13 Reasons Why is nothing more than a series of highly questionable ethical decisions dressed up as edgy social commentary

Do not be fooled by the self-serving declarations of this show’s creators: this is not important, noble or ingenious television

13 Reasons Why season 2 trailer

It’s time to cancel the popular teen series 13 Reasons Why. The Parents Television Council have launched a campaign to have the Netflix show axed immediately, and I could not agree with them more. The show has a disturbing history and it no longer deserves airtime.

Last year, it was the graphic depiction of a young woman ending her own life, against all vehement expert advice that we do not show the act of suicide on television. This year, it’s a brutal rape scene, with similarly callous disregard for how it might affect the people watching it.

In the season two finale, a young man is gang-raped with an object and left bloodied, bruised and traumatised. It is beyond triggering for anyone who has been through something like this, and it is not excused by the fact that the show now comes heavily laden with warnings that it deals with “tough, real-life issues”.

Rape is rarely done sensitively or appropriately on television, and this is certainly not one of those times. In this case, rape is an opportunistic narrative device used to give the show the illusion of being edgy. It is not an authentic, intelligent, tactful or well-intended attempt to convey what it is really like to be attacked in that way – though the creators have of course claimed that it is.

In response to complaints about the show, the website Vulture contacted 13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey for comment. He predictably defended the gratuitous rape scene, saying, “We’re committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can. We fully understand that that means some of the scenes in the show will be difficult to watch.”

He speaks as though their “commitment to telling truthful stories” in “an unflinching way” is noble; that his show is serving the community by going where other programmes have been scared to go.

Perhaps, in this case, he should have flinched. He should be committed, as the creator of a show aimed squarely at teenagers, to producing content that is age-appropriate, sensitively done and in line with the global consensus on what is safe for people to consume.

These scenes are not just “difficult to watch”; they are actively dangerous and extremely reckless. Instead of earning a legacy for making groundbreaking, provocative TV, Yorkey ought to have a reputation for putting his own dramatic inclinations above the safety of his audience.

The first season of 13 Reasons Why aired last year to both rapturous acclaim and justified disgust. Teen viewers loved it for its candid, salacious plot about school bullying; parents were rightfully frightened by its concerning messages about suicide, mental health and violence. Against all expert advice, the show depicted an extremely graphic suicide scene starring the protagonist Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford.

There are clear and unambiguous guidelines on the depiction of suicide in media, both factual and fictional, and the most important rule is that we do not mention or show the method. This is because when we do, we risk a very serious and very real phenomenon called suicide contagion or copycat suicide, where vulnerable people feel inspired to replicate the high-profile suicide themselves. This has been observed through spikes in suicide rates directly after graphic depictions have aired on TV.

Showrunners, directors and scriptwriters disregarded these excruciatingly important rules so that they could maximise the dramatic impact of their television show. It was reprehensible.

Their decision to do so allegedly resulted in real-life suicide: the parents of teenagers Bella Herndon and Priscilla Chiu, both 15 when they took their own lives, believe they were inspired by the series.

The show also lead to a surge in Google searches for the methods of suicide – which those who worked on the show framed as a positive thing because it “started a conversation” – but I can only see as desperately sad and potentially dangerous.

So, first suicide, now rape. Added to this, the premiere of the show was postponed because there is a scene that suggests one of its characters may carry out a shooting on school grounds, which was seen as inappropriate (for a while) given what just happened in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 children died.

13 Reasons Why is glorifying and sensationalising some of the grimmest experiences of young people, while claiming simply to represent them truthfully and courageously. Do not be fooled by the self-serving declarations of this show’s creators: this is not important, noble or ingenious television. This is a series of highly questionable ethical decisions dressed up as social commentary; this is dangerous television masquerading as entertainment.

13 Reasons Why should never have been given a second season. It does not deserve a third and it should not be available for any more young people to watch.

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