"Stewing In My Own Sour Air": Sylvia Plath, '13 Reasons Why', And The Optic Pornography Of Depression(TM)
With the huge public response of Netflix's 13 Reason's Why, I've started to think about a new lens of literary criticism: Public Health Criticism.
I'm drawn to art that makes me uncomfortable. I enjoy political art; I enjoy queer art, and I enjoy art that I don't quite fully understand. So when 13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix, I was initially on the defense.
For those who were under a rock, 13 Reasons Why, is a 2017 Netflix television series based on the book Thirteen Reasons Why published in 2007 and written by Jay Asher.
I have not read this book nor seen this series so here's a synopsis of the Netflix series from Wikipedia:
"Teenager Clay Jensen returns home from school one day to find a mysterious box lying on his porch. Inside, he discovers seven double-sided cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, his classmate and unrequited love, who tragically took her own life two weeks earlier.
"On the tapes, Hannah unfolds an emotional audio diary, detailing the thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Her instructions are clear: each person who receives the package is one of the reasons why she killed herself.
"After each person finishes listening to the tapes, they must pass the package on to the next person. If anyone breaks the chain, a separate set of tapes will be released to the public. Each tape is addressed to a select person in her school, and details their involvement in her eventual suicide."
Author Asher has gone on record saying that his intent for the book was to be a cautionary tale for boys about their actions. Essentially, consider your actions or people could die by suicide.
Despite this intent, the primary readership of the book during its initial release was girls and young women. While Asher was hoping boys would read the story, project themselves onto Clay, and pick up that message of "do no harm," instead you have a large number of adolescent girls reading this story, projecting themselves onto Hannah, and picking up on the message of "my suicide could be glorious."
I'm getting ahead of myself. The reader response of the book was actually quite positive. The book is nuanced and uses restraint.
Then Netflix picked up the plot.
The drama surrounding the Netflix series usually surrounds the fact that the show's creators actively ignored media guidelines for the reporting and portrayal of suicide.
Initially when I heard about this, I was on the defense of Netflix. The intent of the gratuity was to really get into how awful mental illness can be. And why are we to censor art? Art can be gritty; art can be real. Art doesn't need to follow your standards, and we do need to amplify the public discussion of mental health.
But then there were copycat suicides.
And then I realized that with shows from Degrassi to Glee, the only thing special about 13 Reasons Why is that they did it wrong.
I've come to resolution with this idea: Art should not be censored, but your edge-lord art can be a public health concern if you don't take a damn good look at your audience demographic.
If 13 Reasons Why was released as some NC-17 art house film, it'd only get half of my judgement. It would be less accessible, and less likely to do harm. It still gets half judgement because it still carries the name of the book, and with it, the audience that originally read that book.
I know the audience demographic data for my blog, and I have under 500 unique readers. The people producing the Netflix series were damn well aware of the demographic they were marketing to, and they decided not to care. They decided to go with a gritty, raw, pornographic depiction of suicide, and market it to people at an at-risk age.
And then there were copycat suicides.
What's extra problematic about 13 Reasons Why is that the suicide isn't something in the likes of Cyberbu//y where a teen attempts suicide after being pushed to the limits. No, the suicide in 13 Reasons Why is cold, calculated, methodical revenge suicide. Which is unfortunately an observed fantasy of many people with mental health issues.
Emily Osment, unable to get the cap off.
It is a very attractive 'go out with a bang' idea, so much that I worry mentioning it now is irresponsible.
Moving from an arguably 'low art' to an arguably 'high[er] art' with a similar issue, all this internet discussion about the Asher and Netflix's intent with their art, and the optical effect of the matter, got me starting to think about something one of my professors in college said about Sylvia Plath.
I've read a lot of Sylvia Plath, and I enjoy her works. I have her complete collection of poetry and prose, and I own a weirdly invasive collection of all her personal letters.
In my "Modernism and Beyond" course I took at Winona State University with Dr. Delta Eddy, she said something that really struck a note with me.
"I would never encourage anyone to read The Bell Jar. It just makes suicide seem so much of an -- okay choice." (quoted to the best of my year-old memory).
Sylvia Plath is often critically acclaimed for her works and the positive affect they've had on discussions about mental health issues. Her poetry and her articulate poetic prose detail mental health issues in a way that someone without experience can really feel.
"I was reading [The Bell Jar] outside under a tree and I swear it like, made the day get cloudier," I recall my classmate Sunny Wiswell saying, when we read The Bell Jar as part of a banned books unit in 11th grade AP Language and Composition.
For those who do not suffer from mental health issues, Plath's works may be a great teaching tool, but for those who do suffer, Plath's works inadvertently make the suffering of mental health, the concept of self-harm, and the idea of suicide, seem really fucking beautiful.
The artistry in which Plath writes makes depression pornographic.
And that's where I start to see a public health concern.
It's a Catch 22 of intent versus effect. Writing about mental health issues can be therapeutic for the writer, and can be educational for others, but the beautification can lead to the rationalization of death by suicide, and copycat suicides.
Now unless you want to go full philosophy of utilitarianism and measure the 'utils' gained by therapy and education, and contrast them with the 'utils' lost by the effects of suicide to the deceased and surrounding communities, the situation becomes something I really can't describe better than as a Catch 22. You want to encourage therapy and encourage education, discourage censorship and discourage myths of mental health, but at the same time you don't want young people - or anyone for that matter - dying by suicide.
And where the effects of the beautification of mental health problems doesn't stretch to the extent of death by suicide, it has left damaging effects on the social culture of the internet and its users offline. Most notably on the website Tumblr.
DepressionTM is a pejorative term used in internet communities to attack individuals who the attacker perceives as using mental health issues as an aesthetic.
Young, online, liberal communities, again most notably on Tumblr, have a very interesting power dynamic at play where, in rejecting privilege as inherently negative, a reverse power structure exists of who can claim the highest status of oppression. These communities value experience very highly, so belonging to multiple oppressed demographics can bring legitimacy to one's voice.
So you'll have many individuals who are perceived as using mental health issues as an aesthetic, rather than a 'legitimate problem' as deemed by an outside source.
The problem here is that mental health problems, specifically anxiety and depression, function on a spectrum, so it's not really possible to see if someone is "lying" or not. You can't just pull of someone's mask and say "Hah! You don't actually have depression!"
You'll see posts suggesting that, if you so much as rehearse your order at a restaurant before saying it out loud, that's anxiety. While that may be true for many people who suffer from an anxiety disorder, it's also a very common experience.
These posts boating themselves as self-help and self-diagnosis have lead to a situation where essentially everyone has self-diagnosed with an anxiety or depressive disorder. Which wouldn't normally be a problem, but the echo chamber is really toxic.
Self-care posts litter Tumblr, and the methods are hardly therapist approved and treat mental illness as a stagnant factor of identity that doesn't need to be actively worked on.
Like, one of the big purposes of mental health therapy and counseling is to get you to a place where you have all your executive functions in place, and the problem is no longer causing you to suffer on a regular basis. Yes there will be days where you may need to take a break from life, but that is not a refresher, not therapy.
I expect many to disagree with me, but the culture at play on Tumblr glamorizes mental health problems and encourages poor, at times disordered, behavior.
And I really don't have any solutions. The grittier and uglier and more disgusting you make mental health issues, the more attractive they become because suffering is cool now.
I'm definitely not saying this culture was directly caused by Sylvia Plath, though her quotes do litter pro-selfharm blogs all across Tumblr (that's a topic I'm not getting into).
As before, I really just wanted to talk about the weird Catch 22 of it all. You can have pain; you can have a disorder, and all of that is valid. You can write about it; you can make art about it; that can be your therapy.
I guess just please consider your audience?