But then the turn happened. (Spoilers to follow. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know more!)
Episode two of S-Town ends with the news that John B. McLemore has committed suicide. To be fair, Reed does express real concern over McLemore and his elderly mother, and even their friend Tyler, but the very premise of the show seems, well, exploitative. By the end of the series, Reed concludes that McLemore did commit suicide, likely because he was driven mad by mercury poisoning.
The odd part is how the show frames McLemore’s life, and especially his eccentricity. When discussing McLemore with other Woodstock residents, they all acknowledge his intelligence and cultured demeanor—how he enjoyed the arts and sciences, his love of antique clocks. They also suggest that he had been unraveling for years, that the entire town knew he was odd, perhaps mentally ill. Several people mention John told them he planned to kill himself.
Many journalists have noted that S-Town might be unethical because it explores details about McLemore’s life that he likely did not want shared. Reed even states at several points that he was told to keep conversations off the record, yet he summarizes these conversations anyway. He often says he doesn’t think McLemore would care, but I wonder if he would. More importantly, I argue that, regardless of John’s hypothetical wishes, our obsession with S-Town reveals important truths about how we view disability2 in America.
As some of our readers know, I focus on disability studies in my personal academic work, so I have a wealth of theorists and texts to draw from. Buckle up and let’s get theoretical for a moment.
John B. McLemore is the subject of S-Town, and that subjectivity reflects a larger issue in disability studies. One of my favorite scholars, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, argues that staring objectifies the disabled, making them objects in someone else’s story instead of subjects in their own.3 This dynamic occurs between a starer and a staree, but podcasts work in a similar way; the audience acts as a starer—able to gaze into the lives of the podcast’s subjects without any fear of judgement—and the subject of the podcast must face social scrutiny like a staree.
And here we enter into the ethical problems with the podcast. As the essays linked above state, S-Town probably shouldn’t have been made, and I agree. The dead cannot consent to participating in podcasts, and the recently dead still have family and friends to feel the effects of their loss. Reed’s detailed accounts of McLemore’s personal information, including his sexual preferences and his masochism, seems like a breach of privacy. It’s not Reed’s information to tell.
S-Town continues a tradition of media (be it television shows, movies, news articles, etc.) using disabled individuals as dramatic story hooks. These stories usually go one of two ways; the disabled person is a tragedy and lives a sad life. Audiences feel bad for them. Alternately, the disabled subject might live a hard life, but ultimately overcome it to be an “inspiration.” Both of these story models fail to capture the true experience of disabled people, which is often like anyone else—good and bad. In the case of S-Town, John McLemore acts as a cautionary tale of the dangers of being queer and smart in the rural South, but the show writes off his suicide as a sad case of mental illness—depression, or some sort of mania, or both.
Suicide is a hot topic right now in pop culture. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (based on the young adult novel by Jay Asher) features a graphic suicide scene and has garnered criticism from the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and Teen Vogue for not suggesting alternatives to suicide like therapy or medication. S-Town doesn’t graphically describe McLemore’s suicide, but it does use his death to suggest a sense of mystery, thereby drawing the podcast out several more episodes. I don’t fear (as I do with 13 Reasons Why) that there will be copycat suicides resulting from a podcast. Yet using a death as a point of dramatic intrigue undermines the importance of mental health and accepting help regardless of the social environment one lives in.
Exploitation often appears innocuous because it’s entertaining, but it’s our job as a society to examine our personal choices and interests more closely. Mental illness is a reality that many individuals live—and thrive!—with. We should stop stigmatizing mental illness or treating it as an oddity, and start acknowledging it for what it is—a simple difference.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to local community resources or the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
About the Blog
The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.