The Problem of Atlanta and Hollywood’s Lazy Media Tropes
Americans need to interrogate their failure of moral imagination, and pop culture needs to participate.
I sit at a juxtaposition as an interracial family advocate and mental illness media strategist and the killing spree of six Asian American women in Atlanta leaves me in paralysis.
The murderer’s horrifying behavior was a hateful choice he made, not the result of mental illness, as much as people try to make it so. It is not about having a bad day or being mentally unwell. This was a man who engaged with every other facet of life and chose, of his own volition, to commit murder against vulnerable targets.
Mental illness has been the scapegoat for far too long, an easy coverup for the urgent problem at hand: terrorizing moral judgment and consequent action, tainted by the filth of racism, sexism, white supremacist thinking, and other forms of bigotry.
As such, we must challenge the social norms, stereotypes, and beliefs we hold about mental illness. Everyone knows someone with depression, anxiety, or bipolar, and the majority of the time they are our friends, colleagues and neighbors. So why, when tragedy hits, do we jump to some monster-like conception of what it means to be mentally different?
As with racial stereotypes, ill-informed depictions of mental illness plague Hollywood and the media. For example, research by Heather Stuart at Queen University shows that closeups in films amplify scary-looking facial expressions of characters with mental illness as a way to make them appear far more violent than they are in real life. Psychologist Otto F. Wahl found in his research that 72% of mentally ill characters are portrayed as violent as compared to the actual 12% number in real life.
Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen speaks about how the imagery we immerse ourselves in begins to feel like our reality, especially when there are gaps in our knowledge, and then said imagery fills those holes. And when it comes to race and mental illness, both are areas where viewers tend to fill in the blanks.
In the case of the Atlanta shootings and its aftermath, both of these problems are on full display. Asian women are often hypersexualized in the media or depicted as docile, throwaway objects. And mental illness is the lazy trope writers rely on to explain murder in their plots. In both cases, no one takes the time to understand actual lived realities.
I have always struggled with mental illness; and in fact many of my enormous sensitivities are what made me a better writer, journalist and advocate. I’m in every way the opposite of violent, so much so that I wrote an entire book on the topic of empathy and high sensitivity.
I also grew up in a majority Asian American school in a majority African American neighborhood; even in my own family I am the minority as a white person. Though my parents are white, each of their households were multiracial and so that became my norm and what I came to expect of the world. Most people did not look like me.
It is shameful the way some people in the media want to blame this and every other mass shooting on mental illness, and it is absolutely shameful the way people want to deny the explicit racial and misogynistic motivation of the shooting.
What our country needs is a grand reckoning with our inherited biases and failure to interrogate our lack of moral imagination and what is at the crux of every mass shooting and hate crime: inexplicable judgment. Choice. The sad reality that some people choose to do harm.
There are no easy answers but I know that there is an opportunity for solidarity between all marginalized groups, racial minorities as well as psychiatric minorities. We need to re-tell our stories, reclaim them, and demand more from one another.