An analysis of 855 movies from between 1950 and 2006 has suggested that frequency of portrayals of violent suicide have tripled in that period. At the same time, the rate of teen suicide has also tripled.
And what’s more, researchers of the Annenberg Public Policy Center are claiming that the violent suicide falls on the young side of the PG-13 vs. R-rated line, with “highly explicit suicide” appearing “at about the same level (~13%) in PG-13 and R-rated films since the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating.”
You can see where they’re going with this, I expect.
Now, the Annenberg Public Policy Center are also the folks behind the FactCheck.Org site which is often accused of leftist bias. Do we see the same in their suicide findings? I’m not sure I see that leftist bias anywhere – indeed, I understand that the Center’s founder, Walter Annenberg, was a republican, and the man who sold Seventeen, TV Guide and The Racing Form to Rupert Murdoch. I’d need a little something solid to start thinking he was too liberal.
Though I’m not saying I see a bias to the right either. I just see bits of a puzzle and no final picture.
But I’m definitely not going to leap to a conclusion that an increase in the explicit portrayal of suicide in cinema necessarily has any kind of causative effect, no matter how in-step it seems to be with an increase in real-world American teen suicide. Indeed, there’s no reason to assume the flow isn’t going in the other direction, with cinema reacting to actuality.
You know – like it does. All the time. Indeed, the swing is in that direction an overwhelming majority of the time, art imitating life being the norm and not even needing a little memorable phrase of its own, like its vice versa.
The suicide study’s lead author, Patrick E. Jamieson, does say that “we cannot establish a causal connection here” but goes on to imply one anyway, and then make a judgment on the basis of one he couldn’t establish in the first place:
It is interesting to note that the tripling of U.S. teen suicide since1960 coincided with this increase in movie suicide portrayal. We know as well that exposure to movie-portrayed suicide correlates with thinking that one cannot get effective treatment for mental health problems. There is something seriously wrong with a movie ratings system that attaches a PG-13 rating to a movie containing explicit, graphic modeling of suicide.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’m going to watch Heathers again tonight.