I recently watched the latest depiction of factitious disorder imposed on another (FDIA) — also known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy — in film and television: Hulu’s original thriller Run, directed by Aneesh Chaganty and written by him and Sev Ohanian.
Kiera Allen stars in her first feature role as Chloe, a chronically ill homeschooled teenager. Early on in the film, she begins to suspect that her overbearing, overprotective mother Diane (played by Sarah Paulson) is poisoning her with pills.
We never believe that Diane is the loving mother that she paints herself to be. She is one-dimensional; there are few moments in which she is something other than abusive. As a result, it is difficult to sympathize with her, limiting how psychologically and emotionally affecting the film can be.
We get a flashback to Diane giving birth and her premature newborn baby receiving an emergency treatment, but the poignance of this opening scene is quickly overshadowed. At a meeting for homeschooling parents, Diane complains about having to care for Chloe, describing her as a burden. It is impossible to commiserate with her feigned misery.
Yes, the film succeeds at cultivating suspense through its skillful pacing and inherently stressful theme. And yes, Allen and Paulson are talented actors. But their performances cannot compensate for Chaganty and Ohanian’s failure to flesh out Chloe’s backstory and Diane’s overall character.
We don’t know how Chloe has coped with her mother’s emotional manipulation or her various medical conditions. (We learn that Diane has been giving her a muscle relaxer meant for dogs.) We are offered no insight into Chloe’s first 17 years and her experience of growing up without friends or access to the internet or television. Given that, to the audience, Diane’s behavior is so obviously abusive, it is easy to think that Chloe should have become suspicious long ago. It is unclear why Chloe’s journey begins now, which detracts from the film’s effectiveness.
To its benefit, however, the film centers around a disabled character’s journey — even if some plot devices that facilitate her development seem contrived, like when Chloe awakens incarcerated in the basement and discovers a conveniently located box of revelatory photographs and documents.
Furthermore, Run is the first major thriller in over 70 years to star someone in a wheelchair. Chloe’s story is about more than her disability; she desperately wants to attend the University of Washington and excels in technology and engineering. It is noteworthy that a character with a disability is being represented authentically. In Allen’s words, the film “doesn’t just have a disabled character shoved into a trope, something that reduces the complexity of the person or has them there to inform someone else’s journey.”
But Run’s other star, I would argue, is shoved into a trope. Diane is a stereotype of FDIA; her character contains no nuance. This portrayal adds little to the many examples of mothers with FDIA in film and television from the past three years — Sharp Objects, Clique, Deep Water, The Act and The Politician. Nevertheless, following its debut weekend, Run became Hulu’s most-watched original film ever.
So, why is FDIA so frequently represented in Hollywood? After all, it is a very rare condition, with only an estimated 600 to 1200 cases in the U.S. every year.
Perhaps it is because modern pop culture is obsessed with gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which the abuser uses denial and other tactics to invalidate someone’s emotions. Over time, this leads the victim to question their sanity and become dependent on the deceiver.
We love to watch our on-screen counterparts in film and television doubt their perceptions of reality. This makes sense; in our post-truth world, we too are struggling to distinguish fact from fiction. Politics and cable news are polarized, and misinformation dominates social media. Many have even opined that U.S. President Donald Trump is gaslighting the entire country.
But women should not be the vicarious escape from — or scapegoat for — our increasingly complicated reality. Western culture is obsessed with bad mothers. Women are continuously judged for their ability to execute the role prescribed to them by the patriarchy and blamed for birthing and raising people who are different from the norm.
According to a popular Freudian theory, domineering women have gay sons. Between the 1940s and ‘60s, women were warned that being cold, neglectful “refrigerator mothers” would lead to autistic children. Because of biology, however, my wonderful mother ended up with one of each (we’re twins!).
We fetishize bad moms because they subvert the role society requires them to perform. We relish in their rebellion at worst because we’ve internalized misogyny and, at best, because we wish to escape heteronormativity ourselves.
FDIA offers filmmakers the perfect means of vilifying women. Men are far more likely than women to abuse their families; Hollywood’s choice to excessively depict one of the few forms of abuse that women are more likely to perpetrate is sexist.
Although Run does not give Chloe a father, and the mailman is killed when he tries to save her, the film is inexorably haunted by the ghost of the patriarchy. Chloe spends much of the film trapped in the prison of her mother’s making, but Diane’s character can never escape the confines of the bad mom trope.
The film’s ending is all the more disappointing because, while memorable, it is also misogynistic. Run should have ended more subtly after Chloe finally thwarts Diane. Instead, Chloe visits her mother in prison seven years later and forces dog medication on her, symbolically punishing Diane for deviating from the feminine ideal.
It is a shame that Run is so sexist and its script so deficient because the film contributes to fighting ableism in cinema. Hulu users considering watching it are forced to decide whether the authentic casting and representation of a disabled character is worth enduring yet another undeveloped, misogynistic portrayal of FDIA.
But if you’re just looking for something to make you feel anxious, I’d recommend spending a little longer than usual reading the news. And if you just want to observe misogyny (or ableism), simply pay attention.