How Should Suicide Be Presented in 21st Century Arts?

Suicide in 21st Century Arts: How has it been presented, and how should it be?

In the 21st Century, so many things are rising in number: robots, social media accounts, and mental health problems, to name just a few. Whilst we can all agree that as a race the technological advances we are making are excellent, we tend to ignore when things get worse or go backwards, such as when mental health issues and suicide rise to an all-time high. There is absolutely no way that this is not at least partly caused by the rise in social media and media in general. People are often influenced and inspired by real people, and sometimes fictional people as well, be it consciously or subconsciously. This influence can be caused with how creative minds present suicide in their art, and so I pose the question: How have the arts portrayed suicide in the 21st Century, and how should they?

Credit: Pinterest

I am going to declare a definitive way to present suicide in fiction, based around four central guidelines. In early 2017, the new Netflix show,
based on the novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why, took the world by storm. First and foremost, the show displays inaccurate moral standards which are not to be encouraged, such as the presentation of revenge. It is shown to be something that is acceptable, given the right circumstances, which should not be the case with such an impactful and dramatic TV show. Since its release, teen suicide rates have risen, [The Telegraph], [MLive], and this is potentially due to the way in which the show presents suicide, in a romanticised and glorified way. It presents suicide as something brave, and special which is absolutely not how suicide should be portrayed. However, this is not the only example of modern fiction involving suicide, and it definitely is not always bad, so this shows us that a positive or at least healthy representation of suicide is very much possible, the real question is how this should be done, and I aim to create a set of guidelines, which will show the dos and don’ts for portraying suicide in 21st Century fiction. We can see from 13 Reasons Why that even in the present day (mid-2017 at the time of writing), suicide is still indisputably being portrayed terribly.

I + II – Accuracy, and the differences between Accuracy and Realism

The first thing is that the suicide needs to be portrayed accurately. This means that research needs to be put into place, suicide survivors spoken to, and the families and friends of the intentionally deceased interviewed. It may seem insensitive, but an inaccurate and potentially damaging representation of suicide in a widespread mainstream piece of fiction will hurt them a lot more than an interview for the greater good. At this point it is also worth mentioning that suicide is very much not a necessary theme, and storytelling can be equally as gripping or dramatic with much less “edgy” or “difficult” themes, if coupled with the right writing. That said, someone killing themselves will always be dramatic. It is fair to say that every story with a suicide included has created drama, but the importance of mental health problems far outweighs that of easily creating drama.

American Idiot, the rock opera album by Green Day released in 2004 is the story of a young man who leaves home in search in something more exciting from life. We hear his adventures which involve falling in love, out of love, falling into alcohol and drugs, as well as rebellion and anti-patriotism in a post 9-11 America. In American Idiot, suicide is addressed slightly differently, the key difference being that the suicide is a mental suicide, because the character that kills himself is the alter ego of the main character, whose name is never revealed, only that he is nicknamed “Jesus” and his alter ego “St Jimmy”.

American Idiot contains a unique way of portraying suicide in a story - it was very obvious it was going in this direction, towards the idea of some form of suicide, but the entire suicide happens in Jesus’ head, eliminating his inner demons, rather than externally, killing both Jesus and St Jimmy. Although this is an album written and produced by a band the members of which should not be role models in any way, given their drug-using habits and rebellious lifestyle, this story sends the listeners, many of whom would be teenagers, an incredible and unique message. Rather than telling the listener to cope with their problems, or to kill themselves, it finds a middle ground. It teaches for the listener to take control of their demons, and get them to kill themselves. It is absolutely beautiful because it shows that suicidal thought is not necessarily a negative thing, if the anger and power associated with it is harnessed and used in a way that helps someone to fix themselves.

The second thing that needs to be acknowledged by an artist is that accuracy and realism are different things. Suicides can be accurate without reflecting real events. In the case of 13 Reasons Why we see everyone starting to love Hannah after she dies, and whilst this is most likely applicable to a real world situation, it sends an absolutely appalling message to those considering killing themselves: “Kill yourself, and everyone will love you.” Many people consider suicide for reasons of loneliness, and whilst this is a potentially realistic way of presenting what would happen after a suicide, it sends a dark and extremely damaging message which could make the difference between an audience member killing themselves or not.

In 13 Reasons Why, we actually see Hannah Baker, the protagonist, kill herself. She does this by slitting her wrists in a bath and bleeding out. She runs the bath purposefully, as hot water increases the blood flow and would kill her quicker. This is shown very graphically and vividly, and it provides an audience with a potential step by step guide on how to kill themselves. In the book, she overdosed on pills, and whilst this was a different story, it is arguable it still provided a guide. So the question here, is, “why is it any different in the TV show?” and the answer to this question lies in the audience. The people reading a book, by choice, are going to be smarter and better informed than the average audience member of a Netflix TV show, and the explicit showing of suicide to such a wider audience is the problem here.

Adapted from the 1989 black comedy film of the same name, Heathers, rewritten as a musical in 2010 by Laurence O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, addressed teen suicide in a very unique way. The key message of Heathers is that life itself is very powerful. When J.D (Jason Dean) disappeared, life got better at the high school, but the fact that things changed so drastically shows how one life can be so powerful and so important. Overall, Heathers handles suicide in a humorous yet sensitive way, and sends very important messages by straying from the normalities of presenting suicide in a piece of art, and it does this by presenting a completely unrealistic yet accurate story.

In American Idiot, St Jimmy is the character that kills himself, leaving Jesus alone even though they are the split personalities of the same person, in other words, curing his mental illness. St Jimmy’s suicide note is presented in the song Give Me Novacaine, and subsequently his death is portrayed in the song Homecoming, a ten-minute compilation of 5 short song ideas, the first being St Jimmy killing himself, and the subsequent 4 being Jesus coming home, getting on with life and facing “normal”, real life problems. This shows how a suicide can impact someone’s life so greatly, even without presenting a realistic suicide.

Civil War II, published in 2016 through early 2017 by Marvel Comics, tells the story of the conflicted superhero community when a new young superhuman is discovered who can see the future, but, further, can show those around him visions of the future. Civil War II shows an excellent example of suicide being portrayed accurately in an unrealistic situation. The superhero community is split on whether or not to embrace this new power that could potentially save millions of lives, but also is beyond any of their comprehension, and without knowing how it works, they cannot know when it will or will not be accurate, whether or not it views or sets the future, amongst other problems.

Amongst this chaos, Bruce Banner, also known as The Incredible Hulk, had been “clean” from transforming into his mindless alter ego for years, but the future-seeing superhuman showed the superhero community a vision of him becoming the Hulk again, and killing many of them. As a result, he was put under a lot of pressure from them. If they were not shown the future they would not have cornered him, and if he was not cornered his transformation would not have begun and he would not have been shot in the head by an old friend. This confused and angered everybody involved, which were dozens of his friends and fellow superheroes: they were not aware it was even possible for the Hulk to die, even in his human form, as the Hulk would instantly come out and protect him.
It turned out, later on, that Bruce Banner himself had developed a single deadly arrow, the only thing in the universe capable of killing the Incredible Hulk. He had given it to Hawkeye, Clint Barton, who has enhanced vision, which means he can see things from further away and has a perfect shot, so when he saw Banner’s eyes glow green, he knew he had to fire. Bruce Banner had decided that he would rather die than become the Hulk again, and exiting his home to talk to his long-time friends and allies, he knew that he would die, but he left anyway. The real question is not why in terms of the Marvel Universe, but why, in terms of the impact on the reader? The reader sees this character die, who had been declared invincible for 57 years, and he died the only way he could, at his own hand.
As far as the story of Civil War II goes, it goes without saying that this is a major turning point, as it sets the record straight for a lot of heroes who realise that if not for the future-seeing power, then he would not have died because they caused stop the future they saw as a result of seeing it, and since it does not happen they discover that these powers only use logic, and it was not logical for him to die. The war dies down after this, and the real message is that of self-sacrifice. This is a very unique example of a fictional suicide, because the person that does so is not a normal human, it is not a relatable situation.

III – The Reasons Why

Another thing that could potentially impact on the presentation of suicide is how explicit it is. In 13 Reasons Why, we see Hannah Baker cut herself to death, but in Heathers, we see J.D blow himself up, even more graphically in the movie, yet I concluded earlier that Heathers handles suicide well and 13 Reasons Why does not, and so, even given these two presentations containing a similar amount of explicitness, there must be a more major third requirement that can definitively label a presentation of suicide as successful or unsuccessful, and this lies in the used reasons for suicide. In 13 Reasons Why, an unrealistic picture is painted by the story itself. The protagonist, who is narrating the story from the grave is shown killing herself for several reasons. However, some of these reasons should not be relevant to actual, real life, suicide, such as assuming that Zach, one of the supposed reasons why she died, ripped up a note that she wrote to him, when in reality, he did not. Even if he did, this still would depict a negative idea to the audience, as the anger from this situation is rather petty, and would be the kind of thing that triggers an argument or a rant, rather than a suicide.

Similar to the impacts of suicide I spoke about in the previous section, the reasons cannot be common for the most part, if the suicide is to be successful. The reason Heathers works so well is because the suicides that fail are the ones for relatable reasons, yet the one successful suicide is one which occurs in an outrageous situation, that no one would ever relate to. 13 Reasons Why, on the contrary shows a successful suicide after relatable events.

On the other hand, the reasons in 13 Reasons Why may send a very important message to those watching in order to understand suicide. It shows that suicide does not have to be based off of big things or reasons, rather a culmination of less important and less impactful things, which build up, and push somebody over the edge. In terms of an analogy, if you are filling up a water bottle, you can add a lot or a little bit of water. Regardless of how small the volumes you add are, as long as you keep doing it, the bottle will eventually overflow. In comparison to suicide, it can be lots of little things, or lots of big things, or a combination of the two. This sends a very important message to the people watching that do not have depression, in order to understand other people who, do, because saying one hurtful thing to them may be the thing which is the trigger of their suicide.

However, a message of “if this has happened to you, you can kill yourself,” is sent. Life needs to be shown to get better after a failed suicide attempt if the reasons are to be realistic, and this is where 13 Reasons Why fails in its presentation of suicide. At the time of writing, the plot for the second season had been rumoured to be that the suicide attempt did in fact fail, but there has been a big enough gap between the two seasons to treat the first season as a standalone story, and its various impacts have to be taken at face value.

Whilst it can be argued that Heathers turns suicide into humour, to a point, and therefore it is not handled well, what it does do is it sends very important messages about how mental health problems can spread like physical diseases, and that suicide is a selfish thing to do, as it will hurt other people, whilst keeping it in a humorous but sensitive light. There is, only one successful real suicide in Heathers, which is that of J.D at the end of the musical, after his attempt to set off a mass “suicide” for the whole school fails. He instead, acknowledging his defeat, takes the bombs he was going to use and blows himself up. After he is dead, things feel like they are back to normal. The key idea is that the reasons for the suicide are not relatable and not realistic.

IV – Tone

The final thing to consider is the overall tone of the fiction that suicide can occur in. Whilst the suicide itself needs to be handled sensitively and seriously, it can very easily fit into a comedy, whilst being accurate, as shown by Heathers. In Heathers, the theme of suicide is set, by deaths which were in fact not suicides, rather murders framed to look like suicides, set up by the show’s male lead, J.D. However, this shows us a lot about the contagiousness of suicide, as after 3 murders are set up and successfully completed by J.D (that we know about) two other characters try to kill themselves. The idea of suicide, the idea of escape, is one which people can want but are unlikely to follow through with due to fear. When other people do it first, however, it can give people the power to follow through with their suicidal thoughts. However, it also shows that it can equally fit well into a darker toned story like American Idiot or Civil War II. We can take different messages from this, it does not necessarily say that you should kill yourself to help others, but it does say that you need to be prepared to make sacrifices for the better of others, as if we tone down the sci-fi, then the equivalent of him being a normal person is self-sacrifice in general. As a result, this suicide is handled very well, and sends an inspiring and correct message. The conclusion here, then, is that suicide can fit into any genre, as long as the scene itself follows the aforementioned guidelines.


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