Let’s be frank: Crazy sells. Be it in books, shows, or movies, this age-old trope has carried lazy writers all the way to the bank, allowing for major payout with little creativity on their part. Netflix has definitely pieced together that formula; after the release of 13 Reasons Why and To the Bone, Netflix managed to make mental illness trendy again. Although the creators may argue that their material is supposed to “generate conversation” and “bring light” to the serious issue that is mental health advocacy, a closer look into the works themselves quickly unravels that argument and reveals the creators’ ploy for what it is: a marketing scheme.
Netflix released the first season of 13 Reasons Why in March 2017, telling the story of Hannah Baker, a teenager who — “spoiler alert” — commits suicide before the show’s events, leaving behind a series of tapes singling out those who wronged her in a dramatic irony/Shakespearean tragedy-style takedown. At first glance, 13RW does its job; it showcases the horrible circumstances that led to Hannah’s decision and drills the adage “think before you speak” through the viewers’ heads. However, after further inspection, Hannah’s story is less of a call for camaraderie and more of the ultimate revenge fantasy. Throughout the duration of the season, not once does anyone present Hannah with feasible options for her (unmentioned) depression: her parents are oblivious, her teachers are useless, and her “friends” are problematic. The only viable solution presented is suicide: a light at the end of a tunnel, a way to get back at those who have wronged her. The real kicker here is that Hannah’s plan works; her tapes spark a chain reaction that sends her enemies either begging for forgiveness or spiraling downwards into fiery abandon. In 13RW, Hannah is judge, jury, and executioner.
The problem with this depiction is the implication it leaves behind for its audience. By not only discrediting all other options for Hannah, but also attributing the symptoms she faces to the failings of her classmates rather than the mental illness she’s clearly dealing with, 13RW glamorizes suicide, painting it as a surefire way of exacting the vigilante justice Hannah could never get in life. Although the creators of 13RW have argued that this wasn’t their intention at all, and that they only wanted to foster conversation on a serious debate, the content material quickly debunks that argument. The most glaring evidence of that is Hannah’s suicide scene; according to countless mental health experts, Hannah’s graphic, drawn-out suicide is the worst possible thing the creators could’ve done for sensitive viewers. Depictions of suicide that glamorize and sensationalize the action are proven time and time again to inspire copycat suicides, a phenomenon known as the “Werther effect.” One such copycat suicide is 23 year-old Franco Alonso Lazo Medrano, who, in the summer of 2017, committed suicide, leaving behind a series of tapes in an obvious nod to Hannah Baker and 13RW. 13RW’s insensitive portrayal tells its audience members, especially those suffering with suicidal ideation, that this is the best possible future for them. No matter how 13RW’s creators try to explain away their actions, it’s painfully obvious that their motives for putting in that scene were anything but altruistic.
Netflix’s newest endeavor in crazy media, To the Bone, released July 2017, is hardly an improvement from 13RW. To the Bone tells the story of Eli/Ellen and her struggle with anorexia. After going in and out of countless treatment centers to no avail, she finds herself under the care of an unconventional psychologist who teaches her that all she needs to cure her ailment is to choose life over her illness. The creators of To the Bone like to think that they’re not like those “other” filmmakers; Eli’s sardonic wit and the movie’s insistence on showcasing every horrible detail of the disease makes To the Bone a far cry from the stereotypical anorexia films, with their delicately wilting girls for main characters and their beautifully poetic metaphors for illnesses. Never mind the fact that To the Bone falls victim to the same tired cliché of the conventionally attractive white girl falling further and further into the seductive allure of disordered eating, only to be saved by the obligatory love interest and the quirky doctor who both teach her that all that she has to do is choose to get better. Curse words and grotesque imagery hardly make for a deep and insightful view into an illness that plagues more than 200,000 lives in the United States yearly.
The only thing that To the Bone serves as a view into is Western culture’s morbid obsession with eating disorders. The gratuitous shots that linger over Eli’s emaciated body and the almost sexual nature associated with food throughout the movie both do no favors for mental health advocacy; rather, they feed into the cultural narrative of eating disorders, anorexia in particular, as being a “pretty girl” disease. The disease isn’t treated with any sort of respect, but instead is presented as a mildly troublesome issue that can be easily rectified with enough willpower. Whenever Eli suffers with her symptoms, the fault always lies with Eli and her own failings. She isn’t getting better because she doesn’t want to get better, because she’s being too stubborn, too bullheaded for her own good. Not once is the argument ever raised that maybe Eli isn’t getting better because she is ill and receiving no treatment outside of the ignorant, “have-you-tried-just-eating” routine everyone around her obsesses over. By undermining the severity of Eli’s illness and depicting it in an almost sensual light, To the Bone only encourages its audience members already suffering from eating disorders to continue on their paths. They fall victim to one of two equally foreboding routes: either believing that their disease is something beautiful rather than something treacherous, or believing that their struggle speaks to their personal failings rather than to their valiant efforts.
Now, this isn’t to say that no media should be made about mental illness; in fact, the general cultural consciousness could benefit from well-constructed media about the struggles that come with facing mental illnesses. What the general cultural consciousness would not benefit from is even more narratives that beat the same tired, old tropes that do nothing but disrespect and damage the mentally ill community. When Netflix depicts nothing but toxic behaviors and mindsets, the creators cannot turn around and claim that they are taking strides in mental health advocacy. When Netflix blatantly falls back on sensationalism in place of real storytelling, the creators cannot turn around and pretend that their efforts were done in anything but the name of money.