The 1998 film Heathers follows the life of Veronica Sawyer, the witty and contemplative protagonist who is disillusioned with the shallowness of high school and her ultra-popular, conventionally beautiful, and wealthy friends: the “Heathers.” The film became a cult classic for its use of sardonic, dark humor to illuminate issues of teen-bullying, sexual violence, and apathy. Heathers was certainly subversive for its time, but concerningly enough, still provides relevant commentary on society today, particularly with media portrayal of suicide.
In the movie, following the “suicides” of several students in the school, Ms. Fleming, the school’s guidance counselor, gathers the student body in an assembly to publically mourn and express their feelings while local news reporters broadcast the event. It’s a thinly veiled exploitation of the emotional vulnerability of the students and of the tragedy itself, and Veronica doesn’t hold back on pointing it out:
“These little programs are eating up suicide up with a spoon. They’re making it sound like it’s a cool thing to do!”
Twenty years later, it seems that Veronica’s important criticism has still fallen on deaf ears: mental illness and suicide continues to be romanticized in the media. One such example is Netflix’s show Thirteen Reasons Why, which, as the title states, details the protagonist’s “reasons why” she committed suicide through a series of tapes she recorded before ending her life. The show has been criticized in many aspects: it overlooks the sensitive nuances of mental health and simplifies Hannah’s suicide as a consequence of the actions of 13 people. It fails to show viewers that therapy and/or medication can be extremely helpful and successful. Most disturbingly, it shows the graphic scene of Hannah killing herself. The viewer see everything: the cuts she makes, the agony she is in, and the blood. Lots of blood.
Because it is well known that media portrayal of suicide has a strong influence in the public psyche, reportingonsuicide.org details guidelines on how to carefully discuss suicide. It is emphasized to not describe the suicide method and to not glamorize the suicide, both of which 13 Reasons Why blatantly does. Some have gone as far to say that 13 Reasons is a “suicide revenge fantasy,” in which Hannah gets to live on through her tapes and make her tormenters fully face the guilt and consequences of their actions. What the show doesn’t show: weeks or months later, when the school moves on and forgets, and Hannah is still gone. The devastating consequences it will have on her family and close friends for years and years. The alternative life where she received proper professional help and slowly moved past feeling defined by her trauma.
Does this mean that we should completely refrain from discussing suicide? Certainly not – Selena Gomez, co-producer of 13 Reasons, may have had the right intentions with raising awareness about suicide and mental health, but failing to consult mental health professionals resulted in a dangerous show that is far from a model of how to thoughtfully address mental health. With that said, shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman are breaking ground with much more nuanced and honest depictions of mental illness; Crazy Ex Girlfriend displays therapy in a positive light while also exploring the mundane and difficult work that comes with addressing mental illness (and also handles a suicide attempt in a very non-sensationalized manner). Bojack Horseman doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that wraps around the protagonist’s depression, self-loathing, and self-destructive decisions, while still portraying him as a painfully sympathetic character. While these shows are certainly not perfect (and sometimes walk a fine line between provocative and problematic), I hope that future producers and directors look to them, and not shows like 13 Reasons, when tackling mental health and suicide in TV and film.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Student Counseling Center (mental health concerns): 404-727-7450
Respect Program Hotline (24/7 sexual/interpersonal violence support): 470-270-5360