Is all publicity good publicity? M. Night Shyamalan probably hopes so, because his new psychological thriller Split is getting attention for all the wrong reasons. Split stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man who kidnaps three teenage girls and keeps them locked in a bunker under a zoo for reasons unknown. Kevin suffers from an extreme case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (a.k.a. Multiple Personality Disorder) — playing host to 24 different personalities. The plot seems to revolve around Kevin's inability to control his personalities, revealing them to be working together in order to unleash something only referred to as "The Beast."
Since the trailer came out last summer, #Split's premise has caused concern for mental health advocates, who argue that the film's premise further promotes negative and unhealthy opinions of mental health and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). It is also argued that the trailer evokes transphobic values, thanks to a moment when we see one of Kevin's (possibly female) personalities donning heels and a dress.
A Care2 petition — which has garnered more the 20,000 signatures — has been launched to boycott the movie because, in the words of petition founder Sarah Rose:
This entire film is problematic in it's [sic] narrative. At a time when so much attention is being paid to mental illness and gender identity, we've reduced both conversations to a horror movie trope.
- 5 Great Movies That Portray Mental Illness Perfectly
- Is 'Frozen' A Lesson on Mental Illness?
- Diagnosing The Joker: Why Is He the Way He Is?
Hollywood, and especially horror, doesn't have the greatest history when it comes to positive depictions of mental illness and gender identity. Rose cites both Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and Norman Bates in Psycho as examples of these "tired and offensive" transphobic tropes, which depict gender dysmorphia and mental illness as a tool to terrorize audiences.
Mental health has always been an easy target for horror, because until very recently, it was incredibly misunderstood; thus, plot-wise, it could be used to explain away a bounty of horrifying acts of evil. The relentlessness of this trope has exacerbated stereotypes and misunderstandings about mental illnesses, negatively impacting the way sufferers have been viewed and treated.
Sadly, horror hasn't made much effort to adapt, continuing to link disturbed and violent characters with OCD, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia (see, for example, The Shining, Girl, Interrupted, Single White Female and The Others). You only have to look at the amount of horror movies set in asylums to gauge how exploitative of this horror trope can be. Despite this, Hollywood has made steps to improve representation in movies like Little Miss Sunshine, The Silver Linings Playbook and A Beautiful Mind — unfortunately, horror might still need to catch up.
M. Night Shyamalan is probably hoping Split will be the movie to right the sins of his past. After a string of lackluster movies, it's easy to forget that it was Shyamalan who gave us Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense — one of the most beloved horrors of the '90s — which dealt with themes of psychiatry and mental health sensitively. Just like The Sixth Sense, Split will feature "a genius twist ending," which will hopefully move the narrative into a more positive light.