I am a strong supporter of mental illness being freely talked about in media. Ideally with the media itself directed by mentally ill folks or people who (at least) are heavily consulted by people who deal with mental illness. For example, if you’re going to do a show about folks who suffer from depression then it helps to have some first-hand experience. That can mean you are someone who is depressed or you have many friends (many examples are better than one) who are.
And the reasons for this aren’t just some sort of “SJW” concern about diversity. Rather, it’s a concern for authenticity and the media maximizing the amount of self-expression that can happen on the show. The best thing you can do when trying to reduce the amount of stigma surrounding mental illness is just talking about it. And to do that in the most effective way it helps to have either the people behind the show or at least the people in the front of the camera with some experience.
Diversity isn’t necessarily good just for the sake of diversity, it has all sorts of secondary benefits that come in the form of (as I said) more authenticity and can lead to new surprises. In some of the best cases the people who are behind the show in a central way and are the ones leading the charging and (better still) centering it on their story.
Such is the case with Maria Bamford’s show called Lady Dynamite.
Lady Dynamite concerns two different times in Maria’s life: The first where she is out of the mental hospital, living in LA and trying to get her foot back in the door of the entertainment industry. The second is set in Duluth Minnesota when she is living with her parents and dealing with being sporadically in the psychiatric ward.
Although Bamford herself didn’t directly write any of the episode she was often in the writer’s room and the story is largely about her, plus some creative liberties that she personally allowed. The result of this is a series that is very frank about the ups and downs of dealing with mental illnesses and in a way you don’t often see in media.
Obviously the landscape has gotten better but that’s largely been the case due to shows such as (off the top of my head, not an exhaustive list!) BoJack Horseman, You’re The Worst, Love and Jessica Jones. And while autism isn’t a mental illness taking a look at shows like Community can shed better light on how those struggles can play out.
Lady Dynamite on the other hand often focuses on issues of mental health related to impulsive, manic attitudes towards life, depression and hopelessness and hallucinations. One of the episodes, Loaf Coach is dedicated to Maria’s struggles trying to keep herself balanced and stable. She says outright that her meltdown in the past happened largely because she was pushing herself too hard and working without engaging in any self-care.
Maria’s solution to this problem is to get a “Loaf Coach” who can help her do…nothing. …Where can I sign up for this? Can I become licensed for this sort of job? I feel like I already have this job, I’m just not living in LA or very wealthy or doing it by talking to people and instead I’m writing a small-time blog…so okay, there’s a lot of differences.
This episode takes aim at the fact that moving so far and being productive has surpassed all the rest of our needs. We’re seen as these automatons who need to keep working in order to be happy and make sure we’re as productive as possible. But this ends up making Maria feel like her life is just a series of schedules and overwhelming and because she worries about having a relapse with her mental health problems, she seeks help.
The loaf coach advises that maybe less of more is what Maria needs, which I thought was a cute phrasing. He advises to her that she should loaf around, get some rest (even when she’s getting called by the best) and generally he tries to get her to relax and stop taking too many jobs, especially huge ones. This has mixed results when Judd Apatow calls.
That said, his advise is mostly good…if not coming from a slightly sleazy place as he expects $10,000 from Maria by the end. Don’t worry though, I won’t be charging that much when I open up my studio.
That said, the show also offers a bit of balance and says that pushing from friends and family can come from a good place and be a positive part of your life. It’s just balancing your commitments and making sure you’re not overextending yourself. Maria’s stress comes at least in part from her family and their own obsession with busyness and productivity.
There were a few other cute phrases like, “loaf legs” (the state your legs are in after you loaf around a lot and suddenly need to get moving) and “Deflation: ambition leaving your body”. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary in this episode but it’s just nice to see a (mostly) positive representation of doing nothing and loafing around.
Josue is a little different because instead of the benefits of laziness it shows the controlling nature of corporations.
In the past, Maria had worked for this stereotypical evil corporation called Checklist, a grocery store that has some employment training in Mexico. Feeling bad about working for Checklist, which she knows is a bad company, Maria decides to go there to encourage the workers and try to make them good employees..
But instead of being an ally to the workers she uncritically goes along with whatever Checklist asks of her. She breaks up a union that is trying to be formed. She tries to make sure everyone speaks English so that they can be more effectively monitored by herself and anyone else from Checklist. Maria sometimes even uses violent rhetoric but with a smile and a laugh so it seems less violent.
Checklist also has a mascot named Trabajito who is a cute little bird with a silly hat. Maria and the bird itself on computer screens keeps reminding the workers that “Trabajito’s always watching!” which is to induce a sort of panopticon effect and make the workers self-regulate themselves and each other. There’s also language about wages and that demanding anything higher than they may already get is “entitled”, or at least that’s the implication.
Again, nothing particularly deep here but it’s good stuff to be highlighted. The ways that corporations control their workers through smiles, cute mascots and nice sounding words is all part of the process. It’s supposed to mask how much the workers are being controlled and don’t have any autonomy.
I thought it was interesting how these two episodes complimented each other and came after the other. I can’t imagine it was any coincidence that an episode praising leisure and loafing came before an episode that spent most of its time highlighting the evils of corporations and the ways in which they operate.
Regardless of how deep or not it’s message is important and not any less timely. The praise of loafing and the vilification of work is something that needs to happen more and more. And having that alongside a realistic and sympathetic take on mental illness isn’t such a bad thing either.
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