Content warning: contains discussion of addiction, abuse, mental illness, and sexual assault which may be triggering for some readers.
A middle-aged man lays diagonally in bed, half dressed and past due to shower. There’s bottles or pills or both laying around the bed. In television, this is a distinct sign of past childhood trauma and present addiction. Unfortunately, a satisfying resolution is rarely offered to the addled addict trope. The addled addict is a character central to the plot they exist in, using substances to cope with traumas and neglecting to take fault for any harmful actions. He lives in critically acclaimed television and movies and goes by many names: Frank Gallagher, BoJack Horseman, Jeff Winger, John McClane, Dr. House, and many others. He exists both unattached and victimized by the world all at once, fuelled by “functional” alcoholism and soggy microwave dinners. He may have some degree of character development over time, but only into someone who still lacks considerable growth. Racist jokes and sexual harassment are more often than not excused because of their trauma and ill-advised treatment methods. The functional addict and the addled addict are two distinct tropes in media; however, writers and producers seem to be blending the lines between what they deem high functioning and low functioning.
Addiction should be representational of how it exists in society. Unfortunately, the representations of addiction often fall onto unhealthy coping mechanisms for their illnesses and traumas. By the time the series finale hits or the movie ends, the audience is unable to witness the character’s long-lasting battle with addiction and finding sobriety. Writers are able to alter any realities about addiction to whatever is convenient for their storyline and run time. Kevin Pearson in This Is Us is an uplifting example of a man struggling with trauma, addiction, and mental health. While the story is tragic, Pearson is depicted as dealing with his situation with healthy coping mechanisms and therapy – at the very least, his character makes steps towards recovery. The important distinction between Pearson’s story and many others depicting drug dependencies is that the addiction storyline developed into a recovery storyline. The writers didn’t glamorize addiction nor allow for his abusive actions to be excused by addiction, as they so often do for many male characters.
Frank Gallagher from Shameless is deeply enthralled in the addled addict trope. While he acts solely in regard to his own whims, his alcoholism and other addictions are blamed for all of his wrongdoings. The issue here is that his wrongdoings are immense. From encouraging his young children’s close proximity with substances to upsetting moments of physical abuse, Gallagher’s rare presence in his children’s lives is filled with unforgivable inconsistencies in parenting. Functional alcoholism, in this case, is defined by how well they physically survive, despite what other aspects of their lives may falter. His consistent use of racist and sexist jokes are blamed on the last drink he had, which truly does beg the question about why the writers continue condoning this behaviour. who the writers are. Such ideologies are not a result of addiction, only accentuated by them. As the show approaches its 11th and final season, I’m curious to see how the creators of Shameless will decide to leave his character. Are the men that see themselves in Frank Gallagher supposed to take a needless approach to personal growth and recovery from the series?
BoJack Horseman balances between the lines of the functional and addled addict trope. Centered on a struggling middle-aged actor, enraptured by his traumas and addiction, BoJack Horseman is a realistic depiction of harsh moments of mental illness. For six seasons of BoJack Horseman, we watched him severely harm others and blame others for his addictions, with his most disgraceful actions targeting female minors. In two separate instances, BoJack gave an opioid to a minor, resulting in her death, and tried to sleep with another minor. The episodes made my skin crawl, as they insinuated his childhood trauma is to blame. It’s unnecessary for BoJack to cross such lines only in the name of character development. While BoJack Horseman has been accredited for its depiction of addiction and the nuances of mental health, I wonder why women must be pushed aside in the process. We continue to see Bojack seek help for his issues throughout the series, however the redemption offered from the arc fails to address the character’s terrible morals.
This raises the question why the writers and producers feel such instances of disregard for others are valuable moments of potential growth for an addled addict. While I understand why characters hit rock bottoms, I don’t understand why we have to abuse women, manipulate minors, and spew racist, sexist, and homophobic comments in the process. Hollywood as an industry does not breed men to be accountable for their actions, and the addled addict trope is an extension of this problem. It is not unheard of for us to learn that a highly acclaimed man’s actions in their personal lives match the awful scenarios they portray in television and film; Chris D’Elia, James Franco, and Louis C.K. to name a few. Through the trope of the addled addict, alcoholism, mental health issues, and childhood trauma are blanket excuses for abusive behavior. Many writers forget this should not be the case.
The popularity of the addled addict trope reflects how little our society prioritizes men’s mental health and emphasizes how ill-equipped we are to provide support for addiction. The commonality of addiction lends itself to be romanticized, wherein this lifestyle of unhealthy coping mechanisms is glamorized and normalized to seem much easier than seeking real help. Mental health in men is so stigmatized in our lives, and rarely are men depicted dealing with addiction and trauma healthily. The depiction that all men can do in the face of emotional crisis is lend themselves to addiction is untrue. Without a male role model that is able to negate this concept, this harmful depiction perpetuates the stigma around male mental health and sustains the idolization of unhealthy coping habits.
As the media is so deeply intertwined with our perception of society, we often find ourselves looking for clues on how to conduct ourselves. The glamorization of mental health and addiction skews our perceptions of the realities of addiction. It’s important for the media to reflect the experiences in society, however, Hollywood tends to forget the recovery step in all the madness they write out. The motion towards recovery storylines in more recent years, like This Is Us and the later seasons of BoJack Horseman, signals a move towards better representations of treatment and a decrease in stigma towards mental illness in men. We need to make room for positive portrayals of recovery from mental illness, trauma, and addiction in the media, in hopes that greater representations will influence society to follow suit.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Kouzou Sakai