighting high school theatre/arts, dynamic characters, sharp writing, full-blown musical numbers, and current controversial topics?

That’s what I thought. :)

Season three, which began earlier this fall, just returned from a short hiatus…due to either X Factor or some sports shenanigans. This break started after the third episode, “Asian F.” This episode broke me.

I was in an emotional place when I watched it, but still. I reacted strongly because of Emma Pillsbury, the guidance counselor at the fictional William McKinley High School, played by the delightful Jayma Mays (Heroes, Ugly Betty, and Pushing Daisies). Emma is the main love interest of Will Schuester, the director of the glee club, played by Matthew Morrison (Numb3rs, CSI: Miami, and As the World Turns). Why did Jayma Mays’ performance get such a response from me…aside from the fact that I have a bit of a crush on her? Because Emma Pillsbury has OCD.   

Jayma Mays has said that Emma “seems like a real person facing real issues.” Her character has been on Glee since the pilot. Very rarely has her mental illness EVER been the focus. Jayma Mays plays the OCD in a cute, yet heartfelt way…which is what Tony Shalhoub did with Monk. In the latter’s case…it was the creators, writers, directors, and producers who caused Monk’s mental illness to feel fake, regardless of the performance. Glee has the guts to view OCD authentically, so far at least.

Emma’s OCD is actually called OCD from the beginning….not an “anxiety disorder.” As I said above, rarely is it the focus of the show…partially due to it being a harsh illness, but more so because Emma’s not a main character. There are two episodes that deal with her OCD directly. The first is season two’s “Born this Way” (yes, a reference to Miss GaGa).

In “Born this Way,” Emma agrees to get help. There is a short scene where Dr. Shane prescribes her medication. (The next moments have really stayed with me.) Emma gets the meds and opens the bottle. There is a close up of her face as she places one pill on a table. The emotions she conveys (pain, anxiety, and shame) are so genuine. The shot is followed by an extreme close up of the pill being placed on the table with a heavy “thud” sound effect. This did a wonderful job of communicating the burden of the illness, and fear of the medication. The scenes were very short, but powerful nonetheless.

In “Asian F” (season three), Will and Emma (who now live together) have dinner with Emma’s parents. They are these HORRIBLE (yet comical) people who belittle their child for her OCD, no matter the company. She hangs her head and her eyes begin to mist.

This is followed by her and Will getting ready for bed. She is rattled and performing compulsions. Will tries to stop her, and she kneels down to pray. She explains how kneeling to pray aloud helps more, when praying silently in her head isn’t enough. Will kneels, takes her hands and begins to sing Coldplay’s “Fix You.”  It’s a beautiful song, slow and simple. Emma begins to cry as he sings and prays with her. I broke.

I was, and am, SO touched that a mainstream, popular television show would treat a mental illness – particularly one I personally suffer from - so sincerely. It was lovely. I sat there, tearing up, and I felt happy, sad, a bit angry, and confused. I got hit by ALL this in the span of 15 seconds. I didn’t know why I was confused and angry…until I heard the song refrain, “I will try to fix you.” 

I was more confused than angry. Glee is a smart show. It portrays OCD sincerely and respectfully, even more so after the episode “Asian F.”  So to use the word “fix” upsets me…I hate that term when applied to OCD. It implies people with this illness are broken, and that is horseshit. They are not broken; it is part of who they are. OCD is not a fixable mental illness. The person afflicted can understand, manage, deal, and overcome to an amazing degree…but the OCD will never be completely gone. That is a hard reality. They didn’t choose to have it, but they do, and they deal with it. Emma is NOT a broken person, which is why Will CANNOT “fix” her.

That being the case, why choose such a beautifully sad song to express Will’s feelings about Emma’s OCD?  Does Will want to fix Emma?  Yes, he does. I get that. Many loved ones of those with mental illness have the same mentality. Does he think he CAN fix her?  I don’t know.

I’m confused for a number of reasons. Is Will’s character arc this season going to involve him trying to “fix” Emma only to realize he can’t? That the best thing he can do for her is love her, support her, and stand by her side? That would be a HELL of a way to take things. It’s narrative gold.

Is Will going to succeed in “fixing” Emma?  Do the creators, writers, directors, and producers think that’s possible?  I sure as hell HOPE not! Will Glee take the easy way out by choosing this path?  The care and earnestness put into the way this sequence was shot says NO…but the use of Coldplay’s “Fix You” says MAYBE.

Glee has an opportunity here. It can choose to smash the stigma surrounding OCD, or take the path of less resistance. This show portrays those with mental illness and their loved ones. It can show us the loved one’s journey of coming to terms with a hard truth, through its unique lens of storytelling.

I have never been so invested in, and scared of, a television show in my entire life. I hope Glee gives us a Will Schuester who learns that “fixing” Emma Pillsbury is not possible, but standing by her side is.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

-C. Weise

Chris Weise is ETD's Production Manager and a member of the Ambassador Council. He also wears a directing hat for ETD from time to time. Click here to read more posts from Chris.

1 comment:

  1. Chris-I watched this episode and am impressed that Glee is taking on OCD in front of an impressionable market (teens). But I also share your concerns. I especially worry about the scene were Emma's mother is shown washing a glass at a restaurant (delivered by an unfamiliar, "non-ginger" waitress). As the mother compulsively wipes the glass, Emma is shown wiping a fork (or something like that), and the viewer hears "I wonder where she gets it" (or something like that--it's been a few weeks since I saw it). I was immediately concerned about this line of "blaming the parent" and felt it did more harm than good toward adding to the stigma and misunderstandings of mental illness.