Is 13 Reasons Why’s triggering content acceptable artistic expression?

Examining if the contentious Netflix series is exempt from moral considerations

Clay and Hannah from 13 Reasons Why.
Photo: 

This article mentions suicide and sexual violence and may be triggering for some readers.

Netflix’s hit series 13 Reasons Why has been making waves with its controversial depiction of teen suicide since its premiere in 2017. After continuing to deliver increasingly divisive plotlines in its recently released second season, the show has proven to be a unique case study in artistic expression without moral considerations.

13 Reasons Why follows the aftermath of protagonist Hannah Baker’s suicide and the 13 students she names as reasons for ending her life. Hannah records 13 tapes prior to her death to document her high school experience, focusing on the bullying, abuse and deception she endured. 

While the show claims to shed light on the toxic effects of bullying and mental illness, it’s been accused of doing so irresponsibly and recklessly at times.

Despite being well-received for its acting, the continued presence of Hannah in 13RW’s second season, released in mid-May, has exposed the series to criticism. 

Having Hannah remain a part of the show, despite committing suicide at the end of the first season, has many viewers and mental health professionals fearing our conception of teen suicide has been romanticized.

13RW isn’t bringing awareness to the effects of mental illness—it’s grossly misrepresenting what it actually feels like to be suicidal.   

Suicide in art isn’t anything rare or new. Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s play depicting two star-crossed lovers, is still beloved despite romanticizing both its main characters’ suicide. The play revolves around two people hopelessly in love and neglects any of the mental health issues they may experience, yet it is still regularly taught in high schools across Canada. 

This begs the question of whether we can appreciate and revere a work of art for its creative merits without considering its moral implications.

In the second season of 13RW, its characters’ anger, guilt and grief over the passing of their classmate escalates. Drug abuse and gun violence is introduced, and in the season finale a male character is even brutally and graphically assaulted in their school’s bathroom.

Philippe Gauthier, an adjunct assistant professor in Queen’s Film and Media department, told The Journal that television and other art forms can often spark constructive discussion in a way that daily life can’t. 

Citing the Netflix series Jessica Jones—which depicts former superhero Jessica Jones grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder after being raped—Gauthier said scenes which expose the reality of mental illnesses and abuse are imperative in our fight to address them. 

“Most shows need to show rape to address it,” Gauthier said of Jessica Jones via email. “Even if the camera looks away or opts to hold another character’s gaze, there needs to be one moment where it’s clear the act has taken place.” 

Hannah’s suicide in 13RW is a foundational part of the show—without it, there wouldn’t be a plot. Everything said or done on behalf of its characters revolves around her death. Even if the act of her committing suicide wasn’t portrayed on-screen, the notion of it lingers in viewers’ minds.   

For Gauthier, showing the hardships characters endure could act as catalysts for progressive and healthier change in society.

“One of the many functions of popular culture is to enlighten and empower individuals by providing role models for behaviour,” Gauthier said. “In a nutshell, these role models inspire us to change our own behaviour and put a human face on social change, so that developments might be more readily accepted.”

13RW uses its “role models” to push the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable, as evidenced by its blunt depiction of suicide and sexual assault. This plays into the importance of noticing warning signs, reaching out to friends and family, and making mental health treatment accessible without stigma. 

The suicide and multiple rape scenes in 13RW, while unsettling to watch, are ways of exposing the reality of trauma and the effects of bullying and abuse. Putting a face to mental health or social struggles can inspire people to both seek help and acknowledge they aren’t dealing with an issue alone.  

Gauthier said Jessica Jones’ portrayal of its main character’s assault “reminds us that not putting a name to the assault or a face to it keeps it in the dark, and people who have been sexually assaulted have to carry the weight of their own assault alone.”

Through bringing these sensitive subjects to the forefront mainstream entertainment, art can resist the moral standards enforced on society in the name of artistic expression and free speech. 

Students watching 13RW can learn from the characters’ missteps to become more sympathetic and aware of the way they treat their peers. Ultimately, the nature of the show is to shock people into conversation—not to shelter viewers from difficult realities. 

At some point, individuals are required to determine for themselves what they will or won’t watch. It can’t be left to the artists to decide what’s appropriate for each person. 

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