Young Adult: Getting Help vs. Growing Up

by | January 3, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Coming out of the movie Young Adult, which stars Charlize Theron as a late-thirties former prom queen who returns to her hometown in an attempt to seduce her now-married high school sweetheart, I knew it was going to be tough to write about.

It’s tough to write when you’re angry, and I know it’ll be tough to explain why I felt that way after seeing what had looked from the trailer to be a comedy, which the movie certainly was not. Instead it is a portrait of a tragically flawed and ill young woman. Mavis (acted superbly by Theron) is not only obsessed with her looks; she is also an alcoholic who suffers from depression and trichotillomania (a likely neuro-biological illness that leads to compulsive hair pulling).

Whether you like the movie or not seems to have a lot to do with what you’re able to take away from it.

Molly at Bitch Flicks has a point when she says the movie can be seen as feminist because it shows the artificiality of an existence based on beauty. But when I went to see the movie with my friend Becca, we didn’t find that to be a clear message to the audience.

– Spoiler Alert – 

What made me react with anger, though, was its treatment of mental health issues. Even though alcoholism, depression, and trichotillomania are clearly illnesses, the film is framed in a way that the onus is put on Mavis to just “grow up” instead of seeking help.

I couldn’t help wanting Mavis to be able to come to grips with her issues, or to have someone in the movie listen to her acknowledgments of her illnesses (like when she tells her parents she thinks she’s an alcoholic). The fact that she returns to the city leaving the viewer in doubt of her ability to make changes and recover made it difficult for me to see the movie’s message as empowering.

I slept on it and came back to thinking about it the next day.

Here’s Becca’s take from the day after:

“Maybe the feminist message is deeper than we were looking. Like maybe it’s a critique on how unwilling we are as a society to see the problems, no matter how obvious, of beautiful people. And maybe it’s also a critique of all that B.S. “reality” TV she watched and tried to apply to her own life. With all that said, …you and I are pretty smart and tuned into these things and didn’t catch it. I think the average viewer would see this disaster of a woman and confused messages about mental health. If it was a social critique it missed the mark.”

I had to agree. I think the way Mavis watches trashy “reality” TV was meant to be a statement about beauty culture and the impossibility of meeting these artificial ideals. In that sense, I can’t say the movie isn’t feminist, although I agreed with Becca that I’m not sure the message was clear.

In the end I can accept the movie may be a feminist social critique of beauty obsession, but what still really bothers me is its treatment of mental health issues. There is a difference between being immature and having a mental illness, but I felt the movie poster tagline: “Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up” could lead viewers to think the movie’s saying you can get yourself out of depression or alcholism or trich just by exercising enough willpower to “grow up”.

I have had trichotillomania since I was nine and despite growing up both physically and emotionally, and seeking a variety of treatments, I have not been able to stop pulling my eyebrows. However, I and many other trich sufferers hold down full and productive lives, including jobs, hobbies, and relationships. Trich does not hurt and is not associated with self-harming behaviours.

When Theron’s character pulls her hair for the first time in the movie the women behind me in the theatre gasped, and I cringed. Maybe, maybe the movie could’ve assumed enough audience knowledge about depression or alcoholism to think a viewer wouldn’t associate them with Mavis’ “immaturity” or other character flaws. But they in no way endeavoured to explain trich, which is a hidden disorder affecting at least 2% of the population. There is no known cure, although it’s possible to go “pull-free” for long periods of time.

The only other place I’ve seen trich represented is episodes of sensationalized Intervention-type shows, where the cases are often so severe they are unrepresentative of how most  “trichsters” live. The creators of Young Adult should not have portrayed trichotillomania in a character noted for her tragic flaws, at least not with more context.

So while I’m less angry now (a week later), the veiled feminist messages stacked up against the confusing messages about mental health issues mean I can’t recommend Young Adult. Juno this was not.

-Jarrah


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  • Laura

    I just came home from having seen “YA” and immediately looked up “The movie Young Adult and trichotillomania” and found your site. I am undecided how I feel about the movie as yet. I was THRILLED to see trich shown in a major movie, especially with gorgeous Charlize Theron… but then disappointed that the issue wasn’t explored any further… (I have pulled my hair since I was 10 and didn’t even know others did the same and that it was a disorder and HAD A NAME until I was in my late 40’s) and also as you mentioned that her other major issues were ignored (depression and alcoholism) in fact, it was horrifying that when she said to her parents “I think I am an alcoholic” her mother laughed dismissively: coming from a life immersed in alcoholism (dad, uncles, brother, husband, father and brother in law) I cannot accept that treatment of the disease. Thanks for the discussion.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks for your thoughts. I wouldn’t have a problem with having a character with trich – it’s just that she was such an unsympathetic character and her other problems weren’t characteristic of people with trich. I think given the lack of characters with trich in media and given the lack of context in which it was presented, it didn’t really create any awareness among people without trich.

    • Jessica

      i ended up here for the same reason..how funny!

  • Phoebe

    I am so glad you wrote this! I just saw Young Adult and was venting to my sister how angry I was that the character was written to have trich. Give her a nail biting habit or anything else that doesn’t already have so much shame attached to it. I am a 43 year old woman who has been pulling since I was 11 and have been lucky enough to meet many other women and men who have trich and the majority of them have successful, full lives and just so happen to have trich. The last thing trich suffers need is the general public’s first outing with trich to be associated with a mentally ill alcoholic. I actually felt relieved that they didn’t delve further into her hair pulling. When and if a film or book is made about someone with trich and trich is named and discussed in length I pray it is about a fantastic, successful, and healthy person so people without trich can see what the truth is!

  • jarrahpenguin

    Thanks, Phoebe. Agreed. Would love to see some more positive or at least more normal/sympathetic representations.

  • kim

    I was not offended at all by the hair pulling displayed in Young Adult. The first time she is shown picking her hair I was not sure what she was doing. The next time I noticed and got a sick feeling in my stomach. Everything turned into tunnel vision and suddenly I felt like the whole theater was staring at me, like they knew my secret. After the initial shock and paranoia, I realized that I had never seen anyone on screen pull out their hair. Especially not pretty girls. Yes, she was really messed up, she was a mean, shallow, depressed alchoholic, but she was real. I found her character far from unsympathetic, she was sad, and lost, and looking for happiness the only way she knew how however maladaptive it may be. Seeing someone onscreen pick their hair made my secret seem less shameful. I was not offended I was empowered.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience seeing the movie. I’m really glad you found it helpful & empowering. I think people’s reactions to the movie probably varied widely based on their own experiences and what they were expecting to see.

    • Jessica

      I agree…this put out to the world,and people willing to see it, that this is real and needs to be addressed. This movie isn’t for everyone and anyone who can’t understand has not gone through some of these issues. It really was empowering to me to see it in my face portrayed by a beautiful, amazing actress too. There was no happy ending…even though I thought there really was going to be. But it was real and I appreciate that. I’m sure this movie opened many people’s eyes…especially those who do suffer from these diseases…no need to hide something like that.

  • GR

    DVD has just been released and I too, instantly went to search online…

    This movie has brought us, who are so alone with our silent shameful “tricky” demon, together.

  • Jessica

    “What made me react with anger, though, was its treatment of mental health issues. Even though alcoholism, depression, and trichotillomania are clearly illnesses, the film is framed in a way that the onus is put on Mavis to just “grow up” instead of seeking help.”

    I have to disagree, i’m sorry..

    this movie is solely based on a broken woman, indeed. I didn’t feel a sence of her having to “grow up”. She is lost in a time where she was at her best and can’t “grow”. She lives through her book, “young adult”. There are sick people like that out there, and it may appear in a motion picture that she does need to grow up, but if you knew someone like that in the real world you could clearly see that they are just a very mentally ill person.

    • Jessica

      also, in the end she was surrounded by people who did want her to seek help.

      • jarrahpenguin

        Thanks for sharing your response, Jessica. I’m always glad to know that others see things differently.

  • Laura

    WOW! I’m so thrilled people just like myself have googled ‘YA Trich’ together! Haha, unite. I’ve had trich for about 8 years now, and still contiune to pull from pretty much everywhere on my body. Let me just start out by saying, that I’ve been in extreme depression before. Tonight, I was just bored and was scanning through my dad’s dvds, and popped Young Adult in because it looked like a good watch. I was kind of into the movie to begin with, and then the pull scene. I literally covered my mouth with my hands when I saw this on a 30 inch television screen in front of me. I really don’t know what I think about it.. but I know that I was just SHOCKED that it was in the movie. Just the fact that whoever wrote the script KNEW what trich WAS asounds me. In a way it’s good, but it worries me that all people will think is “oh my god, what the hell is she doing? that hurts! so gross!” etc… I just wish they actually explained what it was!!!! The first pulling scene, I was in awe that it was happening, and then they zoomed in on the hair on the magazine .. and I LOST it. Every scene with pulling was zoomed up! I knew they were highlighting that she had Trich, but I knew I was the only one to know that. The way I could relate to this movie was unbelieveable, so it seems almost impossible to not like it.. but I don’t like the way they displayed Trich. Not cool. We deserve more. Stay strong everyone, we are just like everyone else. Don’t like Trich define you, define it.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Thanks, Laura. I am definitely glad that this movie has connected some of us and got us talking. As you read, I had a very similar reaction. Like you said, even though in some ways relating to it is good, I also worried that non trichsters didn’t know what it was. When I saw it in the theatre and she pulled her hair the women in front of me gasped and I just wanted to curl up and hide. I’ve had some situations where people have seen me pull in public and they’ve whispered and pointed in a similar way. Maybe they went home and educated themselves but in most of the cases I doubt it. So I just think it would’ve been more responsible to give some more context for people who might not know what it is.

      And yes – let’s absolutely define trich and not let it define us. I pull my hair a lot more than I’d like, but having trich is way way down on the list of things I consider important about who I am.

  • Lucy

    OMG i watched this film two days ago alone in my room- and i am so glad i did because i have been pulling my hair since i hit puberty and i get the same reaction from my parents “stop pulling your hair/why are you still doing that”…sorry its just not that easy most of the time it is when i am daydreaming, compleatly absent minded!
    So i am glad i saw it alone because if i was watching it at my parents they would have felt vindicated about feeling i have some wierd psycho issue!
    I was happy it was touched on in a hollywood film but, it only touched on it! As other people have said they zoomed in on it a few times made it clear what she was doing but at no point was there an explaination of it.
    Other than that the film didnt say much to me i was hoping for a reformed charecter in the end, but instead we got, “hell no….sad and shallow is my bag baby”.
    The end made no sense at all and compleatly took away any of the moral and social learnings that were put in place by the film. It was like someone made a really compelling argument for change, then followed it with the word BUT therefore erasing any of the dialogue beforehand.

    But thank you auther for this blog because i have never actually made contact with anyone else with trich so it is glad to know im not alone!

    • Laura

      Yes, I do think that it should have been explained more so people didn’t gasp. It was obviously put in to make people aware of it, but they did a pretty bad fucking job at it, is all.

      Lucy, I’m so happy you came to this website then!
      I remember when I first talked to someone with trich too, it helps a lot. Makes you feel, almost less freaky (That’s how I felt before I knew other people had it) Stay strong!

    • jarrahpenguin

      That’s awesome, Lucy. You are most certainly not alone and you can find way more resources online. I found trichotillomania.co.uk particularly helpful and there are many more online groups where you can meet other trichsters to discuss strategies and feelings, etc.

  • Suzie

    It’s somewhat heartening that we all ended up here for the same reason. I’ve been pull-free for almost two months (!!) and that scene nearly set me off. It’s cool that they were comfortable including that in the movie, less cool that it felt like it was there purely for shock value. It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate to stop and explain it in the movie, but it would be nice to read or hear an interview from Diablo Cody or Charlize Theron about trich, since no one talks about it EVER. Does anyone know if they’ve released any thing?

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Suzie,

      I looked up interviews with Theron and Cody to see if they ever mentioned trich and I didn’t find a time when they did, but if anyone knows of any mentions or interviews or PSAs I’d be really interested to see them – that would’ve been great if they would’ve taken that opportunity to educate and help reduce stigma.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for writing this, Jarrahpenguin–I also found your post by searching to see if others had caught the reference to Trichotillomania in the film (I’ve had it since I was 12). However, I’m not sure it was being associated with “immaturity,” but with other impulsive problems like Borderline Personality Disorder (which I also have). Even though we all hate pulling and picking our hair, and do it against our will, it does have a soothing element, if only via the dopamine it releases in the brain. So, despite being essentially involuntary, Trich is–for many–a coping mechanism to tolerate emotional pain (check it out):

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reel-therapy/201203/young-adult-the-new-borderline-personality-disorder-in-cinema

    In addition, her mother’s reaction was remarkably realistic–my parents also referred to it as “doing that again,” as if I had even the slightest bit of controlling it (which no one does).

    Finally, I don’t agree at all that the movie portrayed “growing up” as a matter of willpower for her! I know Trich sufferers are hypersensitive to this inaccurate claim, since so many believe it, but do you not agree that she was in fact portrayed as helpless against all of her impulsive behaviors, including hair pulling?

    • jarrahpenguin

      Heya – thanks for commenting. I think we’ve seen from the other comments that the issue of whether it was presented as a mental health issue or a maturity issue is in the eye of the beholder – different people saw it different ways for sure. I think the more lasting concern I have is that they didn’t try to put it in context or raise awareness for audience members who hadn’t heard of trich.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks jarrah for this post. I was looking for some feedback of this movie about trich. I see from other post i had the same reaction when I saw the first scene when she is pulling: ho my god no f**** way they are showing this. I have been pulling since i was 12 and it’s always something I have been ashamed of. It’s only now, 20 years later that I start talking about it to my friends and family.

    So the movie was ok, charlize is great as an actress and I think it’s great they tried to expose trich to raise awareness (I am guessing that was the idea, i hope anyway) but I didnt like the way it was done. We don’t really understand what’s going on (except us) but to associate alcoholism and depression the way they did…I dont know it made me more ashamed of having it. It suggested that you have to be really messed up to have trich and from all the stories I read it is usually an isolated problem. I speak for myself anyway, you can have a normal healthy happy life and still pull your hair. I just wished they could have pictured it like this instead. At least they didnt make it too extreme.

    Good luck to you all and if you find any interesting info. post away :)

  • tori

    Hi Jarrah & others who found this post the same way I did! I watched YA yesterday with my partner of 6 years who knows about my trich (pulling for 20 years). He asked me, “Did you know that was in the movie?” I did not. My reaction, like many of the other commenters, was surprise that trich would be featured in a big Hollywood flick.

    Oddly enough, I had a sinking feeling when she touched the back of her head and kind of dug her finger in (before the “reveal” of the bald/sore spot)… like, that’s what I do… how do the writers (Cody and others?) know what that’s like? And her parents’ reactions… just like mine. How do they know?

    I didn’t get angry at the portrayal, as superficial as it might have been. I guess I’m just excited that trich has gotten a little more exposure. I know it has been shown on the small screen (News shows, Intervention or one of its spin-offs), but seeing it on the big screen opens doors for it to become more in society’s face.

    That being said, I figured out this “disorder” from
    which I suffer had a name about 10 years ago. Since then, I’ve heard more about it and found that I could tell a few select friends about it. A few friends were even able to confide in me that they also suffered from various forms of trich. I really think we’ll be seeing more trich awareness down the road.

  • I was intrigued to see the portrayal of trich in the movie as it’s not something you see every day. I didn’t feel it was necessarily a negative portrayal in the sense that she’s a tragic hopeless character – trich just IS a negative thing, so it felt all right that it was shown honestly. I know when I’m agitated, I pull. I don’t agree that the depiction of mental health problems was inaccurate or unfair either… when you have depression, it makes you behave in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise. I think when the main character told her story, she came off as being very sympathetic.

  • Laura

    Sarah, I thought yours was a very insightful comment and came the closest to my thoughts. You are a terrific writer! I agree with everything you said, but I would add that I was disappointed that they didn’t explore the trich further.

  • Mia

    I completely agree with you! Thank you so much for this post! I love Charlize Theron, but I found YA kind of slow and unoriginal. Then I was angry that nobody finally made her deal with her issues! Being superficial or egoistical are things that okay, maybe forcing ourselves to open ourselves up is required. But depression? Alcoholism? Trich? These are disorders and somebody suffering from them needs to know they *are* normal and kind find help!

    However, I was still really happy to see it being shown in film. While it would have been nice for them to go over it a little, it was startling and good how they showed her parents’ reaction to the disorder and its affect on your life. There are so many times my mother or father will remind me I have beautiful hair and ask me to stop pulling already…or I’ll be writing college papers/watching something online only to discover so many strands on my keyboard. I’ve been pulling for six years and now I’m in my 20s. Watching Charlize Theron, in all her beauty, put that wig on…was a big screen wake up call. I can’t be sure I won’t lapse again, I *know* I will, but still I want to beat this thing. So I’m thankful for that from the film!

    Thanks for your awesome post!

  • Amy

    Hi

    I also have just watched this movie and as all of you did, I googled trich charlize theron.
    I wasnt in anyway offended by the movie. I saw a lot of myself in her, minus the alcohol.

    I’m just glad I’ve found others who also have trich to talk to. I’m 23 and have been doing it since I was 17. I hate myself for doing it and really want to stop. How can I?

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Amy,

      I’m really glad you’re finding out how common trich is and how many people there are who suffer from it but who are nonetheless leading productive, relatively normal lives. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my 17 years struggling with trich it’s that hating myself only made it worse. All things considered most of us are pretty cool and capable of lots of awesome things. That’s not to say you can’t stop. I’ve only had temporary success but I’ve been able to go at least a couple of months using gloves, thumb covers designed for arthritis sufferers, fake nails, and other sort of barrier type things. I’ve also found hypnotherapy helpful for short periods of time. Some people find it helps them stop completely. I’d really recommend http://www.trichotillomania.co.uk for the message boards where people share all kinds of cutting-edge research and individual treatment approaches. http://www.trich.org/
      also has some useful info. Good luck with everything and just remember you’re in no way dealing with this by yourself.

  • Sierra

    When the movie first began, I had already seen a lot of myself in the character. I am 21 years old and am studying to become a writer, specifically in YA fiction. Then when I saw her small living space and all of that Diet Coke, I thought to myself, “this is me”. It wasn’t until later when I saw her poke her finger in her ponytail that she seemed even more familiar. When they showed the bald spot I couldn’t believe it. Not only is she a lot of what I identify with myself, but she is a trich too.

    I was not at all offended by the portrayal of Trichotillomania in this film, and unlike so many of you on here, I don’t really feel like it needed further explanation either. She pulls her hair, but it does not define who she is, it’s just one aspect of her life. The best things in film or literature are sometimes those which are only shown, any further reflection is supposed to be that of the viewer.

    The film wasn’t meant to be an after-school special on Trichotillomania, otherwise that’s what it would have been.

    I was very pleased with this film and found it something I could relate to. I don’t believe that the disorder was just thrown in there for shock value either, it showed something personal about the character which provided some deeper understanding. This film is a great example of character analysis, and for that I applaud it.

    I’m sorry if my opinion comes off as strong, but those with the disorder have varying experiences with it, and I don’t let mine define me. I shouldn’t expect for it to define somebody else either.
    If somebody saw me pulling my hair, I wouldn’t explain it to them either. I don’t really discuss it on a regular basis, and it might not have been very realistic for them to take a moment aside and explain what it was. If anything it would seem like a PSA and draw more attention.

  • susieq

    I googled YA and trich and am so glad to have found this site and discussion. I have trich and couldn’t believe my eyes when watching the movie. I had to RW and watch the first hair pulling scene a few times. Charlize nailed this aspect of the character- collecting the hairs after pulling, always reaching for her spot to cope with negative emotions, using fake hair. Sounds like me! Yah there was no discussion about trich , but so what?! Bringing trich out of the closet has to start somewhere. Thiis huge- this is the first time trich has been brought to light in a major motion picture!! I wish Charlize would step up and be an advocate for trich. She must have researched for this role.

  • Livinitrivitit

    This woman was also clearly borderline. She needed some dialectical behavioural therapy, not “growing up.” It was heart wrenching to watch this movie and see Mavis so in need of help yet everyone calling her a “psycho.”

  • Annah

    I thought the movie was interesting. I too was expecting a comedy. Regarding Trich, the only thing I didn’t like was the potential for people to associate it with people are depressed or discontent with life. In any case, the moment she pulled for the first time was surprisingly shocked. It was also scary since I’m a writer too. I’ve had Trich since I was about 14 yrs old (or b/f). It wasn’t until college (psych major) that I realized it was a diagnosed condition that other people have. It has been an on-and-off habit over the years. When you read about it, it’s easy to dismiss for some, since the degree of hair pulling varies from person to person. In trying to explain it to other people, I usually compare it to nail biting or thumb sucking (soothing/habitual). I also understand from some of the research that it may in fact be a neurobiological condition. In either case, I venture to think the percentage of people who live with it (or have lived with it at some point) is higher than 2%. I look forward to bringing more awareness to it and also helping young people identify it early…

  • A

    17 with 4 years of shame, loneliness, unanswered question, uncontrollable compulsion… It was good to see that i am not the only one..for the first time i saw a movie character with trich, nevertheless it was deceiving to see trich associated with alcoholism and failure..

  • Cynthia Rosen

    I, too, have trich, but that’s not what this movie is about; why, then, would the writers address trich when it’s not the point of the movie?? Nor is alcoholism, for that matter, even though Mavis portrays that character flaw more often than she does ‘pulling’ her hair. And her parents don’t react when she tells them she’s an alcoholic: I think my parents would have done the same thing, out of ignorance or shame, I guess. Mavis is just an unhappy, unfulfilled, tragic figure who thinks that if only she’d stayed in her home town with her high school love, she’d have found the elusive happiness she wishes for. Ultimately, after embarrassing herself at a party, she begins to realize the futility of her mission, and resumes ghostwriting her novel (with herself playing Kendall, ostensibly), with the heroine moving on with her life and becoming whole. That’s it. It’s not about trich, it’s not about alcoholism, it’s not about neurosis. It’s purely a character study. And a good one; at 37, I could have been Mavis. Memories of those days have made me cringe at times, but ultimately I’ve grown out of that behavior and gone on with my life (I am now a university professor). As to trich, there are many therapist and medications that address this behavior.I am currently taking a med that has kept me from pulling for a long time now. Don’t feel alone, trich sufferers! There ARE treatments available to you!

  • Sarah Bloom

    I am really glad that I am not the only one who was disappointed with the portrayal of trich. Actually, no. It was portrayed perfectly. The way she laid her hairs out on a book, the way she sat in the car so her hand was resting on her scalp, and especially the way her parents reacted to her pulling, that was all perfect. But I am upset that only people who suffer from trich would be able to understand how perfect that portrayal is. I wish there would have been some more exploration on the topic. And I won’t even get into my dislike towards the other issues mentioned in this article… Overall, I see where the movie was trying to go, but in the end, it just left a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can’t help but imagine people w/o trich seeing this and being confused, grossed out, and judgmental. I am really curious why trich would even have been included in the plot if they weren’t going to explain it. Like I feel like maybe one of the writers has trich and just wanted to throw it in there… I don’t know, it just didn’t make sense to me.

  • Angela

    I am yet another person brought to this site by the searching the movie and trich. My jaw dropped open when I realized what she was doing and automatically got on the trich support group I am a part of on FB and posted about it. I don’t know what to think about the portrayal of the disease yet as I am still watching it. Interesting.

  • Kaylyn Sims

    The message the director I think was going for is ‘people don’t change unless they want to’ and the unchanging’ness that exists with stars like the Kardashians which are showed in Young adult. The same goes for mental disorders in a way, things will not change unless she wanted them to..she did speak out to her family that she thinks shes an alcoholic however immediately goes back to her old ways of drinking all night and fighting her hangover with diet soda and fast food.

    I enjoyed this film, it can be seen as feminist with the way it portrays artificial beauty standards. The Mavis that was a writer and the Mavis that drinks until she cant remember who she is are different people. she uses the clothes and makeup to hide her insecurities.