Epilepsy Stereotypes Abound in Movies
Film Industry Depictions Don't Match Up With Modern Medicine
Nov. 21, 2003 -- The dramatic potential of epileptic seizures
has been a favorite source of inspiration for filmmakers. But new research
suggests that the film industry hasn't caught up with medicine and continues to
depict ancient beliefs and stereotypes associated with epilepsy.
A survey of 62 international films that deal with epilepsy
found the condition is still commonly linked with demonic or divine possession,
genius, lunacy, and delinquency.
The study also found that there is strong gender bias in how
epilepsy is depicted on the silver screen. Male characters with epilepsy
outnumbered female characters. Most of the films with males depicted a faked
epileptic seizure for a criminal gain.
Researchers found that male characters with epilepsy were
frequently portrayed as mad, bad, and dangerous, as in the film One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But the same disorder is often used in female
characters to add exotic intrigue and vulnerability, such as Elina in the
American comedy Simple Men.
Epilepsy is a nervous system disorder caused by abnormal
electrical activity in the brain. These electrical bursts lead to epileptic
seizures that temporarily affect a person's muscle control, movement, speech,
vision, or awareness.
Epilepsy at the Movies
Researchers say the portrayal of epilepsy in film has not been
widely studied. But for most people, a cinematic representation might be the
only epileptic seizure they ever see.
"For many people, the recollection of a character 'faking a
seizure' at the movies may be their only reference point on hearing the
diagnosis [of epilepsy]," writes researcher Sallie Baxendale of the
Institute of Neurology in London.
"Although it is not for the medical profession to dictate
or censor cinematic content, a keen eye on these depictions will help us to
understand and perhaps combat some of the stereotypes and myths that continue
to surround epilepsy," says Baxendale.
The study, published in the December issue of The Lancet
Neurology, showed that characters with epilepsy were much more common in
dramas than any other genre. These characters ranged from war heroes (The
Idiot) to prostitutes (1900) to gang leaders (The Life of
Jesus) to dwarves (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).