At 21, I have accumulated several diagnoses, including autism and borderline personality disorder. Unfortunately, I had to go a couple of residential facilities for my mental health. It got to a point where I couldn’t be alone with my own thoughts, was self-harming again and easily suicidal. Although I’d had experience with dialectical behavioral therapy, I had not committed the essential skills and ways of thinking to memory; I doubted their importance.
I’ve come so far from last year; I have now graduated to an intensive outpatient program and am living in their provided housing. They try to make fun outings, including a movie once a week, and yesterday’s was “The Hustle.” It’s about women con artists.
I figured it would be fun to go because Rebel Wilson is in it, but I was wrong. The film fell into the trope of an overweight woman having to prove herself (which could be a whole other essay), but even worse, ableism found its way into multiple plot points. This is a continued pattern for the actress, as her other recent movie, “Isn’t It Romantic,” has been called out for the scene where her character makes fun of muscular dystrophy.
In “The Hustle,” Rebel Wilson’s character Penny makes her way to the French Riviera, where she runs into Josephine, who’s in the same business conning men on the presumption that they never want to believe a woman is smarter than them. Everything about Josephine screams refined and elite. Penny weasels her way into Josephine’s life in order to hone her craft, if it can be called that.
When it is decided that Penny is ready to participate in Josephine’s schemes, they play sisters 63rd in line for the British royal throne. Josephine lures in a wealthy man with her sophisticated lust, ultimately earning herself a diamond engagement ring. Then she takes him to meet Penny as Hortense, the fake sister. Suspicion overtook me when the man was taken through a tunnel into what must be the basement of Josephine’s posh home. There she is behind glass like an animal, resembling sensationalized psychiatric hospitals too closely for my comfort.
Hortense is clearly intended to have intellectual and emotional disabilities. The audience is meant to assume her capable of no more than rudimentary thought patterns. Locked in her fantasy world, she is dressed as and has her room decorated for a medieval princess, but in a tacky, childish way. When Josephine tells her that she will be marrying the unfamiliar man in the room, she begins to throw objects and lapse into behavior resembling a childhood tantrum. The man runs away in terror, leaving Josephine the ring. Mission accomplished! Versions of the same act are then successful in other schemes.
I was sickened measuring what was supposed to be a joke against the reality of my conditions. I am no stranger to sensory overload. When it gets to be too much, I can become grouchy, reaching a breaking point as soon the only ones around are people I trust. Social situations can leave me disgruntled when I can’t follow along. Such difficulties compound my fear of abandonment. I worry that anyone who cares about me will physically drift away. Don’t ask me how my brain does that, as I know my anxieties don’t align with basic principles of gravity.
I’ve been known to randomly move physically closer and probably invade others’ personal space, or awkwardly lurk around because I’m scared that everything around me will obliterate. Not in a metaphorical sense, or a literal sense that the universe is due to end in my lifetime, but something a bit more in line with a dissociative experience. Feelings of jealousy and shame I can’t handle will leave me bitter, and I can regress emotionally. I believe I developed borderline personality disorder because I sensed at a young age that I am unwelcome in the world as an autistic person, and reminders of this notion cause me to revert right back to my childhood.
I have engaged in similar behaviors as Penny’s character under extreme distress. I had a session with my individual therapist today where I rehashed the plot and how it affected me. She said I am over-identifying and that it’s expected to feel upset when we’re reminded of previous struggles and discrimination we’ve experienced. Yes, part of it was my mental illness talking — more like screaming — but this movie is harmful.
I am concerned about how disabled people are portrayed in the media. Penny’s character within a character is kept in zoo-like conditions with no agency or chance to experience anything in life. That was the reality for most people with such acute symptoms not so far in the past, and still is for some individuals here in the U.S. and around the world. We have freedom of expression, and that’s how it should be, but it comes with the responsibility to thoroughly assess who we are reaching. People who haven’t closely encountered people with the disabilities alluded to in “The Hustle” will again encounter dated, ableist ideas about them.
I envy people who will simply be laughing at this movie while I work through my discomfort productively. I’m working through my challenges every day, and attempting to put a positive spin on this incident by reminding myself of the progress I’ve made when it comes to coping with conflict, stress and invalidation. I am not a freak because of my neurological differences. Autism gives me a unique perspective on my special interests, social justice and poetry. While I wouldn’t wish the pain brought by borderline personality disorder on anyone, it gives me a depth of compassion for other people who face struggles and atrocities in the world. In fact, I’m considering therapy as a career because of my experiences. We don’t owe the world “normalcy” and are not defined by our lowest points with mental illness and disability.
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Author: Olivia Case