13 Reasons Why: Are Trigger Warnings Enough?

The controversy never ends.

The Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” has brought back the topic of entertainment accountability once again for public debate with many deeming the show too triggering and too graphic for the intended demographic or any audience demographic for that matter, regardless of the trigger warnings placed on the show. The show focuses on its main character “Hannah”, who commits suicide and leaves behind tapes explaining why she resorted to that. The last two episodes (12 and 13), which showed a rape scene and Hannah’s graphic suicide, were the episodes which made the show unacceptable and too graphic regardless of the fact that trigger warnings were placed before these two episodes. Viewers argued that the show was romanticizing suicide and pushing vulnerable teens to follow in Hanna’s footsteps so therefore, they called for cancelling the show or removing the graphic scene of Hannah’s suicide, the latter which eventually happened. This brings up the question, “What can be considered too much for television and what is too graphic regardless of trigger warnings and age restrictions placed on shows?” 

        One of the many questions asked about this topic is whether trigger warnings a passing ticket to allow the making of extreme scenes on TV shows. The scenes of  “13 Reasons Why” are beyond triggering. While, yes, they tackle an important issue that is common in our reality, they also spread negativity to the people who had similar experiences, or to people who are too sensitive to watch the graphic scenes in the show. In a recent study conducted by Harvard, three professors had students view trigger warnings before reading passages that had disturbing content in them, while other students read the passages without viewing the warnings. The researchers actually concluded that trigger warnings have absolutely no significance. Trigger warnings are made to help people with past traumatic experiences, such as rape, but the study had zero students who had experienced any traumas. Everyone who was warned about watching or reading too aggressive footage or content felt just as badly as the ones who were not given any warnings. And even if the warnings have slightly positive effects on some people, these are nothing compared to the harm befalling everybody else. Not only that, but one 23-year-old male in Peru died by committing suicide and actually copied the series by leaving behind tapes and a paper with names written on it, claiming that they were the reason behind his suicide. 

       Many people then attacked the show, believing that it discussed depression and teen suicide in an unhealthy and unhelpful way. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention has specific guidelines on how to safely portray suicide without accidentally causing more deaths, but the show evidently disregarded these guidelines by adding the scene where the character, Hannah, is seen killing herself by cutting her wrists. The series also glorifies suicide, by making it the only solution which will effectively send a message to the world, while in fact, it’s the absolute opposite: the most effective way to send a message to the world is to thrive, find help no matter where it is, and survive so you can tell your story yourself. In one scene, a character justifies Hannah’s self-harm by describing it as one thing to do instead of killing yourself, which makes people think that it’s a good compromise instead of suicide. Lastly, the show can be seen treating suicide as a revenge story by making everyone who are the “reason” Hannah committed suicide feel guilty, which is cruel, inconsiderate, and not something people who commit suicide would actually do. So, basically, the show might not only trigger the people who watch it, but it can also engrave into their minds wrong thoughts and ideas. Maybe the show helped some people and that is absolutely great, but it also harmed many others. It’s important that we find a solution to either strengthen trigger warnings in any way, or just not make extreme scenes like the ones in many TV shows.

        On the other hand, society has always been trying to blame entertainment media, be it TV shows, movies or video games, in order to place less blame on themselves. It is not a question whether TV shows like “13 Reasons Why” have an effect on someone’s mental state, they most definitely do, especially if the person watching is already struggling with mental health. That is why there are trigger warnings placed before certain episodes. Yet people are again choosing to put the blame on TV shows rather than on parents who have failed to monitor what their children are watching and on people paying no mind to trigger warnings and continuing to watch the show. When a person chooses to watch something regardless of the warnings placed beforehand, they have to be aware of the possibility that the content might be triggering for them and may place them in a fragile mental state. Trigger warnings are there for a reason, so choosing to ignore that warning in favor of knowing what happens in the show is a choice that an audience member makes and therefore has to take full responsibility for.

       “13 Reasons Why” has opened up conversations about mental health, bullying, and suicide, with the show being the most tweeted about TV show in 2017 after its initial release. These conversations have the ability to diminish the stigma surrounding depression and other mental disorders and to help us take these issues more seriously. Many of these discussions would not have happened if it were not for the graphic scenes that are included in this show. Scenes like the gruesome suicide scenes are anything but romanticizing suicide, instead these scenes show how painful and scary it is for someone to take their own life and it helps audience members face the harsh and uncomfortable truth that this is how a person’s life might end if their mental health issues were not taken seriously and if they’re not offered help when they need it, just like Hannah.

       The show has had incredible positive effect in spite of the harsh criticism, with a study showing that 71% of teens and young adults found the show relatable, and nearly three-quarters of teen and young adult viewers said the show made them feel more comfortable processing tough topics. More than 50% reached out to someone to apologize for how they had treated them, and nearly 75% of teens said they tried to be more considerate about how they treated others after watching the show.

       After exploring both sides of the argument, we would love to hear from you on this issue. Do you believe that trigger warnings make a difference? Should entertainment media be held accountable for the impact they have on their audiences? Tell us your opinions in the comment section.