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In Defense of the Academy’s Aladdin Tweet

The reactions to Robin Williams’ death have been all over the place, as one should expect under such circumstances; nobody knows how you’re “supposed” to react. We’ve only been living with the internet for roughly ten years, such as it exists now. Social media rules the day now. All of our news is shared at one time. There isn’t a lot of time reflection. Big moments like this tend to bring out the full spectrum of human emotional expression. Grief, anger, confusion – you name it, we’re feeling it and tweeting it.

The Academy tweeted a picture from Disney’s Aladdin that said “Genie, you’re free.” This prompted the Washington Post to wag its finger at the Academy for seeming to “encourage” suicide.

More than 270,000 people have shared the tweet, which means that, per the analytics site Topsy, as many as 69 million people have seen it.

The problem? It violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide.

“If it doesn’t cross the line, it comes very, very close to it,” said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion.”

Moutier is referring to a well-documented phenomenon, better-known as “copycat suicide,” in which media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way. Adolescents are most at risk of suicide contagion; in recent years, groups like AFSP have also become particularly attentive to the role the Internet plays in romanticizing notorious or high-profile deaths, something it has long asked both the news and entertainment industries to avoid.

There are several things wrong with this attack on the Academy but let’s start with the most basic: that is what happens at the end of Aladdin – the genie is FREE.

They’re saying that the Academy is saying suicide finally set Robin Williams free and that to encourage such an untruth is irresponsible. Sure, if you are counting on the Academy to dictate human behavior, holding them accountable for what people do by reading one of their tweets, hand over all power of personal choice and abandon any notion of people thinking for themselves.

Sorry but any kind of potential copycat suicides that are going to come out of this ain’t gonna be from the Academy’s tweet but rather the massive amounts of love and attention Williams in receiving in the wake of his death, as well he should. It is made more intense by social media, no doubt. Suicides rates are already high and there is a very good chance they will rise after Williams’ suicide.

The New York Times says:

When Marilyn Monroe killed herself in August 1962, the nation reacted. In the months afterward, there was extensive news coverage, widespread sorrow and a spate of suicides. According to one study, the suicide rate in the United States jumped by 12 percent compared with the same months in the previous year.

Mental illness is not a communicable disease, but there’s a strong body of evidence that suicide is still contagious. Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people. Analysis suggests that at least 5 percent of youth suicides are influenced by contagion.

They go on to say:

Experts also say articles should include information about how suicide can be avoided (for instance, noting that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255).

They also recommend avoiding coverage that describes death as an escape for a troubled person. One example was the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who was beloved among young music fans, including in Seattle, where his career rose and where he was found dead. Local coverage of his suicide was closely tied to messages about treatment for mental health and suicide prevention, along with a very public discussion of the pain his death caused his family. Those factors may explain why his death bucked the pattern. In the months after Mr. Cobain’s death, calls to suicide prevention lines in the Seattle area surged and suicides actually went down.

“It’s different from any other cause of death,” said Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “When someone dies of cancer or heart disease or AIDS, you don’t have to worry about messaging it wrong.”

The Academy’s tweet implied that the genie’s suicide was an escape without following up the tweet with a suicide prevention hotline, like that is going to help anything. Look, this ship has sailed. The whole world is morning the loss of a great human being. Sorry to be the one to say it, but does anyone out there covering the Williams story not talk about his suicide as a way out of the pain? The alternative is to say it wasn’t a way out and that he should not have done it and that it was the wrong choice. But to do that people would have to disengage from the grief and love they feel for the actor. Understanding and compassion for what he was suffering with it is the unavoidable conclusion.

Me, I wish I could have pulled him back from the brink – or that someone could have. I wish he would have waited just one more day. Maybe it would have gotten better. I would urge anyone reading this who even thinks briefly about suicide to wait a day, to reach out to a suicide hotline prevention center or talk to someone. One of the hardest things about people who kill themselves is that no one knows they’re going to do it. They know. They’re resolved to do it but they keep it from everyone for fear of someone stopping them.

There are no easy answers. But I think the Washington Post is misplacing their blame in this instance.

In the meantime, this is what David Foster Wallace said about suicide from severe depression:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

I do understand the Washington Post is just trying to remind people not to romanticize the suicide but I want to remind them back that this was a Disney animated movie tweet out from the Motion Picture Academy, not a statement by the President of the United States.

17 Comments on this Post

  1. Natasha

    I can understand multiple interpretations—I’m “in the business” of it–but my “read” of the tweet initially was “You’re in a better place now where you permanently elude whatever pain you were in–so ‘Genie’–you’re free.” Not “You too can be free of your “prison” if you taken your own life!” (in the voice of a car sales advertisement voiceover on TV). However, I do want to stop short of calling it an overreaction– having thought it over.

  2. Where they cut off your ears, if they don’t like your face
    It’s barbaric but hey, it’s home.

    The place I’m referring to with that quote is that culture we live in where everyone thinks they’re better than everyone else and therefore has to go around correcting other people’s behavior. Like rewriting song lyrics. I’m talking about the new United States where you’re not free to say or think or do what you should be able to as long as you’re not hurting anyone else. So in that way Mr. Williams is free from that now at least.

    When I saw the Academy’s tweet I instantly teared up again. I thought it was beautiful. To try to read something negative into that is asinine. I’ve read and heard so much nonsense about suicide
    in the last two days. People with their same old tired pat responses and childish reactions to a personal decision a grown adult made for whatever reason sitting in judgment of him. And now I guess sitting in judgment of people trying to make a tribute to him. I really think these people don’t have their own minds and can only comment on what other people are doing. If they knew anything or remember the film at all, Aladdin has one wish left and instead of using it selfishly he uses it to set the Genie free which he promised to do earlier in the film. It was about self-sacrifice for a friend and doing the right thing. Everyone loves that moment who remembers it. To turn the quote and accompanying photo into something else means you don’t know what the hell your talking about. Go away, demon.

  3. I absolutely agree with you Antoinette — it was not the dialogue, but the emotion of that scene (and the animation in that still from “Aladdin”) that was the message here — certainly one of Robin Williams’ greatest performances and most of his fans I’m certain would have wanted to give him that same hug — not only did the Academy use this this scene in their social media tribute but one of the co-stars of one his last movies “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn”, Mila Kunis, did exactly the same. Also many other people in coming weeks and months (decades as well) will be doing similar tributes using iconic scenes from his movies — Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show”, a magnificent tribute from him in recent days.

  4. Christophe

    Wait! Marilyn Monroe killed herself? Are we sure of that? Shouldn’t there be a serious investigation or smth? There was a lot of fishy stuff going on in her life, especially during the months and days before her death, that suicide thing sounds too convenient…

  5. Al Robinson

    Christophe, I always liked the Kennedy-Monroe-DiMaggio theories. I’m just not sure if I can keep them straight.

  6. Evan Rachel Wood posted the exact same tweet 1 hour before the Academy did:
    https://twitter.com/evanrachelwood/status/498981232697307139

  7. JPNS Viewer

    When I first read the Academy’s Aladdin tweet (“Genie, you’re free.”), on AD, I had yet to learn that the preliminary medical report has ruled that it was a case of suicide. It caught me by surprise because I’d never known Williams had been having clinical depression problems. Such a tragedy.

    [Just my intuition, so please bear with me] I’ve found the Aladdin tweet simple yet heartfelt and to a degree poetic that the Academy seemed to be spontaneously dealing with the pathos of life [or perhaps, I was just reading too much into it since I’m officially Buddhist (as opposed to ‘practically’ in a serious sense)] while relating the Genie character, whom was kept inside for so long, with the #aftermath of the tragedy, as opposed to with the lingering depression problems the late actor reportedly had been suffering prior to the sad news.

    The irony I’ve found here, however, is that those who’ve raised this up [reading: some of those professionals or not in the relevant fields who provided their angles in good intent or not] unknowingly pointed out what may have been nothing but a heartfelt remark and in consequence inadvertently helped create something undesirable out of it . . . .

  8. Bravo Antoinette!

  9. I can agree that it is silly to point the finger specifically at the Academy, but I disagree that their tweet doesn’t matter, or that it wasn’t irresponsible. It’s just that yes, they are only a small part of the problem. But as a teacher who has worked with teens for years, and yes, had some of those students commit suicide, there really is a danger in the glorification of suicide or of an individual following their death from suicide.

    The tweet is perhaps particularly egregious because it DOES use the Genie, a beloved cartoon character that all children recognize. That tweet really may add to contagion– and that could have been avoided. And yes, of course people want to grieve, and it is hard to divorce ourselves from that grief and maintain the rationality to say “Suicide is not an option”— but SO WHAT if it’s hard to do that? Sasha you’re just really wrong on this. We don’t get to ignore the effect the media has on our children, no matter what.

  10. bw, please explain how a child will read that tweet and immediately interpret it as an instigation for suicide. Thanks.

  11. steve50

    Suicide-prevention does not come from hiding tweets or media, it comes from dealing with the problems of mental illness directly. If the good folk, from major media sources and health organizations to the bloggers and commenters who were outraged by the Academy’s heartfelt tweet, put the same effort into dealing directly and effectively with mental health issues, the world would be a happier place.

    For once – just once – the Academy got it right. It was a sweet tribute.

  12. Certainly, Robin Williams is free of his mental anguish. We have no choice but to mourn his death and celebrate his great legacy. I don’t find anything wrong or out of the ordinary from the response put out by an organization whose main objective is to prevent suicide. There are steps we can take when faced with the darkest of mental demons. In difficult times, we must find a kernel of fortitude within and step outside of ourselves and give. It’s ALWAYS there, however crafty the mind is to trick us that it’s not. We have to stay strong for each other and reach out to one another when we feel weak. Yes, the genie is free. But, the genie did not have to die. And that’s the lesson we should and can carry away from this without standing in judgment of the loss of an amazing man and talent. And I’m a bit saddened that isn’t the theme of this article.

    RIP Robin Williams.

  13. UBourgeois

    I mean, I’m not going to say that the Academy’s heart wasn’t in the right place (it was), or that the gesture wasn’t touching (it was), or even that the Academy holds some responsibility for affecting the public’s views on suicide (they can hardly affect the public’s taste in movies). I will say, however, that under even mild scrutiny their choice of image becomes less-than-ideal. Robin Williams’ death was a tragedy – the horrid end of a dark road, not some tearful, optimistic goodbye. His depression plagued him for many unhappy years and finally took him in the saddest way possible. It seems odd to frame that as a good friend setting him free. Who suffering from depression would describe themselves as “free,” anyway?

    Definitely not the most inappropriate scene I’ve seen used as a Williams tribute, though. I saw on Tumblr that someone thought they were clever using the scene from World’s Greatest Dad where Williams gives his “suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems” bit. Of course, anyone who’s seen the film and understands the scene in context would probably find its usage inappropriate, but I admit it was a little-seen movie.

  14. Unlikely hood

    Yeah my feelings remain mixed on this one. Certainly some people who are defending the Academy wouldn’t have defended a tweet like “yay suicide!” But…I can see it either way. Good piece

  15. Another thing. I had always known Robin Williams had drug and alcohol problems which was widely reported. But never that he struggled with depression for his whole life the way it’s being reported now. I read yesterday that he said he’d done an interview and that they’d asked him if he gets depressed and he said sure sometimes meaning depressed like we all get from time to time and then they took that and made out that he was clinically depressed and he said “I’m not that.” http://www.npr.org/2014/08/12/339823090/robin-williams-in-looking-for-laughter-you-have-to-be-deeply-honest?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social

    So it seems to me a lot of articles are re-reporting what other articles are “reporting” and there might be some revisionist history here. I think it’s gonna be best if everyone gives it a couple of months. Let the toxicology reports come back and then maybe we’ll know the whole story then. Maybe not.

    To UBourgeois, I think they meant he would be free from the pain and suffering of this world, including depression, now that he’s left it. That’s a common thing that people say after someone’s died. To be “free” from suffering.

  16. Great points. The Academy tweet was much more genuine and moving than the litany of various b-list celebs tweeting how “heartbroken” they are….

  17. Scott (the other one)

    Very we’ll stated bw!

    Sasha–
    “but I want to remind them back that this was a Disney animated movie tweet out from the Motion Picture Academy, not a statement by the President of the United States.”

    The media does have influence and
    responsibility and, unfortunately people listen to them more than the POTUS

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