Moon Knight is a show about a person (Oscar Isaac) given superpowers by the Egyptian God of the Moon Khonshu. This vigilante’s goal is to fight wrongdoers. He is pitted against Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), the servant of Ammit, who wants to judge wrongdoers before they commit their crimes. Along the way, we get a story about magical powers, kooky hijinks, and most surprisingly of all, a perspective on mental illness that although mixed, is not as harmful as the works that came before it.
Although Disney has somewhat improved with its presentation of race and gender (see titles such as Moana, Encanto, Turning Red, etc.), mental health has been one of many areas where Disney has historically lagged, even to the present day. Titles such as Cruella and Loki often have had narratives that don’t have a very nuanced approach to mental health (and this is me being polite).
This gap is what has made the TV show Moon Knight so interesting, as it tackles a character with DID in a way that is marginally better than previous works. The show is by no means a trailblazer in this area, but it’s also not as offensive as past Disney properties.
The question then becomes: is surpassing that low bar enough?
The Very Recent History of Disney Telling Offensive Stories on Mental Health
To reiterate, Disney has put out a lot of properties recently that do not portray mental health well. A pretty bad example is the show Falcon and the Winter Soldier — an MCU property about two B-listers struggling to reckon with their identities after the fallout of Avengers: End Game. The character Bucky Barnes AKA the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has a therapist (played by Amy Aquino) named Dr. Christina Raynor, and the way she practices mental health is just awful. She’s aggressive and prodding, and openly mocks Bucky’s defense mechanisms. As Gregory Lawrence writes in Collider:
“Who’d want to spill their innermost secrets to this force who obviously has an aggressive agenda?” The scene attempts to justify some of this behavior by reminding us that Dr. Raynor is a soldier who’s seen combat herself. But the moment a therapist tells you “That’s utter bullshit” is the moment you find a new therapist, dramatic license or not.”
In one scene in particular Dr. Christina Raynor forces the two characters to do a couple’s therapy exercise— something that to me (and many others) was played homoerotically for laughs. Raynor again mocks their discomfort, saying lines such as “No volunteers? How surprising,” and “Sweet Jesus.” Not only is this not great therapy — it’s pretty destructive therapy — that, on a metatextual level, does not make the practice of therapy desirable for those who are already on the fence.
In another example, the media critic Lindsay Ellis described how Disney’s depiction of narcissism, particularly for the characters Loki and Tony Stark, relied on the harmful trope of linking this stigmatized condition to megalomania. As she lays out in her video Loki, the MCU, and Narcissism: “the reality is that narcissists may behave in hurtful ways but they are not inherently evil…narcissistic personality disorder does not implicate any kind of off-kilter moral barometer.”
Yet not only do most narcissists in Disney works fit this category (e.g. Thanos, Ego, etc.), but by the time either Tony Stark or Loki, get to be heroes in their own shows and films, their narcissism is effectively messaged away so they can have more traditional character arcs. Loki realizes that he’s self-centered, coming to terms with his arrogance enough to apologize for his it and fight for the preservation of the multiverse.
However, for our conversations, the most applicable example of bad representation is probably 2021’s Cruella — a live-action prequel to the 1996 animated film 101 Dalmatians. The “mental illness” portrayed in this series is not well defined, reading more as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation than anything close to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). We never receive enough symptoms to safely give us a diagnosis, and I have not found anything from the creatives attached to this work indicating that they had a diagnosis in mind.
It’s apparent that a respectful portrayal of mental health was not even a consideration for the film’s creatives, and in the process, Cruella turns out to be a pretty regressive story. (see The Harmful Way Mental Health is Framed in Disney’s ‘Cruella’). Cruella does not integrate or harmonize with her alter or part Estella but kills her — something that experts tell you not to do. This destruction of a part of her personality is upsettingly portrayed as a “happy ending.” As Therapist Alyssa Cotten says in her own review of the movie:
“What ends up happening at the very end of the movie is very disturbing because, in the DID [community] we do not endorse this at all…we do not encourage, we do not support the death or killing of your parts, your alters, because all of them hold different memories and experiences and its important that we love all the parts that are present.”
All of these examples show that this media company is greenlighting works that do not treat the topic of mental health well. And again, none of these are old works. All the ones I cited are from last year.
So how does Moon Knight stack up to this history? Well, it’s complicated…
The Good and The Bad of Moon Knight’s Portrayal
Like with Cruella, it’s apparent that something is off with the character Steven Grant (played by Oscar Isaac). He is shown very earlier on as having a problem with another aspect of his personality — what is sometimes referred to in the DID community as an “alter” or “part” — in this case, a brutal mercenary named Marc Spector.
But unlike in Cruella, it is also clear that we are dealing with DID — not some imagined fantasy condition. We get symptoms in the text that make a diagnosis easier. One of the biggest is blackouts, where Grant loses consciousness regularly, so much so that he’s actually set up an elaborate device around his bed to make it more difficult for his “part” to move about without his knowledge.
Perhaps most importantly, we see both the creation of his part (surprise it’s actually Spencer who turns out to be the original all along) and the source of that trauma that created him. DID is overwhelmingly the result of childhood trauma — something the text states explicitly — and we learn that Grant was created as a defense mechanism against his mother’s abuse, who blames Marc for his brother’s death. This diagnosis isn’t some “eccentricity” that adds color to the narrative (or at least not only that), but something that is the product of real pain and trauma.
More refreshingly, because this series actually did some of its homework, they don’t end with the disturbing message that killing your part is a good thing. Grant and Marc reach synthesis in the last episode of the first season, as they tearfully embrace one another.
These improvements aside, this does not mean Moon Knight is perfect in its depiction of DID. Marc develops his part quite late in life — around age 9, when most develop well before then. It also shows him having a lot of agency in the creation of Grant when that doesn’t seem to be how this works. While the idea that the original personality is the one protecting the part might make for good TV, it’s the opposite of how this condition seems to work. As Cynthia Vinney writes in Very Well Mind:
“…not only is it highly unlikely that Marc would make the active decision to create Steven, it’s also unlikely that Marc would be the personality who is most aware of the trauma he experienced in childhood while Steven remains under the impression he had an idyllic childhood with a loving mother. In fact, many people with DID have difficulty remembering large parts of their childhood precisely because they often have alters within what’s referred to as a personality “system” whose job is to protect them from the childhood trauma they experienced.”
Perhaps the most troubling aspect, however, is how this disorder is shown in the text as a vehicle for violence. DID is routinely treated in pop culture as this magical condition that allows characters to do almost supernaturally cruel acts (see Cruella, Split, etc.). This framing is and has always been very harmful, as it paints people with this disorder as beasts that must be chained up at night, rather than, you know, human beings.
Moon Knight, for all its stumbles toward a better portrayal, still falls into this trap. We start the first episode with Steven Grant chaining himself up every night. If Disney wanted to tell a respectful story of this disorder, maybe a violent superhero story wasn’t the best vehicle for it.
A Waning Conclusion
It was refreshing to watch a Disney property on mental health that had a message that was not as harmful as past works, but I wonder if that’s a good enough bar? After all, there was nothing forcing Disney to make this property, and certainly, nothing forcing them to keep the DID plotline. Should they really be rewarded for not detonating a landmine they chose to put down?
People with DID face significant barriers. There is skepticism by some members of the medical community about whether it even exists — a stigma that doesn’t help people receive the treatment they need. Add to this a lack of clear diagnostic guidelines, and we have a situation where many doctors are not properly trained to diagnose or provide care for this disorder. This makes making supernatural DID stories complicated because they not only add to this skepticism but possibly push people to misidentify themselves as having the disorder — a problem the medical community is sadly not very equipped to deal with.
By the way, none of these are problems Disney will have to deal with either. They may pat themselves on the back for making this story as an act of “good” representation, but they aren’t going to have to grapple with the potential fallout. That’s going to be in hands of a beleaguered medical community.
Disney wanted to tell a respectful story on mental health, but maybe in some situations, the best thing you can do is not to tell a story at all.