As is often the case I am late to the party on this one. Partly because I wanted to let the hysteria settle down, and partly because it’s given me some time to string my thoughts together and consider all sides of the debate.
“To The Bone” is a Netflix film written and directed by Marti Noxon and starring Lily Collins and Keanu Reeves. The film, which came out earlier this month, follows one woman’s (Ellen/Eli) struggle with anorexia nervosa. It includes her time spent in a specialised treatment centre and was partly based on Noxon’s own experiences. The plot contains narratives around family and friendship, and while focusing on a serious subject also involves some lighthearted moments that poke fun at the absurdity of eating disordered mindset.
The very first I heard about this film was through an online eating disorder support forum I have belonged to for years. The general feeling was “oh god how awful is this one going to be? Remember the Lifetime run of bad ED movies?!” Some people said they would be triggered but would likely watch it anyway. Others said they really didn’t care.
Let’s consider the trailer. The trailer was obviously a compounded snap of all the most dramatic and attention grabbing moments from the film. I noticed that it was released only a couple of weeks before the full film and I am not sure how typical that is of Netflix or if the producers chose to do so for a reason. I had considered that they perhaps could guess at what reaction it might prompt.
My forum group’s response was tame in comparison to what came next. I am referring to the outpouring of tweets, the blogs and the Facebook posts. Words were thrown about and repeated – “sensationalist”, “irresponsible” and “damaging” to name a few. Yet, there was something that really bothered me about this. It seemed that the rhetoric was one that had become reused, and quite honestly it felt like many people were more interested in their own voices and flinging scorn at the creators of the movie, instead of actual concern for any young vulnerable viewers. Most of the glorification of this film will be taking place within ‘pro ana’ forums and I imagine the individuals behind these judgemental blogs and posts would be just as judgemental and disapproving of those types of forums.
I feel that some individuals (and no I don’t have names in mind, it just seemed to be everywhere) were preaching from a position that was hardly appropriate. Of course you can be ill and still have views about these kinds of things and I am an example of that myself. But it’s important to stress that you realise that you may not be in the ideal position to advocate recovery because the warnings you put out with the goal of protection can come across as pretty patronising. I know I’d certainly be rolling my eyes as a teenager if someone who was obviously suffering from an eating disorder themselves advised me to avoid watching whatever film or show because it might be bad for me see.
An obvious example of this hypocrisy of which I found myself shaking my head at was a blog that spat disgust and dismay at the contents of the movie, only for the writer to then go on to detail how she herself had been near death from an eating disorder at the weight of ‘x lb’. This huge contradiction of posting her own low weight stats alongside bemoaning the film highlighting this symptomof anorexia was clearly unrecognised..
Don’t get me wrong I am not defending this movie as being of the right tone, or as accurate or as sensitive to the subject matter as it could have been. But neither do I think it showed Ellen, or Eli as she later calls herself, as someone to aspire to, at least not for anyone who isn’t already ill or on the way to becoming so anyway. People don’t become anorexic or bulimic from watching a film. Photos of bones and untouched food on white plates can be found anywhere, saved on hard drives or cut out and put in a scrapbook.
After the movie came out in its entirety there seemed to be a bit of a lull in the hysteria as everything had already been said, before some perspective and consideration for what the movie may have gotten right, and the ways in which it could be worse. Because it really could be.
One fact that had failed to make any of the blogs I read was that they purposely left weight numbers out of the film. Yes it showed body shots, and body checks, Eli lacing her skinny fingers stretched around the top of her arm, measuring, or standing sideways on the scale. Aspects which could be regarded as glamourising anorexia, but again mainly to viewers already on their way down the rabbit hole and potentially vulnerable. On the flip there were many aspects the movie included that can only be seen as quite unpleasant: chewing and spitting at a restaurant, conversations between characters about binging and purging, hiding food and bags of vomit under the bed (but come on, a paper bag? That’s just not going to work!), and also the most unpleasant scene in the film, the loss of a baby with the suggestion that it could be down to the mother’s eating disorder. I certainly do not think that ‘glorifies’ an eating disorder, it is in fact quite horrific.
In terms of providing an authentic view of the typical treatment process there were major flaws. The treatment centre that Eli stayed in seemed more like a holiday lodge compared to what I know of. That portrayal was a bit of a kick in the teeth to anyone that has gone through inpatient treatment for an eating disorder. On the one hand it was stressed that Eli be admitted urgently because she was so gravely ill, a day from death, and yet the facility she was sent to was as relaxed as it could be, with no checks on physical health.
I do not know what residential EDU’s are like in the USA but I can imagine, despite the effect of money changing hands, that there are some aspects of the film that were simply ridiculous and not anyway similar to how inpatient facilities are run. For example, a trip out to a restaurant when you were only admitted the day before? Never. ‘Talking’ therapy straight away? Unlikely. Trips out without vetting as to who was safe to go with some being left behind? Just no. Where were the hourly physical observations, blood pressure taken while standing and sitting, then your temperature and blood drawn at whatever frequency they deemed necessary. Room checks, being watched while you shower and while you pee (it can be bloody hard to go sometimes when you have a nurse peering through the door gap at you.)
The most laughable concept is that they would allow patients to eat whatever they wanted to at the table. It’s more like having to eat what you are given without any choice in the early days, every crumb has to be wiped off the plate, every smear of sauce, or be faced with a replacement shake all while being eyeballed by staff.
I know from talking to people that have eating disorders and live elsewhere in the world without access to free health-care that they can come up against hugely frustrating issues relating to accessing treatment, however urgent it may be. Those in the USA for example who have struggled with insurance coverage and limits on the number of treatment days they are permitted must have been face-palming the ease of which Eli was admitted to the group house.
It feels like so many of the blogs I have read are the same, and honestly I am bored. Mostly because I feel they are failing to bring up the more important holes to be picked during analysis of this film. This amounts to not what it did wrong, but rather what it could have gotten right. It was a failed opportunity to bring something to the table that could spread a little further knowledge and insight into eating disorders, beyond what we see and hear in the media so often: that anorexia is a white, privileged, straight. cis, able bodied woman’s disease. That family dynamics are the root cause, alongside a sense of perfectionism and the need to be in control.
As I mentioned earlier, “To The Bone” is for the most part an autobiographical account, and admittedly a stereotype cannot help being a stereotype, that is the reason stereotypes exist in the first place. But diversity was thin on the ground, and there was so much scope to be had with the other characters in the film. I feel that every one of them was a one dimensional cardboard cut out. The movie was a major cop-out of the challenge to present something new, to truly create awareness and give voices to the unheard.
But instead we had a role call of clichés. The two black women in the film were loud and large: The matron, bossy and straight-to-the-point (but sorry but she’s no Whoopi Goldberg!) and the only overweight patient who has BED and sits at the dining table eating out of a peanut butter tub (as if that would happen in an EDU, yeah.)
Furthermore, the token male in the unit, Luke, is quirky, a bit of a nerd (suspected gay of course), and is a rescuer. He makes Eli laugh, makes her forget about her problems and even gets her to eat. He is the voice of knowledge, the wise and sobering one, and we learn nothing of great depth about him. Having even just the one male patient character could’ve opened up the story so much more by exploring a narrative that only recently has been given some attention with the airing of a couple of television programmes, a special series on BBC3 and efforts from the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT).
What about including a black woman with anorexia? Or a mixed-race character? An older (and I mean over 50 at least) patient on the ward? Perhaps these were not examples of people that the author had true life interactions with but I doubt all of those featured were either, and adaptation screenplays are simply that. The director can and should bring some new material beyond the obvious. This film desperately needed that. It completely lacked any sense of meaningful substance. I certainly did not feel any connection to any of the characters and did not care what happened to them.
Now I come to my biggest irritation of this film and that concerns the gender casting, most of all that of the psychiatrist played by Keanu Reeves. To a much bigger extent than Luke, he is a rescuer. With a God-like complex, he is attractive and appears assured and confident, he is ‘unconventional’ in his methods of treatment, but he is ‘the best’. He will rescue Eli from an eventual death and make her realise that she wants to live! Oh let us all swoon at his pretty eyes as he rushes in to cure the fragile pretty women, most of them young enough to be his daughter!
No, no, no. How does this offer anything beyond the patriarchal, outdated view that women are inferior to men and need looking after? The story would have been so much better if Eli had saved herself.
I was relieved that the ending was not a case of happy-ever-after, with Eli making a swift turnaround from sick to well. Such a neat conclusion would be typical of films like this, or stories shared in magazines or on television shows. Instead we were provided with a more realistic picture. Eli was shown to be moving forward, but yet still on a road to recovery that would be gradual.
“To The Bone” is badly acted, and a disappointment if you are expecting a film that will change the way people regard eating disorders. Nothing is particularly enlightening and instead viewers are fed a multitude of clichés that reinforce the same old ideas. But did I expect any differently? Not really. It will be hard for anyone to ever get it right to be honest, but does that mean they should stop trying? No. Silencing is not the answer; to shut down any depiction of eating disorders on screen would be stifling. Ultimately every time we are faced with these reflections there is conversation, there is debate, and that has got to stand for something.