Kurtz: A Pop Culture Blind Spot

Popular media fails to account for LGBTQ narratives.

by Devon Kurtz | 4/25/17 12:24am

I noticed something strange earlier this week: most of my Twitter feed was about something other than President Donald Trump’s tweets. Some TV show called “13 Reasons Why” had supplanted the president’s Twitter account — which had led on the site for as long as I can remember — almost overnight. I was intrigued.

Following the release of “13 Reasons Why” on Netflix, there seemed to be a spike, at least on social media, in conversations about high school bullying, mental health and suicide. Most would agree that these are critical topics for discussion, and many people would also applaud “13 Reasons Why” for raising these issues in a public and far-reaching manner. While there is growing debate about whether or not the show romanticizes suicide, there is a lack of conversation about how suicide affects LGBTQ teenagers. LGBTQ teens are some of the most at-risk for depression, bullying and suicide amongst teenagers, yet their struggles are rarely portrayed as a main focus in books, movies and TV shows about youth depression and suicide.

I do not wish to undermine or dismiss anyone’s experiences — personal or otherwise — with suicide. Rather, I believe that popular media fails to portray the issue of youth suicide and depression accurately, as their narratives are not as “typical” as one would believe after seeing or reading them. The Center for Disease Control reported in its Youth Risk Behavior Survey that while 19 percent of heterosexual students reported being bullied, 34 percent of LGB students were bullied. Among heterosexual students, 5.4 percent reported being sexually assaulted, while 17.8 percent of LGB students reported being sexually assaulted. Of non-LGB identifying students, 21.7 percent were involved in a physical fight, compared to 28.4 percent of LGB students. LGB students were also twice as likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and twice as likely to be seriously injured in a fight. Amongst non-LGB identifying students, 26.4 percent reported experiencing feelings of extended sadness or hopelessness, while 60.4 percent of LGB students reported the same. Finally, 6.4 percent of non-LGB identifying students in grades nine to 12 attempted suicide in 2013, while 29.4 percent of LGB identifying students in the same cohort attempted suicide. The CDC does not offer any data on transgender and gender non-conforming students, but other studies have found they are at a similar elevated risk relative to their straight peers.

Consider the most popular and acclaimed films and books about teen suicide and depression. (There are only few TV shows that have this theme as their main plot, but shows like “90210” follow the same pattern when they do interact with the issue of suicide.) “The Virgin Suicides” is based off of the book of the same name and involves a group of sisters that struggle with overbearing parents and inaccessibility to boys. “Cyberbully” is about a girl who is labeled a slut for her sexual encounters with a classmate. “Girl, Interrupted” is based off of the book of the same name and is the story of an 18-year-old girl who is in a mental hospital after an intentional drug overdose. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” follows the love story of a boy and a girl in a mental ward. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is based off of the book of the same name and tells the story of a depressed teenage boy who eventually falls in love with his closest female friend and learns that he was molested by his aunt as a child. In the last two decades, only one film that could be considered a part of “popular media” had a plot focused on an LGBTQ teen struggling with depression and committing suicide: the 2011 Polish film “The Suicide Room.” 

Popular media excludes narratives about LGBTQ teenagers struggling with homophobia, bullying, depression and suicide. There is an ignorance of the stories of my community. Other stories get Hollywood backing while we are lucky if we get the backing of our parents. Hollywood, authors and anyone else who has vowed to tackle the issue of “youth suicide” through their work but proceeded to ignore the disproportionate amount of struggling LGBTQ teens who are at the highest risk for suicide and depression are denying the reality of the issue.

Despite the staggering disparity between straight and LGBTQ teenagers, we still remain in the backgrounds of the movies about a heterosexual teenager struggling with drugs, family issues, their heterosexual partners and bullying, acting as a plot point when we steal an unwanted kiss from the protagonist, as in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “13 Reasons Why.” 

After reading all of those statistics and recognizing the ignorance of popular media, my question is this: when will my community be deemed significant enough to be viewed as more than just statistics? When will we have our heartbreaking stories shared in the public sphere? When will we be humanized beyond these statistics? With the continued production of TV shows like “13 Reasons Why,” it seems like that won’t be anytime soon.

Kurtz is a member of the Class of 2020. He has written and edited for The Dartmouth Review and is a member of the Dartmouth Alliance, a LGBTQIA+ pre-professional organization.

The Dartmouth welcomes guest columns. We request that guest columns be the original work of the submitter.

Submissions may be sent to both opinion@thedartmouth.com and editor@thedartmouth.com. Submissions will receive a response within three business days.