On Monday, five public health researchers asked Netflix to do something seemingly impossible: remove a graphic suicide scene from its popular show 13 Reasons Why.
The request, which Netflix shows no signs of heeding, raises thorny questions about artistic license in Hollywood. While creatives might be accustomed to working out of the public’s view to faithfully execute their vision, audiences are increasingly eager to challenge storytelling choices they find troubling or irresponsible.
In many ways, that sums up what happened with 13 Reasons Why. Viewers, parents, and mental health experts turned to social media and the press to explain why they found the show’s vivid depiction of suicide harmful and disturbing. Now those advocates can point to new research to bolster their argument.
The findings, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, indicate that the show may have led to an increase in the number of internet searches about how to die by suicide.
Protecting viewers from potential harm, the researchers argued, could mean removing the controversial suicide scene, as well as including suicide hotline numbers in each episode. The World Health Organization and other public health groups advise against graphic portrayals of suicide in media because research indicates that such imagery may produce a “contagion effect.” News reports and dramatizations of suicide, for example, have been previously linked to a temporary uptick in suicides.
Victor Schwartz, who was not involved in the JAMA Internal Medicine research and is the chief medical officer of the suicide prevention nonprofit JED Foundation, supports the scene’s removal.
“It’s a creative choice that has consequences.”
“It’s a creative choice that has consequences,” Schwartz says of the show’s depiction of suicide. “You have to recognize that if youre putting stuff out there, particularly stuff related to mental health, there is some level of social responsibility.”
While Hollywood searches for success with riskier or unconventional material in the era of so-called Peak TV, some of its creatives still don’t seem to realize that those opportunities come with increased public scrutiny and accountability.
They bristle at the idea of essentially being forced to workshop their most treasured ideas on social media or in the press. They ask to be judged on the merits of the final product rather than initial impressions. But as the 13 Reasons Why debate proves, blindly trusting producers, writers, and directors to responsibly handle high-stakes material isn’t always the right answer.
The show did enlist mental health experts for its debut season, but suicide prevention is a specialized field and it’s not clear their consultants had relevant training. Though Netflix didn’t publicly balk at the researchers’ request, it issued a statement that spoke vaguely of increasing “discussion” of “tough subject matter” and said it would take everything it learns from future research “to heart” as it prepares for season two of 13 Reasons Why.
Emily Best, CEO of the subscription streaming and crowdfunding platform Seed&Spark, says it’s disingenuous to point to good intentions while declining to participate in a debate about your project.
“If what you say is, ‘I want to start a conversation,’ then mean it, and be ready for that conversation to not be the one you meant to start,” Best says.
That controversy beset the Netflix film To the Bone this summer. Marti Noxon wrote and directed the film based on her own experiences with eating disorders and talked passionately of wanting it to be a “conversation starter.” Yet, much of the criticism focused on dangerous portrayals of extreme thinness and a lack of diverse perspectives and experiences. Noxon responded to these charges, while the film’s supporters insisted that To the Bone would do more good than harm because it was meant to confront a taboo topic.
Best (whom the author knows personally) says audience and expert pushback against objectionable or irresponsible content reflects a “reckoning moment” in Hollywood. In one hypothetical scenario, Best says producers wouldn’t announce their deals and projects in order to protect their creative process. That tactic, however, wouldn’t work, given the need to market new projects and the difficulty of concealing news in the era of social media. The other option, she says, is to “lean into” accountability and think early on about which stakeholders to engage and how to develop a smart release strategy.
That approach might have made a difference for HBO, which recently became the target of fierce criticism when it announced a new science fiction series that imagines what America would look like had the South and the institution of slavery not been defeated in the Civil War.
Some found the conceit appalling, particularly given that the project is helmed by the Game of Thrones showrunners two white men with an arguably disappointing track record of portraying sensitive subject matter and diversity onscreen. On Sunday evening, activists on Twitter used the #NoConfederate hashtag to send HBO an unequivocal message.
The disastrous rollout might have been prevented had HBO anticipated the backlash, focused on the role of two key black producers involved in the show, and worked in advance with influential experts to elicit feedback and support.
“[T]here is no more creating in a vacuum, and as much as the industry may resist, you are co-creating with your audiences from inception or else,” Best says.
The outrage over how marginalized people and experiences are portrayed in film and television has a lot to do with the fact that Hollywood isn’t changing its ways, even in the face of intense public pressure. While films like Hidden Figures, Wonder Woman, and Moonlight prove that audiences and critics will get behind movies that center around women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, the vast majority of what Hollywood churns out every year is hardly representative of America.
In a report published Monday, the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that the top grossing movies of 2016 didn’t make progress in offering more meaningful portrayals of women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.
Stacy L. Smith, co-author of the report and an associate professor at USC, says it’s not enough for Hollywood to listen to calls for greater diversity in front of and behind the camera. Instead, key decision makers need to work in tandem with experts to ensure that they’re not reinforcing negative stereotypes or even potentially subjecting vulnerable viewers to harm.
“Folks are making decisions about hiring and casting without checks and balances.”
While some creatives might see such guidance as an infringement of their creative freedom, Smith says it benefits the audience and ensures that artists who want to make positive contributions don’t accidentally see their efforts backfire. It might also prevent content creators from perpetuating the status quo in the guise of pursuing their artistic impulses.
“Folks are making decisions about hiring and casting without checks and balances,” she says. “In the aggregate, people are making thousands of decisions that marginalize most groups in this society.”
Audiences see and understand that and aren’t afraid to call it out on social media. Hollywood may find the scrutiny unforgiving or unfair, but the public isn’t about to stop using one of the only channels it has to hold the industry accountable.
These dynamics won’t change until the industry starts taking the public’s power much more seriously.