TRIGGER WARNING: suicide and anorexia are discussed in this piece.
On March 31, 2017 Netflix released the now extremely popular and controversial series, “13 Reasons Why”. Hannah Baker, a high school sophomore dealing with bullying and slut-shaming at her new school, is the protagonist of the series. This eventually leads her to commit suicide.
The series was primarily produced by Selena Gomez, a woman who never actually attended high school, receiving her diploma through homeschooling. The show has received a lot of backlash as well as many negative reviews by psychologists and school counselors for its glorification of suicide, instructional messages to young audiences on exactly how to end their own lives, and for broadcasting a graphic scene in which Hannah slits her own wrists in a bathtub.
In fact, the parents of Bella Herndon and Priscilla Chiu have recently blamed the show for their daughters suicides. Bella and Priscilla, while both from California, had never met each other, but the two committed suicide four days apart. KTVU sat down with Priscilla’s uncle, Peter Chiu, on June 22nd of this year, where he discussed his nieces suicide: “I feel it’s dangerous for that small percentage of young adults [for whom] the show can become a trigger… and I feel as if the show gives only one alternative for cyberbullying and other teenage issues.” Peter addresses an issue many parents have also seemed to focus on; the show suggesting that suicide is the only way to solve your problems, which many have teens completing the 13 episodes feeling hopeless about their own social situations.
The series presents suicide as what Elizabeth Peyton, a junior high teacher, perfectly summarizes as, “the ultimate eff you to all the people you leave behind,” a way to inflict revenge on those who did wrong. If the show had chosen to highlight the serious effects of suicide on a community, instead of romanticising it by implying that the love of one boy, Clay Jensen, could have saved a depressed teen from killing herself, it may have been an effective deterrent method for troubled teens looking for a way to escape their problems.
We might assume that reviews online of the series made it exceptionally clear that Netflix needed to refine the way it tackled controversial and sensitive issues. So, it comes as a shock that Netflix has released another controversial film, “To The Bone”. This movie follows Ellen (played by Lily Collins) as she fights those around her attempting to help her recover from her anorexia.
Jennifer Rollins, an eating disorder specialist, wrote an article for Huffington Post discussing the film. While she mentions the film was “well intended,” she believes the film only successfully rehashes stereotypes that could have instead been debunked, “I know that often people with eating disorders struggle with the thought of ‘not being sick enough to need treatment.’ This is a common eating disorder fallacy, and the problem with the depiction of eating disorders in this film is that it perpetuates the myth that people with anorexia always appear visibly emaciated.” She stresses that an eating disorder is a form of mental illness and, in our society, “Eating disorders are one of the few mental illnesses where we judge someone’s level of suffering based on their physical appearance.” When only one type of person with anorexia is fed into the media, this is what we, in turn, look for in our peers. This results in us not reaching out to help those with eating disorders until their symptoms become visual, which is oftentimes too late.
Rollins goes on to mention how “To The Bone” glorifies anorexia. Depicting Ellen with “a perfectly done smokey eye, staring sullenly out of the window, cracking funny/sarcastic one-liners, and enjoying fun escapades with friends and family.” makes Anorexia seem all-too-fun, easy, or even a way to gain attention from loved ones. Anorexia is not something that should be romanticized or seen as desirable by any means. The movie fails to show how anorexia often invites depression, hair loss, and osteopenia. These are the ugly truths of this disease that the movie forgets to mention.
The simple fact is that Netflix is becoming the go-to spot for entertainment, stealing 50% of TV ratings in 2015. It is a hub for TV shows and movies appealing to virtually all generations, especially teenagers. With this power comes responsibility. The young minds are definitely watching, how Hannah deals with her bullies, and how Ellen loses that weight by skipping dinner. They see themselves and their peers in those characters. Teenagers are impressionable by the media they consume, and with so much at stake, Netflix cannot afford to publish media about suicide and eating disorders that is under-researched and potentially harmful to its target audience. So, Netflix, if you don’t understand an issue don’t make entertainment about it; young minds are turning to you to see what to do when placed in the position of your fictitious characters. Right now, that has done exceptionally more harm than good.