Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Be careful, Diablo Cody; mental illness a questionable subject for comedy

Screenwriter Diablo Cody

Academy Award-winning "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody will tackle mental illness in her comedy pilot for Showtime called "The United States of Tara." The main character, Tara, (played by Toni Collette) will have a multiple personality disorder.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the series is moving closer to being ordered by Showtime with the production's hire in late March of writer-producer Alexa Junge, who was a supervising producer on NBC's "The West Wing" and co-exec producer on "Friends." Production is reportedly underway this month.

I readily admit to being a big fan of "Juno," and I thought its script was brilliantly written. But focusing comedy on a person with a mental illness (and a controversial one at that) seems like a really bad idea. In popular culture, lots of stigma and negative stereotypes have been heaped on people with mental illness for decades.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a program in which people can become StigmaBusters to challenge stereotypes in TV, film, print, or other media. "They seek to educate society about the reality of mental illness and the courageous struggles faced by consumers and families every day," NAMI says. "StigmaBusters' goal is to break down the barriers of ignorance, prejudice, or unfair discrimination by promoting education, understanding, and respect."

Otto Wahl, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Hartford and author of Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness, has put together a resource page about combatting discrimination and stigma against people with mental illnesses.

I don't want to condemn a show before I've seen it, but I hope Diablo Cody will rethink the concept for "The United States of Tara."