My friend, mentor, fellow writer, and feminist, Anna March, wrote this essay for Salon about her passion for the music of Bob Dylan. In the essay, March questions her almost lifelong love of the artist (she started listening to him when she was six-years-old), because sexism runs through his body of work. March comes to the conclusion that because she is influenced by, and passionate about the work of some male artists whose work includes sexist ideas and themes, that she, March, is an “imperfect feminist.”
March’s well written and thoughtful essay got me thinking not only about how I fit the shoes of a feminist but how me and others like me play the role of mental health advocate. Here are seven ways that can make any of us an imperfect advocate:
- Not always standing up when we hear, or read stereotypes, or stigmatizing actions or language. It is difficult to be an advocate and to educate others 24/7. Occasionally, we lack the energy, or the situation doesn’t seem safe enough to speak up.
- Watching television shows that rely on stereotypes. When we watch programs like Criminal Minds (and others) that have used the “mentally ill murderer” plot on more than one occasion, we are accepting the negative portrayal of our illnesses. Ideally, we would not be a viewer of the show, and address this use of a harmful stereotype publically.
- Supporting musicians that use images of psych wards and straitjackets in their videos. Again, addressing this issue publically by writing an essay or writing the artists a letter would be a good form of advocacy.
- Romanticizing mental illness. We want there to be something good that comes from our suffering. The list of famous artists (creative geniuses) who have been mentally ill is long. We would like to point to them and say that people with our diagnosis have a touch of this genius, too. Most of the time, this just doesn’t prove to be true (creative geniuses are rare).
- Using words that come from the mental health field inappropriately. There are times when we are having a bad or sad day and we will say, “I’m so depressed.” This is an inaccurate use of the word depression and can be harmful to those who suffer from depression because it makes the illness seem less debilitating than it is. The same is true with saying, “I have been cleaning all day. I’m so OCD.”
- Not supporting other marginalized populations. People with a mental illness are often overlooked, not heard, not offered the same opportunities, stigmatized, stereotyped, and not treated as equals but as “others.” As advocates for a population that experiences all these things, it is important that we stand up for groups that experience similar things in their daily lives.
- Internalizing stigma. All of us must take care of our well-being before we try to address or change the negative messages society often sends out about those of us who suffer from a mental illness. We need to build our self-confidence to fight for better circumstances for all of us.
In the essay on Dylan, at one point, March writes/asks, “I’m not Bob’s only feminist fan, of course. Is this acceptance of sexism — even by feminist women like myself — part of what perpetuates it?”
If we turn the question to advocacy, is our acceptance of artwork that romanticizes our illness, portrays us as violent criminals, and in the case of music videos, makes mental illness look edgy or radical, perpetuating the myths, stereotypes, and stigma?
If the answer is yes, we need to try harder for less imperfection in our roles as imperfect advocates.