Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Death and the Body Beautiful: Aesthetics and Embodiment in Press Portrayals of Requested Death in Australia on the Edge of the 21st Century

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Death and the Body Beautiful: Aesthetics and Embodiment in Press Portrayals of Requested Death in Australia on the Edge of the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Introduction

Several developments around dying and death in the latter half of the twentieth century can be seen to constitute a new social movement (NSM) of this epoch: the requested death movement (RDM) (Mclnerney 2000). The movement has achieved progressive international visibility in social and legislative arenas in the 'developed' world in the last two decades of the twentieth century, which persists into the new millennium. One of the most important manifestations of this movement was the passage and operation of the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia's Rights of the Terminally Ill (ROTI) Act 1995 in 1996-7, the first legislation to legalise euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Elsewhere (Mclnerney 2006), I have explored press constructions of death and dying that emerged around the ROTI Act 1995, specifically an heroic discourse that featured in constructions of both those requesting death and those supporting such requests. The first part of this paper identifies two further significant discourses identified in the Australian press which operated in tandem during that time period, those of aesthetics and embodiment. These discourses are argued to resonate with modern preoccupations with corporeal presentation and identity, and I examine how this emphasis might influence constructions of contemporary dying, in particular the association between bodily integrity and requested death.

NSMs arise in part in response to state penetration into formerly private spheres, such as the body and sexuality. Social movement organisations and their activists seek to persuade others of their framing of particular conditions as problematic and to garner support for their calls for change. RDM proponents call for the redefinition of the relationship of the individual to their body as they approach death, principally via the means of euthanasia and PAS. The media is an important cultural resource; a primary mechanism by which individuals construct meanings of social phenomena, including social problems (Gamson 1995). This is particularly relevant for social issues of which people have little or no personal experience (Chapman and Lupton 1994) such as death (Crayford et al 1997; Nancarrow Clarke 2004), making it a potent conduit for both the RDM's portrayal of contemporary dying as a grotesque and intolerable predicament, and its preferred solutions' of euthanasia and PAS for this putative situation. Following Elias's (2000 [1939]) notions on the civilizing process', I argue that these constructions around dying can be seen as a particular product of late modern sensitivities to corporeal imperfections and bodily control more generally.

Sites of requested death discourse

Prominent depictions of dying and death were identified in four Australian newspapers around the time of the ROTI Act 1995. These publications were The Age and Herald Sun dailies from Victoria, The Northern Territory News (NTN), the NT's daily, and The Australian, the country's national daily. The first two were selected because I reside in Victoria and their circulation covers a wide socio-economic demographic. The NTN was selected as, while the issue was framed as of national - indeed, international - significance from early on, this publication provided media exposure to the particular geographic region in which requested death was legalised and enacted. The national daily was added to add further geographic diversity. The Northern Territory News and the Herald Sun axe both tabloid' publications, while The Age and The Australian are 'quality broadsheets' which appeal to a well-educated, middle-class, national readership and [also] command considerable political influence nationally' (Hazelton 1997:74). As Lupton (1994:28) notes, [t]here are major differences in the ways that the tabloid and the "quality" or broadsheet press reports issues and events', with tabloids opting for dramatic visuals such as 'huge headlines' and large photographic images, and the broadsheets more detailed coverage. …

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