Trigger Warnings: 13 Reasons & To The Bone
One of the many side effects of Netflix's recent effort to make it rain on any comic, producer or creator with a passion project is the deep dive into topics that may be considered 'uncomfortable'. Two prime examples – the television series 13 Reasons Why and the upcoming film To The Bone wade through the murky depths of 'uncomfortability', the warm and bright moments obscured by the impending denouement. Naturally, this uncomfortability has seeped into the brains of many viewers and consumers, creating a rift as to whether the show's demerits ought to banish it from public consumption entirely.
Whether this is good or bad for children is definitely out of my realm – that's a space that's been covered by psychologists and school administrators and a million think piece artists. Whether the show is artistically good can be left to critics. I'm here to arbiter whether it's too uncomfortable to exist at all, a decision I'll ponder by debating a single criterion: would I show this to my kid?
13 Reasons is about Hannah, a girl who commits suicide after succumbing to the many pressures and people of the pubescent vortex of high school. Before slitting her wrists in a bathroom – a scene that is still surprising and impossibly difficult to watch despite the 13-episode reminder that it's coming – she leaves behind cassette tapes in which she narrates every wrong done to her, dedicating each tape to a person in her life. We follow her friend as he listens to the tapes, seeing Hannah's life and trauma unfold through present-day events and flashback sequences, many of which include bullying, slut-shaming, homophobia, sexual harassment, rape, and suicide.
To The Bone is about Ellen, a girl who suffers from the eating disorder anorexia. This upcoming release, combined with 13, has left some people believing that these products 'glorify' or 'romanticize' several of these topics, a sentiment that has come to a head with the recent real-life suicides of two teenage girls (one in my city of Livermore). The father of one had this to say: "You can’t convince me that they were trying to attract attention to the issue of teen suicide by showing a little girl killing herself. There’s nothing positive about that… Stop this. This is wrong. You’re making money off the misery of others." Uncomfortable.
I think I would show these to my kid.
I've only had two serious, we-need-to-talk-about-this type conversations with my parents. One was when they found a cigarette butt in my backpack and thought I was smoking (at age 10 or so), which is perfectly understandable. The other was when a friend of mine (actually) ran away from home when I was 15 and wasn't heard from for a few months, also an understandable time to have a chat. I (mercifully) didn't get a sex talk. I got a very brief 'you-know-the-rules' talk when I got the keys to our old 1991 Toyota Corolla. And this wasn't all because I was a 'good' kid. There was a certain belief in my mental soundness and stability, a belief that every parent probably (and mistakenly) has. A belief that I – despite my upbringing in a time where I can watch content like this – will by default have.
And that's because saying that a show like 13 was the trigger for someone to commit suicide is to ignore the underlying fact that they probably had at least a considerable amount of sadness within them. Sure, the show may have been the tipping point, but it surely wasn't the initiator. Casting aspersions of blame is forgivable when you're a grieving parent, but that mentality doesn't help resolve the problem. It's like saying that the guy who shot up the congressional baseball game can be directly blamed on Cathy Griffin share a picture of Donald Trump's severed head, or the recent Caesar iteration where Trump is the one who is murdered. Yeah you can blame it on the 'intolerant' left, but that doesn't take away from the core tenets of the situation – a disturbed dude somehow got a gun and tried to kill people.
There's a corollary to the 'do video games cause violence' debate. While taking your own life is usually profoundly more personal than taking someone else's, there are similarities aplenty – an overwhelming percentage of people who watch 13 and play video games probably don't go shoot up a school and then turn the gun on their own head. Most people, like me, watch the show and think 'well that was fucking horrifying' and then start googling some stuff about it only to stumble into even more horrifying things like statistics about depression and suicide.
The only problem with a show like this is the exact dichotomy that we've encountered so far. The father of the daughter had a negative impression, one that was in the 'glamorizing' camp. I have the opposite. And that's just it – the show portrays suicide. That much is fact. The interpretation of the suicide is largely left to the viewer, despite every attempt of Netflix and the showrunners to guide the narrative in a certain direction. That's always going to be the case when you inject a dose of uncomfortability into the system, you don't know exactly what the reaction might be.
Because triggers are everywhere, although they're not visible to everyone. I might bypass a dozen things in my day today that could have been enough to set someone else off. These works are just a couple of them. But part of this entire process, whether it's mental health or an eating disorder, is healing. And healing includes recognizing where these triggers are without letting them trigger you. For someone who hasn't managed to make it to that stage: if you take one big trigger out, there are plenty of smaller, more insidious, and less noticeable ones that will inevitably take its place. Ones that make it harder to heal at all.
The show is a tool. Like a hammer or an airplane, it can be used to help or to harm. The onus lies with the consumer. And while there has been and will continue to be harm along the way, we don't stop making tools. We impose an age limit on who can use them, and place warning labels up and down the side, but they're still there, sitting on the shelves with a new shipment not too far off. Just as it should be.