Bryan Caplan  

Changeling, Feminism, and Szasz

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Changeling is another counter-example to my rule that true stories make bad movies. (spoilers ahead)  It's a long, sad tale: A child gets abducted, the police say they've found him, the mother says "That's not my son!," the police say she's wrong, she says she's right, they throw her in a psychiatric hospital... and it gets worse.

It's a gripping drama and a masterful period piece.  Bravo.  But what does it mean?  The standard feminist interpretation of this movie says, "The police and the psychiatric establishment would never have treated a man in this way."  This got me thinking: What exactly was and is the gender ratio in psychiatric hospitals?  It was very hard to track down any numbers on google; the best I came up with was this post on Volokh which states that in 1965, inmates in mental hospitals were 55% male.  Hopefully there are better numbers somewhere, but at least there's no strong reason to see gender bias here.

Indeed, while we're on the subject of gender bias, the movie shows us only the male serial killer, and his subsequent execution.  But if you read the history of the case, it turns out that the serial killer's mother was his accomplice.  What ever happened to her?
Superior Court Judge Morton sentenced her to life imprisonment on December 31, 1928. He stated that she was spared hanging since she was a woman. She was sentenced to life imprisonment... [and] was paroled after serving less than 12 years of her sentence.
Overall, this film - or at least the events on which it is based -  has little to do with feminism.  It's much more of a Szaszian anecdote:  The woman who insists that the police are wrong gets involuntary commitment; the woman who helped murder her son gets leniency.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

But what does it mean? The standard feminist interpretation of this movie says, "The police and the psychiatric establishment would never have treated a man in this way."

I just watched the movie a couple of nights ago. This is just a guess, but as terrible as it was for the police to put the women who defied the LAPD in a psyche facility, I suspect that the LAPD may have had solutions of a more "permanent" nature for the men.

I am of the mind that more men are seeking treatment simply because the stigma for getting psychiatric help is not what it used to be.

I googled "ratio men women psychiatric facilities" and found a few links. Basically, they have found that the overall ratio of women to men is decreasing, but that it varies dependent upon the age group.

Zac writes:

@Bryan- How many counter-examples will it take for you to modify your rule of thumb? Many movies based on true stories are bad, true, but so are many completely fictional stories. I find that a movie based on a true story gives it a sort of haunting familiarity and continuity/consistency with a universe with which I am very familiar (the real one).

Some of my favorite movies based on actual events: The Great Escape, Patton, Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13, Quiz Show, Schindler's List, Braveheart, Goodfellas, Enemy at the Gates, A Beautiful Mind, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, The Last King of Scotland, American Gangster.. and I'm sure I'm missing a ton of period pieces that were at least 3-stars-of-4 worthy (I just watched Elizabeth: The Golden Age last night, and liked it). Even this past year we had Changeling, Defiance, and Valkyrie, all pretty great (I thought Milk was underwhelming).

But on the topic of Changeling, I watched it with my mom. Afterwards I said, "Isn't involuntary commitment terrible?" and she said "Oh, that doesn't happen to people anymore." I sighed.

JKB writes:

Well, it is true that the police wouldn't treat a man this way, with involuntary commitment. A father in the same situation would have been provoked into making threats or striking out at the police and subsequently jailed with a "tune-up" along the way. A woman's threats in that time wouldn't lead to a criminal conviction so they went the psychiatric route.

The moral of the story seems to be that if you publicly buck the system, the system will deal with you. If you stay low, even if you're helping commit murder, you can catch a break.

This is the same way police deal with vigilantes, manhunt to make the streets safe (for criminals), while the street criminals are essentially noise to law enforcement once crime reaches a certain level.

Franklin Harris writes:

I think the message of this movie is that if you try too hard to win a boatload of Oscars, you'll come up empty.

Grant writes:

Aren't mental disorders, especially those with genetic causes, generally much more prevalent in men? Didn't they also have all sorts of bogus male and female diseases back then, like "female hysteria"?

Not that I'm disagreeing with Bryan's premise. The men probably received harsher treatment and less sympathy .

shakun narain writes:

I just saw Changeling. It touched my heart. What I like most was that the movie ended that she was given 'hope' and probably that made her live the rest of her life with some sort of peace...Obviously she did not find her son, otherwise they would have mentioned it. I tried to google the real story but was unable to.

Charlotte writes:

oh, I don't see it as a "feminist" take on the story. It is what happened, at least to her, and at least as far as I know. After all, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jack Nicholson and his buddies were portrayed as perfectly sane victims of insane Nurse Rachet (I think that was her name), and we all, regardless of gender, had to accept that movie as an overall statement for the inhumanity of the "System" symbolized by the victimization of the men.
Sometimes this is just what happens.

Usually when they do "true" stories they twist them and there's nothing left of the real story.

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