Yesterday two retail giants were shamed and forced into taking products off their shelves by the power of people. People most of whom don’t know each other, who seldom have any power over the world of big business and many of whom face discrimination and prejudice every day of their lives.
It was an extraordinary day. It was incredible to see people join together through social media to put pressure on Asda, Tesco and Amazon to remove from sale Halloween costumes drawing from some of our society’s cruellest and most damaging stereotypes.
Yesterday’s events offer an important insight on how far we have travelled, and the distance we still have to go, to change our understanding of mental illness and fight discrimination against those who live with it.
The fact that makers and sellers of Halloween costumes produced these items in the first place is a sobering reminder that the stereotypes of the ‘mad axe murderer’ and the straitjacketed ‘mental patient’ are alive and well in our popular culture. From Hollywood movies (such as the Batman series) and computer games to stand-up comedy and children’s television, you’re never far away from a cheap, lazy characterisation of mental illness. Stereotypes allow writers and performers to connect with our deeply rooted assumptions to evoke fear and amusement. And the stereotypes about mental illness are still widely exploited.
Digging them out remains one of the most important tasks we all face in creating a fairer society. And we have much to learn from those who have progressed further in rooting out other forms of prejudice and discrimination, such as racism and homophobia.
In both cases, activists and campaigners have faced accusations of ‘political correctness gone mad’ but stuck it out and achieved huge gains. And in both, the power of consumer pressure has been an important factor in forcing those who have discriminated to change.
I once asked the editor of a big city newspaper why they had gone from repeatedly producing discriminatory material about immigrants to the city to celebrating the city’s diversity and tackling racism. “We didn’t want to offend a quarter of our readers”, was the simple response. In other words, the paper made more money by showing respect to its minority ethnic communities and regarding them as consumers than it had by playing up to widely held fears and stereotypes among the majority community. In realising that it was better off fighting rather than pandering to prejudice, the newspaper was following its perceived commercial interests while also taking a lead in trying to change the dominant culture in the city.
Similar changes of heart and mind can be seen in the advertising industry, in television and in cinema in the portrayals of black people and of gay men and women during the last two to three decades.
The most significant thing about yesterday’s events is that people took to social media in large numbers, whether they are living with mental illness or not, to force the hand of giant corporations to reverse what they regarded as appropriate products to sell in the UK. They showed that there are enough people out there who are appalled by cruel, unfair depictions of people with mental health problems to make life difficult for companies that trade on them. It is no longer a given that drawing upon some of society’s most discriminating stereotypes is a risk-free enterprise.
Of course we still have a long way to go. While we still laugh at cheap jibes about ‘mad’ people and ‘men in white coats’, and while film-makers continue to trade on stereotypes about ‘insane’ villains, cultural industries will keep on using them. But maybe now people have given them pause for thought. If so, we may indeed now be at the ‘end of the beginning’ of the battle for equality in popular culture for people with a mental illness.