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James McAvoy in "Split." Credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

‘Split’ movie prompts petition, causes controversy

While Rotten Tomatoes gave M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” a 75 percent rating, others were signing petitions to cancel the film, which premiered on Jan. 20.

James McAvoy stars as the film’s villain, a man living with dissociative identity disorder, previously called multiple personality disorder, who kidnaps and imprisons three girls in his basement. The character has 24 personalities, one of which is referred to as “The Beast.”

Multiple petitions have arisen criticizing the onscreen portrayal of the disorder.

Jessie Male, Ph.D. student in disability studies, said the film’s successful opening weekend — No. 1 with more than $40 million in domestic sales — poses a question: Why is there such a popular audience response to this type of narrative?

“James McAvoy’s character is seen as hyper-aggressive and violent, the embodiment of the evil,” Male said. “DID is seen as something to be feared.”

Amelia Joubert, an 18-year-old girl living with DID, sent a petition to the film’s production company in September. It has been signed by over 16,000 people. It has not received a response.

“The purpose of this petition is to ask the people involved in this movie to have the actors create a PSA letting people know that violence in people with DID is very rare and that we are not killers,” Joubert wrote in the petition.

Another petition posted on Care 2, a website in which petitions are signed and shared, asks people to boycott the film, saying “Split” reduces the mental illness conversation to a “horror movie trope.” More than 20,000 people have signed.

“Split” is not the first time DID has been represented in popular entertainment. “Psycho,” a 1960 horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, features a serial killer with multiple personalities. More recently, “Identity,” a 2003 thriller, stars John Cusack who plays a man with DID on trial for the murder of several people. “United States of Tara,” a sitcom with the main character dealing with DID in the setting of the typical American family ran for three seasons from 2009 to 2011.

“People who have DID find the representation to be incredibly traumatic,” Male said. “I find that representations of disabilities are often initiated or constructed by people who are not familiar with the community.”  

McAvoy said on NBC’s “Today” show that he was unable to speak to someone with DID while he was preparing for his role. Instead, he watched YouTube video diaries made by people with DID.

In an interview with Yahoo Movies, Shyamalan said there had been zero issues from people who had seen the film.

“We also turn the premise from horror to the psychology of what the human brain is capable of,” he said in the interview.

McAvoy’s character developed the 24 personalities due to childhood trauma, which is a common cause of DID, according to Matt Southward, a graduate student in clinical psychology.

“The theory on it is that there may be some people with DID who have (alternate identities) that know about each other and can communicate with each other,” Southward said. “However, the common conception is that people with DID don’t have as many as 23 personalities.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 2 percent of the U.S. population has DID.

Most of the public’s familiarity with DID comes from media representations in which the disorder is exaggerated, Male said.

“It’s seen as something strange, or weird or deviant, and these popular representations play up on the fear factor,” she said.

On her petition, Joubert expresses concern that those living with DID will continue to be criminalized by pop culture.
“We just want to live our lives in peace and be accepted for who we are,” Joubert wrote. “We don’t want to have to hide for fear of judgment, something we know about all too well.”

8 comments

  1. Protests against make-believe. Fiction. Seriously?

  2. Ridiculous. These folks should watch the movie first- see where it GOES – see the ending- and then you’ll see the movie for what it really is! Dumb petition.

  3. what is DID? Author of this article failed to explain this acronym as is customary.

  4. Stigmatizing another mental illness is terrible. People will be afraid of those who suffer with any mental illness. It also will make people afraid to seek treatment for a mental illness. “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” has caused many people to be afraid to get any treatment, much less ECT which is NOT done like it was in the movie. I’ve several friends who have had ECT and it made such a difference in their lives and in their illness.

  5. Amazing yahoooooooooooooo great content

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