‘Legion’: Conflating Autism, Schizophrenia, and Violence Harms

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Image: FX

If you watched the Super Bowl, you saw the continuous streams of advertising for the new FX show Legion. To say that Legion has problems would be to put it mildly. My review of the rape culture issues pretty much sums up the number 1 reason I’m noping out of this show. Regardless of what happens going forward in terms of the relationship between David and Syd, I have to refuse to endorse a relationship based on a man’s inability to respect a woman’s body. So, let’s just all say “Nopity nope nope nope nope” to that one.

However, what bothered me as much was the portrayal of mental health. First, we have Lenny who acts as a very “Lisa from Girl, Interrupted” character. We have the crazy girl who’s dark and dangerous and edgy. Mental health trope #1. Lenny sits staring at one of the other residents, whose line of drool is about 12 inches long, asking, “So, clonidine and yogurt? Do you think that’s what it is?” Now we have mental health trope #2. Then we see Syd take her meds and open her mouth super wide to show she swallowed them. Mental health trope #3. When we see all of the patients in a room, they’re all spaced out and half of them are in wheelchairs. In fact, both David and Lenny, who are mobile, are seen rolling around in wheelchairs for fun. Mental health trope #4. I could go on, but I think you catch my drift. These representations only continue to present negative and damaging narratives for those battling mental health disorders.

When going back to the comic books, the 1983 representation of David Haller is:

Image: Marvel

Taking the comic in its cultural context, the discussion of schizophrenia makes sense. However, we live in 2016. In 2016, we know that schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder are two different things. This means that as a society, we need to do better. Schizophrenics may hear and see things that are not real; however, they do not have multiple personalities. Perpetuating that stereotype in a modern show is, at the very least, dismissive.

Popular culture has a sordid history of misrepresenting schizophrenia. In an interview with Vice.com, psychologist and movie buff Danny Wedding discusses poor portrayals of schizophrenia,

Well, you know, it’s an old Jack Nicholson movie, but The Shining showed Nicholson becoming homicidal and trying to kill his wife and his child, and it is pretty awful. Nightmare on Elm Street showed Freddy Krueger as a patient whose mother had been in a psych hospital and he had a violent mental illness himself. Those are two of the most egregious. Some are so bad it’s so hard to even talk about them. Almost all of the films that link mental illness with violence also involve sexuality in some way, so people are not just killed, they’re raped and sexually violated and then killed.

Legion‘s David Haller reinforces this dangerous stigmatic trope. In the show, for example, David tells his interrogator that he has no memory of killing Lenny, that it was Sad in his body, and that they mind-swapped. Yes, in a sci-fi show, that is totally plausible. However, the reliance on this dangerous trope in conjunction with the continued confusion of schizophrenia and dissociative personality disorder in modern popular culture makes this not only a tired trope but a damaging one.

Legion‘s visual are gorgeous and trippy, incorporating vaguely atonal music. The saving grace of the show also, upon reflection, aids and abets the problematic nature of its relationship to mental health. Craig Middleton from James Cook University notes in his article, “The Use of Cinematic Devices to Portray Mental Illness,” notes,

Some authors identify film techniques that illustrate how a character with mental illness is presented differently than other characters. Studies by Pirkis et al list five filmic devices, “the individual point of view, close-up shots, discordant music, atmospheric lighting, setting selection and scene juxtapositions.”

These devices which make Legion so beautiful are also insidiously damaging. Looking at the vibrantly surreal colors, the close-up shots, and the atonal Beatles-esque music through Middleton’s lens, Legion egregiously and subconsciously furthers the continued stereotype of  the violent schizophrenic (who’s actually not a schizophrenic because the person really has dissociative personality disorder, but hey, tomayto/tomahto, right?).

As if the misrepresentation of schizophrenia weren’t bad enough, FX had an opportunity here. A really wonderful opportunity. More recent comic portrayals of David Haller have referred to him as autistic.

Image: Marvel 1983
Image: Marvel 2009

Legion/David has a hard time functioning in society. He is alternatively an individual with dissociative personality disorder and/or autistic. The comics alone have issues that need to be addressed in a live action reboot of the character. Autism is distinct from schizophrenia is distinct from dissociative personality disorder. While the comics may conflate these, today we need to do better. By combining an autistic character with a schizophrenic character, Marvel already created a problematic representation of autism as dangerous. The FX show only furthers this in the most dangerous way possible.

In the comics, David is on Muir Island, the mutant research facility. He is not in a mental health hospital. This narrative choice by the writers of the television show damages all three of the disorders discussed in this post. Instead of having him in a place he belongs, the writers specifically chose a mental health institute. They did not have to rewrite the origin story this way. They chose to do this. This choice means that the writers owe those with mental health issues a responsibility. FX chose to rewrite a mutant research facility as a mental health facility for dramatic effect. FX then chose to make that mental health facility as cliched as possible. FX also chose to take a character who is portrayed as autistic and schizophrenic as needing to be institutionalized. In other words, David Haller’s Legion tells autistic people or schizophrenic people that they should be institutionalized because they are dangerous.

No. Just no.

We need to be better than this as viewers and consumers of media. We need to promote healthy representations of disabilities, not damaging ones. We need to call out continued tropes where we see them and ensure that those who make them are held responsible.

Why am I being so pedantic? I’m being pedantic because Marvel can do and has done better. Current runs of Spider-Woman and the new Hulk have dealt and are dealing beautifully with things like post-partum depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Legion could do this as well. FX has done well in the past with issues like substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder in shows like Denis Leary’s Rescue Me. This is what makes the representation in Legion particularly perplexing. Marvel and FX can do better, have done better, and yet didn’t do better here.

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10 thoughts on “‘Legion’: Conflating Autism, Schizophrenia, and Violence Harms

  1. I don’t agree, primarily because I don’t think we have any idea what’s really happening yet. While I do find some aspects problematic– mostly the concept of “maybe WE’RE not the ones with the problem, maybe meds just stifle who we REALLY ARE”– I think what we’ve been shown is not a complete picture because we’re getting it through David’s confused perception. I’m pretty sure, for example, the mental hospital was ridiculously stereotypical on purpose– it’s called “Clockworks” for gosh sakes–maybe because that’s how he thinks of it.

    We also don’t know either what David’s actual diagnosis is OR what the actual causes of his symptoms ARE in this adaptation yet, so I think it’s premature to say it’s a dangerous misinterpretation of any particular diagnosis. (and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that autism comes into it at all). My theory is that what he says about his telepathy has caused others to diagnose and him to accept that he’s schizophrenic: but because he’s had such a hard time dealing with the effects of his powers, he has genuinely developed actual mental illness, too, in the form of anxiety or ptsd or something, and it all compounds on each other. From what I’ve heard about the comic character, I suspect that, ironically, he is DEVELOPING multiple personalities as a COPING mechanism for dealing with the telepathy-induced schizophrenic symptoms– so it’s almost like, instead of the two disorders getting confused, it’s actually one counteracting the other. But that’s just my theory.

    I trust Noah Hawley with this, though. Going by what he did on Fargo, I have a hard time believing he would do sloppy work– on that show every detail was meticulously placed to add layers to the whole– everything paid off. If he uses tired tropes, it’s only so he can turn them on their heads later on. Maybe he’ll still end up blowing it, but I think it’s just too early to tell why these things really appear as they do.

    1. I can buy the wait and see. I think, honestly, the whole thing got to me on several levels, not just this one. I feel as though that if you’re going to take a character like this who epitomizes everything that’s bad about how mental health is portrayed in popular media and you plan to flip it? Then I think you want to make sure that it’s clear from the outset that you’re doing that.

      Plus, the whole kisses Syd against her will just upset me. Not once, but twice. Even if it’s in Haller’s confused perception… I don’t think that was done well at all.

      I also think that if you have a whole world of characters to play with, why would you choose one whose entire existence epitomizes the crazy->violence myth. There’s no real way of getting around that part of the character’s history since.. it’s like his whole schtick. Perhaps the character in and of himself is a poor choice of good representation of mental health regardless of how you portray it simply by virtue of the character.

      Maybe you’ve talked me into one more episode.


  2. Article was a bit choppy, but I think it’s a television show that is being talked about? I mean, psyche wards tend to be pretty divided, you tend to be split from other people who have, the differed disorders, unless you are in the intake stages. But I would also like to point out their is some truths to these “tropes” and any publicity is good publicity. I stay away from TV in general, lotta trash on the tube in our dystopian future.

  3. I’m autistic. Legion has never been portrayed as autistic in the comics. Apologize and correct this disgusting blog post. Legion was labeled autistic randomly in the comics for literally no reason and that label was later dropped after the writers made it clear they didn’t even know what autism was.

  4. Whoever wrote this is pretty stupid. I’ve been in many mental hospitals and the experience shown in the show is spot on to what I’ve experienced. The only thing different is that using wheel chairs is not always done however some people need wheelchairs because of his or hers disability while some people are fall risks and others have problems getting used to their meds. Also, if the writer watched the show he would know that it is not representative ofrom dissociative disorder as Syd’s power was to switch bodies with other people.
    Also, in the show David never violates her body in any means he is very respectful of her space.
    As someone who is schizophrenic I am absolutely not offended byou this show but absolutely love how similar David feels to myself while I am very offended that the writer of this article used was so ignorant to write this article without paying attention to the show then claim he is sticking up for people like me whom he has no idea what he’s talking about.

  5. Please take the time to CAREFULLY re-watch the show. There are ZERO descriptions, insinuations, etc. of David being autistic.

  6. Yea I really disagree with this. As someone who suffers from several diagnosed mental illnesses I found a lot of it .. weirdly relatable? I mean minus all the sci fi stuff of course.

  7. I am sorry but this is wrong, FIRST you are judging old comics from present point of view. You know in comics there were much more smoking, and the racism of comics during WW2 towards german people or anti-comunism/russian propganga later in 50-60s. So calm down about that stigma of mental illness back days in 80-90s.
    Second it’s comic book, so you can say anything about what schizophrenia is. But I can ask you do you know how it is to be telepath and schizophrenic? Probably not :D.

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