When Hollywood Gets Things Right! is a Culture Pages series where we highlight titles that experts say shattered stereotypes, made nuanced observations, and otherwise did not insult entire peoples and populations. At a time when the industry continues to disappoint audiences with dubious representation or casting decisions, this series will celebrate causes for optimism, comfort, and some commendable alternative viewing options.
It would hardly be 2017 if a Hollywood depiction of suicide didn't produce a major backlash online. But even by the standards of previous controversies over pop depictions of self-harm—take those in S-Town, EastEnders, Girls—the uproar surrounding Netflix's hit show 13 Reasons Why has been deafening.
Adolescent health advocates have been the primary critics of the show, which targets teenage viewers despite its TV-MA (mature) rating. In recent weeks, school districts nationwide have sent letters home to parents with information about preventing and talking about suicide, and the National Association of School Psychologists has issued guidelines for discussing the show with children. New Zealand even created a new censorship category for the series, because authorities were concerned that it might contribute to a suicide "contagion" effect.
(Indeed, a Florida schools superintendent claimed last month that his district had seen a rise in incidents of self-harm and suicide threats at elementary and middle schools since the show's release in late March.)
Suicide is always a sensitive topic to portray onscreen, but experts say 13 Reasons Why errs in a few major ways. The show begins with a teenage character receiving a box of tapes detailing the "13 reasons why" his former classmate Hannah (Katherine Langford) decided to kill herself. All 13 reasons are people—and the box comes with instructions to pass the package along to the 12 other people once he's done. Some experts have argued this premise risks validating suicide as a means of gaining the sympathy of others, or as an effective revenge strategy; others have noted that none of the show's adult characters models an effective approach in helping Hannah overcome her urges to harm herself—which might discourage similarly troubled children from seeking the help of their elders.
To learn about entertainment titles that take a thoughtful approach to the topic, we turned to Dan Romer, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and a psychologist studying adolescent behavioral and mental health. For two decades, Romer has helped create recommendations for the news media about how to cover suicide and has been involved with CHAMP, a project that analyzes portrayals of risky behavior—such as drug-taking, eating disorders, and suicide—in movies, television shows, and music videos.
While Romer believes that 13 Reasons Why did well to depict the traumatic effects of sexual assault, he says that concluding that trauma with suicide is "not advisable." The following four titles, he says, avoid common pitfalls of Hollywood depictions of self-harm.
"ON MY WAY" FROM GLEE (2012)
What It Is: The 14th episode of Glee's third season takes a turn for the dark when the character Dave Karofsky (Max Adler) tries to hang himself after being outed as gay. The musical comedy, however, ultimately turns this twist into a teachable moment: After Karofsky's father stops him from following through, the character's teachers meet to discuss how to tell the student body, and one devotes a glee club practice to asking his students what they are most looking forward to in life. These efforts put the show's smaller dramas (principally, the regional finals of the Show Choir Competition) into perspective, and, by the end of the episode, a former bullying victim of Karofsky's, a gay man himself, visits Karofsky in the hospital to cheer him up.
Why You Need to See It: "There's been a long-term effort to try and educate schools, especially the ones that have had 'cluster' suicides. There are all kinds of educational efforts, which are called postvention, trying to help the kids who are closest to those who died, give them counseling, and then also do things to help the community cope with the loss. In 13 Reasons Why, there doesn't seem to be any of that. But, in this Glee episode, a bunch of the teachers meet with the principal and they talk about a bunch of things they've done that might have allowed it to happen, and what they can do to educate the school about how to deal with this attempt."
"LAST CHRISTMAS" FROM THIS IS US (2016)
What It Is: Midway through the finale of the first season of NBC's ratings hit, a futures trader named Randall (Sterling K. Brown) finds a colleague about to jump off the ledge of a building during the office holiday party. The co-worker is in despair: His wife has just filed for divorce after he had an affair, and a string of bad investments has risked his relationships with his clients. Randall reminds him that everyone has baggage—"You don't have a monopoly on pain," he says—and that he has a responsibility to stay alive for his daughter. In an ending that befits the film's cathartic, life-affirming tone, the co-worker climbs away from the ledge and re-joins the party.
Why You Need to See It: "Counselors often encourage people who are suicidal to think about all the good things in their lives—what are the reasons that you would want to stay alive? Often that involves family, friends, and things that the person could do that would make their lives happier. This particular scene in This Is Us exemplifies that beautifully. It's really quite touching, and is a nice dramatic portrayal of that solution."
THE CLOSET (2001)
What It Is: Francis Veber's raunchy comedy The Closet (Le Placard) doubles as a satire of societal touchiness surrounding both suicide and homosexuality. The French farce centers on a divorced, recently fired, suicidal accountant who re-embraces life when a neighbor suggests he pretend to be homosexual. When the heteronormative accountant decides to play along, he is re-hired at the office where he once worked—a condom company that fears discrimination litigation—and embraced by co-workers who suddenly find him edgy and interesting. Viewers in 2017 may find the accountant's stereotypical portrayal of a gay man outdated, but Romer says the film's message that planning a life transformation can help a suicidal person find new joy in life is timeless.
Why You Need to See It: "Most portrayals of suicide are tragic and unpleasant, and they can look like, once you want to kill yourself, there's hardly anything you can do about it. But this is a nice illustration of how you can turn your life around and that there are solutions—you don't have to follow through on your suicidal thoughts."
A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
What It Is: Though Ron Howard's 2001 drama does not depict a suicidal character, it does show how a delusional state of mind can cause someone to threaten their loved ones, as in cases of filicide-suicide. In one scene, the wife of paranoid schizophrenic John Nash (Russell Crowe) comes home to find their child submerged in a bathtub while Nash is in the house. Rather than leave her husband, Alicia Nash (Jennifer Connelly) helps nurse him back to health, and his illness goes into remission. Though the ending takes some creative liberties (in real life, Alicia filed for divorce three years after his diagnosis and left her former husband alone to care for himself for a time), it accurately highlights the importance of social support for people with violent thoughts, Romer says.
Why You Need to See It: "If you try to struggle with the stresses of life alone, it's very difficult. To have someone supporting you and thinking and saying 'I'm going to be with you,' and 'I haven't given up on you,' those are all sources of optimism. In the film, they do make it look like Nash's wife helped him through that [period of despair], which is a positive message for people who might know others who are suicidal and might think there's no hope of them getting over it or recovering. Giving them support, reaching out to them is important, and can help."