What Pop Culture Gets Wrong about Suicide

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TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains a thorough discussion of suicide as portrayed in mass media, which could cause distress or take a toll on the mental health of some. Please tread with caution.

Susana stands outside. Skeeter Davis’s The End of the World” is playing from inside Daisy Randone’s bedroom. Susana sees the bedroom door ajar. She approaches the bedroom cautiously and finds an empty bed and the tabletop playing and replaying the song. She then walks outside of the bedroom. At the end of the hallway, she sees Daisy’s cat scratching the door of Daisy’s bathroom. There is tension in the air; Susana knows something is off. The atmosphere is glum and the music reverberates through the walls of the hallway. Susana calls on Daisy’s name. After getting no response, Susana slowly opens the door of the bathroom and gasps.

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This scene from Girl, Interrupted is one of the first few fictional deaths that have stayed with me ever since I first saw it. The gruesome image of Daisy’s lifeless body in the background of the two main characters standing across her bathroom door has haunted me for years. Even though, granted, Angelina Jolie’s Lisa was diagnosed as a sociopath, it was still horrifying to hear her utter, “Oh, what an idiot,” in the background as the scene unfolded. What made Daisy’s death even more appalling was how it felt like a mere tool to push the central characters’ narratives forward, giving the viewers no room to recover and mourn her death upon learning that she had taken her own life.

Daisy Randone’s story is just one of the many other fictional deaths that have been portrayed in pop culture over the years. And while her death may have been one of the most graphic deaths I have ever seen, the deaths of other fictional characters that may have not been as apparent as Daisy’s have still left a certain bitter aftertaste on my palate.

There are more pressing questions that need to be answered: How is it possible for us to portray fictional deaths in such a blatant manner, and find it difficult to handle the subject with delicate care, considering that the decision to end one’s life is personal and deliberate? And do the likes of Daisy Randone really have to die?

Depictions of suicide in media and literature have been around ever since mankind learned how to tell stories. Tales about people taking their own lives, like in Romeo and Juliet, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and A Clockwork Orange, have traversed through space and time, making its presence feel like a lingering taboo. Interestingly, however, despite our discomfort with regard to the subject matter, we have also been drawn to the mystery that surrounds it — its seeming suddenness, its permanence, and its aftermath.

Taking Netflix’s series 13 Reasons Why for example, central to the show’s narrative is Hannah Baker’s tapes, where she narrates her “reasons” for taking her life. Because of her inability to reconcile her personal grievances with others, she ends her life. All the reasons she cites are external by nature — that is, her suicide is caused by a series of events unlinked to any specific mental health conditions, and the reasons she gives are focused on the role others play in her decision to go through it.

The show’s entire narrative focuses on her “reasons” and how she fails to reconcile her personal grievances and her external struggles, which ultimately lead to her demise.

Her character is troubled, and even more so are the tapes that she leaves after her passing. The recorded letters work as “justifications” that validate her death. And while the showrunners contest that the show’s intention was to provide information and educate viewers about the stigma on mental illness and suicide, it instead trivialized Hannah’s tragedy by pinning her death on the thirteen people who failed to recognize her declining mental health. It barely touched on the professional help available when the protagonist felt like she had reached the end of her rope. Instead, the tapes inflicted guilt upon others as a form of revenge. This ​“suicide revenge” fantasy​ is the central theme of 13 Reasons Why. Hannah’s tapes are her weapons, and although external factors such as bullying are detrimental to one’s mental health, internal factors such as her mental illness and episodes of suicide ideation aren’t given as much gravitas. In the end, the first season of the show turns out to be a laundry list of why she had to die. For the viewers, Hannah’s life, despite its richness and complexities, is watered down as a moral lesson, as if to say that niceness is humanity’s saving grace.

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Revenge is not the only thing that pushes the suicide narrative in pop culture forward; there is also the romantic and, blasphemous as it may sound, ​“generous” aspect of it​. For example, the latest remake of A Star Is Born, where we have the story of Jackson Maine, a successful musician who falls in love with Ally Campana, an aspiring singer. The narrative swirls through their whirlwind romance, their music, his addiction, her success, and his eventual demise. While the film has garnered critical acclaim, there have been questions around how Jackson’s death was handled.

In the film, we see two different character progressions juxtaposed with each other. Ally’s narrative is that of hope and success, and next to her was her lover, Jackson, whose narrative was nothing short of a tragedy. Prior to Jackson’s death, we see scene after scene of his depression slowly corroding his sanity, a stark contrast to Ally who gets closer and closer to her dreams, one gig at a time. Ally is the aspirational character, and to see her and Jackson’s characters side by side, one rising and the other one sinking, it is borderline impossible not to sympathize with Ally’s character. Given the time that passes after the audience is made to swoon over the story’s poignancy and romance, all they are left with is the irreversible narrative of Jackson who ends up taking his own life. The sympathy I feel for Ally during the film almost feels like a travesty. And while the film is meant to be anchored on romance and music, it also has the responsibility to discuss the ugly truths and the helplessness of what it is like to be someone struggling with a mental illness.

The film ends with Ally’s character basking at the peak of her stardom, and mourning the death of Jackson in the most glamorous way possible — in a tribute. In an interview with Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Studios, he is quoted as saying that Cooper’s version of Jackson Maine’s demise isn’t exactly what it originally was on paper. “The first ending that I read, [Jackson] actually swims out into the ocean, where he commits suicide. The script that we had when he started shooting, he rides his motorcycle. It was more like the Kris Kristofferson ending [in the 1976 version] with the Ferrari, but with Jackson with the Harley. But Bradley changed his mind and came to see me and pitched the idea of what he ended up shooting. I think he was right. When I watch the movie now, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.” While the treatment had been different, the portrayal evoked the same glamorized essence. It had always been this way. Sure, it somehow felt like the perfect ending celebrating the life of Jackson’s music and love, but it was also just that — a pre-credits ending where Ally is finally shown as an international success with Jackson still dead, as though the only thing that stood against Ally fulfilling her superstar dreams was Jackson, and now that he had taken his own life as his “final act of love for her,” she can finally live the life she has always dreamed of. A star indeed was born at the expense of another star’s death.

Daisy Randone, Hannah Baker, and Jackson Maine are just three examples of how the film and television industries often take a suffering character on board with the hopes of shedding some light toward the existence of mental illnesses and the prevalence of suicide, and end up using them as tools to move other characters’ stories forward. Daisy’s death was not about her eating disorder and how she was being sexually abused by her father, her death was a narrative push meant for Susana to finally get herself admitted back to Claymoore. Hannah’s death was not about her disease, it was about the people around her who failed to see that she needed help. And Jackson’s death was never about his depression and addiction, it was about how much he loved Ally and how he saw himself as a hindrance to her success. While it is admirable to see the media bringing mental illness and suicide up for discussion, these topics are often misplaced under the narratives of those who are around them because, at the end of the day, these characters all end up taking their own lives and suicide is still a topic that none of us is really ready to talk about. When a fictional character is struggling, we never get to see the bad and the ugly; we see the sadness of the people around them, or their character’s triumphs, or the pain that they wanted to inflict on others, but never the internal struggle against doom and helplessness. Why does pop culture have to portray suicide as a subplot to get to the self-actualization of other protagonists? Is this really necessary?

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We claim that we are progressive for having the ability to talk about mental health and suicide, but our films and television shows say otherwise. We feature suicide, yes, but we merely circle around the issue because let’s face it, this is all too terrifying, and there lies the fault in our self- proclaimed progressiveness. We end up having way too many versions of Daisy Randone, Hannah Baker, and Jackson Maine, with their shocking, vengeful, and romantic deaths that account merely as ploys for us to feel like we have moved past the stigma, when in truth, we have just skirted around it.

And for the younger audiences, how do you explain to them the true horrors of mental illness when all they’ve seen are the likes of Ally as Jackson’s widow singing beautifully in her ballgown, or Clay and his secret love for Hannah, or Susanna and her bravery for finally taking matters into her own hands? How do you explain the need for one to die in order for the other to live and move forward?

In real life, when you lose someone over suicide, there will be no ballgowns, and recorded tapes, and friends getting the help they need. In real life when someone passes, it’s just that — death, grief, and nothing more.

And so how do we move forward with this narrative? How do we address the romanticization of mental illness and suicide? Maybe the answer is in getting help, or in having the likes of Daisy, Hannah, and Jackson finally overcome their demons and eventually find themselves choosing life. Maybe then, we can finally start talking about mental illness and suicide as truthfully as possible, because the reality is that help is available and help is here. And in real life, there is nothing more romantic than to live.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide, please get in touch with the following numbers:

Hopeline

PLDT: (02) 804–4673

Globe: (0917) 558–4673

Toll-free for Globe/TM: 2919

The National Center for Mental Health Crisis Hotline

Tel: (02) 989–8727 (telephone)

Tel: (0917) 899–8727 (mobile)

This article was written by our contributor, Elyra Jo.

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