Trigger Warnings Aren’t Enough: Netflix’s "13 Reasons Why" is Bad Fiction
Much has been written about 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix show in which high school junior Hannah Baker dies by suicide and leaves cassette tapes detailing why she did it--but not all of it has been good. The series has been criticized for idealizing teen suicide and brushing aside mental illness to the point that even suicide prevention organizations hate it. This backlash has led to concern that the show is so triggering to anyone struggling with these issues that it might put such viewers at risk.
In response to these concerns, Netflix announced on May 1st that it will include better trigger warnings before each episode. But trigger warnings aren’t enough: the problems of this show go too deep to simply warn the audience that the show is problematic. The storyline itself is harmful. Here are five reasons why 13 Reasons Why fails on the level of craft:
1. It brings up issues it doesn’t engage.
The show has been praised for “tackling real issues,” but it isn’t tackling anything. What it actually does is throw so many “buzzword” subjects into the mix that it can’t possibly handle them all with the sensitivity they deserve. Bullying, drunk driving, rape, suicide--just including a laundry list of problems that teenagers “really face” doesn’t mean a show is automatically engaging these issues, let alone engaging them productively. Take, for example, Tyler planning a school shooting. The placement of this reveal in the final moments of the last episode clearly indicate its purpose: to get audiences excited for a second season. In these moments, the TV show isn’t taking the time to comment on the causes or ramifications of a gun violence in American schools. It offers only superficial suggestions for Tyler’s actions; the nuances and complexities of such a decision are ignored. Such fleeting, dismissive plot lines are all over the show, and as each issue is introduced it gets less attention and exploration than the last one.
2. It overdoes everything.
What is more dramatic than death? Oh, I know! A teenager’s—no, two teenagers’—wait, maybe even three teenagers’—deaths! Consider Jeff’s death by car accident. It happens late in the season and has little impact on the narrative. It’s not a direct contributor to Hannah’s downward spiral. His death is tacked on for that extra dramatic flair. The final episode, referenced above, sees Alex is shot in the head--it’s unclear whether by himself or by Tyler--but, again, it serves no purpose in Hannah’s narrative and is pointless except to hook viewers for another season. “Narrative 101” teaches that a good ending should feel surprising-yet-inevitable: audiences do not see the ending coming, but once it arrives they are left with the impression it couldn’t have gone any other way. Where audiences are shocked without any sense of inevitability, they feel tricked. In other words, all of the bad things that happen in a story need to feel connected in some way, or at least ripple out from the same initiating event, so that an audience can see the lines (no matter how complex) that led from point A to point B. But in 13 Reasons Why, the lists of terrible things--Jessica’s rape, Jeff’s death, Hannah’s rape, Alex’s injury--are not connected by a narrative thread; none of the events depend on any of the others to have happened. They are isolated events. Instead, they feel piled on and meaningless, written not for the sake of developing an arc, but simply for shock value. When you boil the story down, Hannah’s story reads as a series of unfortunate coincidences, not a narrative where each piece sets the next in motion. It doesn’t matter if life really happens that way; coincidences make for unbelievable storytelling.
3. It’s all about the boys.
Okay, so maybe this one is as much a society problem as a narrative problem. But seriously? A young woman commits suicide and narrates most of the show posthumously and still the whole cast is crawling with men who think they should be The One Who Decides What to Do About It—from lovesick protagonist Clay, hellbent on justice, to the athletes determined to prove her a liar (and oh, could someone write an entire separate essay about the misogyny and white privilege embodied in Bryce, the rapist). Even fan-favorite Tony gets to call most of the shots as the self-declared Spokesperson for Hannah and What She Would Have Wanted. What female characters are included are repeatedly silenced by their male counterparts in scenes ranging from comic (anything Ryan ever says to Courtney) to tragic (Justin convincing Jessica, since she was too drunk to remember, that nothing happened to her at that party).
4. It’s exploitative.
This is the problem Netflix can’t solve with trigger warnings. There is a difference between engaging your audience and exploiting them. Consider the scene where Hannah is violently raped: few viewers will watch that scene without an intense reaction, and the intensity of the emotions it triggers may result in the viewer feeling invested in the show. But getting a reaction is not the same thing as telling a story. A writer has not created a meaningful narrative just because they show something that’s hard to look away from (or hard to watch).
Sometimes, the closer one sticks to a “realistic portrayal” of something, the more the craft suffers. There are other, subtler ways to reach viewers emotionally without shocking violence or graphic images. This scene makes me feel my emotions are being manipulated, as if the writers didn’t trust me to feel anything deeply unless it was explicitly and violently shown in every detail.
I once had a professor in a creative writing workshop who said she rejects any story where an animal dies, because she is consciously aware that her emotions are being used against her and she resents it. It’s the mark of a novice. Similarly, the New York Times’ “Lives” submission guidelines encourage writers not to write a story about death: Not because death is unrealistic, or because death doesn’t matter, but because in telling a story it is far more impressive to achieve emotional reaction with restraint rather than to achieve it with over-indulgence. In 13 Reasons Why there is no restraint; it indulges in every impulse and every dirty detail. It comes across not as authentic and edgy, but as lazy, a cheap stab at tension without doing any of the hard work to make us care about these characters.
5. It’s WILDLY sensationalized.
Speaking of over-indulgence, Hannah’s graphic death scene is a prime example of sensationalism. The razor blades, the blood, the screams, the discovery of her already dead body by her mother--on a narrative level, it’s all completely over-the-top. Like Hannah’s rape, the scene, as filmed, will certainly elicit a reaction. But it does little to advance the story.
Let me be clear: I’m not arguing a blanket prohibition against graphic violence in TV and film. But I take issue with senseless violence. Screenwriter and show creator Brian Yokey said in Beyond the Reasons, a series of interviews that plays after the show, that they purposefully wanted the scene to be “painful to watch.” Show writer Nic Sheff explains in an op-ed for Vanity Fair that the producers and writers were aiming to de-glamorize suicide by showing it as “a very horrific thing to endure.” Despite their good intentions, this decision seems very clearly to be made primarily to shock--not to engage. It is one thing to produce a show that doesn’t shy away from realistic depictions in order to open a dialogue, and another thing entirely to intentionally show kids “something that’ll shake them,” as Selena Gomez put it. Journalists are taught not to give details of what it’s like to die by suicide. Including this scene against professional advice reveals, once and for all, that the show is committed not to creating a conversation that might reduce suicide, but rather to provoking public interest and excitement. It might make people more aware of the problem, but it doesn’t do anything to solve the problem.
No matter what damage control Netflix might offer in the form of trigger warnings, 13 Reasons Why fails at the level of craft. What’s the point of trigger warnings when the material exists only to trigger? Content created with the sole purpose of being shocking or exploitative will never merit the risk carried by potentially damaging subject matter. This approach is more than triggering: this is bad storytelling.