One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Question:   The 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

A) challenged the traditional medical model of psychiatric hospitals

B) challenged the use of psychotropic medications to control behavior

C) challenged the concepts of ‘normalcy’ and ‘insanity’

D) all of the above

E) none of the above

Answer:  D) all of the above.

Photo of the words mental health in print blocks
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Few films have shaped the culture surrounding disability so much as the 1975 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey of the same name, the story follows the lives of several psychiatric patients in an Oregon mental ward in the 1960s. The plot centers around one character in particular – Randall McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) – who intentionally disregards the formal rules of the ward in an attempt to liberate himself and his fellow ward mates from the learned helplessness the hospital staff forces on them. Due to the film’s negative portrayal of institutionalization and the standard medical practices surrounding mental disability at the time, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was and continues to be a controversial film.

Kesey wrote One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest during the early 1960s, a time when social norms were becoming hotly debated and many rejected. Standard psychiatric practices and the mental health system were no exceptions to this demolition. Categories such as “mental illness” and “mental health abnormalities” began to be rejected as proper ways to talk about different mental dispositions (Roose 642). Thus, the process of psychiatric institutionalization and medication was seen as inappropriate and invasive, an unnecessary power structure that did much more harm than good. In its place, Cuckoo’s Nest suggests an anti-authoritarian, self-defining view of disability – a “social model” of sorts.

There are countless examples of this critique of the medical model in Cuckoo’s Nest. During one of the first confrontations between McMurphy and the Head Nurse, McMurphy attempts to get behind the nurse’s desk to turn the music down in the community room. Upon getting behind the glass, McMurphy is met with a scream from one of the nurses who says that patients are not allowed to be in the nurse’s station. The head nurse then comes out and tells McMurphy that it’s time for him to take his medication, to which McMurphy responds, “I don’t like taking something if I don’t know what it is.” She returns with, “if Mr. McMurphy won’t take his medication orally, I’m sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way” (Cuckoo’s Nest 27’).

These types of interactions recur in the story – there is a constant struggle between the patients’ autonomy and the rules and coercion of the nurses. This struggle between the individual and the system is the major theme of the film. As Pacific University Professor Tim Thompson puts it, “[the story’s] principal theme is the liberation of the individual from cold war America’s impoverished ideal of normalcy” (Encyclopedia of Disability History). In the passage I describe above, this “impoverished ideal of normalcy” is clear. McMurphy is being completely reasonable in wanting to know what medicine he is being given, yet the nurses are able to win the interaction because they have the standard of normalcy on their side – they are “sane” and in a socially sanctioned role of power. Due to the nurses’ position, their opinions will take precedence, no matter how unreasonable they may be.

With the help of prominent thinkers like French historian Michel Foucault, the critique of “normalcy” presented in Cuckoo’s Nest began to catch on around college campuses and in intellectual circles. Disability began to be seen as less of a “problem” than as a “problem constructed by society” (Encyclopedia). In this way, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest has had a lasting impact on disability studies. It was one of the first films that challenged the medical model and inserted a model of self-definition and individuality in its place. Though obviously the medical model has not been completely overthrown– there are still psychiatric wards and medications for people with mental disabilities – the film generated a general distrust of hierarchical medical institutions and helped to modify many of psychiatry’s medical practices over the years.


Works cited 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Milos Forman. Perf. Jack Nicholson. United Artists, 1975. DVD.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The Encyclopedia of American Disability History. 2009. Print.

Rudi Roose, et al. “The Rhetoric Of Disability: A Dramatistic-Narrative Analysis Of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Critical Arts: A South-North Journal Of Cultural & Media Studies 26.5 (2012): 631-647. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Aug. 2013.

Will is the editor for the Galaxy Awareness and History pages as well as one of our pollsters. He is a sophomore at Seattle University majoring in philosophy. His home is La Crosse Wisconsin.