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.


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