Is 13 Reasons Why Sensationalizing Suicide and Sexual Assault or Creating Change?

by Sarah Kadous 

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photo credit: Netflix

Trigger Warning: This content includes topics such as suicide, sexual abuse, and depression. 

19 seconds —the amount of time it took to leave bodies across the globe in shock, discomfort, and confusion. 19 seconds that questioned the boundaries of 21st-century youth shows and challenged the gender stigma clouding rape.

In 2017, Netflix released a series based off of a book written by contemporary novelist Jay Asher, titled 13 Reasons Why. Season one lasted 13 episodes that most netflixers binge-watched out of curiosity enticed by its ads across social media. America, along with the rest of the world, watched, thought, complained, congratulated, and debated. Most importantly, we talked.

The story revolves around the social hierarchies of high school, bullying dynamics, and the chain of impacts of mental health. A recurring conflict with this series lies in the mental triggers it has brought upon viewers dealing with mental illnesses. A trigger is something that sets off a memory transporting a person to a traumatizing event. Triggers are usually external, and can also lead to relapsing in recovery or instigate a habit connected to the mental illness.

In season one of 13 Reasons Why, the audience was not impressed with the short disclaimer across a  black screen that appeared before each episode. The mere formality advising viewers discretion simply did not cut it.

“Despite trigger warnings, the content is disturbing — no character should ever offer misguided advice like “[self harm] is what you do to not commit suicide,” says Executive Director of Sad Girls Club, a platform focusing on mental health, Emily Odessor, about season one of 13RW.

Season one was a mess. A possibly well intentioned, poorly acted, misleading, unhealthy mess.

“I’ve been rooting for positive representation of teens and other young people that aren’t neurotypical in mainstream media” says Odessor. “I was really hoping that a show about someone who commits suicide would be able to spread the awareness in a way that would both normalize mental illness and offer resources for suicidal teens”.

That, however, was not the case. Hannah was painted to be an archetypal representation of mental illness and her death was romantically centered around Clay.  The show’s lack of solid advice and revengeful portrayal almost presented suicide to be an option. Viewers were surprised by the unforeseen news of season 2’s arrival in May of 2018, but it took one scene to cross a line that “runs too far”.  

Season 2, episode 13, specifically the within the final 40 minutes, presents a horrifically graphic scene of the photographer, Tyler Down, being physically abused and raped by a jock baseball player, Montgomery De la Cruz. From personally watching the scene and reading the tweets that flooded through the internet after the release, there’s no doubt that viewers were unhappy by the content of this episode. However, of the 99 problems I found of those 13 episodes, the graphic scenes were not the only one.



photo credit: Netflix

Yes— we found it too sad, too graphic, too real. We found it too uncomfortable. But that’s the point. In fact,  I would find it far more concerning if the teens and adults of our planet could sit still comfortably for 19 seconds of extreme assault and not feel uncomfortable.

It is not uncommon that your favorite Michael Bay films include gruesome images of violence and homicide, all in the name of Hollywood entertainment. So, why is it that when a show comes out that also includes severely graphic scenes, but for the purpose of educating and advocating, the public media is quick to shut it down?  

“Sexual assault with male victims is exponentially more under- reported than sexual assault in general,” says the  producer of 13RW. Audiences left that episode different.  Pop culture t.v. is notorious for merely implying incidents of rape, assault, and any other serious issues that pertain to youth. If people are able to finish the scene, continue on with the episode, close their computers and carry on with their lives without discussing or even remembering the content they witnessed, then it wasn’t as effective.


598b2e1218b69822008b492f-750-563photo credit: Netflix

We do not get to pick and choose the different triggers we accept. Yes, triggers are a universally felt concept, but they are also widely subjective. As a person who has personally struggled with mental illness, I’ll be the first to say that triggers lure everywhere. Opening Instagram triggers me, reading certain articles trigger me, seeing people outside triggers me. And though the same may not stand for everyone, we should not hold producers responsible for other people’s triggers. There will always be different degrees of provocations, and we cannot consider one level without considering thousands, and ultimately compromising opportunities of education. Because of this, season 2 opened up with a far longer PSA video made by the characters of the show, that not only warned viewers about the content but also offered outlets of aid via their website.  

Writing and directing is an art, no different from stroking a paintbrush or sculpting with two hands, and essentially, art has no limits. There is no line that the producers could have crossed in order to paint their message. Asking an artist to place a frame of social acceptance around their work is ultimately diluting the overall vision of the piece. 13 Reasons Why is untimely, difficult to digest, and beyond controversial, all while sparking dialogues of awareness across the globe.

Sarah Kadous

Sarah Kadous is a 15 year old Muslim American political activist and writer from the mostly sunny San Diego, CA. Kadous is currently a sophomore at Mt. Carmel High School, and plans on pursuing a career in political journalism and public policy once she graduates. When she’s not fulfilling her duties as a writer for Adolescent Content and Pure Nowhere, you’ll fine her rocking out to Tchaikovsky in her bedroom, eating a plethora of strawberries, protesting on the streets or angrily listening to the news while on a run. 

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