Content Advisory: Discussion of the portrayal of suicide in popular culture.
It’s been announced that the Netflix TV show 13 Reasons Why is to be edited.
The show is based on a young adult novel of almost the same name (it’s called Thirteen Reasons Why, because literature) by Jay Asher, in which high school student Clay Jensen receives a box of audio cassettes made by a recently deceased friend, Hannah Baker, who had died by suicide two weeks earlier. The tapes provide thirteen reasons why Hannah did it, and explain, tape by tape, how various other characters contributed to her decision.
I’ve never read the book. And, I’ll admit up front, I’ve never seen the TV show. It deals with things that I have a pretty complicated relationship with at the moment. I’ve talked in previous posts about my own chronic suicidal ideation and, as passive as it may usually be for me (that is, I’m not actively planning anything and I don’t particularly relish any of the great notions my brain occasionally presents to me), I’ve tended to assume that watching 13RW wouldn’t be helpful for me.
The show’s first season, having kept Hannah’s death in the background throughout, culminates with a flashback scene explicitly portraying her suicide. For the show, the method she used was changed from that described in the book. In the book she takes an overdose of medication. The TV programme graphically depicts her self-exsanguination in a bathtub. Medical and education professionals expressed a worry that the subject matter overall could prove triggering for viewers who found themselves relating to Hannah’s situation or state of mind, and that including an explicit scene of her death may produce a ‘contagion’ effect. This refers to the statistical uptick in suicidal or self-harming thoughts and behaviours often observed following a high-profile suicide, whether that’s of a real person or a well-known, well-established character.
Some also raised a concern about the setup of this story specifically, in that it plays into a common fantasy of suicidal people – particularly those with a strong sense of grievance or of having been wronged. This is the idea of being able to die, and then still be around to see how everyone reacts to it. Season 1 of the show begins after Hannah’s death, but features her in flashback and narrative, her voice a constant throughout the show, explaining her thoughts and feelings through her tapes. This apparently creates a sense of interaction between Hannah and the living characters – albeit we know that’s not really happening; but nevertheless some specialists were worried the premise of the show and they way it was presented would feed into that fantasy for some people.
To give them their due, the showrunners do appear to have considered these potential risks to some extent, and included content warnings, helpline information, and so on. Still, data from shortly after the show’s initial airing also suggests some contagion did occur, with a significant rise in suicide-related searches online, including searches on methods. While this doesn’t tell us whether there was an increase in actual attempts or completed suicides, it does seem to validate the concerns at least to a degree.
Now, Netflix have announced that they’re going to edit out the actual suicide scene. The show will now depict the immediate lead-up and the aftermath, but not the act itself.
But why did they include it in the first place? It’s hardly entertainment, is it?
Most people if asked would doubtless say there’s nothing entertaining about watching someone — even a fictitious character — kill themselves. I’d certainly say that. And it’s probably true enough for most people. There are certainly people who would find some appeal in watching such a thing, though it’s beyond my scope here to try to work out why. (I’m inclined to put it down to the allure of the taboo more than anything else, but that would be a guess.) It’s certainly the case that pop culture media can serve other functions than pure entertainment. It can also educate and inform; and it can be used to provoke thought and discussion (though this is unfortunately used all too routinely as an excuse after offensive behaviour: “I was trying to start a conversation“).
A delicate balance has to be struck. When, in July 1974, Florida news anchorwoman Christine Chubbuck shot herself on air in the middle of her show, there was an immediate scramble by other news companies to get hold of the tape, because they knew the appeal it would have for their viewers and the ratings boost it would get them. It was never broadcast: Chubbuck’s own station locked it away and it’s thought it was eventually handed over to her family, who have never allowed it to be released. Yet even now, the tape is still considered a something of an unholy grail in certain sections of the Internet. (Though assuming the tape hasn’t been deliberately destroyed it’s likely it would have degraded beyond use by now in any case.)
In 2016, in what was apparently complete coincidence, two films were released dealing with Chubbuck’s story. One — Kate Plays Christine — was an abstract meta-documentary focusing not so much on Chubbuck herself but on the reasons her story holds such interest, and the ethical questions around the dramatisation of such an event. The other movie, Christine, was the one that dramatised it. Christine culminates with the shooting itself, shown on screen, and could quite easily have fallen into the trap that Kate Plays Christine warned about: of sensationalising the sad end of a troubled woman and making it ‘entertainment’.
But Christine received very positive reviews and praise for the sensitive way it portrayed Chubbuck and her situation: a common observation in reviews was the way the film took a solidly tragic event and somehow made it a sympathetic, even warm, character study not just of Chubbuck herself but of her various friends, relatives and colleagues.
In this case, then, it seems the makers of Christine managed to hit the right balance between making their movie entertaining, with engaging characters and plot, and yet rendering the horrific final act a sober and justified part of a biopic. It didn’t shy away from showing Chubbuck’s last act; but nor did it shy away from showing the effect her decision had on the people around her.
So it’s reasonable to say that, from an artistic standpoint, Christine justified itself. It was particularly important for that movie to do so given that Chubbuck’s last words were, at least in part, a swipe at the fact that the news industry had become too focused on sensationalism, and it would have been very easy for a film like this to have ended up being exploitative of tragedy — the very thing she hated. But most critics seem to agree the film managed to walk the line skilfully.
Speaking for myself, I would accept as consistent an argument that if you’re going to tackle the subject of suicidality, then you need to do it unflinchingly. Don’t glamorise it. Don’t imply, or allow the viewer to infer, that suicide is a happy solution; that it’ll make things better. Don’t leave them the belief that it is, as the notorious theme song from M*A*S*H long held, painless for anyone concerned. This may well have been the intention of 13RW’s screenwriters, as it was for filmmaker Murali K. Thalluri, who included a similar scene in his 2006 independent film 2:37, also based in a high school, and attracted similar controversy.
It’s commonly held that a big part of the problem with regard to suicidality and self-harm is society’s reluctance to talk about them. We tend to avoid such issues; we hide them away and treat them as taboo. Understandably, perhaps: they’re scary and distressing topics. Many people now argue that these are things we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about — that they affect so many people it simply makes no sense to keep all those people silent and isolated.
And there’s a logic to this, too. For loudmouths like me this taboo is perhaps less of an obstacle, but I’m in my forties and possessed of a goodly measure of Fuck It Right Off. If I feel it, I can pretty much say it and the world can just damn well deal with it. But for a child or a young adult it can be harder because they’re often less sure of themselves and their position in the society around them, and may not feel able to speak out if they believe everyone around them is just absolutely fine and they’re the only ones who “can’t cope”.
In the end I personally don’t know what the best approach is here. There are good arguments in both directions: tackling the issue of suicidality in popular culture helps people who might be feeling isolated and encourages them to speak out. And, if you’re going to tackle the issues then do it honestly, bluntly, without pulling punches. Show what’s at stake, and don’t play into fantasies or fluffy, sentimental thinking.
On the other hand, contagion is a real phenomenon, which demands great caution in handling these issues in fiction and pop culture, as well as in how real-life instances are reported. Most news organisations treat suicide very carefully, and will avoid reporting details such as method, the content of any suicide notes, and often even exact places and times, lest someone out there feel inspired to follow someone they felt connected to. Reducing the risk of contagion by reducing public exposure to images and themes of suicidality, or at least treating these things with great caution, does make sense from this perspective.
In general, as someone who’s affected by this more or less every day, I think I fall more on the ‘show it in full’ side; or at least I’m willing to accept that as a valid justification for portraying it, even in some detail. That being said, I do see merit in the other argument, and would always be prepared to consider each case on its own merits rather than prescribing a hard and fast rule. But in the most general sense, I think it’s better to present what is for many people essentially a fact of life, and one which is compounded by a sense of isolation — of having to suffer alone. I’m lucky for all sorts of reasons. The people around me make it easy for me to talk. I know I’m not alone. And I think it’s critically important that other people in my situation also know they’re not alone. And I think, on the whole, that addressing these things in media and pop culture does help to get that message out there.
But is has to be done very carefully, targeted carefully, and backed up with useful direction to actual support. It’s a very valuable thing to get right, but a very dangerous, and easy, thing to get wrong.