By now, Lady Gaga fans have probably already seen her latest: a fourteen-minute opus that is allegedly a music video for her song “Marry the Night”. I say “allegedly” because the song itself doesn’t even start until nearly nine minutes in, after an extended sequence where Gaga narrates about trauma and we get to witness her smearing Cheerios all over her body and wearing a maxi pad as a bra, in what I can only assume is her usual songwriting process:
In Gaga’s mental hospital, she envisions the nurses wearing their gauze caps “tipped to the side like Parisian berets”. The psych ward is artistically lit, with one patient sitting at a mysterious white piano. When Gaga leaves the hospital, the silent patients line the balconies to watch her leave. Balconies? Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that this is all apparently happening in a big, old house.
The video draws on just about every romanticized stereotype of mental illness and mental hospitals I can think of. Gaga’s mental hospital seems like a play on a Victorian institution more than a modern medical facility, and the vague, unspecified operation she is recovering from evokes visions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-type lobotomies and conspiracies.
I am unspeakably tired of this motif, and I’m willing to bet a lot of people who have real experiences with mental illness feel the same way. Real-life psych wards are hospital wings, not old houses full of quirky, entertainingly crazy people who ask the nurses for “gummy bears and a knife”.
These mental institution fantasies degrade the actual psychiatric profession and increase the stigma of mental illness. I can’t imagine that this vision of a psychiatric facility as a creepy, outdated place where an “artistic” perspective on life is taken as insanity would help anyone feel more comfortable asking for mental health help.
And in the center of Gaga’s fantasy world is this image of the crazy girl who just needs someone to believe in her, and makes sure to show off her naked body to the cameras during her mental breakdown. What a conveniently palatable vision of mental illness. The crazy girl is a staple of misogynist filmmakers. Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is probably the most famous example. More recently, we’ve had Black Swan and Sucker Punch. In movies, crazy girls are always stunning, and their mental illness is glamorized, providing an opportunity for viewers to both gawk and pity. Men with psychiatric disorders are hardly ever romanticized in the same way.
Gaga claims the video is based on what she went through when she was dropped from her first record label. While I’m sure that it was a dark time for her, and that her passion in the video is sincere, comparing this time to severe mental illness is nothing short of appropriation. And painting mental illness as something that causes hot girls to take off their clothes and smear their eyeliner is just insulting.