A major plot twist concerning the main character, Joe Goldberg, cemented You as the most popular TV show on Netflix in March 2022, with the latest instalment garnering 75.8M viewing hours in under a week. But was the shock value of revealing Joe had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), an incredibly misunderstood condition, worth the damage it has done to people who have the same disorder?
The latest season of You, a show which has garnered millions of viewers since it debuted in 2018, attempted to throw fans for a loop by revealing the main character has DID. This reveal meant the mysterious murder that had been central to the season’s plot had been committed by one of Joe’s ‘alters’ and he had no memory of the event occurring. Aside from being unoriginal — the same plot device was famously used in Fight Club, as well as other movies — the twist has contributed to a harmful media stereotype. It suggests that DID systems* are violent, cruel, and a danger to others around them, resulting in audiences misunderstanding what it means to have DID.
DID, which was previously called ‘multiple personality disorder’, is caused by systematic abuse at a very early age. This abuse interferes with the development of the brain and results in several different identities, commonly known as ‘alters’, forming rather than one. These identities usually have conflicting experiences and memories, as they will often experience amnesia when another alter is ‘fronting’. In the case of You, one alter may commit violent crimes but the rest of the alters have no memory of it, as they weren’t involved in the event.
the demonisation of mental illness onscreen contributes to already negative stereotypes and subconsciously reinforces them in the mind of the viewer
However, depictions like this play on myths and misconceptions about DID in order to create entertainment for the general public. For example, Netflix shows You and Ratched suggest DID systems are prone to violence — in fact, research shows that they’re more likely to be victimised (having already been subjected to childhood abuse) and tend to harm themselves, not others.
Unsurprisingly, DID isn’t the only condition that has been used to ‘shock’ viewers. Schizophrenia, which is also excluded from public discourses about mental health, has suffered the same misrepresentation. Shows like Bates Motel and American Horror Story create the image of the uninhibited, dangerous schizophrenic whose disorder drives them to commit bizarre and bloody crimes.
Some critics might argue the depiction of mental illnesses onscreen doesn’t matter, as the purpose is to entertain, and viewers can separate what they see on TV from reality. Therefore, someone watching You wouldn’t automatically think every DID system is dangerous and prone to violence. However, the demonisation of mental illness onscreen contributes to already negative stereotypes and subconsciously reinforces them in the mind of the viewer — the more people see DID depicted as harmful to the others, the more they might accept this as fact. It could also deter people from seeking diagnosis or treatment, due to the negative stigma, or worry that their mental illness makes them ‘dangerous’ to others.
Additionally, it’s rare to see DID or schizophrenia represented outside of the context of a murderer, psychiatric patient, or both. TV shows only choose to depict these disorders when they want to shock or frighten the audience, rather than incorporating them into shows about everyday life, but the truth is plenty of people with these disorders live normal lives.
If the television industry doesn’t stop treating the mentally ill like circus acts, performing perverted tricks for the entertainment of the ‘normies’, I’m switching off
What we see on TV matters. A 2014 study found the general public considered people with schizophrenia to be dangerous and unpredictable. The same study found that stigmatised beliefs were centred on three main factors, regardless of disorder: negative stereotypes, patient blame, and inability to recover. It seems unlikely that every person in the study knew someone with schizophrenia personally, which raises the question of where they would get these ideas from: the media, of course.
With millions of people tuning in to watch You, TV shows have a large influence over what people think and that comes with a responsibility to depict mental illnesses with care. Although many were thrilled by the season four twist, it’s unlikely the charities and activists working to undo decades’ worth of misrepresentation were among them. If the television industry doesn’t stop treating the mentally ill like circus acts, performing perverted tricks for the entertainment of the ‘normies’, I’m switching off.
* Many DID systems have cited the preference of being referred to as a plural, as ‘person with DID’ suggests that one alter is more important than the others.