Jezebel’s Mental Illness Problem

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Two recent Jezebel articles raise serious questions about the website’s perspective on mental illness.

Jezebel’s always been a hybrid of feminism and tabloid-esque gossip, and sometimes this is effective, and sometimes It’s not. But with two recent Jezebel blog posts focused on people living with mental illness, the latter is clearly at the expense of the former.  Jezebel often presents itself as the go to website for women interested in pop culture, but uncomfortable with its many demeaning and sexist realms.

But with these articles Jezebel is simply part of the frustrating cacophony.

In the middle of March, Jason Russell, the cofounder of Invisible Children was placed on psychiatric hold after being found naked, disorderly, and incoherent on the streets  of  a residential neighborhood in San Diego. It’s pretty obvious that Russell was not in his right mind.  Absolute certainty about what went down is impossible, but doctors have described his behavior as part of a brief psychotic breakdown, and he’s been involuntarily committed, so mental illness is a real possibility.

Nevertheless, Jezebel blogger Katie, J.M. Baker chronicled Russell’s breakdown with undisguised glee, in a blog post titled “Invisible Children Cofounder Arrested for Drunkenly Masturbating in Public.”  She writes “We’re not sure how to adequately express our shock and disbelief at the news that Jason Russell, one of Invisible Children’s co-founders and the star of the Kony 2012 campaign, was taken into custody last night for drunkenly masturbating in public.” Some readers reported that an earlier version of the blog post, which was later edited, called the Russell incident “delightful.”  An update to the article included video footage, “6:30 EST: TMZ somehow got their hands on video footage. It is horrifying. No wonder the guy’s on a 5150 psychiatric hold.” Baker ended her post by seeking out more embarrassing first person accounts, “Any San Diego Jezebel readers see Jason Russell dancing around in (or out of) his underwear last night? Email us.”

Baker seems to be gawking open mouthed at someone who was very likely in the midst of a psychotic episode, saying holy shit, this happens, people go nuts? Who would have thought.  Whoa.  She seems to be aiming for some level of irony and hilarity, but instead of using these tools to dismantle harmful stereotypes she merely reinforces them.   Crazy people are shocking and subhuman, ya’ll.

An earlier blog post from March 10, “Dallas Flight Attendant Freaks the Fuck Out,” describes an incident where an American Airlines Flight from Dallas to Chicago was delayed after a flight attendant began using the plane’s intercom to make odd announcements about the plane crashing. The flight attendant in question was forcibly taken to a hospital, and local and federal authorities said they had no plans to press charges because the incident seemed to be the result of mental illness.

However, Jezebel blogger Doug Barry chose to characterize the possibility of mental illness as hilarious, blogging that “One passenger claimed that the flight attendant even described herself as bipolar and insinuated that she hadn’t taken her medication, which is right about the moment in a thriller when the cabin door closes with a dramatic, sucking thunk, assuring the audience that they too should buckle up because they may experience some unexpected… Turbulence.

Right, Jezebel.  When someone mentions that they’re bipolar it’s like a moment in a thriller. Unless, you know, you happen to be bipolar. This piece is even worse than the Russell piece, because the blogger seems more aware that mental illness played a role, but chooses to childishly mock the woman in question anyways.

Many of Jezebel’s readers were rightly outraged by Jezebel’s characterization of Russell’s breakdown, and the incident involving the flight attendant.  In the comments section, commentator anne.elk, wrote,  “Oh, fuck you. I’d expect better from Jezebel. I have bipolar disorder and not taking your medication (and god knows it might not be easy for a flight attendant to take medication that is largely sedating and difficult to live on with unsocial hours) can make you very unwell very quickly, you ignorant ass.”  Reader Idra wrote “God Jezebel, y’all just can’t stop making fun of mental illness, can you? Listen, I agree, this guy comes of as a narcissistic jerk. But it appears he is having a psychotic break. It’s almost as funny as that flight attendant last week. Which is to say not at all funny.”

Jezebel you need to take the side of the mentally ill, rather than being just another mainstream publication that stereotypes and oppresses us.  Where you should you begin?  Why don’t you begin by acknowledging that there are mentally ill folks out there.  Know that when you read or hear about someone behaving strangely, you might need to take the possibility of mental illness into account.  And if you should evaluate the situation, and it appears that someone’s having a nervous breakdown, realize that being in that situation is painful. And then don’t blog about the incident like you’re blogging about something outrageous that Lindsay Lohan did.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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