What '13 Reasons Why' Teaches Us About the Importance of Trigger Warnings

Content warning: Self-harm, suicide, and sexual violence.

If you’ve been online in the past month, you’ve probably seen all the hype about Netflix’s newest series 13 Reasons Why. The show is based on the young adult novel by the same name, written by Jay Asher.

The gist of the show is that a girl at a local high school, Hannah Baker, commits suicide and leaves behind thirteen tapes discussing the reasons why she took her life. The tapes are passed around between the 13 students who drove her to suicide, and the show follows Hannah’s friend Clay as he listens and learns about Hannah’s struggles.The show adds in plot lines that weren’t in the book, including Hannah’s parents having financial issues, the kids on the tape gaining together, and perhaps most importantly, showing Hannah’s suicide.

The scene, which happens during Episode 13, shows everything: Hannah drawing a bath, hesitating with her razor, and ultimately committing suicide. It’s graphic and painful to watch, and I’ve yet to find anyone who said they sat through the scene without pausing it or walking away for a bit. It’s the kind of scene that sticks with you for days; that you can’t get out of your mind.

And this scene isn’t the only one. Episodes 9 and 12 depict two separate sexual assaults. Again, viewers are just waiting for the camera to cut away. But it doesn’t. The scenes are powerful and eye-opening, and much like the suicide scene, makes viewers turn away and take a breather.

While I was watching 13 Reasons Why, I found myself repeatedly shocked by these scenes and needing to pause and step away from the show. I can only imagine what it would be like to watch these moments as a sexual assault survivor or as someone with a personal history of depression. I found myself reaching out to friends that were in these camps while they watched the show, warning them before the scenes and checking in after.

I was amazed at what little warning 13 Reasons actually gave to viewers. Episodes 9, 12, and 13, which featured these graphics scenes, came with a “viewer discretion advised” warning. It says only that “some viewers” may find it disturbing and that the episode is not recommended for younger viewers.

The trigger warning given before Episodes 9 and 12.

I am horrified that this was the extent of the warning given to viewers. This is the type of warning that would be shown with Law and Order or other crime shows. We see them all the time, and frankly I don’t think many viewers think much of them.

The warning did identify the reasons that the episodes were potentially “disturbing.” Episodes 9 and 12 specify that the episode will depict sexual assault and rape, and Episode 13 cites "violence and suicide" as the reason for the warning. Still, this doesn't even begin to explain how detailed and upsetting some of the scenes are. One friend I spoke with said they weren’t even aware of the trigger warnings until someone mentioned the warnings to them. And on top of all this, the warnings are before the theme song, which Netflix gives users the option of skipping over. It's entirely possible that people who may need the trigger warnings are not even seeing them before they start.

The trigger warning given for Episode 13.

In a time when trigger warnings are being hotly debated, this show is a perfect example of why trigger warnings absolutely play a crucial role in our society. The show doesn’t need warnings because people are “snowflakes” that can’t handle something that disagrees with him or her; it needs trigger warnings because the content could truly be problematic for viewers’ well-being.

The harms of not using trigger warnings are very real. Studies have shown that exposure to news or even media about suicide can lead to increased suicide rates in communities. If someone who struggles with depression or suicidal ideation watches the show because they aren’t made aware of the graphic content, it could drive their decision to attempt suicide.

There is plenty of debate about how 13 Reasons Why depicts these serious issues. Love it or hate it, the need for better trigger warnings could not be more clear. Viewers have a right to be warned if content this graphic will be shown, and future programs and movies should take note.

Luckily, just recently Netflix has announced that it will be adding additional trigger warnings after many audience members voiced their concerns. These will include improved details about the content in addition to a higher frequency of trigger warnings.

 

If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1(800) 273-8255.

Image credits: Cover, 1, 2, 3 are author's own.