An outrageous exaggeration, but a starter for discussion?

Rhys Cadogan considers the film Split, and its portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder.

The director M. Night Shyamalan is back after a long absence with another psychological thriller, Split (out soon on DVD). Scottish actor James McAvoy plays Kevin, a character who has 23 different personalities – or more specifically, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Like many previous representations of this particular disorder, DID is portrayed as violent and menacing. Do filmmakers have a social responsibility to accurately represent mental illness, or should we all just lighten up a bit and accept it’s fiction?

Although a couple of the distinct identities that Kevin reveals are of a gentle nature, the majority are menacing and unpredictable. This presents an extremely challenging scenario for the young girls that Kevin has abducted: whenever he returns, the girls must figure out exactly who they are talking to and predict the reaction. Is it ‘Hedwig’, the nine-year-old Kanye West fan? Or ‘Patricia’ the well-presented lady that reassures Kevin’s other personalities? Although we don’t get to see all of Kevin’s personalities, there is enough to make this psychological thriller jump out to the forefront.

Dissociative Identity Disorder has previously been referred to as split personality, and has often been incorrectly branded as schizophrenia. Most people have heard of the disorder, and seem to have an understanding of what it means; but this is filtered through the media’s fascination. DID has been at the forefront of many movies such as Fight Club, Shutter Island, and Identity, and M. Night Shyamalan confesses to having had a lasting interest in it. It is used to portray conflict, violence, torment and mystery, as well as many other appealing features that a movie thirsts for. But many such portrayals have been consistently exaggerated, something M. Night Shyamalan fully admits to. People with DID, for example, are more likely to have experienced abuse than be abusers themselves. Fictional stories in blockbuster movies rarely manage to be an accurate representation of mental health disorders, and may contribute to the stigmatisation of those with the condition.

Despite this, actors may relish playing characters with a DID diagnosis: it offers the opportunity to showcase their ability to play multiple and diverse roles. James McAvoy does indeed warrant admiration for his remarkable performance in Split. In spite of its outrageous premise, he portrays a fine and valiant showing of his character’s identities. There’s even a moment towards the end where he showcases multiple identities within one scene.

But it is important to remember that DID is a complex developmental disorder, which even after four decades of research, and an extensive research base, is still surrounded by misconceptions and myths. Individuals that suffer from DID are not monsters, they are survivors. People with a DID diagnosis must constantly adjust their lives to accommodate for fragments they are unable to control; and although Split hasn’t given us the best start to discussing DID, it has given us a route in. I wouldn’t use this film to give an accurate portrayal of DID, but it does encourage many questions you may have regarding personality disorders. 

- Rhys Cadogan is in the final year of an undergraduate BSc (Hons) Psychology degree at the University of South Wales.

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