our obsession with 'munchausen syndrome by proxy' stinks of misogyny

Netflix's 'The Politician' is the latest show to explore the rare mental health condition

by Louis Staples
22 October 2019, 6:00am

Netflix's The Politician 

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Netflix’s The Politician is high-camp drama that blends Glee with House of Cards and adds a touch of Wes Anderson. Created by Ryan Murphy, the show is full of his signature devious twists and turns and controversial moments. One such storyline is centred around Jessica Lange’s character -- Dusty Jackson -- a leopard print-clad, whisky-sipping, cigarette-smoking, expletive-screaming grandmother, who *spoiler alert* has been poisoning her granddaughter, Infinity, convincing her (and everyone else) that she has cancer.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because The Politician is the latest show to explore “Munchausen syndrome by proxy”. Nicknamed after Baron Munchausen, a character from 18th century German literature who was a compulsive liar, Munchausen syndrome is a mental health issue in which a person makes up an illness or injury. In 1951, British endocrinologist Richard Asher first used the term "Munchausen syndrome", with "by proxy" added 20 years later to describe the process of pretending a person under their care is ill. Despite being widely known as “Munchausens”, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognised the disorder, both individual and by proxy, as "Factitious Disorder" in 2013.

Over the last two years, it has been impossible to escape examples of Factitious Disorder on screen, manifesting itself as the trope of the “mother poisoner”. In HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, Camille (Amy Adams) discovered her mother had been drugging her children, including herself, and killed her oldest child by deliberately poisoning them. Patricia Arquette recently won an Emmy for her lead role in The Act, in which her character Dee Dee Blanchard convinces her daughter that she has a series of imaginary ailments. Both BBC Three’s Clique and ITV’s 2019 drama Deep Water, also featured mothers who intentionally harm their children.

In film, 2018’s Phantom Thread depicts the marriage between Alma (Vicky Krieps) and Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), with Alma poisoning her husband to keep him docile and compliant. No diagnosis is made on-screen, but director Paul Thomas Anderson explicitly mentioned Munchausens in an interview about the film. It’s also implied in 2017 horror film It that Eddie’s mother is obsessively medicating him unnecessarily, though we never see it officially diagnosed.

Continually, the disorder is portrayed inaccurately. Firstly, TV shows and films rarely refer to the illness by its actual name, even though Factitious Disorder has been the correct term for six years. According to Dr Marc Feldman, an expert on the disorder, a lack of research is driving these inaccurate portrayals. He told TV Guide that he couldn’t bring himself to watch The Politician, saying: “Dusty's actions look more like malingering -- when people fake sick to get tangible goods -- versus Munchausen by proxy, which is driven by a need for attention and sympathy.”

"Illnesses like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia and Munchausen by proxy are still frequently portrayed badly, with writers often choosing 'cheap tropes' over their duty of care to viewers."

Dr Thomas Hardy, Medical Registrar and Education Fellow at Kingston Hospital, London, explains that pop-culture routinely mischaracterises illnesses. “TV and film play a massive part in persuading people to misdiagnose themselves or others,” he says. “Writers often misunderstand the brutal realities of severe psychiatric illnesses.” Dr. Hardy says that TV shows are getting better, with soaps -- some of which work directly with health organisations -- leading the way. But illnesses like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia and Munchausen by proxy are still frequently portrayed badly, with writers often choosing “cheap tropes” over their duty of care to viewers.

So why is Munchausen having such an on-screen moment? After all, it is estimated that there are a tiny amount of cases (600 to 1200) in the US every year. Anna Leszkiewicz, culture editor of the New Statesman, wrote last year about what the emergence of this trend says about our “disdain of women” and how the resurgence of the “mother poisoner” is a reflection of current anxieties relating to motherhood. “Western culture, with its simultaneous sanctification and vilification of the feminine, has always relished portraits of terrible mothers and evil, sly female poisoners,” she wrote. “The gulf between society’s standards for motherhood and the reality of what’s possible for a parent is getting wider and wider. It’s no surprise we’ve become intoxicated by Munchausen by proxy, the most disturbing attempt to bridge the abyss.”

Hannah Davies, deputy TV editor of The Guardian, agrees that there’s likely societal factors driving the “mother poisoner” resurgence. “This could definitely tie into the sense of uncertainty and danger a lot of people feel about the world we’re living in,” she says. “Because what is more dangerous than the person that's meant to be caring for you -- your mother -- hurting you?”

Although official NHS guidelines on “fabricated or induced illness” suggest that mothers are much more likely to be perpetrators, there seems to be a total absence of men who have Factitious Disorder portrayed as perpetrators in culture. When you consider that men are far more likely to be at the root of familial abuse, popular culture’s obsession with Munchausen by proxy -- one of the few forms of abuse where women are more likely to be perpetrators, which is extremely rare in the first place -- stinks of misogyny.

However, while utilising the trope usually vilifies women with Munchausen by proxy, it can also celebrate them, too. What’s so fascinating about The Politician’s Munchausen by proxy storyline is that, unlike Sharp Objects and The Act, the show celebrates its perpetrator. Jessica Lange’s character is funny and likeable, and at points it’s as if we’re supposed to root for her as she scams her way onto all expenses trips to Disneyland using her granddaughter’s “illness”.

"The portrayal of Factitious Disorder in The Politician arguably sets up Jessica Lange’s character as a campy matriarch primed for gay men to stan. In this way it parallels the sociological concept of 'double deviance' in relation to gay men stanning 'bad' women."

Hannah links this to what she describes as a current celebration of “scammer” culture. “We're in the golden age of scam, from Fyre Festival to Brexit,” she explains. “But our reactions to scams are often very gendered.” She notes that people salivate over women like Silicon Valley’s former spin doctor Elizabeth Holmes, or fake heiress Anna Delvey, being involved in scams. Whether its Felicity Huffman’s involvement in the US college admissions scandal or Rebekah Vardy being forced to deny that she leaked stories about Coleen Rooney to The Sun, stories about alleged female scammers do produce particular fervour.

This is also problematic, though. Sarah Manavis, a journalist who focuses on digital culture, believes that the celebration of female scammers “is rooted in a dressed-up misogynistic obsession -- picking apart stories about women under the guise of stan culture”. So, “rather than being blatantly sexist,” she adds, “it's cloaked with internet language, memes and faux-adoration. But the obsession is rooted in the same thing: a fascination with women doing wrong.”

The portrayal of Factitious Disorder in The Politician arguably sets up Jessica Lange’s character as a campy matriarch primed for gay men to stan. In this way it parallels the sociological concept of “double deviance” in relation to gay men stanning “bad” women. Double deviance describes the process of women being judged more harshly by society for immoral or criminal behaviour because they are assumed to be “deviant” in terms of breaking the law, and “deviant” in terms of rejecting gender norms. Women who harm their children are, for example, often sentenced to longer in prison and scrutinised more heavily by the media than abusive or murderous fathers. Given that many gay men will have heard homosexuality described as “deviant” growing up, it is unsurprising that so many are stimulated by women who digress from gendered expectations to be submissive, kind and well-behaved.

Of course it might sound flippant and sinister to suggest that mothers who abuse their children are just being subversive. After all, in the dynamic between parent and child, they’re the one with the power. But looking with a wider lens, some viewers clearly perceive that these women are subverting the patriarchal expectation for them to be caring, adoring and rule-abiding. For a moment, we convince ourselves that they’re somehow “scamming” the patriarchy. But when it comes down to it, even when it’s dressed up as a celebration or memeable stanhood, pop-culture’s obsession with “mother poisoners” vilifies women. This trope is just another example of the patriarchy scamming -- and fucking -- us all.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

mental health