A Focus on Film

GWU Student Examines Themes of Suicide and Depression in Modern Films

A Gardner-Webb University senior English major hopes to pursue a master’s degree in film studies, and she spent a portion of her summer investigating intersections between feminist theory, film criticism, and depression/suicidal ideation.

Mallory Moore (Maurertown, Va.) was one of 10 GWU students who conducted research during the summer term with a grant from the GWU Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. The students worked 40 hours a week for five weeks on their projects, which they are required to present in a professional forum. Each one had a faculty mentor or collaborator who worked with them. Moore’s mentor was Dr. Teresa Phillips, GWU Associate Professor of Spanish.

For her project, Moore studied several films containing themes of female depression and/or suicidal ideation. “I became interested in the subject during my sophomore year when I took Dr. Phillips’ course ‘Girls Gone Mad’ where we studied women’s madness in foreign films,” Moore explained. “I began to learn about feminist theorizing on mental illness in women, and these theories changed my own perspective on mental illness—specifically depression.”

As she was applying for the Summer Scholars program, Netflix released the original series “13 Reasons Why,” which was eventually criticized for glorifying suicide. “I wanted to study films that had been produced in my lifetime to see if they, too, glorified suicide, and to learn what messages they sent about mental illness in women. I wanted to answer the question, ‘Are these films an oppressive force for women with depression or a liberating voice?’”

Moore began with 15 films that she watched prior to the summer session, and she looked for common themes within them. “The biggest challenge was to narrow my scope,” she reflected. “I ended up using Phyllis Chesler’s ‘Women and Madness’ as my primary source of feminist theory. When I finished the summer research, my working bibliography had over 150 entries—including films, reviews, interviews, books, and scholarly articles.”

Her research process involved tremendous feedback and assistance from Phillips. “Dr. Phillips was a huge help in keeping me focused on my topic,” Moore offered. “We met and discussed my research once a week, and it was easy for me to get distracted and want to take the research in a new direction. But she helped me stay on track, offering suggestions about what sources to look at next and how to apply them to the films.”

Although coming to a conclusion on her research wasn’t easy, Moore did establish some important takeaways. “I discovered that while these films send good messages of hope and freedom to women struggling with depression, they are not necessarily good educational tools for the general public,” she explained. “In general, these films can teach women and girls who are struggling that the best path to mental health is individuality and self-acceptance.”

Moore encourages those who are interested in next-level research to take part in the program. “I found myself questioning my decision to even do the project as I turned two-hour movies into 10-hour close viewings,” she admitted. “However, I really cared about this subject and knew I had something to say about it. I think it’s important for films like these to continue being made so that those struggling with depression will realize they are not alone and there is hope despite the difficulties.”

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