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16 July 2011

Slovenly or Sick? The Medicalization of the Messy

My wife introduced me to two television shows, both built on a similar premise but with radically different results.

First, check out this clip from Clean House, airing on the Style Network.

Now, compare that to this ad for Hoarders, airing on the A&E Network.

(Sorry I couldn't get the video to embed.) This is a wonderful example of medicalization. We have people engaging in almost the exact same behavior, but their actions are interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways. Clean House generally (though not exclusively) frames their subjects as having poor habits that, with a little tough love, can be corrected. Hoarders, on the other hand, frames their subjects as having serious mental illnesses. Indeed, they regularly bring in clinicians to treat their subjects. The former invokes judgment (note the eye-rolling and smirking in the first clip), while the latter invokes sympathy (hear the dire music).

Our behaviors do not come with meaning necessarily embedded in them. We have to make sense of them, and the way that we ultimately do so has consequences. We did this in the past with the behavior of children, particularly of little boys. Is Johnny being rambunctious? There once was a time when Johnny was sent to the principal's office for a spanking, but today, he is much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and given a pill. As we medicalize more and more in our society, our acceptance of and reaction to our behaviors change.

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