After the premiere of Channel 4’s new drama Pure on Wednesday, the internet went wild. The rapturous praise that rained down on both the series creator Aneil Karia and actor Charly Clive, was well deserved. Based on Rose Cartwright’s autobiography of the same name, describing her experience of pure OCD, the series focuses on Marnie, her mental health and journey toward finding herself. Even if, as she says ‘if it makes [her] sound like a massive wanker’.
Marnie is the kind of person we all can recognise elements of ourselves in. She’s funny and brave, but also occasionally selfish and neglectful of those around her. She’s a protagonist whom we can admire for her frankness and magnetic personality, but most importantly one that is not placed on a higher (or lower) moral pedestal than those around her, or the audience themselves. Often when mental health is covered onscreen, figures dealing with mental health issues are categorised as “other”. They are either dangerous, violent threats to society, as in Netflix’s Birdbox or M. Night Shamalan’s Split, comic relief figures, or geniuses afflicted with bad mental health almost as a by-product of their intellect, as evidenced in A Beautiful Mind or medical drama House. And whilst depictions of depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder on telly have become more nuanced and sympathetic of late, personality disorders and schizophrenia are still widely misunderstood and misrepresented in mainstream media. Take any detective drama and you will find a “villain” with some variation with of anti-social personality disorder. Both television and film have a tendency to place conversations about mental health into extreme realms of discussion and depiction, sometimes unintentionally but nevertheless harmfully.
‘Both television and film have a tendency to place conversations about mental health into extreme realms of discussion and depiction, sometimes unintentionally but nevertheless harmfully’
The terrible track record television has had (even within the recent past) when choosing to characterise people with mental health issues, is undeniable. But there seems to be some hope on the horizon. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s smash-hit tragi-comedy Fleabag, which aired in 2016, has continued to have a huge social impact because of its comparatively “radical” yet nuanced depiction of depression, social anxiety and grief. It opened a metaphorical door for Pure and female centred narratives of this type, capturing the voices silenced by ideas of social taboo and sexist images of womanhood at the right time.
One thing Fleabag doesn’t do that Pure does however, is explicitly diagnose their main characters, which is extremely important in terms of representation. Although mental health is a spectrum and experiences of the same disorder vary from person to person, the idea that people with a similar form of OCD could see Pure and identify with Marnie is extremely powerful. And so is the idea that people who’ve never even heard of this form of OCD can do so too.
Although this may sound painfully obvious, the television and streaming industries have massive influences on our day-to-day lives, effecting how we both interpret the world around us and how we view ourselves and others in it. It’s often used by the average, tired human being as visual comfort food, where the opportunity to disappear into someone else’s story is extremely attractive. Yet, whilst shows like Homes Under the Hammer and The Chase may provide temporary forms of entertainment and escape, the stories that personally have the most impact emotionally and keep their audiences watching involve characters and situations closest to the viewer. Seeing a proxy for yourself onscreen being empowered and accepted is an incredibly vital experience for those struggling with self-acceptance, especially for those marginalised groups rarely given the limelight, or those who are misrepresented in mainstream media.
‘the idea that people with a similar form of OCD could see Pure and identify with Marnie is extremely powerful. And so is the idea that people who’ve never even heard of this form of OCD can do so too’
Those who perhaps have no ideas about OCD beyond the Sheldon Cooper stereotype, can also benefit from watching Pure and other shows which work for more accurate representations of mental health disorders. When those with mental illnesses are frequently made into sub-human or super-human figures in popular media, programs working to deconstruct such stigma in a non-condescending way are breaths of fresh air. Marnie is exceptional in her ordinariness. Like many other twenty-somethings she is left feeling bewildered and adrift after receiving her English degree and moving back in with her parents. She is not a manic genius, nor a raging monster, even though some characters treat her as such when her diagnosis is revealed. She is as fallible and vibrant in all the ways we expect someone of her age to be.
Pure exploits the charitable format of television which allows audiences the chance to get acquainted with characters over a longer and more dispersed period. Although this again sounds incredibly obvious, we are given a chance to see characters for more than their illnesses, and surmount prejudices we may have had subliminally absorbed from other sources. It’s absolutely ridiculous that we still have to tell the film and television industries that mental health disorders aren’t something alien to the human condition, but Pure succeeds in doing just that in their main character.