For years, anxiety has been a prominent fixture in my everyday life. Television has been, too. But rarely have the two mixed, because when it comes to TV shows, mental illness is rarely presented in a way that is both accurate and relatable to those who actually suffer from it. I rarely saw my own anxiety portrayed realistically on television until Gertrude Yorkes on Marvel's Runaways (executive producer: Stephanie Savage) provided a true picture of what it's like to live with anxiety. And as the show continues, this character can help erase some of the stigma surrounding it.
Those who suffer from any type of mental illness typically have to see their symptoms play out on the small screen in ways that are exaggerated or grossly incorrect. For example, there's depression that's only set off by a big or traumatic event like Hannah Baker's on 13 Reasons Why. Of course, people with depression don't need a "reason" for it. There's also the eating disorder that miraculously comes and goes in the span of one episode, only to never be mentioned again, like the one that affected D.J. Tanner on Full House. On Grey's Anatomy, Miranda Bailey's Obsessive Compulsive Disorder inaccurately only manifests in one form: hyper-cleanliness. I've seen anxiety that only results in self-harm and isolation, i.e. Ellie on Degrassi: The Next Generation, who frequently cut herself and existed as an outcast dressed in all black. Some characters who have mental illness are sometimes stuck with the "crazy" label, like on Orange Is The New Black.
For me, these portrayals on television have made it harder for the people around me to take my anxiety seriously. Case in point: when I was first officially diagnosed, I decided to share the news with my then-boyfriend. He proceeded to laugh in my face. He couldn't wrap his head around how I could possibly have anxiety and still be a highly productive member of society. I didn't fit the stereotypical profile of someone with anxiety, therefore I didn't have it, as if mental illness is one size fits all.
What he and others failed to realize is that despite my ability to go to work, hang out with friends, or have a lively Instagram account, every move I make is made with anxiety lingering just beneath the surface. And not only just before a big test or an event, but even during the simplest of times. I can't tell you how many instances there have been when I've locked my door and put my keys in my bag, only to check for where they were multiple times for the next few minutes. And I'm not the only one constantly battling anxious thoughts. In fact, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, affecting 18.1 percent of adults over the age of 18 each day.
Not only do those who deal with mental illness have to face a society that sometimes makes them feel like they're weak and don't belong, they also have to deal with visual media that mocks them and what they go through. This is why proper representation matters. Fortunately, Runaways delivers. Gert — the purple-haired teen played by Ariela Barer — finally gives people like me someone they can relate to and be proud of.
Despite Gert being constantly surrounded by people on Runaways, nobody really understands her. Sarcasm is her main language. She procrastinates. She worries. Her anxiety occasionally seeps out, as seen in her constant lip biting and babbling, but she functions. She tries to be involved in school activities. She attempts to tutor. And along with her telekinetically-powered dinosaur, she never stops fighting against the patriarchy — or the parents.
Gert brings the right blend of normalcy, productivity, vulnerability, and hesitation that those with high-functioning anxiety can identify with. Any time the rest of the Runaways needed Gert to do something in Season 1, she delivered 100 percent — but not before first pausing to remind the group of all the possible outcomes of such actions, a common manifestation of anxiety — i.e. chronic overthinking.
The moment in the series when Gert yelled at Karolina to check her blind spots while driving was only a few seconds in the broad scope of Episode 5. But that tiny interaction was incredibly impactful because it showed how seamlessly anxiety is weaved into everyday life for some.
Furthermore in Episode 9, Gert finally decided to tell Chase about her longtime crush on him. With self-deprecating jokes, she attempted to hide her softness, but eventually she dropped that mask to let Chase know how she really felt. Watching that I wanted to scream in happiness and not just because the two of them finally got together, but also because you could literally feel Gert's fear as she bared her soul. The fidgeting, the blushing, sweating, slight trembling, occasionally shaky voice — all symptoms of anxiety at play.
But though she was afraid, at that moment Gert knew that telling Chase how she felt was something she needed to do, otherwise she'd regret it forever. I've experienced plenty of moments like that before. The moments when anxious thoughts and fear are so crippling. You've replayed all possible outcomes so many times in your head that you don't want to move, but you do because you know you can't let anxiety control your life. That is the kind of representation I've always wanted to see. I wanted to see a woman like Gert who "has anxiety, anxiety doesn't have her," as Barer said to The Hollywood Reporter.
While there's still a long way to go de-stigmatizing mental illness on television, I'm glad we've got Gert to show the world that anxiety is not a character flaw or moral failing, and that people with it can live full and satisfying lives. Now let's just hope in Season 2 of the Runaways, fans get to see what Gert's unexpected other superpower can really do.