I’ve wanted to write a post about how OCD is portrayed in pop culture for quite some time now—but to be honest, there really aren’t that many obsessive-compulsive characters out there. Off the top of my head, I can name the Riddler from DC Comic’s Batman and Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. Rin tells me that Pearl from Steven Universe also suffers from OCD, but I don’t watch that show and therefore cannot comment on it. So that leaves me with the Riddler and Rabbit, which are not that many characters at all.
Unfortunately, despite being one of the more well-known mental disorders out there, OCD is sadly not that well understood by people at large. I think this helps contribute to the lack of representation—and what representation us OCD sufferers do get is normally not that great either.
It’s been my understanding that just about everyone has heard of OCD before, but most people don’t actually know what it is. OCD is a fairly complicated disorder, and there really isn’t enough time to explain it thoroughly in one blog post. To make things very simple, the condition is characterized by obsessions—or unwanted, repeating, intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety. In order to deal with these obsessions and relieve the anxiety, a sufferer may act out compulsions—repetitive movements, such as hand-washing, checking a locked door over and over again, etc. Because of this, someone who has OCD might come across as paranoid or fearful for no reason, even if that same person is logically aware that there’s nothing to be worried about. OCD can be incredibly intrusive and
be co-diagnosed with numerous other disorders, such as depression, eating disorders, and many many others.
Unfortunately, OCD has also become a bit of an ableist joke. How often have you heard people talk about how they’re neat freaks and “so OCD about it”? OCD is one of those conditions that just about every person who’s a perfectionist about something—so, everyone—claims they have, even if they don’t actually have it. But OCD isn’t about perfectionism. This can be alienating to people who actually do suffer from OCD and it fosters an environment where no one takes our condition seriously. Making matters even worse, not all OCD sufferers will display outward compulsions—they might have mental rituals instead—and we’re also more likely to hoard than be “neat freaks”. Essentially, OCD sufferers often don’t display traits that people commonly associate with OCD, so we’re less likely to be believed when we talk about our experiences.
I can’t tell you how many times people have gotten annoyed by my compulsions and acted as though I could simply turn my mental disorder off. Or even acted as though I didn’t have it at all. About one in fifty people suffer from OCD—so it’s a fairly common disorder, and as misconceptions about it can cause a lot of pain and anxiety, it’s important for us to have representation. But as I said, there really aren’t that many obsessive-compulsive characters.
The first character that I always see as obsessive-compulsive is the Riddler. The biggest problem with the Batman universe is that it is not good representation for mental disorders and I highly doubt that much research or effort went into portraying them properly. And even though I love the Riddler and enjoy watching him obsess over being the smartest person ever and act out on that obsession through compulsive riddling, he is still a villain and the narrative often normalizes violence against him through Batman’s actions. He’s also never directly mentioned as having OCD in the comics. Nevertheless, his mental state allows me to relate to him in a way that I cannot relate to the other characters.
The Riddler is also one of the reasons I was excited for Gotham when it first premiered. Gotham begins before Edward Nygma becomes the Riddler, and despite all the show’s problems, it actually seems dedicated to portraying his mental disabilities in a way that does them justice. Unfortunately, much like in the comics, Gotham never explicitly tells us he has OCD. We often see that he has obsessions and compulsions—so it’s easy to infer that he has it, but I don’t remember any point where OCD is specifically mentioned as something he suffers from. It’s also very easy to infer that he has autism as well. Autism and OCD go hand in hand for many people, and it’s great that his character has the potential to give representation to both disorders. But it’s a stupid idea for his disabilities to not be specified—not specifying them gives the writers a defense for not doing more research. After all, he might not really have OCD or autism, right? So why make it accurate? And as this is Gotham, if something can go wrong with the storytelling process, it will.
While I enjoy my obsessive-compulsive, autistic Riddler, his character sadly falls prey to some pretty shitty and damaging characterization. Edward constantly pines after his fellow coworker, and even though she is put off by his advances because she thinks he’s odd, he persists on to no avail. As a result, Edward’s storyline has pretty much become about him being friendzoned due to his awkward behavior, and it’s supposed to be sad because he’s such a nice guy whom no one appreciates. Even worse, Gotham doesn’t feel the need to explore his disabilities or expand on them other than being a quirky part of his personality that puts people off.
So that leaves me with Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh. While I’ve never been a big fan of Winnie the Pooh—I hated those levels in Kingdom Hearts—it is a story I have a lot of respect for. Though it’s never explicit stated in the show, it’s possible that all the characters suffer from mental disorders, which means that children with mental disabilities can connect to the characters. Watching the show might also help them articulate what’s going on in their own heads and get help, should they need it. As such, Winnie the Pooh is one of the few places I can look in order to see OCD. Out of all the characters, Rabbit is the one that displays the most obsessive-compulsive characteristics: he can never relax, chronically organizes, and is very finicky about his garden. If something happens that upsets the balance he creates in his home, he’ll have an extreme negative reaction, as if he thinks something bad will occur should things not be fixed. However, it’s hard to think of Rabbit as good representation, since as I said, the story never tells us he has OCD. As such, his potential disability is little more than a headcanon.
I know that there are other characters out there besides the two I mentioned who have OCD. Sheldon Cooper from the The Big Bang Theory comes to mind, but he can hardly count as accurate representation. Sheldon often comes across as quirky and annoying, and the show doesn’t really seem to want to delve into any anxiety he might have or present his disability as the life-ruining monstrosity that it could easily be. At the end of the day, Sheldon’s not struggling with anxiety to the point that he cannot go to work or leave his own apartment. In all the episodes I’ve watched, I’ve never seen him miss a meeting because he had to check whether or not he left the stove on for hours on end, or have a panic attack, or potentially injure himself by washing his hands repeatedly.
In Winnie the Pooh we can see the mental anguish that Rabbit goes through, and in Batman we watch the Riddler struggle with intrusive thoughts that he cannot get rid of. OCD isn’t happy and quirky, which is how most people and shows like the The Big Bang Theory portray it. It is awful and sometimes dangerous for those who suffer from it. This is why I wish we had more stories that are dedicated to accurately portraying OCD and that are willing to say that that is what the character suffers from. As it is, none of the characters I’ve mentioned thus far have been outed in their respective source materials as being obsessive-compulsive. It really sucks that I have to get all my OCD representation from headcanons, and that any character that might have this disability rarely portrays it correctly or in detail.
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I think one of the most accurate and sympathetic depictions of OCD was the show, Monk. The character was shown as having always had OCD, except it was largely kept in some check, by the presence of his wife. When she died, he mostly, in his grief, caved in fully to his compulsions. His friends, on the show, would occasionally remark on what he was like after his wife’s death and they never laughed at him or mocked him and tried very hard to accommodate his disorder.
The show would occasionally laugh at the predicaments he would get into while trying to satisfy his compulsions, but the show didn’t laugh at the actual compulsions themselves. Not only that ,but we were let to understand why he developed so many of them, based on his home and family life before he was married.
His brother also had OCD and was also severely agoraphobic and this was never presented as funny or as something he needed to try to overcome, although sometimes other characters would encourage him to overcome it. It was depicted as something that the other characters in the show had to adapt to.
For seven years we watched this character trying to navigate the world and solve crimes while trying to find a way around his compulsions.
I dont know if Monk counts because its not SFF.
What does SFF mean here in your comment? A “Sci Fi or Fantasy” fandom? Or…?
But oh, yes. I loved Monk so much. I stopped watching it at some point before the show ended, maybe 2 seasons? early, but I saw most seasons and you’re absolutely right. It was a pretty great example of representation. I also liked how they handled regularly seeing a psychiatrist on that show and stuff like that.
On Glee, Emma explicitly had OCD. I’m pretty sure people do not think it’s good representation, but in some ways it works well.
Yeah, I mean it’s Glee, so of course it does a bad job… here’s one criticism of how OCD was portrayed on the show: http://myocddiary.com/2011/10/14/ocd-on-glee/ I do like that they brought up Scrubs in that article/blog post, though, because I remember the episode where Michael J. Fox’s character had OCD well.
Then again, this person: https://backseatwriter.wordpress.com/2011/04/26/emma-on-glee-and-mentally-ill-me/ Explicitly brings up Monk as bad – a comedy making fun of Adrian Monk’s disorder – while acknowledging that Glee does also make fun of Emma at first, but by the end of season 2 treats the disorder with the respect that author feels it deserves, and she found it better representation than Monk! So idk.
The reaction to Emma’s mental illness storyline on Glee was largely positive, from what I can tell; more flack going to her friend/boyfriend/fiance Will for his borderline emotionally & verbally abusive actions & words during the whole plot.
I like to think both Monk and Glee did a good job with OCD representation, though. Not perfect, but good. They let the characters actually have the named diagnosable condition. They treat it fairly seriously, despite some humor inherent in the genre of TV show they are. They respect that the characters suffer thanks to this anxiety disorder, and these are main characters on the series. So yes. Those are my thoughts on the topic.
By SFF, I just meant that there aren’t any fantastical elements in the plot, although there is a bit of whimsy in how some of the cases Monk handles, are depicted.
Idk, I liked the show and never laughed at the character but I did find myself laughing at some of the situations he managed to get himself into while trying to solve a case and satisfy his compulsions.
You knew he had a mental illness but it was presented in such a way that after a while you just thought, it’s just how Monk is and you adapted to his way of thinking.
But what stands out to me and why it wasn’t portrayed as funny, in my mind, was the reactions and attitudes of his friends. They were spot on. They were warm and sympathetic and largely supportive. They tried really hard to be his allies with occasional moments of real frustration at his inability to move past his compulsions. As a person who deals with mental issues in my family and suffered from them myself, so feeling occasionally impatience with the person, but still loving them is an entirely accurate depiction. I loved how his friends loved him.
And I liked how,cwho never they got frustrated with him, he understood their it and understood why they might be angry and he would remind them, how much he tries to be worthy of his friends, most especially, Stottelmeyer, who is my absolute favorite character on the show. He’s the kind of friend anyone would love to have.
Riddler is no more or less likely to be OCD then any other GImmick Supervillians. Like Two-Face and his Cain.
Plus people have disagreed on OCD being what motivates him to leave RIddles, it’s also been suspected to be Narcissism.
The Cluemaster, often labeled a Riddler knock off, makes more sense as OCD.
The Riddler commits crimes because he wants to leave the clues behind to challenge Batman, he wants to engage in a battle of wits, he doesn’t want an ordinary criminal.
Arthur Brown however actually was treated and cured of his compulsion in the early 90s and went on to commit regular crimes.
I’ve been working in my head on a script for a Riddler themed Batman movie, where Nygma is no longer their real name and who they are (including their gender/ethnicity) is a mystery. It would finally allow a Batman movie to be an actual detective film. This interpretation of The Riddler would allow no room for them to be OCD however, instead I’m making them like -A from Pretty Little Liars. First 4 seasons anyway.
First, I’m not quite sure on how you want comic books and tv shows to blatantly talk about their characters having psychological disorders. Could imagine watching winnie the pooh and hearing rabbit saying “I am diagnosed with a psychological disorder of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” it just doesn’t happen that way. They are going to subtly hint towards things that do, all psychological disorders done through a strict test with the individual, since we can’t speak to them we have to somewhat do it on ourselves. When someone shows signs of it, you can’t say they don’t have it because they didn’t say they have it. That makes no sense. Also I believe Sheldon has OCPD not OCD.
The characters don’t need to blatantly talk about their disorders and give us a giant clinical spiel. But just something like, “Yeah, I have OCD” and the character presenting OCD goes a long way for representation. Or even just the authors in question confirming that that is what a character suffers from. Invisible representation is not representation, and those of us with mental disorders don’t often get characters we can relate to. Regardless of whether or not Sheldon has OCPD—a condition most people don’t know even exists and confuse with OCD—it’s still written off as a joke and not taken seriously. That is also how most people view OCD, which can be damaging and alienating to those of us who suffer from it.