Muse Reporting on the arts and culture

‘Better late than never’

Media | Netflix cuts suicide scene from 13 Reasons Why two years after its release
by Mary Jackson
Posted 7/19/19, 03:56 pm

Netflix removed a graphic suicide scene from its popular teen series 13 Reasons Why on Tuesday after two years of warding off denunciations from parents, mental health advocates, and researchers who found the portrayal led to a spike in teens taking their lives.

The show, which debuted in 2017, focused on protagonist Hannah Baker, a depressed teenage girl who left behind an audio diary with a complex explanation of why she took her life and whom she blamed. The now-omitted suicide scene in the final episode of the first season was practically a how-to guide for teens, researcher Lisa Horowitz told The Wall Street Journal.

Horowitz co-authored a National Institutes of Health–funded study released in May that showed a 30 percent jump in suicides among tweens and teens in April 2017, a month after the show’s debut, bringing the suicide rate to a 19-year high for U.S. children ages 10 to 17. “Netflix is so powerful that what they do matters,” she said. After the first season aired, Google searches for “how to kill myself” surged by 26 percent.

The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, defended the scene in a statement: “Our creative intent in portraying the ugly, painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail in Season 1 was to tell the truth about the horror of such an act, and make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it.”

Netflix said it decided to cut the scene “on the advice of medical experts” as it prepares to release the third season, likely bringing increased viewership to past episodes. “We’ve heard from many people that 13 Reasons Why encouraged them to start conversations about difficult issues like depression and suicide and get help—often for the first time,” the streaming giant said in a statement.

Jonathan Singer, president of the American Association of Suicidology, praised Netflix for taking greater responsibility for its content. He said that while the show has facilitated discussion, for some vulnerable children already contemplating suicide it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Singer pointed out that streaming lets kids watch content anywhere at any time, so “it’s plausible that 13-year-olds were watching Hannah kill herself on their phones under the covers at 3 a.m.”

With teen suicide on the rise—it is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents—Parents Television Council President Tim Winter has been a leading voice from the beginning in calling on Netflix to pull “the most explicit, graphic suicide scene we’ve seen produced on any form of media.”

After the show’s first season, Netflix responded to critics by adding a content warning and including information for a suicide prevention hotline. But Netflix CEO Reed Hastings dismissed concerns at the company’s annual meeting, saying, “It’s controversial, but nobody has to watch it.” In June, Hastings simply said, “We’ve worked hard to ensure that we’ve handled this sensitive issue responsibly.”

One month later, Netflix’s decision to edit 13 Reasons Why came as a surprise to many. It followed the company’s recent decision to set limits on tobacco use in its programs and prohibit smoking on shows whose primary audience is children ages 14 and younger, except for historical or factual reasons.

“This signals the willingness on the part of Netflix to acknowledge these are living experiences, and they are willing to address them,” Singer said.

Changing or editing a show, especially two years after its release, is rare. Winter called Netflix’s actions “better late than never,” and said of 13 Reason’s Why: “We don’t know how many lives have been lost because of it.”

Associated Press/Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision Associated Press/Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision Aziz Ansari

Contrite comedian

Aziz Ansari flavors his latest Netflix comedy special Right Now with humility and gratitude, ingredients atypical for modern comics but so, so refreshing for audiences. In an era of denials and double downing, Ansari opens the hourlong special by apologizing for aggressive behavior toward a woman that got him in trouble of the #MeToo variety last year.

The comedian’s career was flying high at the start of 2018, carried by his success as a sitcom actor, a standup comic, and an Emmy-winning TV writer. Then in January 2018, the website Babe published the story of a woman who said Ansari pressured her into physical intimacy on a date. The incident deeply upset the woman and marred Ansari’s reputation almost beyond repair.

Ansari apologized to the woman privately after the date and publicly in a statement after the article came out. He repeats his contrition in the first 10 minutes of Right Now, talking about how being confronted with his behavior changed his attitude and that of many of his fans and friends, too.

“After a year or so, I just hope it was a step forward,” Ansari said. He relates how a friend told him that the public outcry over his behavior made him rethink every date he had ever been on. “[If] this made not just me but other people be more thoughtful, then that’s a good thing,” Ansari said.

Change becomes a theme of the rest of the hour, in which Ansari frequently waxes comedic about the discomfort of self-reflection. He pokes fun at race-conscious white people, eco-conscious millennials, and morality-conscious music fans struggling with whether it’s OK to listen to the music of R. Kelly or Michael Jackson now that they have been outed as accused sexual abusers. He explores the pros and cons of the age of awareness, noting that while people in the majority have become more sensitive to the feelings of minorities, American society is also losing some of the resilience that helped it take on challenges like the Great Depression and the Vietnam War.

Ansari still uses as much obscenity as any other popular comic and includes one particularly vulgar, sexually graphic anecdote in the second half of the show. But aspiring young comedians should take note of his conciliatory tone and the thoughtfulness he weaves into his humor, reminding the jokesters of today that you don’t have to be mean to be funny. —Lynde Langdon

#MeToo update

Prosecutors in Massachusetts this week dropped charges against actor Kevin Spacey, who was accused of groping an 18-year-old man in Nantucket in 2016. The case unraveled when the alleged victim declined to testify about deleted texts between Spacey and him. But the actor’s legal troubles aren’t over. London’s Metropolitan Police Service and prosecutors in Los Angeles County both have open investigations into assault allegations against Spacey, who has been accused of preying on underage men. —L.L.

Sinking ship

I’ve written before about the signs that Netflix is on its way out, a forecast supported by reports this week of the company’s declining subscriber numbers in the United States. Ultimately, I think Netflix will go the way of Napster, the file-sharing app that turned the music industry upside down at the turn of the 21st century. Both companies served the role of industry disruptors but couldn’t put together a sustainable business model. —L.L.

Songs with a purpose

South African singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg died Tuesday from pancreatic cancer at age 66. Clegg was a rare anti-apartheid white artist in the late 1970s and ’80s. —L.L.

Mary Jackson

Mary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and four children. Follow Mary on Twitter @mbjackson77

Read more from this writer
ADVERTISEMENT