So there I was last night, merrily reading a sci-fi romance (2016 release). The story introduced a secondary character, one who’d been seriously injured as an adult. In the scene, he revealed to the hero that he was receiving treatment to repair the injured area of his body. He was wearing a device akin to the Superflex suit. I’m thinking, cool, here’s a character of color with a disability using assistive technology in a futuristic SFR. Progress, right?
Back in December 2015, Indiewire’s Animation Scoop featured an interview with MINIONS’ directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda. As a fan of supervillain Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), I read the interview (which I had recently discovered) to learn more behind-the-scenes information about how the story evolved. Then one quote in particular stopped me cold:
BD: Let’s talk about Scarlet and Herb Overkill and working with Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm.
KB: The nature of Scarlet’s character is that she’s bi-polar and unpredictable.
I had previously expressed my concerns about Scarlet’s ableist portrayal several months earlier via Twitter—September 9, 2015, to be exact. I collected my tweets in a Storify: Scarlet Overkill’s Ableist Portrayal in Minions.
At the time of my tweets, I’d assumed her ableist portrayal was the result of unexamined prejudices. Mr. Balda’s statement, however, seems to indicate the creative team had deliberately made a choice to portray Scarlet as having a mental disability. Needless to say, such an approach is problematic, irresponsible, and harmful.
It’s very disturbing to see a representative of Illumination Entertainment spin this narrative about her character. Scarlet Overkill isn’t the first character to be portrayed in an ableist way and she probably won’t be the last, but this incident demonstrates that the conversation about this issue needs to keep going. It’s especially concerning given that her character appears in a high-profile, mainstream film targeted at children.
Mr. Balda’s statement is problematic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it trivializes bi-polar disorder, which is an extremely serious health condition. Associating any kind of psychiatric diagnoses with a villainous character demonizes mental health consumers and that’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.
Then there’s the sexist aspect. I’ve not seen any indication that the male villains of the Despicable Me franchise are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. If it’s true they aren’t (and I’m willing to bet money that they aren’t), then characterizing the franchise’s first female supervillain as having one is an astonishingly callous and sexist act. Films like MINIONS don’t happen in a vacuum. The implication here is that there’s something evil about women who have a mental health history or heck, all women who experience mood swings as part of their menstrual symptoms.
Another issue is that a bi-polar condition is complex and involves more than just mood swings. Reducing it to someone being merely “unpredictable” and “upset” is beyond irresponsible. It’s also inexcusable. Additionally, Scarlet Overkill’s character isn’t a thoughtful, nuanced portrayal of a villain struggling with a mental health condition.
This incident is yet another example of how the entertainment industry perpetuates ableist stereotypes. But it doesn’t have to continue. A character like Scarlet Overkill can have mood swings without them relating to a psychiatric disorder. Or she can simply choose to deploy mood swings as part of her arsenal. Why is it so difficult to envision a female villain who’s in complete control of her behavior? The failure of imagination displayed by the MINIONS’ creative team is staggering.
Color me cynical, but I doubt any follow-up message about Scarlet’s “bi-polar” portrayal will come from Illumination Entertainment or Kyle Balda, so on their behalf I apologize to anyone who may have been hurt by Mr. Balda’s words. I’m part of a society that hands out ableist portrayals and/or general ableist actions left and right and have contributed to the problem myself. Therefore, I’m here to convey how sorry I am to those affected by his thoughtless comment.
I apologize for all of my shortcomings in this area as well. This situation only makes me more determined to listen, learn, and do better in my own life. I don’t have a disability, but I know plenty of people who do. I have an enormous responsibility to do right by all of them, whether or not I even know their names.
I wrote this post in the hope that at least one person will gain better insight and abstain from using ableist portrayals in their stories. If you have insights about this type of situation to share or links to informative articles about the subject, please do so. Thank you for reading.
Images property of Universal Pictures