The Virgin Suicides and Mass Media Representations of Mental Illness

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The Virgin Suicides aims to satirize societies obsession with sensationalized stories about suicide, and the blasé nature with which the homemakers of suburbia comment on those who suffer from mental illness. One of the most obvious themes that the film explores is the romanticizing and fetishizing of young women who live with depression and mental illness. From very early on in the film it is suggested by our narrator, the voice of the collective consciousness of a group of adolescent boys who lived in the same neighborhood as the Lisbon girls, that the femininity and allure that struck these boys so profoundly that they still fantasize about the girls years after their death was actually heightened by the mystery surrounding their suicides. The film seems to suggest that the fact that the sisters entered into a suicide pact and ended their lives without leaving any explanation is what made them so insatiable to the boys when they became men, the allure of the unknown darkness that lay beneath their pure and virginal masks. According to Schneider (2003), some of the stereotypical depictions of people with mental illness include the following: rebellious free spirit; violent seductress and the helpless and depressed female. [1] Whether it was Coppola’s intention to create characters in the Lisbon girls that could easily be viewed as these one-dimensional stereotypes (Lux as the ‘rebellious free spirit’ and all of the Lisbon girls falling under the category of ‘helpless and depressed females’) for the purpose of satire, or because she has actually failed to recognize and resist portraying these negative stereotypes is relatively unimportant, the problem is that they are present and they are being perpetuated even in a film that claims to satirize the very machine that it accidentally becomes a part of. Through its lack of clarity in describing the mental states of five teenage girls that take their own lives, reducing them merely to unattainable beauties that inexplicably kill themselves after being oppressed by their religious mother, Coppola is supporting the stereotype of those who suffer with mental illness as being helpless, unable to control their lives and dictated by the will of others.

There is a consistent sense of alienation surrounding the Lisbon girls throughout the film, never allowing us a glimpse into their subjective perspectives and therefore restricting us in our understanding of what it is like to suffer from mental illness, forcing us to assume the perspectives of the characters in film that view the girls lives from the outside. Coppola’s decision to place the audience in the position of the general public and mere acquantances of the girls is a significant one. It is effective in one sense in highlighting the genuine lack of information that the mass media possesses in cases such as the Lisbon girls suicides, the straws that the media and society have to clutch at in their desperate attempt to make sense of suicide despite their obvious insensitivity to the actual intricacies of the mental turmoil that would bring a person to take their own life. However, this ambiguity presents some serious issues in the films representation of people living with mental illness. Representing people with mental illness in this one-dimensional light, without establishing their characters in terms that stretch beyond their relationships with mental illness, supports a depiction of such individuals as almost subhuman. [2] Coppola never directly depicts the emotional struggles that the Lisbon girls face, apart from the surface issue of having very strict parents. Perhaps Coppola expects a certain level of intelligence from her viewers, hoping that they will infer the inner turmoil that the girls are facing through what little information we are given about the sisters, however the unfortunate truth is that a broad percentage of her audience probably do not possess this emotional intelligence and instead leave the film without a clear understanding of why the girls killed themselves, what mental state they were in or illness they suffered from, and tragically infer their own broadly incorrect judgments on those with mental illness through this ambiguity. By depicting mental illness as something that resists clear meaning it renders it incomprehensible, unpredictable and unstable, perpetuating the myth that those who suffer from mental health issues will also possess these traits.

Despite some of the aforementioned complications in Coppola’s representation of mental illness in the film she does present a wonderfully nuanced and impactful satire of the toxic society that surrounded the Lisbon girls. This is represented in the omnipotent metaphor of the ‘virus’ that slowly spreads through their suburban neighborhood shortly after the youngest Lisbon sister Cecilia’s suicide, infecting the trees that line the seemingly perfect American street. This is a perfect metaphor for the reactions that the young girls suicide caused within the community, that ranged from the seemingly kindly priest assuring Mrs. Lisbon that he has done her the favor of ‘listing Cecilia’s death as an accident’, to the neighbors gathering outside the Lisbon house with refreshments to watch them pull up the fence Cecilia jumped onto with the morbid fascination of a child poking at a dead animal. The neighbors of the Lisbon’s small suburban community look on over their picket fences speculating about whether or not the mother should blame herself, or what kind of person Cecilia would have grown up to be based on assumptions made about her regarding her suicide. Even the teenage boys who gather regularly to eulogize Cecilia (and later the rest of the Lisbon girls) engage in a sort of perverse pop psychology analysis of Cecilia’s mental state as they leaf through her journal, which they seem to treat as a sort of iconic talisman in their cult of Lisbon sister worship.

This invasion of privacy, even in death, represents the medias complete lack of respect in their prying infringement upon the private details of an individual’s life after suicide. A recent example of such infringement on personal information following the death of someone who suffered from mental illness is in the case of Robin Williams. Immediately following the actors death headlines were published in newspapers such as The Daily News stating such personal details as ‘His wife slept alone in another room’ and ‘He had just left a 12-step program’. [3] Such gross violations of private information and speculation simply do not surface in news stories about mentally healthy people that die in accidents or of natural causes, we sadly live in a society in which suffering from a mental illness or committing suicide apparently gives the media carte blanche to comment on the life a person led and the personal details that may, or may not, have led to their death.

The metaphor of the toxic virus sweeping the community culminates in one of the final scenes of the film, which takes place at a debutante party some time after the Lisbon suicides. The community has become so utterly intoxicated by the virus, a metaphor for how obsessively and salaciously the society had come to think about and meditate on the girls’ suicides, that its inhabitants actually have to wear gas masks to escape the foul stench that lingers in the air. Amidst this harsh and effective imagery portraying the toxicity of the public’s speculation about mental health and suicide following the Lisbon suicides, comes a poignant line of dialogue from a drunken adult partygoer. As the man drunkenly jumps into a swimming pool in the garden of this upper middle class suburban house, imitating a suicide attempt, he shouts jeeringly ‘you don’t understand! I’m a teenager, I’ve got problems!’ to the tittering amusement of bystanders. This is a damning commentary on the popular myth that teens with mental illnesses are just going through a ‘phase’, as though depression comes with the territory of adolescence and is therefore less necessary to treat as a serious issue or seek help for, another tragic trope of the medias misrepresentation of teenage suicide that The Virgin Suicides attempts to condemn.

While Coppola’s film offers some hard hitting and effective comments on the media circus that surrounds suicide, and societies misjudged interpretations of mental illness I feel that it panders to just enough negative stereotypes to fall short of being a completely accurate and positively effecting piece of cinema dealing with the subject of mental health. It’s pitfalls lie in its depreciation for the importance of the specific emotional journeys of each of the sisters, its romanticizing of females dealing with depression and also, on a less broadly discussed note, its effeminizing of depression and reduced depiction of teenage boys as being mindlessly fanatical about the mystique that surrounds mentally ill women. This is something that particularly struck me about the film in light of recent studies conducted at Stanford University in 2013 that showed ‘the rate of suicide among men (as being) almost three times that of women.’ [4] The film also suggests that suicide can be a valid option of escape for those who feel too overpowered and oppressed to escape their mental or physical entrapment, which is another damaging idea to portray through any form of media, especially a film that targets a captivated adolescent audience. For these reasons the film does not entirely fulfill its goal to satirize the medias portrayal of mental illness, as it tragically falls into some of the traps of misrepresentation that it aims to satirize.

References:

[1] Schneider, K. G. (2003). Stereotypes of mental illness as portrayed through Hollywood movies. Durham: Duke University. Retrieved on 5/12/14 from: http://www.duke.edu/~klw/

[2] Roth Edney, Dara. (2004). Mass Media and Mental Illness: A Literature Review. Ontario: Canadian Mental Health Association. Retrieved on 5/12/14 from: http://ontario.cmha.ca/files/2012/07/mass_media.pdf

[3] Stableford, Dylan. (2014). Media Coverage of Robin Williams Death Scrutinized. USA: Yahoo News. Retrieved on 5/12/14 from: http://news.yahoo.com/robin-williams- death-media-coverage-225459533.html

[4] Nauert, Rick. (2013). Men’s Suicide Rate is 3 Times That of Women. Psych Central. Retrieved on 5/12/14 from: http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/06/11/mens-suicide-rate-is-3-times-that-of- women/55897.html

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