Thursday, May 15, 2008

Some General Thoughts on the Portrayal of Suicide

I'm at a local coffee shop that has free WiFi as the Internet at home continues to not work. As you can see, I'm trying to catch up a lot on blogging, so I apologize for the sudden abundance in long posts, but I hope people will take the time to at least skim them when they get a chance.

I've been struggling a bit to come up with some overarching themes as I read and watch all of this. Many thanks to Isaiah who serves as my sounding board. The thoughts are there, they just need some provoking to get out of my muddled brain.

One of the things that I have been finding in looking at how suicide is seen in lit and film is a discrepancy between time periods.

The 1800s saw a burst in feminist suicides with the publication of Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina (among others, I am sure, that I have not read). The lead characters in these novels are repressed women in search of passion outside of their marriages, who come to realize that they cannot have what they want within the confines of their society and kill themselves as a result. (I think Thelma and Louise might fit in well with this group of women.) The way suicide is written about is distinctly different from contemporary portrayals, and The Sorrows of Young Werther is somewhat in line with these older texts. Issues of sex, child birth, and suicide are brought up, but they are not dealt with the in the confrontational or sensationalized way that modern books and films often tackle them. There is more symbolism and implying of these issues. They might take place in a sentence or a paragraph, alluded to, or mentioned specifically but without all the gory details. Modern depictions of suicide are often more up front. Blood and guts are already prevalent in violent films and video games, so I think people are less shocked when movies like The Suicide Club show 50 girls jumping in front of a train and blood flying everywhere, or people slitting their wrists and stabbing themselves like in 2:37 and Wristcutters. I don't know how much good the gore does, but I could see it as a potential deterrent when suicides are shown to be painful and ugly rather than over in a flash with symbols of the freedom of the ocean and its peacefulness thrown in for artistic effect.

In general, I'm a proponent of the depiction of these issues in movies and literature, so long as they are not romanticized, because I think it does good to get the taboo out there. People inherently feel alone in their problems. And I believe they will feel only more so if they cannot see any others struggling with similar issues. When they can see characters with whom they identify and realize that they are not so alone, their struggles are not so unique, they might be more inclined to seek help and talk about what it bothering them. Dissemination and outreach are incredibly important for educational purposes, but I think also for social purposes within limits. Obviously, I do not approve of sites where anorexics and cutters congregate to talk about their methods of hurting themselves. But I do think that the reverse can be very useful: people talking to or reading about others who have had similar issues and found a way to get past them, or who did not but realized in the end that all their strife could have been resolved if they reached out.

The Internet, film, and books can hold both positive and negative messages. I have been pleasantly surprised, though, by how limited the romanticized, glorified depictions of suicide I found were. I expected considerably more of that. Most of the things I have come across, though, have portrayed the struggle of both life and death, the ambivalence that comes with suicide, and the reality of multiple alternative solutions that existed even if those who killed themselves were blind to them. The more I read and watch, the less skeptical I become, and the more thankful for the writers and directors willing to take on this issue despite a societal pressure to sweep it under the rug.

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