Get to know: Sad Girl Cinema
Thinking about 'mental health' as a trope in cinema can be difficult. How often do we consider Helga from Hey Arnold as a representation of internalised negativity? As you scroll through the Sad Girl Cinema tumblr, their curated selection of memes, thoughts and stills paint a picture of a narrative much bigger than the representations of female mental health in movies such as Girl, Interrupted or Prozac Nation. Their on-going documentary film project seeks to explore these narratives.
You begin to realise that in the world of cinema, it's insidious. And it comes at you from all sides. Crying, laughing, cooking, eat, pray, loving, crossing and uncrossing legs – there's a lot of ways to paint female characters internal thought process, to positive and negative effect. So, Not So Popular's Jade French interviewed SGC about their project, intersectionality, and Leonardo di Caprio.
First of all, could you give us a brief introduction to Sad Girl Cinema? Who's behind the scenes, and what’s the project about?
Sad Girl Cinema is an ongoing documentary film project exploring mental health narratives in screen culture. Inspired by the work of Charlie Lyne and Adam Curtis we’re interested in combining archival film footage with first person reflections to provide a bridge between the imagined fairy tales of tortured geniuses, sad white girls and creepy serial killers with the shit we actually have to deal with every day.
The project is run by disability researcher Cat Smith, artist Claire Biddles and founder and editor in chief of Doll Hospital Journal Bethany Rose Lamont, we’re the ones behind the scenes but we’re much more interested in what other people have to say!
What was the driving force in starting the project?
Much like Doll Hospital, the print journal we work on, Sad Girl Cinema came out of a very organic conversation on Twitter by Beth and Claire about a vague idea for a ‘Beyond Clueless’ style mental health documentary project.
Beth was noticing that so many submissions for Doll Hospital hinged around the self-doubt young mentally ill women were feeling because their lived experiences of mental health ‘were nothing like the movies’ and were therefore somehow ‘less legitimate’ as a result of this. Through editing these submissions she increasingly realised how many mentally ill people felt these movies representations held more weight than their own voices, that their own lives were living in the shadow of cinema. In short it felt like high time for mentally ill people to start talking back to the screen.
How do you make sure your project remains representative of different voices/ intersectional?
To reflect on the history of mental illness and Hollywood is to acknowledge the violence of whiteness that permeates even our most light-hearted movie marathons. Mental health is intertwined with the colonial history of medical control, whose most brutal incarnations include forced sterilisation, enslavement and genocide.
"It’s important to centre how intersecting oppressions such as ableism towards physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities, anti-Semitism, transmisogyny and racism, particularly anti-black racism, intertwine with the history of mental illness and how it is misrepresented."
Documentary formats should work against the singular voice model of popular cinema, to open up a conversation, not to shut it down or suggest that Sad Girl Cinema is the ‘final say’ on a matter that is multi-faceted and ever-changing. Whilst as the directors of this project we’re happy to do the groundwork of rewatching lots of ridiculous made for TV movies and the technical bits and bobs we don’t see ourselves as ‘in charge’ of this project or anything! We hope to bring in as many voices into this project as possible.
What is it about the documentary form that allows you to tell the story of the sad girl?
Our title of Sad Girl Cinema is a lil bit tongue in cheek. We are fatigued by both the critiques of this trope (that rely on a hatred of teenage girls) and the perpetuation of this character on an industrial scale. To reduce mental illness, particularly the mental illness of women, to simply ‘sadness’ and ‘girlhood’ is revealing of both the ageism of cinematic mental health stories and a reminder of which mental illness narratives are seen as too ‘scary’ to aestheticize. What use is the sad girl trope to a woman dealing with psychosis who is shown as not tragic but terrifying?
The documentary form helps us to lay out all the scraps from corny 90s movies (and yes we look at a lot of them!) to dodgy made for TV horror shows to realise that these aren’t one off things, that this is a coherent narrative, with reoccurring themes.
What are the best and worst representation of mental health you’ve come across in cinema?
We’re not so interested in dividing mental health representations into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as often the most clueless, stereotypical can tell us more about public viewpoints than well meaning afterschool specials. The issue of ‘bad’ mental health representations can also fall into the reactionary, for instance taking the point of ‘it’s not like the movies, mentally ill people aren’t violent’ would throw under the bus traumatised and mentally ill people who have internalised violent coping methods. Here it ends up less about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mental health movies and more about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mentally ill people and that’s dangerous and damaging territory.
How do you feel about the manic-pixie-dream-girl figure?
Much like the sad girl trope any useful criticism of this character became lost in misogynistic finger pointing. An actual woman cannot be a ‘manic pixie dream girl’ (or any other character trope for that matter) yet such terms have been levelled against real women to shut down self-expression which is both bizarre and sadly revealing! In these incidences the trope has the opposite effect, a reverse transformation takes place where both actual women (particularly actresses who a person might find overly ‘kooky’ or whatever) and women film characters are shut down under the blanket ‘manic pixie dream girl’ criticism. This is reductive and says more about the viewer in all honesty.
"You know how bad slasher movies have like 10 billion sequels? That is basically the story of mental illness in cinema, repackaged and retold to us, over and over again."
Could you tell us a little about Doll Hospital mag? How do your other projects inform SGC?
Doll Hospital is a bi-annual art and literature bi-annual journal on mental health, for by and by people struggling with mental illness, it’s collaborative nature and can-do outlook definitely informed and inspired Sad Girl Cinema, both in having the courage to actually ‘start something’ and in that passion for telling alternative stories of mental illness that are so often forgotten.
Beth is currently working on her PhD at Central Saint Martins investigating how lived experiences of childhood trauma survivors are both represented and appropriated in digital spaces, and this research has overlapped in interesting and unexpected ways.
Cat is a writer and academic who focuses on disability representation and disabled women's lives. She is currently completing her PhD examining physically disabled women's relationship with clothing and fashion. SGC extends her interest in this representation to encompass tropes of mental illness in pop culture and how they inform our understandings of marginalised groups
Claire makes art and writing that presents pop culture as a catalyst for working through emotions and relationships, and is interested in how pop culture relates to real life, so her approach to SGC can be seen as an extension of this.
Both zine-making and archival footage have a sort of ‘cut-and-paste’ ethos behind them – is there something about the fragmentary form that helps when presenting mental health issues?
Obviously the fragmentary form works for us because it allows us to tell different stories and present analysis from various viewpoints and combinations of experiences. SGC aims, above anything else, to be intersectional, and to not favour one person's lived experience over another -- there is no 'right' way to be mentally ill and we want our analysis to reflect this even when mainstream cinema and television does not. The fragmentary approach also allows us to look at different aspects of mental illness on screen -- therapy, institutions, psychosis etc -- in depth, so we have self-contained 'chapters' that can stand alone and also been seen in context of the project as a whole. This also helps us make the project more accessible, as not everyone has the time/inclination to watch an hour long film, but might be into watching a three minute long YouTube clip.
What do you think attracts the sad girl to Leonardo di Caprio? And can you pick out your favourite Leo moment?
SGC loves sad boys -- Rami Malek, Ben Whishaw and Olly Alexander are some of our faves -- but our favourite by far is Leonardo DiCaprio. The sheer range of LeoCrying.gif images we have shared during the research process is astonishing; we all changed our cover photos on Facebook to images of Leo celebrating in the run up to his Oscar win. Despite it being a bit of a cliché, the trope of the delicate sensitive boy being attractive to young girls because of he's relatively non-threatening compared to 'manly' men can still be real. Even though we all know Leo is a dirtbag serial model dater irl, seeing him cry over Claire Danes' fate in Romeo + Juliet is comforting.
Of course, the notion of the sad boy isn't inherently radical, the tortured male genius trope serves as an example of how male emotional distress is seen as more authentic, more genuine, more worthy, compared to that of women who are dismissed through words like 'shrill', 'attention seeking' and so on. But there is something charmingly ridiculous and unsubtly camp about dudes like Leo that move beyond heterosexual pin up ideas into something more colorful, a notion of queer embodiment perhaps. It is less about crushing on Leo (though the idea of the celebrity crush is a super interesting element to screen culture!) and more about BEING Leo, incorporating the Leo lifestyle of cavorting merrily around with a plastic watergun into our own mental health survival skills.
Claire's favourite Leo moment is his first appearance in Romeo + Juliet -- the most perfect hair that civilisation has ever seen set to her favourite Radiohead song. Beth’s favourite Leo moment is the fact there’s an entire Pinterest board created by GQ Magazine titled Leonardo DiCaprio's Year in Leisure. Its very existence is a testament to his glory. Cat's fave Leo moment is the first shot of him in Titanic, which never failed to set her eleven-year-old heart a-flutter.