Of all the questions a TV producer wants to hear, “Will your show drive vulnerable teenagers to kill themselves?” has to be at the bottom of the list. But that’s the question currently facing the producers of 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series based on Jay Asher’s novel about the suicide of a 17-year-old girl named Hannah that debuted in April.
The show depicts Hannah’s suicide in graphic, unflinching detail, and while many critics praised that decision as a bold artistic choice, suicide prevention experts say it’s a dangerous decision. Peer-reviewed research shows that suicide is “contagious,” and that suicide attempts go up after any graphic depiction of a successful suicide, whether fictional or otherwise.
And on June 8, People reported that a 23-year-old in Peru died by suicide in an incident that appears to mimic 13 Reasons Why, renewing the question of whether the series will inspire copycats.
Since 13 Reasons Why’s premiere, writers for the show have had to defend their decision again and again in the court of public opinion, sometimes drawing on their own histories with suicide attempts to prove their bona fides. In May, Selena Gomez, the pop star, actress, and a producer for 13 Reasons Why, told the Associated Press that she thought the show did its source material justice. And all the while, suicide prevention experts have remained skeptical. Some schools have gone so far as to ban discussion of the show in school, and Netflix announced that it would increase the trigger warnings at the beginning of the show.
The whole controversy speaks to a larger question that all art has to grapple with: What is the social responsibility of art? And how do you balance that responsibility with your aesthetic goals?
There’s a reasonable artistic argument for 13 Reasons Why’s graphic suicide scene
Selena Gomez is standing by the decision to portray Hannah’s suicide on the series in such detail. “We stayed very true to the book and that’s initially what Jay Asher created was a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story and I think that’s what we wanted to do,” she told the Associated Press. “We wanted to do it justice and, yeah, [the backlash is] gonna come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing,” she continued.
Nic Sheff, a writer for the show, went into more detail in his defense. According to an essay he wrote for Vanity Fair, he fought for the suicide scene to contain as much detail as possible because of his own history with suicidal impulses. Sheff writes that during a dark point in his life, he tried to make himself overdose on pills, but then he remembered a woman he met once who had tried to do just that. She survived — but while her body attempted to process the pills, she ran through a glass door and suffered massive internal bleeding.
“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,” Sheff writes. “The memory came to me like a shock. It staggered me. And it saved my life.”
He wanted 13 Reasons Why to do the same for someone else at rock bottom: show them how painful and unpleasant and messy suicide really is, and dissuade them from trying it. “It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like,” he wrote, “to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.”
Aesthetically and artistically, 13 Reasons Why’s approach to the material makes sense: It avoids turning the suicide into a soft-focus glamour shot that fetishizes Hannah’s beautiful corpse, like those famous pre-Raphaelite paintings of Hamlet’s Ophelia or the Lily Maid of Shalott. It ensures that the audience feels every bit of the violence and horror of what she’s doing.
And aesthetically and artistically, most critics approved of the choice. “Looking away from what happened to her body would have felt false and evasive,” wrote Mo Ryan at Variety. “That haunting, spare scene of Hannah cutting her skin was shocking and unforgettable. It pressed a button, but not in a cheap, flashy way. It was a horrifying and very specific moment of consequence that touched the soul, and sometimes that’s how art works.”
When you look at the numbers, a graphic suicide scene is a lot less easy to justify
But artistic considerations aside, the numbers show that graphic depictions of suicide are dangerous. Where they appear, suicide rates go up.
I spoke to Victor Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at New York University and chief medical officer of the suicide prevention program the JED Foundation, shortly after 13 Reasons Why came out. “Research shows us that the more obvious, florid, dramatic, and explicit the portrayal is,” he says, “as disturbing as it is to most of us, there’s the potential that for some people who see it, who are really struggling with something, this winds up being in some way strangely appealing.”
That isn’t to say that everyone who sees 13 Reasons Why will be compelled to kill themselves, or even that a large percentage of the audience will. “It’s not that 50 percent of the people who see a depiction of suicide will be inclined to act,” Schwartz says. “But when you think about media that’s being consumed by large numbers of people, it will have an effect on a few of them, and when you’re talking about a life-and-death effect. … It’s small statistically, but it’s obviously desperately significant.”
What we’re left with is a situation where the impulse that feels most artistically productive — to show what’s happening in unflinching detail, to deglamorize, to promote empathy — is the impulse that’s been scientifically shown to be the most harmful. The most aesthetically productive idea is, in this case, also the most socially irresponsible one.
So the controversy here is not only over whether it’s ever okay to show a suicide onscreen, and how much, and in what fashion. It’s over the level of responsibility artists have toward their audience, and how much they have toward their art, and what to do when those two responsibilities conflict with each other.
For someone who is not struggling with suicidal ideation, 13 Reasons Why’s suicide scene is likely to be very moving. It will probably make them want to be more empathetic people and help keep their friends from hurting themselves. But for someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts, 13 Reasons Why could very well be a factor that leads toward their death.
The question is, is any art ever worth that kind of tragedy?
Updated to note Netflix’s decision to increase its trigger warnings and to reflect the June 8 incident.