RP18: Rape, suicide themes, drug use and bullying
This page outlines how the classification criteria were applied. We do our best to discuss the content while avoiding spoilers, but please avoid reading this information if you do not want to learn anything about the content of this TV series.
The laws around classification of online (video on demand) content in New Zealand are currently unclear, and so Netflix isn’t required to get its content classified before release.
However the Classification Office can require that specific content is classified if there are concerns that it might be harmful to the public. Given the level of public concern about the first series we were ready for 13 Reasons Why: Season 2, and Netflix gave us access to the show on request prior to its release.
Date registered: 18/05/2018
13 Reasons Why: Season 2 picks up the story five months after Hannah’s suicide. All the main characters from the first season are continuing to deal with the fallout from Hannah’s tapes. Many are severely traumatised by the guilt they are experiencing. The second season centres around a wrongful death civil lawsuit brought by the Baker’s against the Evergreen County School District. Most of the students on the tapes testify at the trial giving us a much broader perspective on what happened to Hannah. We see flashbacks relating to the testimony, some of which is misrepresented or fabricated, woven together with events taking place outside the courtroom.
13 Reasons Why is known for being controversial, and so it’s no surprise that there is a lot of content in season 2 that could potentially be harmful to younger viewers – including some high impact violence, bullying, promotional drug use and offensive language. These are all covered in our full written classification decision and in our detailed episode-by-episode guide for parents. However the most concerning aspects relate to sexual violence and suicide, and so we’ve focused on these issues in this short summary.
The impact of sexual violence perpetrated by, and against, high school students forms a major theme of the series. One episode contains the brutal male-on-male anal rape of a central character with a mop handle. The scene is graphic and violent with the camera focusing on the anguished face of the victim and the rage of the perpetrator. Blood on the mop handle gives an indication of the level of physical trauma suffered by the victim. This act of brutal rape and emasculation is framed as the motivation the character needs to undertake the school shooting that has been hinted at from the end of the first season. This scene presents as a gratuitously violent plot device designed to shock the audience and generate controversy.
In addition to the above scene, many of the experiences that Jessica goes through may well be triggering for survivors of sexual violence – and so it’s important for people to be warned about the content in advance, and for support to be available for younger viewers in particular.
The series does highlight the different ways in which survivors of sexual violence process and manage their trauma. In Jessica, Nina and Chloe we have three survivors who all deal with their trauma in a distinct manner. None of these strategies are presented as perfect which highlights that it is up to each individual survivor to find the path that they are most comfortable with.
Nonetheless, it is concerning that none of the survivors are shown accessing specialist services that deal with trauma from sexual violence. The Sexual Abuse Prevention Network has previously told the Classification Office that many survivors who reach out to specialist agencies report positive impacts from that help.
Unlike 13 Reasons Why: Season 1 there are no graphic depictions of suicide or self-harm in this season, and this removes the instructional element that was so controversial in the first season. The pervasive presence of Hannah – presented as a figment of Clay’s traumatised mind – is highly problematic. The suicide of Hannah was the central plot feature of season 1, and the Classification Office and the Mental Health Foundation have significant concerns about the reappearance of Hannah in season 2. She interacts with Clay, provides explanations for her behaviour, and ultimately motivates him to seek justice for her.
Mental health experts caution strongly against this depiction because it promotes the idea of a life after death where you can meaningfully shape the actions and thoughts of people who are still living. By having all the characters on the tape testify, the series also introduces the idea that after death people who have mistreated you will seek to atone for their mistakes, or be punished in some way. This again reinforces suicide as a meaningful act and also promotes the “suicide as revenge fantasy” narrative that was a common interpretation of 13 Reasons Why: Season 1.
The reference to Hannah’s eleven reasons not to commit suicide is also troubling as it frames suicide as the decision of a rational mind. The opportunity to make a commendable association between mental illness and suicide was lost when Hannah’s mother dismissed the possibility of this during the trial. Hannah’s presence at the moving church service commemorating her death feeds a powerful romantic fantasy about suicide, as did her connection with Clay during his eulogy.
By continuing to glorify Hannah’s suicide as a meaningful act the series continues to flout international guidelines relating to the depiction of suicide and has the potential to significantly increase the risk of vulnerable young people taking their own lives or causing serious harm to themselves.
Young people have commended 13 Reasons Why: Season 1 for reflecting their reality, and for highlighting difficult and sensitive topics. Many teenagers around New Zealand, including those interviewed by the Classification Office, have said the series resonated with them because it provided an opportunity to bring sensitive topics such as suicide, bullying and sexual violence out into the open.
The producers of the series have promoted the opportunities for open and honest discussions between young people and trusted adults, and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand identified the series as an opportunity to raise awareness around youth and mental health issues. However, as with season 1, the show fails to give sufficient attention to whether these controversial issues are addressed in a safe and responsible way.
Many young people will be able to watch 13 Reasons Why: Season 2 and not be negatively influenced by it – in some cases it will be valuable for generating important discussions. However the audience we’re most concerned about are those who have been personally affected by the issues raised in the series. Suicide bereavement and sexual assault are both recognised risk factors for suicide. Young viewers in a heightened state of distress will be more vulnerable to the impact of the show – they can be put at risk by viewing it. If they are suicidal they are not in a rational state of mind and their thinking is likely to be distorted.
It is for these reasons that the Classification Office has placed an RP18 restriction on these episodes. The intent is not to restrict access to the show by the target audience of older teens, it is to ensure that young people are supervised by an adult viewer – ordinarily a parent but potentially another responsible adult, adult sibling or guardian. An RP18 classification allows the intended audience of young people to access the series in a similar fashion to the first season, while providing the necessary intervention of adult supervision in order to keep them safe and provide any support they may need while processing the challenging topics in the series.
This is not so much a message of ‘don’t watch’ as it is a message of ‘watch carefully’.