The comedic instinct to use anything and everything as fodder for ridicule means even the most sensitive of subjects can be reduced to a punchline. And in the past decade or so, several popular TV shows have used self-mutilation, specifically cutting, for cheap laughs.
Cutting always served the same purpose in these shows: a quick, throwaway line to express just how revolting or uncomfortable the act could make people feel. It was a lazy joke that often bore the same message: You may be a lot of things, but at least you’re not so far removed from reason, such a societal outcast, that you cut yourself.
In an episode of CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, at the time one of the most-watched shows in the country, the scientific genius at its center, Sheldon (Jim Parsons), guest-lectured a class, and his friends began to analyze students’ feedback of his teaching via Twitter.
“Listening to Dr. Cooper makes me want to start cutting myself again,” one character read aloud.
Cue laugh track.
Fox’s Family Guy aired an episode called “Sibling Rivalry” that saw Meg, the family’s overlooked and oft-ridiculed daughter, scolded by her mother Lois for eating more than usual.
“Eating is not the way to solve your problems. You hear that, Meg?” Lois said.
“For your information, Mom, I don’t eat to solve my problems. I cut myself. Is that better?” Meg shot back.
Pause for laughter.
There were loads of other examples across shows I enjoyed, including MTV’s Awkward and Fox’s New Girl. The tone was the same, and it was a feeling I was familiar with: shame. These people who cut were the punchline and they were an embarrassment.
“[Self-harm] is still portrayed in the media as a comedic tool,” said Alyza Berman, a licensed clinical social worker and the founder and clinical director of The Berman Center. “Writers and filmmakers have been using dark comedy for decades.”
“Nowadays, however, you have viewer discretion in most media things you watch, and on social platforms they are more likely to take content down if it touches on sensitive topics that do not agree with their guidelines,” Berman added. “So in that way, I would say there is a little more intentionality behind the approach when those topics arise.”
Berman is right: There does appear to be a recent change in how self-harm is depicted in television and movies. The Netflix series Dead to Me and Ginny & Georgia have taken more nuanced approaches in depicting self-harm, showing that the act manifests in different forms and is fueled by common feelings and circumstances that people may want to acknowledge.
In the second episode of Ginny & Georgia, “It’s a Face Not a Mask,” a distressed Ginny begins making indents in her skin with her thumbnail after a conversation with her mother.
We then see Ginny retrieving a lighter from the drawer, sitting against her bedroom door, and pulling her jeans off. The shot reveals three older scars on Ginny’s thigh before she holds the flame to her skin and lets out a deep breath.
A Dead to Me episode, “The Price You Pay,” features the main character, Judy, entering the bathroom after a tense conversation, looking at the mirror and berating herself. Through tears, she calls herself an idiot, and begins to claw at the roots of her hair.
As she stares into the mirror, uttering the same demeaning things her abusive ex-fiancé used to say to her, she starts hitting herself — slapping her head and chest violently, and repeatedly.
“When shows like Dead to Me and Ginny & Georgia portray self-harm in a more nuanced and authentic manner, the social discourse around self-injurious behavior (SIB) shifts,” said Pria Alpern, a clinical psychologist who has more than 60,000 followers on TikTok, where she posts content about depression, anxiety and trauma.
“This provides us with an opportunity to talk more openly about what self-harm is and why people engage in it,” she said. “While there are a range of reasons why people self-harm, a robust body of research conceptualizes self-harm as a means to relieve anxiety, express rage and maintain a sense of autonomy, particularly for trauma survivors.”
Even the period piece The Banshees of Inisherin, a dark Irish comedy that’s generating Oscar buzz, doesn’t dismiss self-harm as an empty comedic device.
The film follows two friends, Colin Farrell’s Pádraic and Brendan Gleeson’s Colm, as their friendship dissipates. When Pádraic repeatedly reaches out to Colm and asks him why they can no longer be friends, Colm informs his pal that he’s a boring simpleton and he’d rather spend his remaining years composing music than waste them speaking with him.
Pádraic refuses to let it go, so Colm delivers an ultimatum: each time he talks to him, he’ll cut off one of his fingers. Colm eventually delivers on that promise.
Although Martin McDonagh, the film’s writer-director, told Taylor Swift in a Variety interview that there wasn’t any conscious symbolism behind the fingers, and that he “thought it was funny,” it did not come across as a thoughtless plot device.
Yes, the graphic parts of the film are difficult to stomach, and the fact that such a popular comedy film would have a prominent self-harm plotline can be difficult to wrap one’s head around. But unlike those sitcoms where cutting is a crass joke, Colm’s despair is transcendent, visceral. The sequence where Colm chops his remaining four fingers off and plunks them at Pádraic’s front door one by one offers a sense of heartbreak, of quiet devastation.
It would be remiss not to mention 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series that stirred up controversy at several points over its four seasons for its graphic depictions of suicide and self-injurous behavior. A number of the show’s critics, including health professionals and educators, felt that much of the show’s self-harm content was gratuitous, and a peer-reviewed study revealed that there were between 900,000 and 1.5 million more Google searches for “suicide” in the 19 days following the season premiere, while searches for “how to commit suicide” rose 26%.
“By showing the suicide method in detail, the creators of the show ignored the World Health Organization’s best practice recommendation for the responsible portrayal of suicide in television and films,” said Alpern. “The controversy around 13 Reasons Why highlights the dilemma around how the entertainment media can increase awareness about serious mental health issues without causing harm to young people.”
Netflix eventually included advisory warnings on episodes tackling self-harm, and went as far as editing down a bloody sequence in the Season 1 finale where the character of Hannah takes her own life.
Now, I am not the gatekeeper of self-harm portrayal in popular media. My experience with self-harm is uniform to no one else’s. All I know is how recent media has made me feel, and I sense a definite shift.
In Dead to Me and Ginny & Georgia, the actors effectively conveyed the secrecy and panic that may come with self-harm. For me, self-harm was a secret — one that carried great shame. I went to the ends of the earth to make sure no one knew what I was doing for as long as I could, and often thought about how it would look to other people — to my friends, to boys I was interested in, to potential employers. It sounds dramatic, but every step I took felt like an exercise in shame. I was completely lost in myself.
Antonia Gentry’s turn as Ginny comes off as authentic and admirable because her desperation and isolation feel tangible, relatable. Ginny reminds me a lot of myself: lost and at the mercy of a destructive act. I feel similarly about Linda Cardellini’s Dead to Me performance as Judy, a woman consumed by self-hatred. Even Colm folding within himself feels all too familiar.
The loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life was when I was routinely cutting, and every joke I encountered about it on a popular television show left me feeling more alone. I’m not ashamed of my past, and am happy that there seems to be more thought and consideration going into media depictions of self-harm. It’s good to feel like part of the conversation as opposed to the butt of the joke.