In the day since Carrie Fisher’s passing was announced on Tuesday morning, the actress, author, comedienne, script doctor, and advocate has been receiving much of the media praise she was denied in life. While the press was always happy to reference Fisher’s talents as a performer, her unwillingness to self-censor was often seen as—at best—a quirk, and—at worst—a cause for irritation. It’s a well-worn platitude that culture doesn’t always know what to do with celebrities who don’t abide by the normal decorum of fame, and this goes doubly (both in and out of the limelight) for women. While a man in Fisher’s position might have been framed as an artistic live wire, a creative presence whose vitality and volatility were necessary and exciting comrades, Fisher herself was often viewed as a PR liability, if not a crackpot. Of course, now that she’s tragically passed, the same outlets that looked down on her unwillingness to hold her tongue for their benefit have decided to spin her acidic gifts as an essential quality that the world around her constantly upheld. “Mouthiness” is only worthy of commendation in a woman once that mouth stops moving.
Among the things that Fisher was most famously outspoken about were her struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction, both of which were the focus of many of the interviews she gave, and running themes in her published work, most famously 2008’s Wishful Drinking, which Fisher adapted from her own one-woman show, and which is the source of one of the most frequently reference quotes in her recent obituaries and in-memoriams: “Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”
Fisher was a fearless reporter of her own struggles with mental illness, an unprecedented force for its normalization and humanization. She was an inspiration to so many as to how to speak about the struggles of mental illness and addiction, myself included: with humor and without shame. At no point did Fisher ever cast her biography as a tragedy. Honestly accounting for her battles and traumas and fumblings, she spoke as a passionate work in progress, someone who could earnestly see the heroism in her own living without ever lionizing herself unduly. As anyone who has tried to speak about the difficulties of living mentally ill knows, this can be a difficult thing. It’s all too easy to drift into tonal extremes into discussing the ways in which we have triumphed or failed. Fisher avoided this primarily through her wit. And, goddamn, was Carrie Fisher funny.
It’s important in mourning Fisher to give as much weight to this aspect of her career as to any of her Star Wars work, both because of its singular importance in her life, and because of how it so powerfully informs how remarkable all of her other bountiful output was. I also wholeheartedly believe that in discussing Carrie Fisher’s impact on the way we feel touch about mental illness, and the courage with which she shared her own difficulties it would be disingenuous to simply say that Carrie Fisher made an impact on the discourse about mental illness and addiction. Carrie Fisher made an impact on the discourse about mental illness and addiction for women, who have often been denied the incremental social graces being afforded to more and more sufferers.
You cannot fully talk about the bravery of Carrie Fisher’s openness without talking about the fact that Carrie Fisher was a woman, and, for women, emotional, psychological, and psychiatric transparency is more often punished than it is rewarded.
It goes without saying that both mental illness and addiction carry with them an immense amount of stigma. For many, both are seen as emotional and moral failings rather than serious medical conditions. They are seen as inconveniences thrust upon the innocent friends of those who suffer their full brunt, whose sometimes troubling behavior are often motivated by a deep reservoir of confusion, chaos, sorrow, and fear.
It also goes without saying that, as individuals and groups work to dispel that stigma, the progress is incremental. As I have often discussed in previous pieces, there are certain diagnoses (mainly depression and anxiety) that society has normalized to a far greater degree than others (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders). Furthermore, if you’re going to be mentally ill in America, you’re likely to receive far more sympathy as a white man than as any other group. Among people of color, treatment for mental illness is far less common and stigma is far greater. With African Americans in particular, the nonviolent psychotic features of certain disorders are often read as confirmation of a host of baseless racial stereotypes portraying black Americans as deranged and animalistic. This leads to an increased number of police killings among mentally ill and neurodiverse people of color, who—in simply looking for help—are viewed as dangerous and out of control.
Similar standards apply with addiction. While we rightly talk about the tragedy of the American opiate epidemic, it’s worth noting that the majority of the areas receiving coverage are predominantly white. While we talk about the rash of overdoses from opioid substances currently as a tragedy, similar drug outbreaks have received far less sympathetic coverage when they have not involved primarily white sufferers. The most obvious example of this is the “crack epidemic,” which was used as one of the major rationales for the militarization of American police forces that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite being a deadly and addictive substance, crack addicts were portrayed as carriers of a social pestilence rather than victims of a serve medical affliction. Looking at less severe substances, the argument still stands: while active alcoholics of all races are viewed with a certain amount of disdain, the problem drinking of a white man is far more likely to be viewed as a tragedy or even some sort of weird artistic asset (in the case of writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc) than in a black man, where it will most likely be written off as a confirmation of old stereotypes about laziness and irresponsibility.
These double standards hold true across gender lines, as well. It’s a cliché, at this point, to envision Victorian women shipped off to old-timey mental-institutions in fits of hysteria—excess emotion seen as a sort of feminine insanity—and while we’ve moved away from the archaic staples of such an image, the attitudes that underpinned such incidents are still very much alive.
Women who express strong will or strong emotion are seen as improper and broken. They are “crazy” and “bitchy.” They are an inconvenience to the rational men in their lives, who are just trying to move emotionlessly forward. As we have gotten better at fighting the toxic masculine ideal of cold reasonableness, though, we still fail to extend this newfound compassion to women.
There are hosts of male artists who are beatifically praised for their discussions of emotional turmoil, or off-color public presentations. Playfully called “Sad Boy” artists, this fraternity includes musicians like Bon Iver, The National, and the Shins; or filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. As white men, these (often very talented) creative are given space to speak about issues like heartache and depression, anxiety and substance abuse. These facets of their personalities are seen as just that: facets, parts of a whole. In the instances where we do choose to reduce a male artist to something like addiction or mental illness, we often do so through an uncomfortable sort of fetishization, portraying them as a tortured soul whose emotional difficulties or resultant misbehavior are the price and byproduct of being in touch with an unstable and molten creative element.
Women are not so lucky. In discussing sadness or depression, women are expected to confine the topic to certain acceptable territories—the most popular being breakups. In this particular case, this containing of a woman’s emotional pain to romantic loss promises the listener that they won’t have to deal with this upset woman for long. All that she needs is a guy to come along and fill that hole in her heart. Then she’ll be happy once more. Still, as any woman who has ever been told to “smile” by a strange man knows, men have very little sympathy for a woman’s right to not be chipper all the time, or for her right to decide when she wants to feel what.
Other emotions, such as anger, often don’t even get the luxury of an “acceptable” focus. Sure, everyone loves to joke about “a woman scorned,” but this isn’t an acknowledgment of a woman’s right to be angry when she’s crossed. It’s an assertion that a woman turns into a hellhound when something doesn’t go her way. If a woman takes issue with something, she’s a bitch or worse.
Bipolar—which appears in two types and is categorized by swings of varying length and rapidity between depressive and manic moods—then, is a bullseye for the emotional stigmas that women are already saddled with. Sufferers of bipolar and other mood disorders are often portrayed as violent and temperamental, childish and petulant. Women with bipolar disorder are painted as veritable monsters, sometimes given the misogynist grace note that the impulsivity that often accompanies the disorder will make them great in bed, as long as you don’t stick around too long (as a man with a mood disorder I hold that I’m rather average in bed, though I can fluff a mean pillow). In fact, “don’t stick your dick in crazy” is a gross phrase that is almost always used in relation to women suffering from bipolar disorder: a pronouncement that women who have the disorder are unfit to fulfill their social role; incapable of love or commitment; undeserving of respect, attention, or dignity.
In many ways, all mental illness in women is flattened into two-dimensional “craziness,” which is then plastered on the sufferer like a social biohazard sign. The result is pressure among women to hide mental illness, addiction, and trauma, to avoid asking for help, which might brand them as social undesirables to a greater degree than a man suffering the same pains.
That Carrie Fisher spat in the face of this; that she chose to confront mental illness and addiction head-on; that she chose to speak about it, in all its complexities, and confusions, and minor pettinesses is absolutely breathtaking.
It is refreshing to see Fisher’s advocacy given such attention now, but it is even more frustrating to see that attention come only in the wake of her death. If we wish to truly honor the breadth of Fisher’s courage, honesty, and accomplishment, however, we must continue to train ourselves and our culture to prize and celebrate this sort of honesty: every day, not just as the subheader in an obituary. That might be the literal definition of too little, too late.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.