Late Take: 13 Reasons Why and the Ethical Obligation of Hard Stories

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If you’ve watched the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why, you know why I’m writing this.

The show’s unblinking depictions of sexual assault and suicide made learning the thirteen reasons that led a fictionalized, small town, teen girl to take her own life a deeply uncomfortable and possibly contentious experience. As they watched, viewers were polarized on either side of a single question: When it comes to telling such hard stories, at what point are we doing more harm than good?

The Ethics of a Shower Head

To tell you the truth, I’d never given much thought to the ethical responsibilities of the stories I consumed until about three years ago.

It was a roundtable interview that did it. The Hollywood Reporter was interviewing a collection of screenwriters from the 2013 Oscar season and Michael Haneke happened to be one of them. When asked if he would ever make a movie about Hitler, the Austrian German director and screenwriter of 2012’s Amour had this to say:

“The question is — [well,] it’s impossible for me to do that because the idea of creating entertainment of this, turning this into entertainment…That’s why I have problems with Steven Spielberg’s film about the concentration camps, for example. The idea, the mere idea of trying to draw and create suspense out of the question [if] whether out of the shower head, gas is going to come out or water, that to me is unspeakable.”

The thoughtful silence that followed Haneke’s words said it all. When we really stop to think about it, there is something a bit unsettling about how blurry the line between empathy and exploitation can become in cases like these.

It’s no secret that we consume stories to get something out of them. At the most we want to be transformed by their deep emotional power. At the least we want to be entertained by them. But is there something inherently wrong in seeking those same things from a story based on someone else’s real life trauma?

If it is indeed wrong for us to enjoy the suspense created in the shower head scene in Schindler’s List, or in piecing together Hannah’s secrets in 13 Reasons Why, is it wrong for the stories’ creators to generate it in the first place? What exactly are the moral obligations of viewer and creator alike with subject matter that is emotionally challenging but features incidents that are psychologically distressing, include but not limited to, depictions of murder, rape, gore, genocide, suicide, mental illness, and torture?

The nuances of this subject are endless, so let’s just scrape the surface of three considerations.

Intent v. Impact

Imagine for a moment that you’re lying on a cold, metal table in the middle of a cold, metal room. You’re alone, you don’t have your clothes, and you can’t feel your legs. While you lay immobilized, gaping up at the ceiling tiles, you hear the door creak open and suddenly there’s a man standing above you with a knife.

Now before you panic, think about this: the outcome of this situation has everything to do with the intent of the knife-wielder.

If his intent is to yield it for your good, then perhaps he is your doctor, come to perform a critical operation on you that could save your life. For the sake of your health, it is in your interest that he cut you with that knife and, as it turns out, this is something you’ve willingly agreed to. On the other hand, if his intent is to carve you up like a fine piece of Christmas ham, then good luck smuggling those drugs in your gut back through TSA.

That’s an extreme example used to illustrate a simple point: intent matters. It matters because hard stories are like knives in that they make things bleed. However, instead of cutting into physical material, they have the ability to sear the human conscience.

In the case of 13 Reasons Why, in interview after interview the creators have made clear their intent was to prick our collective conscience against rape culture, reveal the hidden nature of mental illness in teens, and warn people of the horrifyingly gruesome nature of the suicide act. If we take the show’s creators at their word (and I do), then there’s no denying that their intent was for good as it pertained to the difficult story they were trying to tell.

Sometimes I wonder if people realize how boldly noble a thing that is. Just as cutting open and sticking your hands inside a living body is an act of brazen altruism, so too is attempting to tell a difficult story for the sake of shining a light in the dark. In an industry where even a light-hearted buddy comedy has the ability to destroy a career, the risk involved in telling stories with such potentially divisive material has got to feel overwhelming. But for these creators, the potential rewards of giving a voice to the voiceless, exposing the dark workings of human evil, and preventing tragedies like these from ever happening again far outweighed the risks. Even if we don’t like the particular details in the ways it was done, I think we have to admit to ourselves the attempt itself is worthy of praise.

But before we get too far into the congratulations, let’s for a moment get back to our scenario and pose another sticky question: if your doctor is not up to the task of the surgery they have come to perform and, due their ineptness, end up doing more damage than good, are you left to shrug your shoulders and console yourself with the fact that he or she meant well?

Not a chance. You’d call up the best lawyer you could afford and get yourself some of that class-action lawsuit payout money because while intent does matter, so too does impact.

Though both Schindler’s List and 13 Reasons Why were received well by critics and audiences alike, both received their fair share of backlash. But in the particular case of 13 Reasons Why, where a graphic suicide scene sparked fears of copycat attempts, the potential for damage was, and still remains, unique and imminent. There has already been a report of a Peruvian man whose suicide seems to have been inspired by the show’s.

For anybody paying attention, it was clear that Netflix made attempts to own its tough material by inserting trigger warnings before certain episodes and creating a special website full of resources and information for anybody struggling with suicide. Even so, in the same way a person who leaves a knife in a nursery would be responsible for any damage it caused, so too are the series’ creators responsible for any negative impact this story, based off of Jay Asher’s 2007 book of the same title, created on the worldwide Netflix platform.

And now that the can of worms is open, talks of story intention take a back seat to story execution.

Truth v. Story

This shower head thing haunts me.

While I haven’t yet seen Schindler’s List, I can’t help but think that prior to hearing Haneke’s quote, the storyteller in me would have greatly…(and I struggle with words here)…enjoyed this moment. It has all the makings of the kind of intense drama that I crave. Secondhand, it sounds like great writing met great filmmaking to make one incredibly memorable scene. Yet it twists my moral guts into knots to think that as they’re working, all the tools that can make a story exciting can also cheapen the very lives they’re being used to honor.

Like other shows and movies about hard stories, 13 Reasons Why utilizes suspense and mystery to hook you in, masterfully holding back information to build tension and engagement so you can’t wait to find out what the big, juicy secret is that the supporting characters want to keep from the protagonist listening to Hannah’s tape. I found myself ravenously binge-watching episode after episode to find out if my suspicions about the salacious events that occurred at two fateful parties near the end of the tapes were correct and eventually was rewarded with a series of rapes.

If the pairing of the words “rewarded” and “with rapes” produced any discomfort for you, that was just a bit of what I felt as I watched. As a storyteller and as a woman, I could never adequately describe to you the intensely conflicting and unsettling feeling the unfolding of this story produced.

One on hand, after having been impressed by the crafting of this well-guarded secret, I was feeling the smug satisfaction of being right. (The foreshadowing of the events in question was well played in earlier episodes.) But on the other hand, once I had watched it all go down in excruciating detail, I had the horrifying realization that I had actually been rooting for these monstrous events to occur.

While I am aware Hannah and her peers are fictional characters, they represent millions of very real people who go through the situations that the show’s creators brought to life with stunning emotional accuracy. These were real stories dramatized to great effect and if we’re being honest with ourselves we have to admit there’s a strange and uncomfortable moral ambiguity at play in that.

I had the same feeling after streaming Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation in 2015 and again coming out of 2016’s Oscars contender Room, emotionally-wrecked but strangely excited, wanting to tell everyone I knew they just had to go see it. It was just that good. A good number of people did see the films but others refrained, claiming that they could never enjoy watching something so sad that felt so real.

Were they wrong? Did they have more compassion for the lives being depicted than I did? What is the proper course of action when the story’s so heavy but the content itself has been made so well? Is it degrading to the people being depicted to enjoy a series that maximizes the worst trauma of their lives to make my viewing experience all the more emotionally engaging? Can anybody else relate to this struggle?!

Questions, questions. Before I attempt to answer any, allow me to raise just one more.

Objectivity v. Manipulation

Is it ok for storytellers to re-shape the true events of their stories in order to manipulate the audience into prescribed emotions and beliefs?

Here again are a few words from Haneke’s The Hollywood Reporter interview:

“There is a question of responsibility, as not only a question of responsibility towards the person you’re depicting in the historical context but first and foremost to your viewers, your audience. Responsibility entails enabling your audience to remain independent and free of manipulation. The question is how seriously do I take my viewer? To what extent do I provide him with the opportunity of creating his own opinion, confronting the historical figure on their own? Am I trying to force my opinion on the spectator? Or on the contrary, am I taking the spectator seriously and providing him or her with the means of creating and forming their own opinion?”

There’s a difference between telling a story for the story’s sake and telling a story for your own. The moment you attach a political, sociological, religious, or economic message to the work, the more the work becomes subject to your framing in order to evoke the desired response. As your manipulation of the message increases, the objectivity of your crafting slips away. But if you know anything about art, you know that’s the point.

Steven Spielberg thinks the Holocaust is one of the worst human atrocities to ever occur and that Oskar Schindler came out of it a hero. Everything in this movie points us to the same conclusions. The creators of 13 Reasons Why valued Hannah’s life, felt empathy for her, and regretted her death and by the end of the series, so do we.

But what of the objectivity of Hannah’s tapes? Because Hannah spills the full secrets of her bullies’ behaviors on them, her final act is not one of defeat but revenge. By the end of the season, those who had a hand in breaking her will to live are set to face the full consequences of their actions. But if this were real life, those tapes wouldn’t have made it past Bully One. Her peers would not have kept the secret for as long as they did. Their parents would have gotten involved much sooner. Legal action would have kept Hannah’s messages under mountains of red tape and by the time they got out, all those responsible for her suffering would be living happy, subtly guilt-ridden lives already.

To believe that the creators have presented some objective truth in the premise of 13 Reasons Why isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous. For those who would believe Hannah’s methods could be just as effective in their own lives, their own misguided attempts at personal justice are just a set of tapes and a suicide away. One of the biggest false takeaways from the series is that if you kill yourself for revenge, the people responsible will feel badly for you which, as a sad fact of our broken world, isn’t always the case. Serious questions should be asked when prevalent, powerful stories such as these present painful truths alongside highly doctored versions of cause and effect.

So what? After all this, what are the considerations for the viewer and the creator in matters like these?

Conclusion

As creatives, we need to be conscious of who we’re serving with the difficult stories we want to tell, most especially if the story isn’t explicitly ours. If our intentions aren’t purely to serve the oppressed, we should leave the hard work to someone else. If our intentions are as pure as we can make them, then we have to consider how to tell the story in a way that minimizes the psychological damage while getting the point across. Realizing that this balance is a subjective one, we need to be secure in the belief that we were as responsible as we could have been and absorb whatever negative impact our story may spawn.

As audience members, we need to learn to appreciate the hard stories told in ways that we don’t particularly like, especially if the creators display levels of conscientious intent. As responsible story consumers, we should all be growing towards an ability to recognize when watching a story would be beneficial for our own deeper understanding of the plight of whoever the story is representing or harmful to our own emotional and psychological well-being. We need to educate our children on how to make those same decisions when we aren’t in the room for us to make those decisions for them.

At the end of the day, we can criticize art all we want — I know I do — but where we seek to censor we should give ourselves greater pause. If we’re not continually trying to wade through these ambiguous waters then the only other option is silence.

Questions? Comments? Let’s talk in the comments below!

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