The Problematic Representation of Mental Illness in Pretty Little Liars: Part One

I started watching ABC’s Pretty Little Liars about a month ago, and reached the end of Season 6 a few hours ago. I wanted to wait and see how the story panned out before I wrote anything about it. There were several things that caught my attention about the way mental illness is portrayed throughout the seasons that I really wanted to discuss. I had initially intended to write just a one-off piece on the different elements in the storyline, but upon gathering all the things I wanted to say about it, I’ve discovered that not only is it not possible to fit them all into one essay, no one would read anything longer than what I’m about to write. So this is part one, where I will be focusing on Radley Sanitarium.

However, I want to clarify three things before I even begin; firstly, I have not, at present, read the Pretty Little Liars book series (from which the TV series is based on) by Sara Shepard. I have no idea how some of the things I wish to talk about were represented within the books, or indeed if they were issues raised within the books at all. They are on my TBR list (which is quite extensive) and I am interested in seeing how the books differ from the TV series. Second, I want to make it perfectly clear that I thoroughly enjoyed watching Pretty Little Liars. It was exciting, tense and had plenty of twists to keep me interested – everything I could want from a long-running TV series.

****Finally: MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT. Please, please, PLEASE do not read this particular article if you have not finished watching all six seasons of PLL – you have been warned. ***

For anyone reading this that has not watched PLL, it is a story featuring four girls – Aria, Emily, Spencer and Hanna – set following the disappearance, and then confirmed death, of their friend Alison. An unknown individual who refers to themselves as ‘A’ begins to stalk them. ‘A’ sends the girls threatening texts, seems to know all their secrets and their whereabouts, and leaves the girls fearing for their lives. In essence the basic plot is an epic thriller which builds and builds throughout the 6 series. It is clearly outrageous fantasy in a modern setting – as a lot of stories are – but there are elements of the storyline which stretch the truth more than others. For example, a featuring element of the plotline is a psychiatric hospital named Radley Sanitarium, which is first referenced in Season 2. From reading a little bit online about the book to TV series comparisons, Radley did not play as prominent a feature in the books as it does on the show. What struck me was how it was all too easy to introduce a concept of an ‘insane asylum’, as Radley was portrayed. The myriad of characters who were placed in Radley were too treated as though they were ‘mental’- something I felt was archaic and misleading.

The Hollywood trope of the ‘insane asylum’ is all too popular – there was an entire American Horror Story series about it, and we have Arkham Asylum from the DC Universe, which was notably sinister. However, American Horror Story: Asylum was set in an appropriate period, where people really were admitted to – read, locked away in – psychiatric hospitals for illnesses that are perfectly manageable outside of hospital, or in fact were not illnesses at all. Pretty Little Liars is set in modern day where all the characters have iPhones which actually play a pretty major part in the plot, in the sense that it is how they receive their communication from ‘A’. The trope of an insane asylum is decidedly inappropriate, given the setting. Radley is portrayed as a massive, desolate building, with high, locked gates and the patients inside appear to have no hope of getting out. It is not so much a hospital as an institution, but one that is far too close to the stereotype.

We first encounter Radley when Mona Vanderwaal is admitted as a patient. There are several issues with her stay in Radley that struck a chord with me – the first, and probably most notable, being when a nurse said ‘Mona has lost her visitation privileges’. Mona is in a hospital. Despite the stereotypes, a psychiatric hospital or unit is the same as a regular hospital. Visitations are rights that most hospitals try to adhere to where possible, except in the cases of patients being in a special care unit, where visitation may be limited but not revoked. Radley is not meant to be a prison – and yet the characters talk about it and conduct their behaviours around it as though it is.

Which brings me to my next point – it is not meant to be a prison. We repeatedly got glimpses of Mona and other Radley patients wearing hospital gowns, in bare, prison-like rooms devoid of their own possessions. Exactly like, well, a prison. In reality, psych hospitals allow you, and actively encourage you – to bring your own clothes and possessions, within reason; no sharp objects (including tweezers), some people may have things with laces and wires taken for safe keeping – both for their own safety and the safety of others – and hospitals will actively encourage you to not bring valuables for obvious reasons. But ultimately, it is not meant to be a prison. Usually when a person is admitted they are brought in knowing why they are going to hospital, and under the pretty safe assumption that they will get to leave. Involuntary admissions can and do happen, but these are only in the cases of psychological disorders whereby a person is a threat to either themselves or people around them. PLL really, really built on the tropes in season 3 when they introduce a ‘children’s ward’ which presumably had been around since the inception of the hospital sometime in the 1800s. In reality, there ARE Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, some of which in America (from my tenuous research) will treat children from as young as 5. However, the Children’s Ward had cots and tiny beds meant for absolute toddlers, which I am sure are not bed spaces often offered in any Children’s MHU today. The implication was that the ward was disused, but the fact it was a feature at all really did not help the representation of what a mental health service is actually like.

A final note about Radley – the patients were treated as though they were insane. They were given various medications, even without assessments – such as when Spencer was admitted for a 72 hour psychiatric assessment and was given various tablets, despite no one being aware of what had happened to her, or if indeed she had a clinically diagnosable illness. No hospital can drug you without your permission (though there are exceptions, eg chemical restraints). No hospital can keep you without your permission, with the exception of incredibly rare circumstances, where the illness is serious and dangerous. A lot of hospitals will have an agreement whereby a patient can leave – just like a regular hospital – and discharge themselves, or have a parent or guardian do it for them in the case of minors, against medical advice, although it is strongly discouraged. Discouraged, but not enforced. Patients in Radley seemed to be largely unsupervised, with a scene in Season 6 showing how some patients spent some time on the roof. In reality, most psychiatric hospitals do not even have windows that open, let alone a rooftop garden where mentally vulnerable patients could possibly be pushed off by other vulnerable patients (and in PLL, that happened).

The reason all of this sat so incongruously with me is simply because none of this is real. PLL has a fantastical plot, yes. But this is a TV show that appeals to huge, huge audiences. They went to the effort of having some character diversity – disability and race to name but a few inclusions – and yet stuck to the Hollywood trope of the old loony bin. In 2015, this is not only unfair, it is damaging. People are starting to speak up about illness – myself included. People are staring to see what it is truly like to be a patient in a psychiatric hospital or unit, because it is becoming a more and more common experience. For a  TV show that became as popular as Pretty Little Liars did, it is almost sad to see the inclusion of such a heavy, soon-to-be-obsolete representation of mental illness treatment. I certainly felt sad. I have spoken briefly about my experiences in a psychiatric hospital, and to think of others immediately believing that that experience is somewhat on par with how the process is represented in a popular TV show is remarkably frightening. To set the scene in a modern (albeit, fictitious) town in Pennsylvania is to suggest realness. That this story could happen. That the experiences of the characters demand to be felt because it is almost real. And yet, to include such a fake, inflammatory representation of what life is like for those suffering with a mental illness who go on to seek treatment is almost insulting, but definitely damaging. The target audience of PLL appears to be adolescents and young adults – who is to say that thousands of viewers won’t chalk their visual experiences of mental health treatment as portrayed in the show up as being a reality? Truth is, no one can deny that popular culture’s influence massively affects the perceptions of those who, essentially, do not know better. There is almost a duty placed upon those who write and create TV shows to best represent a reality, when the plot does not call for warped portrayals of an existing entity. Others may disagree, but I cannot see any physical benefit that could have been gleaned from presenting Radley as an archaic edifice where sick people went to die.

In part two (if people are still with me) I hope to discuss individual characters and the presentations of their illnesses throughout the series. Any questions or comments, feel free to hash things out below!

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