Opinion

There's no point in trying to ban TV shows that accurately reflect our reality

Go ahead: pull that series because it includes graphic depictions of school shootings — just hope that kids never turn on the TV or go on Facebook to witness the real-life graphic depictions of school shootings that regularly plague the United States.

13 Reasons Why is relatable in many ways. But the idea of retribution after death is nothing more than sci-fi

Hannah comes back as a ghost — a product of her ex-boyfriend's imagination — who gets to "witness" the toll that her death is playing on those who bullied her while she was alive. (Beth Dubber/Netflix)

Suicide is not the best way to get back at people. Neither is killing others. To most, this is obvious. But the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, now in its second season, suggests those are two means of retribution that could possibly do the job.

Teenagers are smart, but they're still technically children. They're often idealistic and don't always understand the outcomes of their actions. Their brains are still developing, and doing before thinking is one of the pitfalls of being young. Yes, it's just TV — not a video on how to live your life, or an instruction manual on how to deal with bullies. Grownups get that, but some teenagers might not.

The first season of 13 Reasons Why focuses on Hannah, a girl who commits suicide and leaves behind cassette tape recordings in which she explains each reason for killing herself. In the second season, Hannah comes back as a ghost — a product of her ex-boyfriend's imagination — who gets to "witness" the toll that her death is playing on those who bullied her while she was alive.

A dark and silly fantasy

Hannah is a well-rounded, whole character. She is very convincing as a girl — not a ghost of a girl. She might be an impossibility, but she comes off as startlingly real. For that reason, I say the show should be relocated to the sci-fi and fantasy section on Netflix. It might be relatable in some ways — bullying is real, violence is real, sex is real — but in others, it's just darkly silly.

Groups such as the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association want the show pulled entirely because of its sexual themes and violent content.

But there's no point in trying to ban shows that accurately reflect our reality. Go ahead: pull that series because it includes graphic depictions of school shootings — just hope that kids never turn on the TV or go on Facebook to witness the real-life graphic depictions of school shootings that regularly plague the United States.

And OK, get rid of that sex scene — just make sure kids have no access to internet-connected devices where they can view depictions of any type of sexual encounter imaginable, and that they also don't attend schools where they talk about sex and possibly engage in it.

Here's the thing: it's too late for censorship.

When I was in high school, the most-watched show among my peers was Beverly Hills 90210, a fluorescent, crimp-haired beach love drama that, despite its rather light touch, dealt with some serious issues such as alcoholism, HIV, teen pregnancy and domestic violence. In one episode, a character finds his father's gun and accidentally shoots himself in the stomach and dies. Not pretty, but it was real.

There's no point in condemning relatable content — both sexual assault and school shootings happen in real life. But because the majority of the content is so relatable with 13 Reasons, the outlandish stuff — notably, the idea that you can posthumously enjoy some sort of retribution — becomes muddled. But sorry, kids: when you're dead, you're just dead. As the audience to a scripted TV show, we get to see everything that happens after, but you, in real life, will not.

Kudos to the show, though: there are already some warnings in place. The second season starts with the actors introducing themselves and urging its young viewers to talk to someone if they are struggling with issues similar to those portrayed in the show —suicide, bullying, sexual violence, guns. But perhaps the fairytale elements should come with another warning, too: "Hey, remember how I play a ghost and this is just TV? Not real!"

Suicide is rarely a solitary act; it's bred from desperation, inability to cope with pain — mental and/ or physical — and none of it is the stuff of TV dreams. It is the stuff of heartbreak. (Andrew Gombert/EPA-EFE)

Sadly, we tend to romanticize suicide even when it is real. Consider that strange reportage of the "red scarf" with which designer Kate Spade used to hang herself. In many stories, we read about the "red" before we learned about Spade's 13-year-old daughter and husband who were left behind.

The daughter and the husband are the reality of suicide: it has many victims. It's rarely a solitary act; it's bred from desperation, inability to cope with pain — mental and/ or physical — and none of it is the stuff of TV dreams. It is the stuff of heartbreak.

You don't get to come back. You don't get to be a ghost. And 13 Reasons Why is just entertainment. So treat it as such: watch it and let your kids watch it but keep in mind that none of it is real, inspirational or true.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska is the author of Drunk Mom, a memoir, and Guy, a novel. As a journalist she mostly writes on the topics of mental health, addiction and arts and culture.

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