Sensationalism of Trauma in American Film and Literature

By Clare M. Nee
2021, Vol. 13 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Abstract

The Virgin Suicides written by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation, utilize the literary and cinematic tropes of suicide to explore female suicides as romantic notions and assertions of agency within the teenage world of five sisters. In a world in which suicide and mental illness are rapidly on the rise, one might ask: is it ethical to use suicide merely as a plot device to explore a narrative other than its own? The novel and film adaptation use suicide as a vehicle to exploit and sexualize the adolescent female body through a voyeuristic, collective male narrative. These works adhere to the long history of literary and cinematic tropes through the male gaze which sensationalize suicide. The prevalence of trauma within these works is skewed away from, as the audience is left submerged within the accentuated nature of adolescent longing rather than a realistic lens of the traumatic aftermath of suicide for the survivors. This paper will investigate the dangers of the sensationalism of trauma in American film and literature through a re-examination of these culturally revered works not with a traditional lens, but an ethical lens.

According to the statistics reported by the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education foundation, every twelve minutes an individual dies by suicide in America (“General Statistics USA” 1). The prevelancy of suicide and mental illness in the modern world proves to be at an all time high, especially for the United States in which it is the tenth leading cause of death. These numbers have been on a steady incline since the 1990s, from which suicides in America have increased 33% (Tavernise 1). This essay will investigate the dangers of sensationalsim of trauma, particularly trauma that suicide survivors endure, with the examination of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel ​The Virgin Suicides ​and Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation. In both examples, the female body is overtly sexualized, which portrays suicide as a romantic death. In literary and cinematic traditions, the romantic nature of female suicides has been used as a trope to represent an act of agency and empowerment during which the female chooses death over conforming to societal injustices.

However, it is imperative to re-examine these revered works not through a traditional critical lens, but through an ethical lens. The use of female suicide as a sensationalized plot device disempowers both women and survivors. The collective male narrator in both the novel and film is unreliable because their sexuality and voyeuristic trajectories reduce the females, more specifically the Lisbon sisters, to mere objects of desire and fascination. Thus, the prevalence of trauma within these works is skewed, as the audience is left submerged within the accentuated nature of longing rather than provided with a realistic lens through which to view the traumatic aftermath of suicide.

The Virgin Suicides​is a novel that depicts the decline of the Detroit suburbs during the 1970s, as told through a collective narrator of adolescent neighborhood boys. There is a direct parallel between the environmental decline and the metaphorical decomposition of the female body within this novel. The collective male-gaze narrative focuses upon a household of teenage women: the Lisbon girls. Eugenides begins the narrative abruptly in the midst of a suicide attempt from the youngest sister, Cecilia, who is merely thirteen years old. After her attempt she is dismissed for her lack of experience of the world and her melodramatic reaction to life from medical professionals, as well as her parents. The reader is aware by the first few pages that all of the girls- Cecilia, Therese, Bonny, Lux, and Mary- will die young by suicide.

The significance of this novel is not the incorporation of suicide as a plot device, as that has been done before, but rather the importance lies in the excessive nature of death and the narrator’s fixation on the female body as a mystical entity. One heightened example of this pertains to Cecilia’s suicide attempt after the paramedics arrive. The narrator compares her body to “a tiny Cleopatra on an imperial litter” to emphasize the display that the female body is subject to within the social sphere (Eugenides 3). The romantic portrayal of death is shown through the sacrificial diction and religious imagery of the female body. The boys transmit this experience of gaze as told through a self-sacrificial lens. They describe the situation as characterized by “two slaves offering the victim to the altar (lifting the stretcher into the truck), the priestess brandishing the torch (waving the flannel nightgown), and the drugged virgin rising up on her elbows, with an otherworldly smile” (Eugenides 4). This enacts the transformation of a suicide attempt into an exotic transfer of the female body across the threshold of domesitc captivity to the gaze of the social sphere. This scene also highlights power dynamics in regards to slavery and status within society, with an emphasis on virginity, morality, and innocence.What is particularly alarming is the description of Cecilia as a “drugged virgin” being sacrificed and exoticized with her “otherworldly smile” (Eugenides 4).

Debra Shostak supports this notion in her article “‘A Story we Could Live With’: Narrative Voice, the Reader, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s ​The Virgin Suicides​.” She argues that the boys “likewise convey their inclination to idealize female sexuality displacing it into spiritualized terms” (Shostak 815). Thus, the collective narrator portrays the Lisbon girls, in this case Cecilia, through the sacrificial lens of religion in order to transform their obsession into a context that is more socially acceptable. The religious exoticism of Cecilia’s body may seem trivial, but it sets the stage for the continuation of the romantic portrayal of death through the overt sexualization of the female body as something exotic and foreign for the rest of the novel.

Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation (1999) depicts a similar, yet astoundingly different image of suicide as compared to Eugenides’s novel. Coppola constructs the visual rhetoric of the female body and suicide as a rebellious, romantic death tinged with the edginess of 1970s American gothic rock and roll. As in the book, the film opens with Cecilia’s suicide attempt, however, the film frames the attempt through a lens of dismissal and denial. Coppola echoes the societal outlook on and perception of suicide and self-injurious behavior throughout the film. One scene that embodies these notions is after the attempt when Cecilia is in a hospital nightgown. The doctor proclaims that she isn’t old enough to even know how bad life can get, and to this she responds, “Obviously doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl.” The scene quickly shifts into an eerie and edgy song accompanied by tracking shots of the houses within the suburban neighborhood. This highlights the angst and gothic mystique of the female and endorses suicide and self-injurious behavior as a means of adolescent rebellion, much like the literary and cinematic tropes of femal suicide that have been used in the past.

Michele Aaron argues against the Western obsession with female suicide in her article “Cinema and Suicide: Necromanticism, Dead-already-ness, and the Logic of the Vanishing Point.” She contends that films like ​The Virgin Suicides​ reveal “[a] certain recklessness tinged with suicidal intent [that] appears endemic in the action genre and appends its portraiture of some of Western cinema’s best-loved heroes” (Aaron 71). Moreover, Aaron emphasizes the glorification of female suicide through the association of heroism and mystique that it is coupled with. She notes the problematic nature of this pattern within films because she believes that it “marginalizes or dismisses suicide and that where suicide is dealt with more fully in mainstream film, it is always actually reflecting something else” (Aaron 71). In this sense, suicide in this regard functions as a vehicle of perpetution of the “feminine mystique” within American films and portrays other issues within society (Aaron 78).

There is a specific focus on the investigation of Cecilia’s suicide throughout ​The Virgin Suicides ​that shapes the division of viewpoint and dichotomy between the spectator and the spectacle to highlight the role of the public gaze upon tragedy. It is not long after her first suicide attempt when Cecilia decides to exit a party at the Lisbon house. She throws herself out of the window and impales herself on the iron fence that surrounds the house. The party was hypothetically supposed to provide the Lisbon girls with a cathartic way to engage with their peers. Cecilia’s death foregrounds the problematic nature of fictional portrayals of suicide. The boys recount, “It was perfectly clean and Cecilia merely seemed balanced on the pole like a gymnast. The fluttering wedding dress added to this circusy effect” (Eugenides 28). The narrator uses detached diction with the comparison of Cecilia’s dead body to a “gymnast” and the “circusy effect” to draw attention to the depersonalization of the act of suicide. Shostak argues, “She has apparently embraced her role as sacrifical virgin -- the self-dissolution as passive object even unto death required by the narrative of erotic transcendence” (821). Therefore, the novel portrays Cecilia’s suicide as a transcendent event in which the public gaze detracts from the true gravity of the trauma, as her death is objectified in terms of the spectator.

Similarly, the film specifically toys with the dichotomy of viewership and experience in its portrayal Cecilia’s suicide. Bree Hoskin’s article “Playground Love: Landscape and Longing in Sofia Coppola’s ​The Virgin Suicides”​ delves into the notion of public gaze upon personal tragedy, and she expands these ideas with the inclusion of direct quotes from Sofia Coppola’s documentary. In regards to Cecilia’s death Coppola states, “I wanted it to look like the final scene of a tragic opera, so I pulled back wide [...] you see it from the neighbour’s perspective, from the outside... Cecilia looks as if she’s levitating -- like a magic act” (qtd. in Hoskin 215). It is very evident that Coppola intended to portray Cecilia’s suicide, a thirteen year old girl, as a public attraction and a magical act or performance. This is problematic for a number of reasons, mainly because it supports the traditional tropes which sensationalize trauma through the unrealistic portrayal of what suicide is and what the harsh reality for survivors in the aftermath looks like. An ethical reading of the film reveals how the sensationalized use of female suicide as a plot device disempowers both women and survivors.

In the novel, the identity of the collective narrator plays a vital role in the development and interpretation of suicide and trauma. It is evident in certain sections within this novel that Eugenides draws upon the binary, heteronormative perspective of gender. One example of this is after Cecilia’s funeral service when the narrator remarks, “Curt Van Osdol, the only kid at the Funeral Home, said he would have copped a last feel, right there in front of the priest and everybody, if only we had been there to appreciate it” (Eugenides 36). Cecilia’s body, even postmortem, is objectified and sexualized by the male-gaze and imagination; reduced to a sexual act. Lux and Trip Fontaine’s relationship offers another example in the novel that reveals the hazardous reduction of the female body in terms of sexual desire and anticipation of female vanishment.

Trip Fontaine is an important foil to the voyeuristic narrators within this novel; he goes beyond being a mere voyeur of women when he engages in a physical relationship with Lux. They state, “Her pens and pencils looked as temporary as Cinderella’s broom. When she smiled, her mouth showed too many teeth, but at night Trip Fontaine dreamed of being bitten by each one” (Eugenides 75). The concept of impermanence is shown through the description of Lux and her belongings as “temporary” with an allusion to the fairytale of Cinderella. The male’s aggressive sexual desire in relation to the female body is also accentuated in this example and implies a level of consumption and objectification of the impermanent female being.

Much like Eugenides, Coppola accentuates the significance of adolescent sexual desire through the visual rhetoric within the film specifically through the inclusion of scenes that contrast females and males in this context. She objectifies the female body in a different way from Eugenides because she blurs the line between unwanted and wanted attention with the Lisbon girls. Coppola accentuates Lux’s sexuality with a visual rhetoric that implies a sense of endearment. Coppola adds to the original text when she takes it a step further than the literal translation of the novel, adding Lux’s hyper-sexualized nature into her obsession with men like the garbage man Kevin. In this scene, Cecilia’s diary recounts that Lux wrote the name Kevin all over her bra and underwear with hearts that her mother later bleaches out. The hypersexulation of the female within the film is also shown during the homecoming dance when the girls are dressed in white peasant dresses. The Lisbon sisters meet their dates and the camera zooms in on Lux to visually undress her and reveal her underwear that says “Trip” on them with a heart. Bert Cardullo’s article “Of Virgin Suicide, Human Bondage, and Male Indulgence” explains this phenomenon as he explores the notion of the hypersexualization of female adolescents in relation to virgin suicides. He condemns , “the fetishization of teenaged, female sexuality,” as well as “the inconsistent, if not misguided, application of a darkly comic perspective to deadly serious material” (Cardullo 640).

The visual rhetoric that Coppola deploys reveals a much stronger emphasis on the character of Trip Fontaine than in the novel, which widens the scope of gaze and adolescent sexuality. We see this in the numerous solo shots of Trip in the school hallways, shirtless in his pool, and flirting with other girls while the song “Magic Man'' plays in the background. Coppola includes the female-gaze upon Trip to augment the sense of longing and sexuality that is embedded within the voyeuristic narrative of this film, as well as the novel. Bree Hoskin argues that “the film concerns itself with the subjective phenomenon of longing-- adolescent sexual longing, nostalgic longing for the experiences of youth” (Hoskin 214). Thus, the concept of loss and the true nature of tragedy that results from suicide is lost amongst the fasciation and obsession with adolescent sexuality and desire.

Coppola also incorporates the theme “the forbidden-fruit” with the example of Lux and Trip Fontaine’s relationship. Trip is merely attracted to the chase and the idea of Lux as an object of desire, an object to be conquered. Since Lux is the only female who rejects the gaze upon Trip, Coppola visually augments the appeal of Lux and the sexual tension between the two by drawing a sparkle upon her eye during Lux’s first interaction with Trip. In this sense, Lux is a shiny object of the voyeuristic male desire. Aaron argues that Coppola uses the intensity of the relationships between the Lisbon sisters and the male public spectators to not “ just repeat or nod to the symbolism of female suicide; it highlights how, precisely this symbolism gets embalmed, gets preserved through time, through the solipsism and perversity of the male imaginary” (Aaron 79). This shows the formulaic nature of “necromanticism” in film and literature, as well as the objectification of the female body that result from it. The issue with Coppola’s use of necromanticism and the focus on female sexuality is that it shifts the focus away from the trauma of suicide and mental illness and onto adolescent sexuality and the male-gaze that overshadows it. Scholars like Cardullo and Hoskin also argue that Coppola’s film perpetuates the festishization of the female body (Cardullo 640).

The male narrator’s voyeuristic qualities detract from the overall gravity of the female imprisonment and the true aftermath of suicide. One example of voyeurism in its most literal form is when the narrators watch Lux have sex with random strangers on the roof of her house, reducing her as a body upon which to imagine and explore sexuality. Their interpretation and specific fixation on the act of sex understates the significance of promiscuity and statutory rape that occurs on the roof of the Lisbon house. The boys describe Lux as “a force of nature, impervious to chill, an ice goddess generated by the season itself” (Eugenides 144). The narrators worship Lux as a motif of sexuality and the boys objectify her promiscuity through the male gaze during these moments of intimacy. They explain the significance of watching Lux with other men and admit to the reader that they, even as grown men who have wives, imagine that they are having sex with Lux when they are having sex with their wives. They recall, “the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce, just to be led up the stairway... For our own part, we learned a great deal about the techniques of love” (Eugenides 141). They briskly skim over the serious nature of the crime that happens on the rooftop for their own benefit, which implies that Lux is not viewed as a human, but a physical representation of sex. Similarly, Shostak describes the female suicides as “a fetish, a metonymy for the ‘truth’ they seek about sex and death. The sisters serve, that is, as the obscure objects of the narrator’s desire” (812). Thus, these women exist temporarily not as their own entity, but as an object destined to be desired by the heteronormative, collective.

In the novel, within male to female relationships, female bodies are ultimately dehumanized and reduced to mere objects, even more so postmortem than while they were alive. In the final scenes of the novel, all four sisters die by suicide, and the neighborhood boys are the ones who find their bodies. That narrator states, “Above him, in a pink dress, Bonnie looked clean and festive, like a pinata” (Eugenides 209). The steril emphasis on cleanliness and the simile between Bonnie’s body post-mortem to a pinata, a physical object, embraces a detached tone in which the female body is reduced to a vessel that represents femininity. The narrator reiterates this dehumanizing of the female body near the end of the novel: “They made us participate in their own madness... We couldn’t imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins, the emptiness and the calm” (243). The focal point of this recollection is the gradual diminishment of the female body from human to “creature.” This passage highlights the passive nature of the narrator, as well as the reduction of the female body to mere object. The female is no longer seen as a human after suicide; she is analyzed in terms of “creature,” an “other” to the suburban reality in which they live.

The narrator’s judgemental tone is the final note of the novel, which inherently skews the reader’s focus away from the trauma and aftermath of suicide and merely echos the societal view of female suicide. In this sense, I would argue that, in the final moments of the novel, Eugenides transitions from the sexualization of the female body in death to the selfish nature of the female body in the act of suicide. That narrator concludes that “[t]he essence of the girls’ suicides consisted not of sadness or mystery but simple selfishness... They became too powerful to live among us, too self-centered, too visionary, too blind... the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself” (Eugenides 242). Furthermore, the collective narrator no longer portrays the romanticism of female suicides, but rather the blatant judgement of their actions which they deem not tragic or traumatic, but selfish. Shostak argues against this interpretation as the summation of the deaths of as merely selfish which is very abundantly an echo of societal perception of mental illness and suicide. Instead she claims that “[a] reader who does not resist this power must be willing to agree that the narrators’ account is ‘a story we could live with.’ Such a reader must also be willing to conflate authorial voices -- implied and real-- ” (828). Thus, one must look beyond the surface level of interpretation of this text which reveals the echo of societal perceptions. Beneath the surface level of the text is the true nature of trauma and aftermath that is undoubtedly underscored beneath the overt layer of female sexualization and objectification in this novel.

Coppola ends the film in a different way than Eugenides’s stagnation of the collective, middle-aged collective narrator. She captures the a raw image of evanescence within her changes to the final scene, during which she omits the novel’s final judgemental tone on the girls’ act of suicide, with the exception of one line that is spoken by the boys. Instead, she focuses more so on the intensity of loss and the traumatic aftermath in which the scene ends with the boys standing in front of the empty Lisbon house in disheveled suits. The true impact of adolescent death is encapsulated soberly in front of the empty Lisbon house, rather than in an aged tree house where the men remain stuck in a state of permanent youth. Coppola transitions between dusty frames that depict the lifelessness of each room of the Lisbon house, revealing old furniture and mementos from the girl's lives. The use of sound, more specifically the noise of a clock ticking in the background, is particularly significant in these scenes because it contributes to the passage of time and the lingering sense of loss that remains. The narrator reclaims this as “the endless process of trying to forget them.” Coppola also draws upon the unanswered nature of suicide, as a death by suicide will never make sense. However, the sense of longing between the collective male narrator and the girls overshadows the significance of female suicide. The boys state, while holding a lighter in the air, that the only thing that mattered was “that we had loved them and that they hadn’t heard us calling, and still do not hear us calling them out of those rooms, where they went to be alone for all time, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together again.” Thus, the female is reduced, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in mere terms of heterosexual male desire, need, and love to beckon them outside of the realm of domestic confinement.

The voyeuristic narrative of ​The Virgin Suicides,​ both as a novel and film, superscedes the true impact of suicide and the aftermath for survivors and deteriorates the notion of loss. The novel and film utilize the sexualization of the female body and female suicide as literary and cinematic tropes to convey female agency and empowerment within a patriarchal society. Thus, female suicide is used as a means to reflect a message aside from the act of suicide itself. A social study conducted on American films found that between the years of 1900-2009, 1,158 films were detected to incorporate suicide within them, a majority of which used suicide as a means of reflecting something other than suicide itself (Buda 1). Moreover, Eugenides’s and Coppola’s spin on female suicide reflects a larger pattern in and of itself and highlights the need for recognition of the underlying level of entertainment that is associated with and implied from the use of suicide in the context of film and literature. Although the novel and film are examples from the 1990s, this pattern remains relevant within pop-culture. Despite the recurring trope of female suicide, the statistics on suicide for the United States of America shows that more men die by suicide than women. As of 2017, men are reported to die by suicide 3.54 times as much as women (“Suicide Statistics”). The continuation of female suicide as plot devices contributes to the problem at hand: the lack of representation of male suicide and mental illness within pop culture, despite the rising numbers of male suicides. It perpetuates the gender roles and expectations of females as emotional or hysterical individuals, but it also denies men the agency and the space within society to experience obstacles within their lives without being labeled as weak.


References

Aaron, Michele. “Cinema and Suicide: Necromanticism, Dead-already-ness, and the Logic of the Vanishing Point.” ​University of Texas Press​. vol. 53, no. 2, 2014, p. 71-92.

Buda, Bela. “Motives for Suicide in Movies.” Review of ​Suicide Movies: Social Patterns 1900-2009, ​edited by Barbara Bowman and Steven Stack. ​Hogrefe Publishing.​ vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, p. 67-68.

Cardullo, Bert. “Of Virgin Suicide, Human Bondage, and Male Indulgence.” ​The Hudson Review​, vol. 53, no. 4, 2001, p. 639. ​EBSCOhost​, doi:10.2307/3852631.

Coppola , Sofia, director. ​The Virgin Suicides​. 1999.

Eugenides, Jeffrey. ​The Virgin Suicides​. Picador, 2009.

“General Statistics USA.” ​SAVE​, 2019, https://save.org/about-suicide/suicide-facts/.

Hoskin, Bree. “Playground Love: Landscape and Longing in Sofia Coppola’s T​he Virgin Suicides.​” ​Literature/Film Quarterly​, vol. 35, no. 3, 2007, p. 214-221.

Shostak, Debra. “‘A Story we Could Live With’: Narrative Voice, the Reader, and Jeffrey Eugenides’s ​The Virgin Suicides.​”​Modern Fiction Studies.​ vol. 55, no.4, 2009, p. 808-832.

“Suicide Statistics.” ​AFSP,​ 16 Apr. 2019,​https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/​.

Tavernise, Sabrina. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” ​The New York Times​, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/22/health/us-suicide-rate-surges-to-a-30-year-high.html.

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