Girls on TV – Why Good Mental Health Representation Matters

Amika Moser is a second year International Relations student from Geneva, Switzerland. She’s passionate about women’s rights, pop culture and mental health advocacy.

[Featured Image: A body in a white shirt and jeans with a television set as its head set against a hot pink background.]

Teenage girls are a demographic that are often pandered to in the media, and Netflix has done a great job at catering to them in the past couple of years. However, their representation of teenage girls and the way they confront mental illnesses has sometimes led to damaging consequences. Recent Netflix controversies include the release of the show Insatiable, in which a former obese girl loses weight (after having her jaw wired shut and not eating for a month) and gets revenge on those that have wronged her. The show has been overly criticized for its fat-shaming and the fact that it promotes promoting negative messages about eating disorders. The show’s creator, Lauren Gussis, has adamantly defended herself by explaining that the show was based off of her own struggles as a woman with an eating disorder. She justifies herself by explaining that Insatiable main message was to depict the dangers of fat-shaming through satire. Whilst Gussis and Netflix may be attempting to promote a positive message, the show still brings up harmful stereotypes and brings to light the way in which mental illnesses and teenage girls are represented in the media.  

In the United States, over 50 percent of girls have used drastic measures to attempt to lose weight and often result to binge eating after having tried excessive diets. This is why a show like Insatiable can be extremely damaging to a girl’s self-esteem issues as it not only trivialises binge eating and excessive weight loss but turns it into a joke. One of the show’s episodes is entitled “Skinny is Magic” and even if the show isn’t actively promoting that message, simply using those words subconsciously does it. For recovering disordered eaters, the idea of skinny as an ideal is a message that they struggle to erase everyday and tv shows that trivialise this can destroy all the progress that they have made.

Unfortunately, this is not the only tone deaf TV show that Netflix has produced in the past year. Last year, 13 Reasons Why took social media by storm despite massive controversy and has since been green-lit for yet another season. Its protagonist, Hannah Baker, was a mysterious but regular girl who after being bullied so much decided to commit suicide. For young girls making their way through high school, Hannah was a perfect character to identify to. The show was marketed around the idea that it was raising awareness towards mental health yet it also wound up glorifying suicide. After the show was released, countless warnings were put up to raise awareness to the harmful messages the show displayed, including extremely graphic and potentially triggering scenes. The show’s release led to copycat suicide attempts as well as significant increases in searches on how to commit suicide. Netflix and the writers of the show defended the show explaining that their aim was to depict suicide and raise awareness in an honest way. Whilst their motives may be admirable, these shows can often wind up doing more harm than good.

If anything, Netflix’s representation of women in these shows is extremely disappointing as they have the power to represent the insecurities that teenagers face in a better light. Instead, they idealise the messages that girls struggle with everyday such as “what would happen if people noticed me?” or “how much better would I look if I were skinnier?” Girls are more than that, and multi-dimensional female characters can exist without resorting to using mental illnesses as a defining character trait. The manic pixie dream girl trope has been present in young adult media for a long time but as mental health is starting to become a normal topic of conversation, these tropes should hopefully disappear soon. Netflix and the production companies involved in the making of these shows have the wrong idea. It isn’t by emphasizing these tropes that awareness will be raised, it’s by destroying them and showing girls’ complexities without resorting to eating disorders or suicide, that they will be able to help girls navigate the difficulty of being a teenage girl. Whilst a lot of teenagers suffering from mental health might avoid these shows, a lot of people who aren’t exposed to mental health in their everyday life might not. This is one of the main issues of 13 Reasons Why, as locals believe that by simply watching the show, they’ve raised awareness for bullying. Hopefully, Netflix’s next ventures will actually lift girls up rather than continue to perpetrate the toxic messages they hear in their heads everyday.

[Image Credit: Peacepiles on Redbubble.]

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