Editor’s note: this article contains spoilers for the movie “Split.”
M. Night Shyamalan’s latest turn, “Split,” seems to be a long-awaited return to his form. Shyamalan wrote, produced and directed the story of Kevin, an individual with 23 distinct personalities. The crux of the film is the fact that a 24th personality is about to revealed. Named “The Beast,” the existence of the superhuman identity is the question of the film.
The Beast is rumored to have skin as thick as a rhino, the ability to climb walls and other special abilities.
The technical aspects of “Split,” i.e. the acting, music, cinematography, are up to par.
However, upon viewing the movie, I left the theater feeling pretty angry. There is an obvious surface issue we have to talk about right away, which can even be gleaned from the trailer, and that is the depiction of Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID.
A common issue in depictions of DID is that of the identities is a psychotic murderer. This aspect has been explored by other articles already, and I highly recommend checking those discussions out if you haven’t already. For the purposes of this article, I want to discuss another issue I found upon a complete viewing of “Split.”
In “Split,” three teenage girls are kidnapped by Dennis (one of the more disturbed identities) and held in what appears to be a basement. In what eventually becomes apparent, viewers learn that the girls are an offering for The Beast, who feeds upon the “impure young.”
So, problem number one is the idea of the pure vs. the impure. While it is stated that The Beast feeds on the impure young, in this instance he is only feeding on ‘impure’ girls.
It is later revealed that, to The Beast, impure is defined almost like ‘unbroken.’ As a boy, Kevin was badly abused by his mother and therefore is broken. i.e. aware of the underlying evil in the world because he has experienced it. The Beast feels that because of the circumstances of the ‘broken,’ they have some kind of special ability that makes them superior to the ‘unbroken.’
Problem number two is how Shyamalan goes about making this point. One of the kidnapped girls, Casey, has been molested by her uncle for years, while the other two girls, Claire and Marcia, live seemingly idyllic lives (and it seems that way because their characters aren’t given that much depth). Claire and Marcia, throughout the film, are more visibly emotional.
Whenever Dennis becomes angered by the girls, he makes them take off an article of clothing, which leaves Claire shirtless and Marcia bottomless. Casey wears a lot of layers, so she remains completely clothed for most of the film, which plays a part in the classic Shyamalan twist.
The only other heavily featured character is Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher.
Fletcher has an obsession with proving to the scientific community that DID can cause serious changes not only psychologically, but also physiologically in a patient. This desire of hers keeps her from recognizing the dangers that The Beast imposes.
Of these four women, Casey is the only one to survive. The Beast crushes Dr. Fletcher to death and eats Marcia and Claire. When The Beast goes after Casey, her shirt gets torn and we see that she self-harms.
Upon seeing this, The Beast comes to the conclusion that Casey is like him, broken.
This leads me to question how The Beast determines the ‘brokenness’ of a person. He sees something physical and decides Casey is pure, but not every affliction or problem that someone deals with is visible. Most people tend to hide the sadder parts of their lives; it’s human nature to not let your vulnerability show because vulnerability is often equated with weakness which isn’t looked upon favorably.
It isn’t up to one person to decide if someone else has gone through a tough time just like it isn’t up to one person to decide it someone else has been offended by a particular comment or action.
And this takes us to problem number three. The three women who die, Claire, Marcia, and Dr. Fletcher, are all very different from Casey. Claire and Marcia are clear foils to Casey’s reserved nature. Claire is more outspoken and considers attacking Dennis. Marcia, while not as bold as Claire, is willing to go along with Claire’s plan.
Even the way they dress and hold themselves at the beginning of the film communicates a certain level of confidence. Dr. Fletcher is someone who has gotten very far in her professional field and commands respect.
And what the film does is effectively punish them.
Marcia and Claire are placed in separate rooms after they make escape attempts. Dennis allows The Beast to kill Dr. Fletcher after she finds the one of the girls and voices her objections.
This narrative slightly mirrors the classic Hollywood notion of punishing women who didn’t fit into the standard for women of that age. What these women do is break away from the standard set by The Beast and so he deems it fit to kill them. But his standard isn’t one that holds any bearing because, once again, one person doesn’t have the right to fully judge another.
While “Split” isn’t a movie I hated (the acting was pretty phenomenal and the movie was obviously made with skill), it didn’t deliver its message well. I can see that maybe Shyamalan wanted to break the stigma around abuse victims being unclean and unworthy in some way, but he just reinforced DID stigmas and created female characters who were still deemed unworthy anyway.
It made me, and a lot of other people, pretty angry to see these harmful stereotypes reinforced once again in a major studio movie.