Trigger warning: Column discusses graphic scenes of sexual assault.
Twitter has become a platform for social and political activism. While scrolling through tweets, I sometimes come across cute photos of dogs and the occasional heartwarming video, but I mostly see tweets aimed at controversial media and news. One television show that has sparked a large amount of these tweets is the Netflix series "Thirteen Reasons Why."
One scene, in particular, fueled contentious debate. In season 2 of "Thirteen Reasons Why," there’s a scene in which one of the characters, Tyler, is confronted by the much stronger, more aggressive Monty. In the shocking scene, Monty smashes Tyler’s head against the bathroom sinks repeatedly before dragging him to the toilets and sodomizing him with a mop as Tyler screams out in pain.
Many people took to Twitter to voice their thoughts about the necessity of the scene. Many who opposed the inclusion of the scene argued that such graphic scenes are unnecessary and that the trigger warning at the beginning of the episode was insufficient. Those in favor of the scene argued that the scene was supposed to be uncomfortable for viewers to watch and was crucial for “starting the conversation” about male victim sexual assault.
As someone who watched both seasons of "Thirteen Reasons Why" I became physically sickened by that scene, so I went on Twitter to read the debates about the series, and there was one part of the argument in favor of the scene that baffled me: There was no depth in the conversation. The only conversation about male rape centered on whether the scene with Tyler and Monty should have been put in the show or not. The main conversations were about how Hannah and Zach (two of the protagonists who were briefly involved in a relationship) “deserved better” and the attractiveness of Justin Foley, another one of the protagonists. There were a few miscellaneous tweets about how male rape is more common than people think, and how people need to discuss it, but they got lost among the photo edits of Zach and Hannah, as well as tweet threads about the controversial scene. Nothing was factual, in-depth or executed with care.
It seems as though “starting the conversation” has become an excuse, rather than the reason, for sharing shocking and often graphic content about sensitive topics. However, the response to the scene in "Thirteen Reasons Why" serves as a prime example as to why creating and then releasing graphic content that relates to prevalent societal issues doesn’t really do anything.
Doing something to simply “start the conversation” is a lazy, problematic approach to tackling issues. It’s a cop-out that absolves the person starting the conversation of any event that ensues, and showing people horrifying scenes to “start the conversation” about societal issues is the equivalent of showing children porn to “start the conversation” about safe sex. Starting a conversation is important, but so is facilitating it and making sure that something comes out of it. Content like the scene in "Thirteen Reasons Why" might have encouraged some people to learn more and engage in meaningful dialogue, but for most people, it just becomes something shocking to tweet about before losing interest. It is naive to assume that after watching a graphic scene in a television show, viewers will engage in meaningful dialogue about the scene and then go on to become some kind of activist for whatever issue or topic the scene covered. More often than not, viewers become traumatized by what they watch and discuss the scene rather than the trauma itself and then forget about it.
This is clear even when examining how people react to the news: People have become so desensitized to horrific events such as mass shootings that while they might initially feel awful when hearing about such an event and discuss it, many people tend to forget about the event and move on with their lives. This isn’t to say that the news shouldn’t report about such events. However, the news has shown us that simply showing people horrible things that happen to others does not result in real change.
While media depicting graphic scenes might have more shock value and more potential to become viral and, thus, reach more people, it doesn’t do anything but shock people before being forgotten. In order to encourage people to discuss issues in an impactful way, we must direct them so that know even where to start considering, conversing and changing. For example, if "Thirteen Reasons Why" hadn’t shown that scene, and had instead perhaps only alluded to such an event happening (after inserting a hefty trigger warning) and had followed it up with an unavoidable discussion between the cast member and experts or statistics about sexual assault, the show might have succeeded in creating and facilitating an actual, meaningful conversation about sexual assault.
People need to be given direction when asked to deal with complex problems. It’s lazy to drop a bombshell on unsuspecting viewers and then essentially leave them to figure everything out by themselves. Instead, we must educate people about certain topics without traumatizing or triggering them and then offer ways in which they can help, such as by providing the names of certain organizations that work towards change or the names of proposed pieces of legislature people can help support. Starting a conversation is important, but it only helps if there are people willing to act following it.