Stardom and Stigma

Stardom and Stigma

Arts November 24, 2020 / By Dr. Judith Schlesinger
Stardom and Stigma

Stigma associated with exceptional people of various kinds.

"The creative person, the person who moves from an irrational source of power, has to face the fact that this power antagonizes. Under all the superficial praise of the creative is the desire to kill. It is the old war between the mystic and the non-mystic, a war to the death." – May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

One of the most intriguing things about highly creative people is the ambivalence they inspire. It’s hard to think of any other trait that contains the same paradox: the need to simultaneously worship and diminish the person who has it.

As renowned psychologist Hans Eysenck said a generation ago,

"Creativity, solemnly praised, is in fact anathema. It threatens the structure and cannot be tolerated— the creative person is willy-nilly turned into a rebel, an outcast, a maverick… "(1)

I would add “…or diagnosed as bipolar” to the list. That same love/hate ambivalence lurks at the center of the mad genius myth, which I’ve already dismantled in my last eight columns here, as well as (Shameless Plug Department) in my book, The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius. Hoax is now in its second and stronger edition at Barnes and Noble and; it is most emphatically not on Amazon (long story).

Anyway. This column is about the stigma often associated with exceptional people of various kinds, particularly when on public display. The thought was triggered by learning about Teatro Patologico (literally, Pathological Theater), the drama school in Rome, Italy, whose students/actors have been variously diagnosed as schizophrenic, catatonic, manic-depressive, autistic, epileptic, or born with Down’s Syndrome.

The school, in existence since 2009, often performs Medea, the popular Greek tragedy about adultery, murder, and infanticide. Some years ago I watched the trailer. It was full of strange moments, like the man writing “Medea” over and over so forcefully that he made holes in the paper (alert Psych 101 students will recognize this kind of intense repetition as “perseveration,” a classic sign of “mental illness.”). Viewers could also witness the application of weird makeup to faces that were already rather bizarre.

Today, YouTube can show you the school’s hour-long presentation at La MaMa, in New York City. I couldn’t take more than the opener: a slow and dark processional, full of wordless chanting and ominous beats. It felt less like being inspired than slowing down to peer at a car accident

Also arriving that year was “The Specials,” a British reality show about “mentally challenged” young people living together in a supervised home. It only lasted two seasons, but bulletins about the cast continue on its website. And while the focus is on Down’s Syndrome, it seems that a similar ongoing fascination with altered humanity is what keeps it going.

Then there was “Addict’s Symphony,” the 2014 documentary about ten gifted classical musicians whose careers were derailed by substance abuse. Although many of them were still floundering, they were all going to perform with the London Symphony.

Venerable music author and critic Norman Lebrecht reviewed it this way:

"Some of the personal accounts plumbed a deep well of human sympathy. But the persistent intrusiveness of the medium, the delve for tragic details, verged on the worst excesses of reality TV. It left us feeling with a sensation that both musicians and viewers were being subtly exploited in the service of other agendas… " (2)

So I wrote to Patrick Corrigan, one of the foremost experts on psychiatric stigma and lead author on the special issue about its impact, published in Psychological Science for the Public Interest. He was kind enough to respond to my email with this:

"…about the theater companies…they could potentially be led by those [who are] presenting people with mental illness as trained animals. In that case…heinous." (3)

Last year brought yet another high-profile example of this presentation paradox, or admiring people while simultaneously demeaning them. Now Teatro Patologico was going to perform Medea at the United Nations. The online magazine Broadway World introduced its director this way:

"His plays investigate mental illness by grasping its vital artistic and creative aspects with the intention of restoring the dignity of the fool." (4)

Sorry, but to me, this sounds like blatantly commercial exploitation of the exceptional. Here, “exceptional” means the person is diagnosed first, and then paraded for the public. The flip side is recognition for someone’s genius, followed by hunting for (or inventing) some underlying psychopathology; this is the usual method of “mad genius” advocates who claim they can detect artist pathology three hundred years after death. But both directions work well as entertainment:

Part of the draw of a Judy Garland concert was the high-wire suspense of whether she’d get through it; her daughter Liza Minnelli inspired the same mix of loyalty and voyeurism.(5)

It’s much like going to NASCAR and hoping for a crash.

Finally, similar to the eternal "chicken and egg" dilemma, it doesn’t really matter which came first; it could be the pathology, or it might be its parade. But either way, the alleged linkage is clear, in that much of society insists that creativity and psychological dysfunction must always be related.

Alas, despite all evidence to the contrary, people seem to like it that way.


  1. 1995. Eysenck, Hans. Genius: The natural history of creativity. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 287.
  2. 2014. Lebrecht, Norman. August 28.
  3. 2014. Corrigan, Patrick. Personal communication. September 19.
  4. 2019. BWW Newsdesk. June 3.
  5. 2020. Schlesinger, Judith. The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the myth of the mad genius. Shrinktunes Media/Lulu Press. p. 2.
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