Do we really need to see graphic violence to ‘understand’?

Last month, the adaptation of 13 Reasons Why dropped on Netflix and got rather a lot of positive press; what’s not to love in a Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s wildly popular, compelling YA novel? A lot, actually, but one of the elements of 13 Reasons Why went larger than the series in general, and that was the inclusion of extremely graphic, potentially traumatic, content, and the justification for including it.

For those not familiar, the premise here is that a young woman — Hannah Baker — committed suicide after a series of events spiraled out of control, demoralising her and leaving her feeling alone and vulnerable in the world. Before she killed herself, however, she recorded a series of tapes, going over the series of events and the individuals involved. After her death, the tapes start circulating through the people they name, confronting them with their sins, and the story is told from the point of view of Clay, one of the recipients. (Who happens, conveniently, to be the one person who didn’t do anything particularly cruel to her.)

Each Netflix episode was a ‘tape’ and there were three scenes in particular that drew attention.

The first was the graphic depiction of a rape Hannah witnesses while hidden in a closet. The victim, her friend Jessica, is drunk and largely nonresponsive, and the scene is depicted in a series of flashbacks scattered across the series. It is extremely graphic and very violent.

It’s not the only rape viewers see: They also see Hannah’s rape, which is also extremely disturbing, and again very graphic, with the camera lingering in nearly pornographic detail over the features of the scene.

The third is Hannah’s suicide, also depicted in detail: Viewers see precisely what she did and how.

Talking about the rape scenes, Asher said that ‘guys should be uncomfortable‘ when they see the rape scenes, because apparently high school guys need to see a graphic rape scene in order to understand that rape is bad. I saw similar rationale — not, to be clear, specifically from Asher — around the suicide scene. Sure, it’s graphic, but you shouldn’t look away, because you need to understand that suicide is wrong, and you aren’t doing yourself any favours by shrinking away from it.

Allow me, if I may, to call bullshit on both of these arguments, because they are complete garbage, and people who make them should seriously question their life choices. Are you seriously saying that the only way to get people to care about social issues is to show extremely graphic exploitative violence on screen to make sure they ‘get it’? I mean maybe you are — you’re probably the same kind of people who distribute photographs of drowned migrant children and bombing victims and say that the only way to show you care and are taking action is by redistributing them, because obviously the only way to make people pay attention is with dead bodies.

So there are two separate issues here, and the first is the notion that people need to be made aware of things like rape and suicide. We already know that people are aware. We also know that when it comes to rape, there’s considerable confusion and blurring of lines when it comes to conversations about consent — that young people in particular may experience rape and not realise it, while their rapists are sometimes unaware that they’ve crossed a line. The idea here is that by showing such scenes we can can say ‘this is rape, don’t do that.’

Only teenagers aren’t dogs to be trained with a board and a clicker. The people who know that’s rape already know it — seeing it depicted isn’t going to ‘teach’ them anything. Many of those who don’t know will write it off, or skip watching the show altogether. The notion that we should depict graphic violence to teach people it’s wrong, and it’s okay as long as there’s context, is predicated on the understanding that people are paying attention. Are they? Sure, maybe some readers and viewers learned something from these scenes…but how many?

And at whose expense? Because the thing is that rape victims/survivors and suicide survivors — or people with persistent depression and suicidal ideation — like pop culture too. They want to be able to read books and have fun and enjoy themselves. They want to see the latest thing on Netflix, especially if they’re aware that all of their friends are talking about it.

Some may not be expecting graphic content that could be incredibly traumatic, bringing up issues that they’re not well prepared for. Seeing a graphic suicide isn’t a great thing when you’re contemplating suicide or recovering from an attempt, for example. Seeing a brutal rape may provoke intense feelings — or a feeling that your own rape ‘didn’t count’ because you were drunk but conscious and should have said something, because you didn’t fight back, because…

Others may be aware that the content’s there, but uncomfortable with having to explain why they don’t want to watch the series, or discuss it. They can be self-possessed and aware that this isn’t a good thing for them to be viewing right now, but caught in the trap of having to out themselves to nosy, pushy people who won’t take ‘nah, I wasn’t interested’ for an answer.

This idea that everyone should be subjected to traumatic content for the sake of a few, that people should feel ‘uncomfortable’ and should be forced to watch even when they want to look away, is really quite repellant. Should people be forced to watch a scene that brings up past trauma? Are they weak, or failures, for needing to turn away? Will seeing violence magically teach people that violence is wrong — even in the face of decades of pop culture, and violence, suggesting otherwise?

Because that’s the message you’re sending.

Image: Shadows, nrg_crisis, Flickr