Hema Malini, media and the gendering of suicides

It has been two weeks since the death of television actress Pratyusha Banerjee, but the media — print, digital and visual, are ripe with allegations, trials and stories spawn carelessly by controversy-hunting reporters. One would think we’d let the family and friends of the dead to their personal space in this time of mourning, but I guess the right to grieve hasn’t been granted to all.

Hema Malini, and quite recently Baba Sehgal, expressed how committing a suicide is equivalent to being a “loser” and a “foolish jerk.” The former tweeted that the world admires “fighters” and not “losers” and the latter, who took to releasing a song a few days before, labeled people who are feeling low, depressed or those who committed suicides as, again, unsurprisingly, loser. It’s clear that suicides aren’t being taken very seriously in the nation when people like Hema Malini are resorting to micro-blogging sites to openly express disdain over the victim and advising people at risk to take the higher road and not give up. While you might agree too soon with her, you have to hear out her logic — suicides help achieve nothing and you become fodder for the media, next sensation and you are forgotten.On the other hand, Baba Sehgal quotes reasons of suicides ranging from gaining weight, having a horrible relationship and salary slashes, to name a few, and his preventive method for suicide is the keep in mind about police harassment, embarrassment, and thinking about your families before taking such a drastic step.

Not too long ago, actress Jiah Khan, too committed a suicide. There is a striking similarity between these two reportages, with the murder allegations to the partner, both Sooraj Pancholi and Rahul Raj Singh were arrested under abetment of suicide, photographs released post death of the body, the stress caused because of financial shortage and lack of work, the alleged affairs of the boyfriend outside the relationship, the angle of pregnancy used to shame both the victim [an unmarried mother, of course, and a man who refused to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood], release of texts, letters, notes, status messages, and how the digital media ran amuck with how Jiah Khan/Pratyusha Banerjee, were looking for approval, love and validation at all the wrong places. One can also take up the example of Amy Winehouse, who was found dead in her apartment from suspected suicide caused by alcohol poisoning in 2011. Amy’s non-conforming lifestyle, bold sexual identity, relationship failures and drug abuse were assigned the reason for her suicide, rather than a serious mental health problem.

There is a pattern in the way media reports male and female suicides. When Robin Williams, a critically acclaimed actor committed suicide more than a year back, there were stories of family feuds over money present, but there was barely any victim-shaming. There was solidarity in sadness and a sense of loss which followed. There was an understanding of why he did what he did, and respectful privacy was provided to the family. In paparazzi, suicide sells like hot cakes. One would wonder why a woman’s suicide is reported with a variety of angles while a man’s suicide would be understood as an act of closure- closure from the struggle of life, your own mind, purpose in life, to name a few.

The expected “hooks” in the story include how women lose their minds coming face to face with success, how bad relationships push them into a downward spiral leading to suicides, how there was a pregnancy to hide, avoid and be ashamed of, and how it’s always the woman’s fault to expect more from life than it could provide, but at the same to not give up, keep going and battling through her struggles as her problems are muffled under the shroud of financial hardships, loose sexuality and crumbling relationships. In a piece published by Firstpost on Jiah Khan’s suicide, titled, “What Did Rabia Teach Her Daughter?”, the writer, Lakshmi Chaudhry goes out of her way to blame, shame and morally preach the actress, her mother and the society. The crux of the piece essentially is - “this is what you get if you go out looking for love and validation in men (who are inherently all there to pull you down)”. The message is clear — if you are a woman who has committed suicide, toying with the lines of standard societal rules and conduct, your suicide will not be looked beyond an overlay of a rebellious, defiant protest. Your suicide could well have been prevented, if only you kept within these borders.

In a society where suicides are equated with cowardice, we play with plenty of binaries. Where reportage around male suicides are generally dealt with sympathy, female suicides are reported with kaleidoscopic angles, de-sensitized to a point where they’re branded as a publicity stunt, a cry for attention, an absence of validation from a figure of authority - usually a man. People click their tongues and go through every bit of juicy gossip extracted from a woman’s suicide expressing horror, shame and contempt. While in the case of man’s suicide, it is projected that the burden of life is too much for the man to carry at times, hence, the decision of suicide becomes a call for awareness on mental health — like in the case of Williams’.

Just as all else, debates and narratives around suicide are also gendered. Like everything alive, death too has fallen within the dichotomies of the strong, macho warrior and the frail, attention-seeking loser. Very few people in the glamorous film and television industry will step out of their stardom to talk about how the challenges faced by men and woman both in the fraternity are equal, if not more. Even lesser will compromise on their popularity to talk about what goes on in the person’s mind before she decides to take her own life at will. Constant public inspection and fame are the two sides of the same coin, but vulgar, voyeuristic and posthumous scrutiny coupled with strict moral policing unfortunately only fall within the territory of the “weaker” sex.

Mental illness is a closeted affair in the showbiz as it is elsewhere. The continuous pressure of looking your best on the public front becomes an obvious hurdle in stimulating a constructive dialogue on awareness around mental health. Mental illness is still viewed as a shortcoming, as a sign of weakness on the victim’s part and its physical invisibility is often used as an excuse to escape from a discourse around it, or even acknowledging it as a legitimate reason for suicides.

Under the heap of tweets, articles and op-eds about Jiah Khan’s death I find scores of celebrities talking about how it was not the way to go, how it was unbelievably tragic, and how deeply saddened they were by her drastic step, much like we witnessed a few days back in the case of Banerjee’s suicide. I did however, find only one lonesome voice stressing on how it is hard to see the sadness beyond the smile of a pretty face. Haven’t come very far along, have we?

At Mind Matters, understanding the importance of a correct discourse around mental illness and how we look at issues of mental illness, we are putting out a series called, Mental Illness 101: How not to talk about it. The idea is simple. If and when there are remarks/comments about mental illness that only further the existing myths and stigmas, we call it out and explain it. Click here to access the entire series on Facebook.

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