Research that Matters: Feminist Psychology and the Big Screen

When the idea for Mallory Moore’s research first germinated in her sophomore year at Gardner-Webb University, the #MeToo movement had yet to capture the headlines. By the time she stood on the stage at the 2018 Alpha Chi National Convention, the scourge of sexual abuse in Hollywood—and beyond—was raging hot across our collective screens. Mallory’s paper—an examination of how films too often misrepresent and sexualize women with depression and mental illness—proved prescient. After all, the allegations against Harvey Weinstein not only shocked the public, he also owned one of the most successful movie studios in modern history.

Mallory’s academic research gained traction when, on a whim, she took a foreign film class called Mad Women in Foreign Film. “I took that class just for fun,” she says. But after watching “Volver,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” Mallory’s thoughts coalesced around how culture minimizes and misrepresents women experiencing depression and mental illness. “All these movies shared the same theme of a main female character who experiences ‘madness,’” says Mallory. “Whether it’s depression or some other illness, the people in her society deem her ‘mad’ and look down upon her behavior.”

To better understand this cultural perception, Mallory turned to feminist psychology, a school of thought that examines mental health within the context of society, sexism, and gender issues. “Feminist psychology takes the woman’s experiences seriously,” she says, “especially as it relates to how she has dealt with sexism, sexual objectification, or possibly sexual abuse.” These events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation. “Even the smaller occurrences of sexism in everyday life—where women are made to feel inferior as sexual objects—can lead to mental turmoil,” says Mallory.

The films she saw suddenly took on a new meaning for Mallory. She now watched them with a notebook at her side and a questioning mind. “I would find a film about a woman with depression, watch it, take notes, and analyze it,” she recalls. She began to ask: Do movies perpetuate negative stereotypes or portray mental illness accurately? Do these movies romanticize depression, or worse, glorify suicide?

Documenting What Movies Get Right
To answer these questions, she designed her own independent study of 15 movies—”The Virgin Suicides,” Melancholia,” and “Girl Interrupted” among them—that specifically deal with depression and suicidal thoughts. She plunged into existing research and realized that scholars have already well-documented the things that films get wrong about women and mental illness, everything from stereotypes to outright medical inaccuracies. So Mallory took a different tack. “I looked for specific things the films got right,” she says. “I asked: What techniques are filmmakers using to accurately portray mental illness in a movie or TV show?”

As a result of her research, Mallory realized the need to identify best practices in portraying mental illness instead of sending problematic messages to audiences—especially messages that glorify mental illness or encourage suicide. This point hit home when, during her research, Netflix released the controversial series “13 Reasons Why,” a show many—including school psychologists and educators—criticized for glamorizing suicide. This series greatly influenced Mallory’s work.

A Personal Stake
For Mallory, these struggles weren’t just stories viewed on the movie screen. She herself experienced depression—for the first time—during her sophomore year. “I don’t know what triggered it,” she says, ”but I began to realize that I wasn’t the positive, happy person I was in high school.”

For Mallory, social anxiety soon followed. “I’ve always been a shy person, but this progressed to where it wasn’t shyness anymore. It was a fear of being seen by other people,” she says. “It got to the point where I would get anxious just having to pass another person on the sidewalk. This became my reality.”

With time and counseling, Mallory overcame her depression. But her experience informed her research work. “It brought me to terms with the fact that mental illness doesn’t deserve this horrible stigma,” she says.

It also propelled her academic path. “After I went through this battle with depression I thought, ‘Okay, I have something to say about this now—I have my own story to tell.’ But I didn’t know how to tell it.” Her own experiences fueled her study of film narratives and feminist psychology.

Mallory’s research has just begun, but already it is drawing attention. She has been accepted to a slew of prestigious graduate schools, including The University of Chicago, to do a master of arts in humanities completing the cinema and media studies option. Her final paper outlined the ongoing research she hopes to complete in grad school. “The conclusion of my final research paper opened a lot of threads of scholarship,” she says. “I want to do more work integrating feminist studies, psychology, and all these other subjects and see how they interact with film study.”

As for her career, Mallory sees several possibilities. “I’m thinking more and more about becoming a professor of film study,” she says. “I will definitely become a film critic. Possibly even a museum curator at a museum with film archives or film exhibits.”