The XX Factor

Silver Linings Playbook Takes a Nuanced View on Mental Health and Sex

Jennifer Lawrence understood that the relationship between mental health and sex is complicated

Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/AFP/Getty Images

In Salon yesterday, Dave Sirota argued that the past year has been a watershed for representations of mental-health issues in popular culture. He singled out Silver Linings Playbook, in which Jennifer Lawrence portrays Tiffany, a young widow suffering from depression. (She took home an Academy Award for Best Actress for her trouble.)

Most films that have touched on mental health issues have typically offered the audience a binary picture — one that only shows obviously insane people and perfectly well-balanced people… Silver Linings Playbook, however, says the opposite. Yes, it does have two characters who are debilitated by the kinds of afflictions that often involve anxiety disorders. But it also has an ensemble cast of other characters — a sports-crazed father, an enabling mother, a stressed-out neighbor — whom society sees as “normal” and yet they too are likely suffering from such disorders.

What struck me about Silver Linings Playbook wasn’t just that, as star Bradley Cooper suggested during the Oscar campaign for the film, many more of us could benefit from therapy than is publicly acknowledged. I was even more drawn in by the way the movie treats the relationship between sex and mental health. The film could have easily fallen back on the cliché linking mental illness and promiscuity, as if all mental health problems turn women sexually insatiable. But instead Silver Linings Playbook reminds us that mental illness works in many directions, and depression can destroy sex drives just as easily as other mental-health problems can supercharge them. The movie’s a striking illustration of how much harder it can be to admit to having no sexual desire than to defend having a lot of sex.

When Pat (Cooper’s character) meets Tiffany, she’s jagged and angry, particularly about the perception that she’s promiscuous. “I’d have to be careful. I’m already on thin ice with my family, you should hear how I lost my job,” Tiffany tells Pat the first time they go to a diner together. When he wants to know the story, she explains that it was “By … having sex with everybody in the office … I was very depressed after Tommy died. It was a lot of people.” She’s confrontational with the information, daring Pat to judge her.

But even though Tiffany initially interprets what happened to her after Tommy’s death as her acting out in response to the loss of her husband, Silver Linings Playbook has a more complicated explanation. Tiffany is hardly some nymphomaniac who can’t stop having sex even though her husband is dead. Instead, she’s struggling with the way her depression has turned her sex drive on and off. Tiffany explains:

We were married for three years and five days, and I loved him. But for the last couple months, I just wasn’t into sex at all. It just felt like we were so different and I was depressed. Some of that is just me, some of it was he wanted me to have kids and I have a hard enough time taking care of myself. I don’t think that makes me a criminal. Anyway one night after dinner, he drove to Victoria’s Secret at King of Prussia Mall and got some lingerie to get something going. And on the way back, he stopped on 76 to help a guy with a flat tire and he got hit by a car and killed. And the Victoria’s Secret box was still in the front seat.

What Tiffany really feels bad about isn’t sleeping with other people. It’s that her brain robbed her of sexual desire when she was married to someone she loved. She’s upset about the fact that she felt like she was an inadequate wife. But that’s something she’ll only ever tell to Pat in private.