Fabienne Darling-Wolf, an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Media and Communication Doctoral Program in the Klein College of Communication, wraps up our three-part series on adolescent suicide inspired by the research of Assistant Professor Carolina Hausmann-Stabile of CPH's School of Social Work.
The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has recently sparked controversy for its frank — and, some argue, too graphic and sensationalized — portrayal of teen suicide, prompting area schools to send warning letters to parents about the show’s content. In a statement released last month, the National Association of School Psychologists warned that the series' "powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies" and recommended that "vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation," do not watch it.
While there is evidence supporting the idea that media portrayals of suicide can provoke copycat behaviors, experts agree that it is unlikely that one show alone could lead someone to commit suicide. Indeed, what is often missing from discussions of specific programs is a critical engagement with the broader media environment in which children grow up. The fact is that the overall message of the mainstream media remains one of compulsory heterosexuality and traditional gender roles. Definitions of beauty and normalcy largely draw from stereotyped notions of what it means to be male or female, attractive or unattractive. Even selfie apps now allow social-media-savvy users to "enhance" their image — typically by making themselves appear thinner. Some such "beautifying" apps have been charged with racism for turning users into lighter-skinned versions of themselves.
There are certainly exceptions to this rule, and efforts to produce media aimed at diversifying representations and offering different paths of identification do exist. Commercial imperatives, however, limit how far such efforts can go. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that relatively progressive messages about gender and sexuality found in teen literature are significantly toned down in the books' Hollywood film adaptations. Even shows celebrated for addressing teens’ struggles with sexuality, race, and relationships (Glee comes to mind) rarely successfully engage with the structural nature of heteronormativity, racism, or sexism. The media’s often contradictory messages about gender and sexuality are particularly difficult for young adults to negotiate — especially if they are members of the LGBTQ community or of other minority groups.
The media, of course, are not the only culprit here, as a walk through the department store during Prom season will quickly demonstrate. Furthermore, in our highly media-saturated cultural environment it is simply unrealistic to think that we can "protect" our children from exposure to these messages. A more productive approach is to use media portrayals of gender, sexuality, bullying — and, yes, even suicide — as an entry point into frank and careful discussions about these issues. Crucially, these discussions cannot be left to parents alone to have with their teens in the privacy of their homes. They must take place at school and in our communities under the guidance of health professionals. A number of media literacy education resources are available online to help. Finally, we must help teens harness the power of the (social) media to tell their own stories, create their own support networks, and ultimately shape the mainstream media's narrative.
Fabienne Darling-Wolf is Associate Professor of Journalism and Director of the Media and Communication Doctoral Program in the Klein College of Communication. She frequently teaches courses on media representations of gender, race, class and sexuality.