Does Split Stigmatise or is it Promoting Awareness
By Jannali Jones – Indigenous Writer and Lecturer.
The newly released M. Night Shyamalan film Split (2017) has caused controversy amongst some medical professionals and others who believe that the film stigmatises a mental disorder. Split is the story of Kevin – a man diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) – who abducts three teenage girls from a parking lot and holds them captive in an unknown location.
There have been many movies over the years that have featured characters with mental health disorders Including, Girl, Interrupted (1999), Black Swan (2010), A beautiful Mind (2001), Shutter Island (2010), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and of course One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). But this latest film Split has a lot of people talking about mental health issues.
According to the DMV-V, DID is characterised through “the presence of two or more distinct personality states”. SANE Australia’s CEO Jack Heath released a statement on the film, saying that “(t)he film trivialises complex mental illness and reinforces the inaccurate and harmful notion we need to fear people living with complex mental illness, in this case, dissociative identity disorder. … Both the media and film industry must take responsibility to ensure that depictions are more fair, accurate and balanced.”
But does the movie indeed trivialise Kevin’s condition? Kevin is portrayed as a complicated character. Writer/director Shyamalan goes to great lengths to ensure the audience understands why Kevin has developed this disorder, and the struggles that he undergoes on a daily basis. Several of his personalities such as Hedwig and Barry are likeable – kind and funny, not feared. Kevin has also held down a job for many years and been promoted to a management role. What the trailer doesn’t convey is that Split is closer to a thriller/speculative film than a horror film, and that the main character is really Kevin rather than any of his abductees. Through the exploration of his condition, the audience can empathise with Kevin in his moral dilemmas. These elements of character suggest that the use of DID is not trivialised, nor merely as a cheap horror movie device.
The two main characters are both sufferers of trauma and this is also important because it demonstrates the different ways that people react to a history of abuse, and highlights that Kevin’s actions are unique to him – they do not represent mental illness in a sweeping, generalised way. Kevin’s psychologist Dr Karen Fletcher repeatedly remarks throughout the movie on how unusual Kevin is.
We must remember that Hollywood’s purpose is primarily to entertain, not to inform and educate. The ending is certainly grounded in fiction, and most people who walk into the cinema understand that Hollywood will inevitably exaggerate and take creative licence on almost any topic.
American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Task Force (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders : DSM-5, 5th ed, American Psychiatric Association, USA.
Heath, J. (2017) ‘People with mental illness are not villains’, SANE Australia, https://www.sane.org/media-centre/the-sane-blog/1944-people-with-mental-illness-are-not-villains (accessed 21/01/2017).
Shyamalan, M.N (2017) Split, Blinding Edge Pictures, USA.
Find out more about Jannali Jones – Indigenous Author and Lecturer, Sydney