During recent years, mental health has become a topic of interest. The television streaming network, Netflix caught wind of this trend and jumped right on the bandwagon; releasing several original series and movies in 2017 alone. Netflix kicked off March of 2017 with the controversial series, 13 Reasons Why, which centers on a high school student who commits suicide after suffering from bullying, rape, hidden depression, among other traumatic events in her life. The controversy arose due to the way the media portray mental illness. The topic of suicide in this specific series, the trigger warnings and the scenes themselves — although imperative to the discussion — led to critique and fear about what messages were being sent to viewers.
13 Reasons Why is believed, by many professionals, such as the NAS and Child & Adolescent Clinical Specialist, Jeremy Piepers, to be triggering and glorifying suicide, which contradicts the series’ initial purpose. After being advised by professionals to not show graphic scenes such as rape and Hannah’s suicide, the producers decided to still include this footage, justifying it as necessary for the conversation to continue. Similarly, the July 2017 Netflix Original film, To The Bone, follows the story of Ellen, a 20-year-old anorexic girl. Ellen is trying to recover, but struggles in doing so. This is due to her dysfunctional family, failed previous attempts, pessimistic thinking and an unconventional doctor.
To The Bone breakdown
Viewers learn that Ellen was hospitalized and “kicked out” of several facilities before landing in the hands of Dr. Beckham. He runs a facility, “Threshold” that works with young adults suffering from eating disorders. In this facility, there are six other patients suffering from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, among other eating disorders. The concept of the film, as intended by both the actress interpreting Ellen, Lily Collins, and the director Marti Noxon, is hypocritical. The film was supposed to showcase the harsh realities of an eating disorder; rather, it centered on triggering subjects, concepts and most importantly defeated its own message.
These triggers include sickly thin rib cages, spines and small arms, which are often used as a “thinspiration” of what other girls with the same or similar disorders want to look like once they lose their desired weight. Although the film’s intent was another, it continued to offer viewers “tips” anorexics use. Examples of this include: filling their clothes with quarters to add weight for weigh-ins, how to tell when you’re done purging “until the vomit comes back clear”, calorie counting and the character’s extensive and make-shift exercise tips . All patients in Dr. Beckham’s facility are allowed to eat whatever they please or eat nothing at all; this reinforces behaviors because there is essentially no discipline even though certain foods and activities gain the patient’s’ points for “treats”. The patients also refer to themselves as “rexies”, an ED community nickname that started on social media pages.
The viewers also see several instances where the character’s decisions to continue with the disorder impacts their lives, such as the miscarriage by one of the patients and the feeding tube another patient had in place. Luke, the only male patient, knew about Ellen or “Eli” as she later dubbed herself, through her Tumblr art. We later learn, this same art encouraged a girl to commit suicide months earlier and its profound effect on Eli. The doctor’s method of “tough love” also isn’t realistic because it implies that any person with an eating disorder must hit rock bottom alone. The lack of discussion about treatment also failed to give viewers understanding about why Anorexia, specifically is challenging to overcome.
Does it get the point across?
Ultimately, the message of harsh realities facing an eating disorder, the most fatal in mental disorders and its treatment which is complex and personal to every person is mixed. The film does a good job at showcasing the consequences and different thoughts an anorexic may face while trying to recover; however, the main points it tried to meet for these are blindsided by too many of these arguably unnecessary triggers, and lack of further education and discussion. The presentation of the film and the lack of further warnings and threats affected not only those on-screen, but also off. Lily Collins had to lose 20 pounds for this role and although she worked with specialists to make sure she didn’t relapse, it was a hazard to the actress’s health. By trying to prove the harsh effects of this disorder, she endangered her own recovery and continued to perpetrate stereotypes, such as seeking treatment only after becoming sickly thin and that only a certain body type has an eating disorder such as anorexia.
Confusions and Hypocrisy
At the end of the film, after escaping from the facility and running away to Phoenix where her mother lives, Ellen has a near death experience. She hallucinated herself on a tree with Luke who gives her a coal, a sort of incentive of recovery’s path. After waking up, Eli returns to the facility where she aims to TRULY recover.
Although this film and the series, 13 Reasons Why aim to bring awareness on these important mental health issues, they also perpetrate negative stereotypes. The film and series did open up a much-needed dialogue among young adults and professionals who work with them. However, much work needs to be done on improving media portrayals, education and resources. In the film, there was no mention of resources one could use to recover from an eating disorder or any mental health facility, frankly. The series, on the other hand, has more time to mention the warnings and resources, and therefore does make them known to the audience, which is a step in the right direction.
Society is trying to become well-informed, but we still have a long way to go. The film itself was interesting because of the concept of an anorexic finding the will to recover, but ultimately did miss many important points that could have made it a phenomenal teaching tool. So, to the people at Netflix, nice effort, but before you delve into more series about mental health issues, you need to take a minute to respond to some of these critiques. If not, these dangerous stereotypes will continue to perpetuate, and we all know how that goes…
Video Courtesy of Netflix
(Photo courtesy Gary Knight via Flickr by CC 2.0 http://theladiesfinger.com/family-mental-health/)