thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Psych 101: Doppelgangers and Depictions of Disorders in “The Roommate”

In gender on October 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Sarah Todd

This past weekend, my friend Christine and I watched The Roommate, a deeply baffling movie about a pretty young stalker who stalks other pretty people who look just like her, for no reason the film cares to clarify.

Like 99% of people who saw the movie (rough estimate), we were watching mostly because Leighton Meester—aka our Lady of Headbands and Bon Mots, Blair Waldorf—plays the lovely stalker Rebecca. Hilariously, early on the movie hints that Rebecca is evil in the following ways:

•    She does not like going out to clubs
•    She would like to be called Rebecca, not Becky

Truly chilling stuff. Why Sarah (Minka Kelly) doesn’t realize that her college roommate is bad news from the get-go is a mystery.

Lurkers Love Abstract Paintings

But The Roommate has plenty of other mysteries as well, most of them unintentional. For one thing, according to The Roommate, mental and emotional disorders are nefarious and unknowable, not unlike Mordor. When Rebecca’s mother asks Sarah if her daughter has been “taking her medication,” alarm bells immediately go off for Sarah. Pills are scary, like modern art and full names. Sarah googles the name of the medication and it turns out that Rebecca has… something. (Schizophrenia? Manic-depression? Lisztomania? It could be anything.)  This vague approach is patently ridiculous, but it’s also part of a long tradition of demonizing and mystifying such disorders in film. (Check out Bitch Media’s excellent “We’re All Mad Here” series for much more on this subject.)

In The Roommate, these disorders are not real diagnoses, but flimsy excuses with which to poorly prop up a very questionable plot. The movie further demonstrates its total ignorance of mental illness when no one considers calling Rebecca’s parents (they’re “scared” of her, again for no reason ever explained to the audience) or notifying an RA or the school’s counseling center or anyone in a position to offer assistance. The Roommate views mental illness as untreatable, and people who live with it as beyond help. At the same time, the film doesn’t really believe that Rebecca has any specific disorders; it merely wants to signal that she is out of control and “crazy,” and thus can be rooted against with impunity.

I mean, this is already way more analysis than the film deserves, because I’m pretty sure the writers just slapped the script together over a boozy lunch, and based on their understanding of human nature they also may have been pterodactyls. But another big unsolved mystery in the movie is: why does Rebecca specifically target girls who look just like her, played by brunettes who also star in television programs with large teenage (“teenage”) casts? Fans have been pointing out the Meester-Kelly resemblance for ages, and Nina Dobrev of Vampire Diaries makes a brief cameo as their third doppelganger (drei-pelganger?), Rebecca’s high-school stalkee.

It’s a shame that the movie drops the ball on the lookalike phenomenon, because that angle could have been pretty interesting. Rebecca’s not literally trying to take over these women’s identities, so physical resemblance needn’t be a requirement when she’s choosing her next stalking target. Rather, Rebecca seems to choose women who look like her because they’re alternate versions of her, the self she wishes she could be: happier, lighter, more popular, more successful. And it’s interesting to think about the doppelganger aspect from Sarah’s perspective, too. What do you do when your darker self—the person who’s unstable and needy and depressed and melodramatic, the person you try to suppress—refuses to leave you alone? If you start thinking about The Roommate as a Fight Club or Black Swan story, it gets kind of great. But then you start wishing you’d just watched one of those movies instead, and wishing even harder that The Roommate was an entirely different kind of movie–the kind that had the courage to really embrace camp, and go big.

  1. […] in the film. First of all, she’s an abstract painter (we know how Hollywood feels about people who like abstract painting!), so she’s supposed to be pretentious and untalented. She won’t go […]

  2. The movie had such potential to be good, i love leighton meester, thats why i watched it

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