24 January 2016

Suicide in Popular Culture, the Media and Society: Sorrow and Hypocrisy

In the seven time Academy Award nominated picture and short story by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), there are two events of suicide. But it is the suicide of Brooks Hatlen, played by the late James Whitmore, which is most poignant here. After 49 years of imprisonment, Brooks is released from Shawshank State Prison in 1954. From the moment he leaves through the gates of Shawshank, the atmosphere is downcast and sorrowful due to the depressing overhanging non-diegetic soundtrack. Brooks takes a gloomy bus journey out of Shawshank and to a halfway house provided by the rehabilitation program. He begins working in a convenience store, bagging groceries. Brooks’ heartfelt narration makes the audience feel extremely sorry for the ex-crook. The voiceover is Brooks reading aloud his letter to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman). Brooks speaks of his lonely existence on the ‘outside’ which is shown by his solitude in his apartment. He speaks of his inability to sleep at nights and says that he’s “tired of being afraid all the time.” At this point, the audience is hopeful that they are wrong of their prediction that Brooks will commit. However, after carving ‘BROOKS WAS HERE’ into the wooden beam, he topples the table and hangs himself from the same wooden joist.

What this scene and also Red’s release later on in the story shows, is that a lifetime in prison leads to institutionalisation and the rehabilitation, if not done properly, can lead to, in Brooks’ case, suicide. The audience feels great heartache from Brooks’ death and society’s views are, similarly to Romeo & Juliet and Robin Williams, forgotten. Not only is this due to his likeable character but it’s also because Brooks hasn't a family or anyone that would miss him. His only friends are in Shawshank and therefore are merely pen pals. As he narrates himself whilst climbing onto the table: “I doubt they’ll kick-up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.” Society’s obvious hypocrisy is shown here when we seem to choose which suicides we feel sorry for and which we brand as selfish. In Brooks’ case, he leaves nobody heartbroken by self-destructing and his pain of loneliness and depression is clear. Therefore, the audience chooses to alter society’s beliefs for the loss of Brooks. 

In contrast to Brooks’ death, the other suicide in The Shawshank Redemption of Warden Norton, played by Bob Gunton, is seen completely differently. Norton is on the verge of arrest when he loads a revolver at his desk and fires a bullet through his head. The atmosphere is altogether different with no downbeat soundtrack and no build up of sorrow. All that can be heard is the diegetic background noise of the police trying to gain an entry to Norton’s office. After Norton commits suicide, the audience doesn't feel sorry but nor do they take society’s view. Instead, the feeling is one of mundane acceptance. Norton is the antagonist of the story. Therefore, we do not feel sorry for the villain’s death. But, we don’t necessarily feel joyful over it either. In any story, when the villain dies, we should feel joyful. It means the protagonist has won and they all live happily ever after. However, here, we don’t feel that. For Norton’s death we feel nothing. Not sadness and not happiness. Just acceptance. This, like Brooks’ suicide, goes against society’s opinion of suicide. We don’t label him as selfish or cowardly because we don’t like him in the first place to hold any anger towards him.  The only reason society labels suicide as a selfish act is because losing the ones we love naturally hurts us and that grief is projected as anger. Since we do not like Norton, we don’t feel angry about his death and simply accept it as part of the film. The two suicides happen for totally different reasons and our emotional reactions are completely different too. However, the contrast isn't that vast when you look at how society decides to forget its conservative stance on the subject. Neither death is seen as selfish and neither man receives anger from the audience. Although Norton’s death isn’t meant to be a sad occasion and Brooks’ is, neither is awarded with the disgust that society holds deeply for the act of self-destruction. 

When Hollywood’s greatest feminist icons, Thelma and Louise, drove off the Grand Canyon to meet their inevitable end, we witness one of the most epic and most important acts of self-slaughter in cultural history. The heroins are backed into a metaphoric corner by dozens of cops with the drop of the canyon behind. Instead of spending the rest of their lives in jail, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon choose to end it all by driving over the canyon. Thelma & Louise (1991) in many respects is a social statement of nonconformity and rebellion. The pair’s decision to kill themselves is far more than just evading the police and not wanting to do time. It’s the overriding theme for the entire movie. It screams revolt and disobedience within the chains of late 20th century society. With their heroic deaths at the end of the movie, they make one final statement of nonconformity. As an audience, we do not hate these feminist anti-heroes. Instead, we admire their difference and mutiny. The constraints of society don't allow us to be different and hold our own personal identities. Instead we have to follow the same moral code in order to fit in or achieve anything. Thelma and Louise show us that it is possible to be different but to do so, one has to rebel. We admire the heroins even past their deaths as we can but dream to be as rebellious as them. Society accepts that they had no choice. Society, put in that position, would do the same thing. The hypocrisy is clear but forgotten. Suicide is too often seen as never the right option but here, Thelma and Louise have little choice, as to them, time in prison would mean time conforming and it is this that they have ultimately been running from their entire lives.

When an audience forgets society’s view on suicide, it is usually because the self-destructed is loved and the situation is extraordinary. In February 2015, a 21-year-old American by the name of Dylan Andrew Schopp committed suicide. His death was unexpected as he was seen as ‘charming, loving, energetic, adventurous and outgoing, but most importantly, Dylan was the life of the party.’ These are the words of Dylan’s loving family.4 After his death, his friends and family set-up the ‘Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation’ in memory of him and to raise awareness of suicide prevention. Dylan’s family didn't know what he was going through. He acted as if everything was fine and as if he was completely happy in life. This is something that happens far too often and the foundation set-up in memory of Dylan, aims to prevent tragedies like this from happening. In July 2015, the American singer and rapper Jake Miller released his ‘Rumours’ EP with the fifth track dedicated to his close friend Dylan. The song, entitled ‘Sunshine’, declares his admiration for Dylan’s short life and is ultimately a tribute to his friend. The music video accompanying the song, shows a montage of home videos of Dylan with the repetition of the phrase ‘fallen angel’ in the lyrics of the song. Together, the lyrics and video are a fitting tribute to his friend.

The release of ‘Sunshine’ brought suicide under the spotlight for a cult of young women. Jake Miller’s fanbase consists predominately of young women who treat the singer as an idol. Miller’s dedication to his friend Dylan, showed his fanbase a new perspective on suicide that they probably hadn't seen before. Moreover, the use of the ‘Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation’ made suicide awareness a key issue for Miller’s fanbase. The reaction to the video and moreover, to the dedication to Dylan, was far from society’s view. As of October 19th 2015, the official music video for ‘Sunshine’ on Jake Miller’s YouTube channel had 18,193 likes and only 90 dislikes.5 What’s even more heartfelt are the comments with not a negative one in sight and this was from a total of 430,244 views. The lack of negativity towards the video, song, Miller and the dedication to Dylan shows an enormous disregard for society’s view on suicide amongst the young and his fanbase.
Audiences and, society in general, forget the conservative and consensus when it pleases them. Although there is a consistent view about suicide within society, too often the view is forgotten due to the hypocrisy of the human race. For the most part, society truly explores its ability to become hypocritical whenever it suits itself. The hostility towards refugees is another clear example of society’s natural hypocritical ability. Although, in Britain, America and Australia, the majority of society is of migrant or refugee ancestry, modern-day equivalents are treated as unequal, second-class and crucially undeserving citizens by us; society. This two-faced nature of society goes hand-in-hand with the media and print media in-particular. The rightwing newspapers of Britain are perhaps, the most hypocritical forms of media in the world. Moreover, they control the psyche of British society more than any too. It’s extraordinary that in the era in which we live, with social media, blogs, 24-hour news and online news websites, that basic newspapers still tells society how and what to think. 

Within the median of film and television, the audience often becomes unattached from society and they become enclosed inside their own little bubble within movie theatres, living rooms and bedrooms. The craft of the writers, producers, directors and actors forces this to happen as they propel their own thoughts or the theme of the picture upon the audience. The change in view therefore, isn't necessarily due to the hypocrisy of human beings but rather the talent of the people involved within the moving picture.

4 The Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation http://www.dylansfoundation.org/#dyalns-story 
5 Jake Miller ‘Jake Miller - Sunshine (Official Music Video)’ 9th September 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zStRupcewgk 

Suicide In Society, The Media And Popular Culture


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