Jezebel’s Mental Illness Problem

Two recent Jezebel articles raise serious questions about the website’s perspective on mental illness.

Jezebel’s always been a hybrid of feminism and tabloid-esque gossip. Sometimes this is effective, and sometimes it’s not. But with two recent Jezebel blog posts focused on real life people living with mental illness, the latter is clearly presented at the expense of the former. Jezebel often presents itself as the go-to website for women interested in pop culture, but uncomfortable with its many demeaning and sexist realms. But as these articles demonstrate, Jezebel really is simply part of the frustrating cacophony.

In the middle of March Jason Russell, the cofounder of Invisible Children, was placed on psychiatric hold after being found naked, disorderly, and incoherent on the streets of a residential neighborhood in San Diego. It’s pretty obvious that Russell was not in his right mind. Absolute certainty about what went down is impossible, but doctors have described his behavior as part of a brief psychotic breakdown, and he has been involuntarily committed, so mental illness is a real possibility.

Nevertheless, Jezebel blogger Katie J.M. Baker chronicled Russell’s breakdown with undisguised glee in a blog post titled “Invisible Children Cofounder Arrested for Drunkenly Masturbating in Public.” She writes, “We’re not sure how to adequately express our shock and disbelief at the news that Jason Russell, one of Invisible Children’s co-founders and the star of the Kony 2012 campaign, was taken into custody last night for drunkenly masturbating in public.” Some readers reported that an earlier version of the blog post, which was later edited, called the Russell incident “delightful.” An update to the article
included video footage. “6:30 EST: TMZ somehow got their hands on video footage. It is horrifying. No wonder the guy’s on a 5150 psychiatric hold.” Baker ended her post by seeking out more embarrassing first person accounts, “Any San Diego Jezebel readers see Jason Russell dancing around in (or out of) his underwear last night? Email us.”

Baker seems to be gawking open mouthed at someone who was very likely in the midst of a psychotic episode, saying holy shit, this happens? People go nuts? Who would have thought? Whoa. She seems to be aiming for some level of ironic humor, but instead of using humor to dismantle harmful stereotypes she merely reinforces them. Crazy people are shocking and subhuman, ya’ll.

An earlier blog post from March 10, “Dallas Flight Attendant Freaks the Fuck Out,” describes an incident where an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Chicago was delayed after a flight attendant began using the plane’s intercom to make odd announcements about the plane crashing. The flight attendant in question was forcibly taken to a hospital, and local and federal authorities said they had no plans to press charges because the incident seemed to be the result of mental illness.

However, Jezebel blogger Doug Barry chose to characterize the possibility of mental illness as hilarious, blogging that “One passenger claimed that the flight attendant even described herself as bipolar and insinuated that she hadn’t taken her medication, which is right about the moment in a thriller when the cabin door closes with a dramatic, sucking thunk, assuring the audience that they too should buckle up because they may experience some unexpected… Turbulence.”

Right, Jezebel. When someone mentions that they’re bipolar it’s like a moment in a thriller. Unless, you know, you happen to be bipolar. This piece is even worse than the Russell post, because the blogger seems more aware that mental illness played a role, but chooses to childishly mock the woman in question anyway.

Many of Jezebel’s readers were rightly outraged by Jezebel’s characterization of Russell’s breakdown and the incident involving the flight attendant. In the comments section, anne.elk wrote:

Oh, fuck you. I’d expect better from Jezebel. I have bipolar disorder and not taking your medication (and god knows it might not be easy for a flight attendant to take medication that is largely sedating and difficult to live on with unsocial hours) can make you very unwell very quickly, you ignorant ass.”

Idra wrote:

God Jezebel, y’all just can’t stop making fun of mental illness, can you? Listen, I agree, this guy comes of as a narcissistic jerk. But it appears he is having a psychotic break. It’s almost as funny as that flight attendant last week. Which is to say not at all funny.

Jezebel, consider these readers’ position and take side of the mentally ill, rather than being just another mainstream publication that stereotypes and oppresses us. Where you should you begin? Why not by acknowledging that there are actual mentally ill folks out there? Know that when you read or hear about someone behaving strangely, you might need to take the real possibility of mental illness into account. And if you should evaluate the situation, and it appears that someone’s having a nervous breakdown, realize that situation is painful for that person. Don’t blog about the incident like you’re blogging about something outrageous that Lindsay Lohan did.




Sara Adams is a journalist, photographer, and activist living in the Midwest.




Editor’s Note: As a matter of editorial policy, we have chosen not to link the articles described due to Jezebel’s history of posting photos of a victim of sexual assault, among other extreme anti-feminist acts.  If you are interested in reading the originals, they can be found by Googling the titles above.

7 thoughts on “Jezebel’s Mental Illness Problem

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  2. sara, thank you for calling Jezebel to task. in my lifetime, i have been subjected to very painful treatment (to include shunning) simply because i *have* bipolar disorder, not because of any specific incident related to the illness. i have made it one of my missions to dispel stereotypes wherever i can, and i deeply appreciate any sensitivity expressed in the public forum. many, many thanks.

  3. Thank you so much, Sara, for this article. I hadn’t been on Jezebel in awhile, and hadn’t read those articles. As a bipolar woman I know firsthand how hurtful and shaming stigma like this can be. This is not feminism in any way. This is something I’d expect from Cosmo! I know I’ll be removing my Jezebel bookmark and sharing your article on all my social networks. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

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  5. Totally totally agree with everything you have said and I find it shocking that any site claiming to be about feminism can have such a medieval attitude to mental illness.

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