Originally published on Creators.co on July 3rd, 2017
Warning: Contains spoilers for Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why
In the entertainment world, there has been a lot of talk surrounding the word “romanticize,” largely spurred by two Netflix properties in particular: 13 Reasons Why and the upcoming movie To The Bone. A lot of the controversy around the former is the accusation that it romanticizes the topic of suicide —13 Reasons Why is about a girl named Hannah Baker who commits suicide and leaves behind tapes explaining why she did it. This was a critically acclaimed series but was attacked by many mental health experts, teachers, and parents for romanticizing suicide.
On the other hand, the most recent trailer for Netflix’s upcoming movie To The Bone features a story of a girl struggling with anorexia. The trailer has been blasted with many saying there should be better “trigger” warnings and that it romanticizes the eating disorder. The 13 Reasons debate got spurred up once again after two families endured a horrific tragedy where two young teenage girls committed suicide. The series was partly blamed for their suicide.
This article is not written in response to whether or not 13 Reasons Why was the cause of it, but rather a discussion. A discussion of whether or not 13 Reasons and To The Bone “romanticizes” their topic or (another term used often) “glamorizes” the topic of suicide. The two words are thrown around a lot, but let’s look at the words.
Oxford dictionary defines the word romanticize as, “deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is”. Oxford also defines glamorize as, “make (something) seem glamorous or desirable, especially spuriously so.”
With these definitions, we have to think for a moment and ask ourselves if these two definitions honestly represent 13 Reasons Why? Also, we have to ask what are some film examples that romanticize something or glamorize something?
Movies That Romanticize And Glamorize
We’ll take a look at the second question before we tackle the larger one. What are some film examples that romanticize? The easy go-to answer is Martin Scorcese Goodfellas. The movie is very fast paced and glamorized what it was like to be a small time “wise guy” gangster. This point of view is appropriate because the movie is told from a first-person perspective, so we’re seeing the lifestyle through his eyes (his meaning Henry Hill played by Ray Liotta). The violence is graphic, but there is an air of desensitization to it. It makes the mob lifestyle look appealing. You could argue that Wolf of Wall Street does the same thing for the Wall Street lifestyle. Pirates of the Caribbean makes it look adventurous and exciting to be a pirate. The British government and companies are the bad guys in those movies while pirates are seen as heroes. This film series romanticizes the pirates and glamorizes them. In real life, Pirates would kill, rape, and plunder. You might say “yeah, but that’s a fantasy film”. True, but that doesn’t change that the series is a romanticized view of pirates. Braveheart romanticizes William Wallace by making his a heroic and honorable hero that fought against oppression. Real life research would indicate the real William Wallace wasn’t the same type of valiant hero that Mel Gibson played. John Wick to an extent makes being an assassin glamorous with the highly stylized images and exciting action sequences.
These are examples of romanticizing works in film. These movies make a certain lifestyle look appealing. The romanticizing doesn’t make or break these movies, they are a part of the fabric of their tone. I am not saying it is a negative that these films romanticize their subject matter; it works for certain films, and I wouldn’t change anything about the ones I’ve listed.
Does 13 Reasons Romanticize Or Glamorize?
Let’s compare this to other films that are romanticized. Goodfellas had an often upbeat and kinetic tone, and had many scenes where the characters are enjoying every moment of it. 13 Reasons is slow, heavy, and told from the perspectives of people who don’t want to be in the situation they are in. Clayton wants to move on, and Hannah didn’t want to feel like she did. Hannah isn’t really portrayed as a hero in the show, she may be the protagonist but she doesn’t do anything that would be defined as heroic. Clayton does some good things, but he is morally grey and compromised like the kids around him. He isn’t some honorable or valiant hero. 13 Reasons doesn’t have exciting action sequences like John Wick or a highly stylized imagery that would make viewers go “wow that’s cool”.
When compared to films that do romanticize their subject matter, 13 Reasons really doesn’t resemble the same thing. But let’s look at the actual subject matter of the suicide. In episode 13, the show portrays Hannah Baker’s suicide on screen. The scene is graphic and the camera never pulls away as Hannah cuts deep into her wrists. She is clearly in pain as the blood comes out of her. She dies in the bathtub. The next thing the viewers see in this scene in the grisly aftermath of her parents finding their daughter in a blood-soaked bath. The mother reacts in utter shock as she holds her now deceased daughter after walking in the bloody water, and the father yells in pain as he runs down the hall to call an ambulance.
If anything I just described sounds remotely romanticizing or glamorizing, then I’m not sure what won’t sound romanticizing or glamorizing to you. The suicide scene is graphic, upsetting, and hard to watch (as it should be).
Contrast that description with a description from John Wick: Chapter 2. Wick comes under attack from several assassins and violently kills them with a mere pencil.
Now I ask, which description sound glamorized and which one doesn’t? Which one sounds fun to watch and which one doesn’t?
Because it is not yet released, To The Bone remains to be seen what it will do with its subject matter. While the trailer seemed upbeat, it doesn’t look like it is encouraging people to not eat.
I think we have gotten to the point where the words romanticize and glamorize are thrown around so much that we’ve forgotten the meaning a bit. When compared to movies that actually do romanticize their subject matter, the claim that 13 Reasons does the same thing doesn’t hold up. It seems the messaging of the show is really anti-suicide and a place to start a conversation. The writer of the show has spoken extensively about the approach they took with the show to not glamorize it. If you want to argue that watching a show like this can be “triggering” for someone in a bad state of mental health, then that’s another discussion and topic entirely. Glamorize and “triggering” are not mutually exclusive to one another. I think it is important we have a conversation surrounding 13 Reasons Why because it talks about a very important topic.
But, this is just my viewpoint. I would love to hear what everybody else thinks in the comment section. Do 13 Reasons and/or To The Bone resembled romanticizing or glamorizing its subject matter (based on the actual definition of the word)?