The Feminist Camera in the City

The British Film Institute’s online streaming service, BFI Player, gives anyone with an internet connection an opportunity to go through British archival film and TV footage. I stumbled upon the 14-minute film Working Women, made in 1975 by feminist activists in Newcastle. The film was originally part of a regional television programme, and was made to highlight local support for the Working Women’s Charter, a trade union charter launched in 1974 to achieve equal pay and equal rights for both genders.

The film is a delight to watch as a historical document, but what I am interested in here is the formal tactics the film uses to visualise the city as a space inhabited by women. Although the film is on the face of it not particularly sophisticated, it utilises various techniques to ensure that the visual aspects of the film support the arguments made by voice-over narration. In this way it shows that it can be rewarding to analyse a piece of locally produced reportage in the same way as one would analyse a high-end production.

The first part of Working Women discusses the difficulties women run in to when they try to find employment, and it includes several ‘vox-pops’ with women looking for work. The film opens with several shots of women pushing prams along the streets of Newcastle (see figures 1 and 2).

These shots establish that when the film talks about ‘working women’, it is primarily interested in the plight of working mothers – a division that was arguably less distinct in 1975 than it is today. The start of the film includes a brief historical overview in which the voice-over explains that gender roles and responsibilities only became entrenched in the industrial revolution. The film thus makes a direct link between urbanisation and women becoming responsible for all domestic duties and child rearing. By extension the city is designed to suit the public lives of men and not the domestic existences of women.

Throughout the film, the streets of Newcastle are shown to be almost exclusively populated by women (see figures 3-5).

Figure 3 shows only one man walking down a fairly busy street, that is otherwise full of women. In figure 4, there is a woman in the foreground of the shot, as well as four women walking abreast in the middle of the shot. They take centre-stage, and their formation can be read as a united front. They are, indeed, blocking the path of the man behind them. The framing of these four women serves as a visual metaphor for the film’s argument that women should unite in trade unions to achieve parity with working men. Although the four women in this shot are not characters in the film, and there is no explicit comment made on this framing, the staging of the shot underwrites the message of the film.

These shots show that Newcastle by day is a city almost wholly inhabited by women. This serves as evidence to the film’s argument that whilst men are normally in full-time, permanent work, women struggle to get employment as they are primarily responsible for childcare and housework. Naturally, therefore, men are in their places of work during the day and women are out on the streets. But the absence of men also serves to ensure that the viewer’s attention is not detracted from the stories told by the women that are interviewed for the film. Women are allowed to take centre stage in this film both literally and figuratively.

Working Women only allows men in a role of significance in its final section, when the camera is present at a trade union meeting. This is the only part of the film where men are shown in close-up (figures 6 and 7). As trade union representatives these men are necessary allies in the fight for pay parity and other equal gender rights. The film therefore gives them a voice and visual prominence. The camera privileges those inhabitants of the city that support the film’s argument. However, by allowing these male trade union reps a voice, the women in this final section of the film are immediately in danger of being drowned out. The male voices dominate during the meeting, as the men apparently struggle to understand the women’s viewpoint. Again, this mirrors the political argument that the film is making: although women need male allies to advocate on their behalf within existing power structures, there is a risk that the female perspective is side-lined as a result.

Working Women is a piece made for regional television and probably not produced with the intention to preserve it for posterity. This brief analysis shows that despite the film’s modest budget and aspirations, the formal aspects of the film serve to underscore its arguments. It shows the city to be a space that women must use and navigate, even if it is not built with them in mind.

Gendered Dirt

We all know that living in a city can be a dirty affair, even in cities where extensive regulation and legislation prevents too much litter from floating the streets. Singapore famously penalises littering of public space with fines of up to 300 dollars – but this does not prevent the city state from having to grapple with air pollution caused by exhaust fumes. Indeed, no city is exempt from subjecting its inhabitants to soot and dirt. London, of course, seems continuously unable to curb its pollution levels and its air quality is getting worse rather than better.[1]

Everyone who lives in a big city is affected by poor air quality, but L’Oréal has found a way to not only use urban pollution as a marketing ploy, but also to make it a gendered issue. I picked up my male housemate’s L’Oréal Men Expert Hydra Energetic Black Charcoal Wash “Magnetic” Effect facewash the other day, and was startled to read the text on the back of the package:

Too much DIRT? Pollution, oil, impurities…Everyday’s [sic] a challenge in the urban jungle. Unfortunately this can show on your skin: dullness, shininess… For skin that feels squeaky clean: TRY THE “MAGNETIC” EFFECT WASH

(…) The formula acts like a magnet on skin to capture & get rid of dirt (impurities, excess sebum and pollution) and helps fight 5 problems that can be caused by daily city grime: SHINE; BLACKHEADS; STICKINESS; DULLNESS; ENLARGED PORES.

Putting the bogus claims about ‘the power of charcoal’ and ‘magnetic facewash’ to one side, what really struck me is how this product, marketed at men, states that the city is to blame for any skin issues. By comparison, this is the text on the facewash I use myself, which is branded for female use[2]:

Is PureActive Anti-blackhead deep pore wash right for me? Yes, if your skin is prone to blackheads, blemishes and imperfections, if it is combination to oily and if you are looking for a deep cleansing wash. (…) Enriched with Zinc and Salicylic Acid, selected for its purifying power, it helps to control shine and helps protect against the appearance of blemishes, blackheads and imperfections.

Here, it is not an external factor that causes the skin to break out, but it is the skin’s innate failure and ‘imperfection’ that is the culprit. Women are told they probably have skin that is ‘prone’ to blackheads and they can buy products to ‘control’ this natural urge of their skin. Men, on the contrary, are implied to have ‘perfect’ skin as their natural state, and this is only disrupted by their environment.

Of course, in either case, it is limiting and worrying that these products imply that the only skin worth having is one that is completely free of ‘blemishes’, which are in any case naturally occurring and completely harmless phenomena. I also personally quite enjoy the feeling of having freshly washed skin, and I presume my male housemate does, too, and that is the reason we use these products. But these brief marketing texts show that the gendered advertising of ‘care and beauty’ products goes beyond using black packaging for ‘male’ products and pastel-coloured packaging for ‘female’ products. The narrative used in the marketing copy reinforces the notion that women are somehow faulty and can only hope to one day be worthy, whereas men are sufficient in their own right and only need to use products to scrub off external tarnish.

The L’Oréal product presents the city as the source of all pollution, the cause of imperfections, without challenging one’s choice to live in the city if it is such a source of dirt. You can imagine the kind of man this product is aimed at: someone with a successful professional job, who is go-getting and does not want his impure skin to stand in the way of his success. Lewis Hamilton, who is currently the ‘face’ of the L’Oréal Men Expert line, embodies this ideal. The wash even claims to have an ‘Active Defence System’, to further the connotations with masculinity and the military. Living in the city is a battle which the Man is going to win – never mind that the city is wholly man-made. The ‘defence’ is against man’s own creation, the city like a Frankenstein’s monster that has gone out of control.

Finally, in a curious twist, the RRP for the Men Expert face wash is £6.35, whereas my own facewash sells at £3.69.[3] I was expecting the ‘male’ product to be cheaper – after all, the Internet routinely reports on examples of ‘female’ products having an inexplicable mark-up. Not in this case; I wonder if it is because the Men Expert wash has that Active Defence System and is apparently veritable piece of engineering. The price increases the status of the wash developed by ‘experts’. All my own soap does is try to assist my own body’s apparent inability to control itself.

[1] King’s College London maintains a website which gives Londoners access to live air pollution levels in the capital: www.londonair.org.uk

[2] This is Garnier PureActive Anti-Blackhead Deep Pore Wash

[3] Original retail prices at Boots UK

Battersea power station: heritage and gentrification

I have recently moved to south London, so now I frequently pass Battersea Power Station on my way into the city centre. This old coal-fired power station was partly built in the 1930s, and partly in the 1950s, in the ‘brick cathedral’ style. Although it was aesthetically pleasing, its main purpose was to supply one-fifth of the total electricity needed in London. It stopped its core activities in 1983 and stood empty for decades, during which the four tall chimneys remained a London landmark, complete with its own ‘heritage’ memorabilia. In 2012 private investors bought the site and started refurbishment works which are due to be completed in the next year. The new development comprises not only the original power station but also a large number of new apartment blocks and a new Tube station. The website designated to the project promises it to be ‘London’s newest neighbourhood – a truly mixed-use destination’ which will include spaces to ‘live, work, play, shop, eat, and stay’. Last week it was announced that Apple Inc will move its London headquarters to the site in 2021.
The chimneys are the most recognisable element of the Power Station, and an important guarantee the private investors had to give in 2012 was that the chimneys will be retained. However, during the refurbishment works each of the chimneys has been taken down and built back up, temporarily depriving London of an ‘iconic’ part of its skyline. Although the refurbished Power Station will ostensibly look exactly the same as the original building, it will in fact be made up from new materials. The insides of the building will also be completely transformed as its industrial function is replaced by third sector work spaces. So, while the Power Station will rejoin the skyline, it will never be the same again.
A big selling point of the new corporate branding of the Power Station (which includes a new logo) is the heritage of the building. But although the building will look the same, its old identity will be gone and be replaced by the uniformity of luxury flats, copies of which are springing up all around the area. The London Mayor has recently called for an inquiry into foreign ownership of such flats, an action triggered by the revelation that more than 60% of residences in the St George’s Wharf Tower are owned by foreign buyers who do not actually live in the apartments. St George’s Wharf Tower is only 0.8 mile east from Battersea Power Station, so it is not inconceivable that many of the Power Station’s new flats will suffer the same fate – especially as 2 bedroom flats start at £1.16 million. Rather than a thriving ‘new neighbourhood’, the Power Station site seems set to become a ghost town for the super-rich.
Battersea Power Station has been a much-loved London building since its opening in 1939. But by attaching such importance to the Power Station keeping the same outward appearance, attention is diverted from the implications of the building’s radically altered function. From having an industrial function it becomes ‘industrial’ purely in its aesthetic.
It used to be a marker of modernity and functionality, providing electricity to a large part of south London. Now it will be one in many property investment opportunities for the 1%, contribute to London’s ever-escalating housing prices and erode local communities in favour of bland globalisation.

Sleepless at Stansted: A Nocturnal Airport and its Representations

Recently, I had an early morning flight from London Stansted Airport, located 40 miles outside the capital’s city centre. The day before, while cursing myself for not flying from central Heathrow Airport, I checked my travel options to Stansted and was left with two alternatives. Either, I would take the last evening train and sleep at the airport; or I could get some sleep at home but leave in the middle of the night to take, first, a night bus and, then, a coach. A little curious, I chose the first option, which inspired this blog post. Needless to say, I did not sleep at all. In what follows, I seek to make sense of this nocturnal experience of an out-of-town airport architecture and how different media play into that experience. Three types of representation formed part of my trip: a website about spending the night at airports; a TV show that another night guest watched on her laptop; and an airport information screen. Throughout, I explore night-time Stansted in relation to what anthropologist Marc Augé has established as typical of airports, in order to pin down what made my experience so peculiar.[1]

First of all, I started an internet search at home to check under which conditions a stayover at Stansted was possible. Google pointed me to “The Guide to Sleeping at Airports.” This website assures you that “[a]irport sleeping is no longer just for the cheap young backpacker” but an accepted activity for any early flyer. The online guide normalises the idea of being private and restful in a space commonly associated with publicness and passage. This approach challenges Augé’s definition of airports as non-places which are destined for transit and in which time is spent economically.[2] It suggests that, at least for a few hours every night, people can try to turn this site from a non-place into a place. The guide even promises first-timers to become part of an established community of “fellow airport sleepers.” This counters the loneliness that individuals experience in the typical non-place where they only share their status as consumers with others. [3]

The tips and reviews do not only verbally invite the travellers to imagine the upcoming experience but the website also visualizes it in illustrative drawings of what the bivouacs should look like. A lady in one illustration has gotten comfy on a row of seats, equipped with blanket, pillow, slippers, alarm clock, and magazines. Are past airport sleepovers shaping their representations on the website or is the online guide moulding future airport behaviour? The website leaves it undeterminable which influence is stronger, yet the acts of normalising and visualising the sleepover help to establish it as a cultural practice.

I arrived at Stansted shortly after midnight. Indeed, a considerable amount of people had come to sleep there and they had come prepared with blankets and even air mattresses. The check-in and security-check counters were shut. Individuals, couples, and families with children had begun to populate the floor in front of the security check. Early settlers had occupied the desirable electricity sockets to keep their devices charged for the sixty free minutes of Wi-Fi flagged in the Stansted review online. Others were wrapped up in sleeping bags and snoring. A quasi-colonization was in progress, leaving the colder, windier spots around doorways empty. Couples walked around, contemplated a spot as if it was a piece of real estate, only to move on and find a more favourable night quarter. Pathways remained clear in the middle for wheeled (suitcase) traffic. I observed in miniature what non-places in Augé’s view do not accommodate: the becoming of an “organic society.”[4] At first, people attempted to keep some distance from others. This was not an act of isolation but mutual respect of privacy. As the fringes of the hall filled up, settlers became neighbours.

This proximity put me next to a lady watching Desperate Housewives on her laptop. Her choice of entertainment is strikingly intimate. She did not turn to video games or YouTube clips, both of which are connected to usage in various locations, from desktops to parties to means of transport. The (horizontal) reception of a television show like Desperate Housewives is most closely linked to the home living room or bedroom. Additionally, this specific show concerns itself with residential space and its intimacies. By lying down on a pillow and watching this series, my neighbour privatised her airport spot. Her individualisation problematizes Augé’s claim that the airport non-place defies identity.[5] My neighbour brought a hint of her personal living room to her nocturnal stay at Stansted.

Another screen attracted my attention almost simultaneously: while the hall lights were dimmed, an airport animation on the wall stoically showed the steps for placing hand-luggage into security trays. Yet no one was currently allowed to pass through the security area. Stansted Airport neither stopped this light source nor customized it with information tailored to the nocturnal settlers. The screen confirms what the website guide suggested: Stansted “tolerates” but does not endorse this colonization. This standard communication which is neither specific to this airport nor the stayover passengers, corresponds to Augé’s writing on airports: the abstract institution of the airport contacts an anonymous mass of customers through depersonalised signs.[6] Stansted continues this communication at night, reminding everyone of its ultimately de-individualised nature.

Stansted Airport presents a paradox: it is both tailor-made and badly-suited for inviting sleepovers. Located out of the city and not easy to reach, it tempts the guide’s sleep-community to arrive the evening before their flights by train. They avoid the longer and more stressful trips by bus in the middle of the night. The airport is a likely target for individual nocturnal appropriations which shake up the characteristics of this non-place for a couple of hours a night and which made my time there feel so unusual. Yet, specializing in cheap flights, Stansted does not provide additional comfort to its stayover customers inside the airport hall.[7] The unpleasant lights of the daytime screen keep flashing throughout the night. They prevent the travellers from making the airport really homely – and from ultimately turning it into a place.

Around 2:30AM, my night ended abruptly. The shutters went up and the night quarters became an airport hall again. The website guide does not prepare users for this part. People looked unsure, hesitant, before they started wrapping up their camps. They joined the queue at the security check behind which duty-free shops encouraged a nocturnal shopping spree in glistening light. But that is a story for another night…

[1] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-Modernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995).
[2] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 103-104.
[3] Augé, Non-Places, 101-104.
[4] Augé, Non-Places, 112.
[5] Augé, Non-Places, 103.
[6] Augé, Non-Places, 96, 101-102.
[7] The only option for such comfort is to book a room in one of the surrounding bed and breakfasts.

Senior Hunger, Spatial Hurdles

Elderly people going hungry is a problem that many people still do not know about or act upon. Enid Borden, president of the American Meals on Wheels Association, contends that the phenomenon has long been neglected in the country.[1] In 2013, nearly one in six of those above sixty years of age were at least slightly “food insecure.”[2] Ethnic minorities are hit harder than white seniors. Hispanics, for instance, are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanics to deal with hunger.[3]
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) engages with senior hunger. It has funded an award-winning, eight-part mini-documentary about the issue in the American city of Providence. The programme’s title Hungry in the West End (2013) firmly roots senior hunger in a specific underprivileged locale of the city. Sixty-five per cent of West End residents are Hispanic, and the unemployment rate among this community was the highest nationwide in 2011. The documentary reveals the difficulties of tackling senior hunger by filmically emulating the spatialities of victims and volunteers.
“Isolated seniors, by definition, are difficult to find,” admonishes the voice-over narrator early in the programme. The hungry elderly are rarely willing to admit their hardship. Moreover, numerous seniors suffering from hunger are homebound, so the documentary tells us. The only person you see outside on the filmic city streets is the Meals on Wheels driver on his way to those citizens in need. Hungry in the West End does find elderly people who speak in front of the camera and it does go to their homes. Yet, here, a sense of isolation and claustrophobia prevails. Medium shots and medium close-ups of talking heads, which are not introduced by establishing shots, lock the seniors inside a narrow camera space. This space is reminiscent of the small room the elderly are allocated in their city and in society. Significantly, the Meals on Wheels concept of food delivery is rare among food banks.[4] A worker of a different association explains that most volunteers feel “safe” serving food inside a public centre but refuse to deliver it to strangers’ homes. Spatial seclusion and the anonymity it spawns inhibit the fight against senior hunger.
If the documentary aims to raise public awareness, it struggles in similar ways as the support organisations themselves. The local head of Meals on Wheels regrets their long waiting list and assumes that the number of eligible applicants is far greater than they know. Since they are not able to aid all those in need, they refrain from advertising, as it would be of no avail to attract more people. Similarly, the film never shows any food bank or other institution from outside. It gives no clue as to where in town one might find remedy against hunger and how one would recognise the place. Even inside the centres and soup kitchens, most shots recall the claustrophobic framing of the elderly’s homes. The documentary doubles the institutions’ spatial difficulties to spread support against senior hunger in the city.
Like so often in capitalist society, solutions hinge on money. Recurrently, interviewees from aid organisations emphasize how difficult funding is. The documentary itself only came to life thanks to AARP funding. Yet a study featured in the documentary suggests that food-delivery programmes could save the state a lot of money in the future. By allowing seniors to “age in place,” that is, in their homes, their twilight years might not only be happier: such schemes might also drastically reduce the number of applications for nursing homes that state medical aid covers. The findings by Feeding America and the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger reinforce this view: seniors threatened by hunger are also facing other health risks more than food-secure people, from depression to asthma to heart attack or failure.[5]

The documentary’s focus on the West End yields a delimited space that illustrates the spatial, social, and economic dynamics at play in the fight against senior hunger. But the issue cannot be pared down to Providence. In times of an ageing society, the number of elderly in the U.S. has more than doubled in the new millennium. Likewise, the figure of those who are at risk of going hungry in America has become twice as high as in 2001.[6] In our ever-changing world, senior hunger is here to stay – unless society acknowledges and tackles it.

[1] Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 2012. Nutrition and Healthy Ageing in the Community: Workshop Summary. Washington: The National Academies Press, 119-120.
[2] Ziliak, James P., and Craig Gunderson. 2015. The State of Senior Hunger in America 2013: An Annual Report. Report submitted to National Foundation to End Senior Hunger, 2-3, 14.
[3] Ziliak and Gunderson, 3.
[4]
 The documentary uses the North American term “food pantry.”
[5] Feeding America and National Foundation to End Senior Hunger (NFESH). 2014. Spotlight on Senior Health Adverse Health Outcomes of Food Insecure Older Americans. Referenced on: http://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger/senior-hunger/senior-hunger-fact-sheet.html.
[6]
 Ziliak and Gunderson, 2, 14.

Spaces for Illness in ‘Bates Motel’

**SPOILERS**
Bates Motel, currently in its fourth season, is a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Set in today’s world, A&E’s television show offers an intriguing thought experiment about how a teenage boy might become the psychopathic serial killer Norman Bates.
Season four’s first episode, “A Danger to Himself and Others,” sets the stage for subsequent representations of the professional treatment of (mental) illness and its spaces. Norman, after suffering another psychotic episode, finds himself restrained on a gurney in the Willamette county hospital’s psych ward. The hospital calls his brother, Dylan, who tells his mother, Norma. While Dylan goes to Portland where their friend, Emma, is having a lung transplant, Norma rushes to see Norman.
Throughout the episode, Norman’s space and treatment are juxtaposed with Emma’s. The Portland All Saints Hospital is a state-of-the-art facility with competent and benevolent doctors who treat Emma gently and execute a textbook operation to save her life. Emma is afraid, which everyone understands and accepts while also reassuring her. In contrast, the county hospital psych ward where Norman is held is a shabby and crowded place. His gurney is stationed in the corridor and a busy nurse tells him that he must wait in his restraints until a doctor has time to see him. The difference between the two hospitals is striking and further exaggerated by lighting and framing choices. A sickly yellow-orangey tint fills Norman’s space. This is a color code illustrating Norman’s mental-health state that has flared up throughout the seasons whenever he moved a step closer to becoming Psycho’s serial killer.[1]
     Remarkably, warm yellow light, which is usually perceived to be soothing, is distorted in the psych ward to instill discomfort. A cut takes the audience to Emma’s room. While it is dark to emphasize her fear, it was shot with a perfectly adjusted white-balance, representing an ordinary world. The waiting area of the All Saints hospital is also spacious, comfortable, and quiet. The locked room where Norman is finally put under 72-hour observation – without any explanation let alone consolation – might be spacious but it is also menacing in its isolation.
     Throughout the seasons, Norma increasingly isolates Norman and hides him away at home. In season one, he can barely participate in school activities. In season two, Norma takes him out of school altogether and makes sure Norman will not get a driver’s license, further restricting his movements. Her misguided actions are to protect him as much as to keep him for herself. Her solution is to control him, the spaces he inhabits, and the people he socializes with. In season four, after Norman is released from the county psych ward, Norma locks him into her room. By episode three, “’Til Death Do You Part,” he is locked away in a room in a mental institution some place near the woods in the outskirts of town.

Pineview Mental Institution

    Norman has yielded to signing himself into the Pineview Mental Institution – to please his mother. But his admission is equated with signing away his privacy and civil rights. He is being locked into his bedroom and deprived of certain items like his belt. When he points out that someone took it and wants to know why, a patronising nurse tells him that “nobody wears a belt around here.” Norman, in this extraordinary place away from ordinary living conditions, behaves like an ordinary teenager: he is angry. Indeed, his anger is justified and would be seen as acceptable outside the institution. But in this confined and supervised place, any reaction by the mental patient is scrutinized with extreme suspicion. Behavior seen elsewhere as ordinary is here treated as a symptom of an illness. The lack of trust and autonomy becomes apparent in the facility’s layout and its regulations of behavior, which are designed to observe and control the patient at all times.
Norma, feeling like she abandoned her son, persuades Norman’s doctor to let her see him. This woman who ostensibly tailors all her actions to benefit her son cannot bear to not be in control. She knows that she is finally “doing the right thing” for Norman. He needs professional help to get to the root of his illness so that he may get better. And yet, for Norma letting Norman work through issues with outsiders proves most difficult. After pushing him to open the door (to commit himself), she is reluctant to let him walk through it. Perhaps not least because this would involve trusting health-care professionals with well-kept secrets, which could lead to both of them ending up in jail for murder.[2]

     Norman is upset by his mother’s visit and goes to speak to his doctor. As he arrives at his office visibly distressed, the doctor’s secretary and a nurse immediately physically restrain him. They automatically treat him as a threat. Two male adults roughly handle this one skinny teenager even though he did not attack them – the patient is merely reacting to their fear of him. In episode one where he was strapped to a gurney although he remained remarkably calm and polite, staff around him displayed similar unease toward their mental patient. This behavior is puzzling because of its complete lack of empathy.
Bates Motel_Restraining Norman
    Comparing Emma’s physical to Norman’s mental illness, it becomes clear that one may be understood and cured while the other cannot be fully comprehended yet, which makes the recovery process more challenging. This uncertainty inspires fear. The usual human response to fear is wanting to neutralize the threat. In these cases, this is achieved by controlling the patient’s movements and his space. Instead of speaking to his therapist, the distressed Norman ends up locked in an observation room once more.
In season four, Norman has already turned into the psychopathic serial killer audiences know from Hitchcock’s Psycho. He just does not know it yet. But the audience does, therefore fearing him and what he might do is logical. Each episode delicately moves the story forward. The production, from lighting, sound, and framing to color themes and costumes, vividly conveys the characters’ experiences and their journeys through this fictional space. This television show can be categorized as drama and thriller, and as such it elicits strong emotional responses. And it is just that: fiction.
     Nevertheless, audiences may inhabit the show’s spaces and take part in this fictional journey. These representations of mental institutions and their patients inadvertently contribute to how mental illness and its treatment are perceived in society. Fictional representations certainly depend on the creation of extremes (the show’s county psych wards are shabby and saturated in eerie orangey light) and myths (mental illness is something to be afraid of). But these vivid illustrations perpetuate real prejudices. Within the show’s diegesis, the mental-health professionals also do not know that Norman tends to kill people when he blacks out (after all, not everyone suffering from psychosis is secretly a serial killer). Their suspicion and indeed fear of what he might do is solely based on an exclusive categorization of them being people versus him being a patient. Episode one juxtaposes the spaces and treatment of physical and mental illness to show alarming contrasts. Due to the nature of the fictional narrative, these carefully established distinctions are all but forgotten by the time Norman arrives at the Pineview Mental Institution. For audiences immersed within the diegesis and traveling through this often frightening space, it is easy to forget that mental illness is just that: an illness, and not something that needs to be feared or hidden.
 

[1] See, for instance, “What’s Wrong with Norman” (S1E3), after he has had another blackout, or “The Deal” (S3E5) when he steals a prolonged look at an undressing and unsuspecting woman at the motel.

[2] The show has created complex characters that are deeply flawed, which makes them all the more human. There is no doubt that Norma loves Norman, and that she desperately wants to be a good mother. In hindsight, Norma’s actions may have been wrong, and, as a mother, she is possessive and demanding. The show makes clear, however, that one cannot solely lay the blame for Norman’s murderous actions on his mother.

The final disease: infertility in ‘Children of Men’

In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) the ailment that has struck humanity is infertility. For eighteen years, no babies have been born on the planet, which has led to the breakdown of societies across the world. Britain has reverted back to using World War 2-style propaganda to stress its superior ability to deal with the crisis over the rest of the world. But it deals with it by interning all immigrants in camps and by offering legal suicide pills to the elderly. In the midst of this journalist Theo is approached by his ex-partner Jules, now leader of the rebellious ‘Fishes’, and asked to smuggle something very valuable to the coast: the girl Kee, who is pregnant.
The dystopian background is established in the opening scenes of the film. Theo enters a London coffee shop to get a take-away coffee. On the TV in the shop the news announces that the youngest person on the planet, 18-year-old ‘Baby’ Diego, has been killed. The crowd in the shop are crying. Theo walks out and puts his coffee on a nearby electricity box to stir in his sugar. Then the coffee shop he has just exited explodes. Although this explosion is referenced later in the film (it was orchestrated by the Fishes), it is not treated as the extraordinary event that it would be in the ‘normal’ world. (Re-watching Children of Men in 2016, after recent terrorist attacks, makes it resonate in new and different ways.) When Theo asks his boss for permission to work from home later that day, he uses Baby Diego’s death as a pretext, and not his near-death experience. Equally, later on in the film Theo gets kidnapped off a London street by the Fishes, and later dropped back again. Neither instance appears to even raise an eyebrow of passers-by.

CoM_cafe explosionFig. 1: A café which Theo has just exited blows up

CoM_Jasper's houseFig 2: Jasper’s house in the woods

In this sense, Children of Men follows a well-established dystopian trope of equating the city with degeneration. This cliché is in the first instance strengthened when Theo visits his friend Jasper, an old political activist and hippy who lives out in the woods in a ramshackle building where he grows his own weed. Jasper’s house is a sanctuary where Theo can speak freely. The countryside appears relatively untouched by the ravages that have hit the city, and Theo’s cynicism is juxtaposed with Jasper’s optimism. But this division gets blurred as the film progresses, when Theo’s attempts to save Kee lead the Fishes (who turn out to be ‘baddies’ after all) to Jasper’s house, where they execute the old activist.

CoM_Jasper's executionFig 3: The Fishes kill Jasper

And of course the infertility exists in the countryside as much as it does in the city. Choosing infertility as the ‘disease’ inflicted on mankind, rather than a bacteria or viruses, allows the characters and audiences to speculate what humans have done to bring this upon themselves. The disease is a ceasing of bodily functions, not an external invasion that humankind has to fight. Although it is not revealed what the cause of the infertility is, characters drop some clues throughout the film that allow for a reconstruction of events. The film is set in 2027. Baby Diego dies at 18 years old, so the last babies were born in 2009. Miriam, Kee’s midwife, tells Theo that the infertility started by pregnant women having miscarriages, which occurred earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, until it became apparent that no new pregnancies were registered. Theo and Jules haven’t seen each other for twenty years. Jasper reveals that the couple had a baby, Dylan, who died in the 2007 flu pandemic. From these facts we can gather that the infertility was preceded by at least one pandemic of a viral disease, and that when the infertility set in it was a gradual process. It was not a divine judgement meted out to the masses (although there are plenty of religious groups in the periphery that take the infertility to be God’s punishment), but rather a halting development that took time to really take hold.

CoM_TomorrowFig 4: The ‘Tomorrow’ arrives to bring Kee and her baby to safety

But what caused it? And why is Kee able to get pregnant? The story wisely does not answer these questions. It is self-aware in its positioning of Kee, who jokes about being the virgin immaculate. In fact, she slept around and does not know who the father is. This leaves open the possibility that the issue is with the male half of the population, echoing noughties fears about mobile phones in tight trouser pockets. The end of the film cannot help but echo religious sentiments, with the baby being hailed as a source of purity and goodness, and with the saving ship ‘Tomorrow’ advancing through the fog. But is Kee’s baby the Salvation of humankind and the start of a new generation, or is it just a one-off medical incident?