How do we know when we’ve stepped over the line creatively?
13 Reasons Why, is one of the most popular shows on Netflix right now, but should we be watching it? Should it have been filmed? Or even created? These are the questions tossing around in my head at the moment.
The story follows Hannah Baker, a young girl who experiences severe bullying and trauma to the point where she commits suicide. She leaves behind several cassette tapes for a selection of classmates explaining why they and the choices they made are the reason why she ended her life.
13 Reasons Why, which was inspired by the book of the same name, written by Jay Asher, has come under an unexpected attack by several mental health organisations around Australia and the US. They’ve urged teens and young adults to avoid the show because of the extreme graphic content.
I have to say, I’m torn. On one hand, I completely understand their concern. However, as a writer, filmmaker and creative, I was impressed with the story and their willingness to show the raw situations and even the actual suicide.
In the featurette, 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, producer Selena Gomez said, “We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest, and we wanted to make something that could hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option.”
But now with organisations like Headspace, issuing warnings to younger viewers, I have to take another look at what the role of the creative is in all this.
In an interview with Channel 9’s Today Extra, Child Psychologist Dr. Michael Carr-Gregg stated, “It’s essentially an audio-visual manual for suicide.”
Can it be true? Can a story impact the world in such a negative way, when their aim was to bring awareness and give less power to these horrible situations?
When talking about the choice to film the actual suicide, Brian Yorkey, Executive Producer said, “We worked very hard not be too gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worth while about suicide.”
The Effect of the Creative
The job of a creative is to speak where others can’t. Creatives have a way of putting words to how people feel. Growing up, I was always impressed with how songs and shows could put words to feelings I couldn’t explain and because they were able to express them, it helped me grow in maturity, but I have to wonder if we can go to far in revealing truth.
More than anything, what 13 Reasons Why reminds me of, is the importance of our words and choices. This is a central theme in the show, but also is being revealed in the backlash it’s now experiencing. Where they aimed to tell the truth and give people a hope there were other solutions than suicide, it now appears they’ve only brought further damage.
In one news source, Headspace has said they’re receiving more calls and emails which are in direct correlation with the show. Obviously, they’re concerned, but I can’t help wondering if the show has actually done more good than harm.
There were many times during the show, where I kept hoping Hannah would tell the truth, that she would take her communication teacher’s advice and tell people when they’d hurt her.
Then one night I had a small argument with a friend. As a teen and young adult, my usual response to these kinds of situations was to internally shut down, but when my friend came back around and asked if I was ok, instead of shutting down, I told her, with no aggression what she’d said, made me feel like I didn’t have a right to voice what I was saying. I was surprised by how easily the situation was resolved once we’d both calmly spoken the truth.
And this came as a direct response to my experience and the lessons I’d learned from watching 13 Reasons Why.
In a Vanity Fair article, Nic Sheff, one of the writers of the show talked about his own experience with depression and his attempt to take his life. He recounts while he was trying to take his life, a memory of another woman’s story of how she’d tried to commit suicide, came back to him and stopped him from going further. “The whole story came back to me in heightened detail.” He said, “It was an instant reminder that suicide is never peaceful and painless, but instead an excruciating, violent end to all hopes and dreams and possibilities for the future.”
The Role of the Creative
It’s hard to look at both sides of this argument and know which way I should “vote”. In the end, I have to look back to Jesus. The best storyteller of all. The stories he told were very confronting. In fact, during one tale, the Bible talks about several of the disciples turning back and choosing to no longer follow him, they said, “This is a hard saying…” and then they left. (John Chapter 6, Verses 60-66)
Ultimately, creatives have the responsibility and duty to impart wisdom and truth to their audience. It’s their gift and their curse. Sometimes this will be received well, other times there will be backlash. I have to trust as long as I am owning this responsibility and doing everything I can to be sensitive and ethical in what I create, then I need to let the rest take care of itself.
I think we need to give the creators and storytellers of 13 Reasons Why a break. Maybe organisations like Headspace are receiving more calls, but what if it’s because the show has given young teens hope they can turn to someone? What if the show has impacted people to seek help because they’ve seen how many people were horribly affected by Hannah’s decision.
Suicide is never ever an option. I’m no psychologist, but don’t you think the more we bring things into the open, the less power they have to control us? This is exactly what the creators of 13 Reasons Why were hoping to accomplish and I think instead of seeing the growing number of calls and emails as a warning, we should see it as a hope and the fruit of their labor, because the fact of the matter is, people are reaching out for help.
Regardless, this discussion is good for us creatives to consider, are you being responsible with your art?
If you or anyone you know is in need of help, please reach out to organisations like Headspace 1800 650 890, or Lifeline 13 11 14
Charis Joy Jackson is working as a full-time missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) a non-profit organization in Queensland. During the day she makes movies and in her spare time is writing a novel. www.charisjoyjackson.com
Charis Joy Jackson’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/charis-jackson.html