Photos: CC, Netflix.
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Netflix shows need to stop acting as mental health advocates

By now, most of us have heard of the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel.

The series depicts the story of Hannah Baker, a young woman who takes her life and leaves 13 audio cassette tapes behind. Each of these tapes are addressed to a person she knows, explaining why she blames them for her death. From the start, the series has been the subject of accusations that it romanticizes and glamorizes suicide.

In a similar vein, Netflix’s newest show, Insatiable, received criticism for fat-shaming its main character, Patty Bladell, an overweight teen turned skinny pageant girl, and sometimes murderer.

Insatiable has received intense backlash, with over 200,000 signatures on an online petition to cancel the show. Actress Alyssa Milano, claimed in a tweet that the creators were “addressing (through comedy) the damage that occurs from fat shaming.”  Writer and director Lauren Gussis, best known for her work on Dexter, also tweeted about the show, asking viewers to give it a chance, calling it “a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe the outsides are more important.”

The reason these shows stand out as problematic is not because they are the first of their kind to touch on these social issues. Movies like The Virgin Suicides, and Heathers, have similar themes, and even a feel-good sitcom like Friends isn’t absolved from fat-shaming. It’s the fact that Insatiable and 13 Reasons Why champion themselves as advocates for mental health awareness, and body positivity.

Insatiable admittedly has some redeeming qualities; it is funny, it is bold, and it also has a lot of positive conversation about LGBTQ+ issues. But that still doesn’t make it okay to put Debby Ryan in a fat suit, and depict her character’s weight loss as an accident from having her jaw wired shut.

Netflix producers claim that they are facilitating conversation on these topics, rather than promoting the graphic actions they portray. “From the beginning, because the series broaches uncomfortable topics, we believed it had the potential to be a powerful agent for change,” stated Brian Wright, the vice-president of 13 Reasons Why in March of this year. “We saw global conversation explode on the controversial topics covered by the series and understood we had a responsibility to support these important discussions.”

However, studies have suggested that after graphic depiction of suicide, suicide rates go up due to suicide contagion. The demographic for this show, mainly teenagers, are able to relate with the televised portrayals of their adolescence, which makes it all the more dangerous when graphic scenes of rape and suicide are shown. There have also been a number of alleged “copy-cat suicides” closely linked to the show.

If the most they were hoping for in creating these shows was a good story, then the creators of 13 Reasons Why and Insatiable should not feel a need to make them something they’re not: TV trailblazers that facilitate important conversation around mental health. Both shows attempt to fill a need in Hollywood for honest conversation surrounding mental illness, but both fail in recognizing that satire or dramatic effect don’t lend themselves to the naturalistic, effective or accurate presentation that these issues require.  

Conversations about suicide, mental health, and eating disorders are crucial to tearing down stigma surrounding these issues, which is often the reason why people in need don’t reach out. However, these conversations should be facilitated by experts, not Hollywood producers acting as them.