The Mental Game of Girls on TV

Very early in the second season of the sitcom Taxi, Elaine
Nardo (Marilu Henner) has a mental breakdown. Stressed out raising two kids,
working as a taxi driver, and trying to make a name for herself in the gallery
world, she hits a wall on the night of the big art show she’s been put in
charge of and tells her art gallery boss in a very dramatic way.

Alex (Judd Hirsch), who is her closest friend at work, piles
her into his cab and tries to take her home. Distraught, frustrated, and still
out of sorts, she makes a pass at him. While flattered, he refuses and thinks
she is just running from her problems, looking to distract herself with him.

The rest of the show follows Elaine as she visits a
psychiatrist for the first time, which is both a funny and heartbreaking scene
about a divorced woman trying to balance her priorities and the needs of her
family. The episode concludes with Elaine talking with Alex at the taxi
dispatch center about her progress and how much better she is getting.

Then something even weirder than Elaine’s behavior
happens—the show continues on as if Elaine never had this setback in her life.
It doesn’t really get brought up again and Elaine, while her neurotic self at
times, seems generally well-adjusted. She had a brief lapse from her normal
self and now she is back to her old self.

If you’ve ever known someone who struggles with mental
illnesses, you’re chuckling at the preposterousness of this whole thing. I have
to give one of my favorite sitcoms credit for even tackling the subject for an
episode back in 1979. When I look around the classic TV landscape, I struggle
to find women who are struggling. Yeah, Mary Richards was single, but look at
her adorable apartment and her life filled with friends, joy, and the best
winter coat collection I’ve ever seen. Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe on Cheers
was a little hapless at times, but she wasn’t teetering on the edge.

I guess there is Marcia Cross’ Kimberly Shaw on Melrose
Place
, but she was not some sympathetic heroine. She plants a bomb, she runs
down people with cars. This is not someone girls sympathize with. I will also
give the GOAT (sorry HBO and Mad Men fans), The Dick Van Dyke Show, some
serious credit, as in the 1950s they regularly returned to the unhappiness,
loneliness, and frustration of Sally Rogers, the single gal in the writing room
who was one of the boys, couldn’t relate to the girls, and couldn’t seem to
find a man. Thing is though, Sally, while lonely, was always presented as happy with bouts of sadness.
She is a self-assured girl who can get down on her situation, but
ultimately appreciates what she has.

All these women were so fundamentally capable though. They
got along fine. They were happy with their lot, even when it wasn’t much.

Then Buffy came along.

I don’t think I’ve mused much on Buffy in here before, so it
may surprise some to hear the huge impact the show had on me as a teenager.
This was a girl who was given a lot in life, being the slayer, that she
categorically did not want. In the first four seasons, she managed to both kick
ass and have a semblance of a life, but then things got dark. Really dark.
(Spoiler alert, non-Buffy watchers).

In Season 5, Buffy loses her mother in one of the most heart-wrenchingly
accurate and honest portrayals of losing a parent. The show didn’t stop there
though. At the end of the season, she dies. Then, when UPN saved the show from
cancellation, the show brought her back to life at the start of Season 6. Her
friends “saved” her from the afterlife, but she doesn’t tell them that they
didn’t help as much as they thought.

And for the next two years Buffy Summers was seriously damaged
goods. She managed to keep it relatively together around her friends, and she
certainly continued to kick ass, take names, and save the world. But behind
closed doors, she was a wreck. She made terrible relationship decisions, she
punished herself and hurt herself to numb the pain, and she felt completely
alone.

Moreso than her superhuman strength or her ability to save
the world, I admired Buffy’s strength in being able to put on a brave face and
go back in the world even when she didn’t want to. Unlike Elaine Nardo, who had
a brief lapse then returned to her normal chipper self, Buffy the Vampire
Slayer finally had a female admitting she is putting on a face most of the time
that hides how she really feels—which is miserable.

Then came Carrie Mathison of Homeland. This wasn’t just
Buffy dealing with a lot of shit. This was a chick with a mood disorder she’d
been dealing with her whole life, a disorder that inhibits her day-to-day life,
but also makes her exceptionally good at her job. As someone with bipolar
disorder, Carrie has periods of mania, where her intense concentration helps
her see things her peers at the CIA may not. A recurring storyline throughout
the first three seasons is her unwillingness to medicate because she feels it
clouds her ability to do her job well, and since her job is something basically
a dozen of people in the country are even qualified to do, she is kind of
justified in not wanting to put feeling happy first.

Yes, seasons 3 and 4 of this show go way off the rails and I
think Carrie goes from being relatable yet unstable to, well, Kimberly Shaw,
but for that amazing first season, Claire Danes justifiably won every
performance award because she was a wreck, a hero, a woman, and totally
realistic.

Now, my capable mess du jour is Shiri Appleby’s Rachel
Goldberg on Lifetime’s UnREAL. Don’t let the Lifetime or the reality show
premise fool you—this is an incredibly perceptive and well-written show
starring a wholly unglamorous girl who is barely holding her shit together, but
has one saving grace: she is incredible and finding ways out of messes and at
doing her job. The more we get to know Rachel, the more we realize that, like
Carrie, the things that make her good at her job as a reality show producer are
what her friends and family think are mental defects in her mind that need to
be fixed. Unlike Carrie though, she isn’t as sure that she wants these parts of
her mind running at full speed anymore. She isn’t really sure what she wants at
all. All she knows is how to survive, and how to do it on her own.

While Elaine, Buffy, Carrie, and Rachel all vary a lot both
in how their mental anguish is handled and what the “normal” version of them
looks like, the uniting factor that makes me love them all remains: sure they
ask for help from time to time, but when push comes to shove, these women, no
matter how “damaged” they may be, handle their business themselves. They don’t
need a guy, they don’t need a prescription, they just need their own skills,
some good decision making, a few supportive friends, and their own drive to
just get through life, as rough as it may get.

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