Art can take on many forms, and until recently, tv shows is it’s more popular and dynamic medium. The purpose of art always boils down to educating, entertaining, or informing. Often, tv shows mirror reality in order to underscore the absurdity or urgency of social issues like gender inequality, substance abuse, and rape culture. 13 Reasons Why, a popular Netflix TV series, discusses some of these issues and attempts to offer a well-intentioned message about being kinder to others and asking for help when you need it. However, some suicide prevention experts say the series could do more harm than good.
13 Reasons Why revolves around a high school student, Clay Jensen, and his friend Hannah Baker, a girl who takes her own life after suffering a series of demoralizing circumstances brought on by select individuals at her school. A box of cassette tapes recorded by Hannah before her suicide details thirteen reasons why she ended her life. In season 1, the people involved in her death learn about some of the mistakes they made that caused Hannah to commit suicide, while in season 2, the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide is the focus. As the school is taken to trial by Hannah’s parents, her classmates are forced to testify, and we learn more about how their lives have changed because of Hannah’s death. Issues like the culture of bullying, misogyny, and sexual assault are explored elaborately through the two 13-episode seasons.
Interestingly, the second season of 13 Reasons Why begins with a hybrid PSA and mature content disclaimer, with the show’s leads addressing the camera to warn that the series “tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more.” They caution that “if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult” and urge anyone who needs to talk to someone to reach out for help. This PSA was the result of the controversies surrounding Hannah’s graphic suicide scene in Season 1. Many, including mental health professionals, warned that such a realistic portrayal of suicide coupled with the tapes dramatized and sensationalized Hannah’s sufferings. Moreover, it could lead to suicide contagion. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention supported these claims, and The National Association of School Psychologists issued guidelines for educators in talking with students about the show, while the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature created new standards to advise that under-18s don’t watch the series without adult supervision. All in all, the show sent a tremor through the world and forced people to take about social issues that no one except the victims discussed.
In Season 2, there was a graphic scene that came under scrutiny – Tyler’s sexual assault scene. Tyler, an archetypal loner who passes his time taking photos for the yearbook, is ostracized by everyone at the school. Tyler becomes friends with punk kids, who encourage him to act on his desire to take revenge on those who tortured him. Together, they blackmail the perpetrators and even vandalize the school’s football field paid for by Bryce, the jock accused of raping several girls. Tyler eventually gets caught, is disowned by his friends, and sent to a behavioral rehab program after vandalizing the school baseball field. When he returns, the baseball team is not happy with him. Monty, one of the lackeys of Bryce, is particularly unhappy to see Tyler return. In an act of anger and frustration, Monty sexually assaults him by sticking a broom up Tyler’s rectum.
Other than the horrific plotline itself, what makes the scene scarring is the plea in Tyler’s eyes and his genuine plea. The bulge in his eyes as the broom is shoved up there makes it harder to watch. While it does highlight systemic bullying in public education and male rape, it does so in a gruesome, disturbing way. There is also criticism of the use of violence as entertainment and for shock-value buzz. Moreover, many argued that the director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who also directed the controversial suicide scene from the first season, could have avoided capturing the real and violent trauma of an assault and instead make the same point through a different scene, especially given the outcry over the season one suicide scene and the potential harm of its realism.
I also believe that it sends a wrong message to the younger demographic. Through the narrative, we see Tyler transition from a wild, angry, and frustrated boy to a happy, rational, and genuine man. As soon as he returns from the rehab center, he has a mature conversation with his guidance counselor, and there isn’t a glimpse of that frustrated boy, who wanted desperately to take revenge on his classmates for doing him wrong. His encounters with his ex-friends are pleasant, which show that he truly has learned to accept and move on, traits that are admirable. But, with Monty sexually assaulting Tyler, we see that his environment hasn’t changed. As a result, it instills in teenagers, the primary target audience of the show, that things will never get better and that bullying is perpetual.
So, the question begs to be asked: Should tv shows mirror reality when dealing with sensitive social issues? That’s a loaded question and one that hasn’t been resolved in ages because there is a moral dilemma – too much and the younger demographic is frighted, provoked into making Hannah’s decision, but too little, and they will never understand what victims go through and how they suffer.
As put by
It is not the media, in whatever form, that should be causing anxiety, but substantial cuts in mental health fundingas well as the continuing discrimination and stigma attached to such conditions… 13 Reasons Why will not cause people to take their own lives. It is anxiety, depression and major stress that are the triggers.
Perhaps our time would be best served by thinking of ways to help those most in need by protesting against the damage being done to suicide prevention services by policies such as austerity, rather than awarding a TV series – or indeed a book – more power than it actually has.
Perhaps the brutal and horrific scene of Tyler’s sexual assault wasn’t needed, but maybe the director included it in order to underline the seriousness of the issue. Male rape is rarely depicted on screen and in pop culture, let alone talked about on a mainstream level. Statistics state that 1 in 6 men have been sexually assaulted or abused, and those incidents, like Tyler’s, are rarely reported, leading to a lifetime of trauma and, in many cases, mental illness. The shock value will likely start a conversation and force people to deal with these social issues that plague our world.
Here’s some interesting responses from Twitter: