One Cut Too Many: 13 Reasons Why and the societal suicide of censorship
I once spent a very lonely Thanksgiving watching 13 Reasons Why. I was deep into a period in my life when I realized I might not have more Thanksgivings, by my own choosing, and yet that was what I chose to spend my day doing, before I concluded that the show was not for me, and shut it off.
As a show, it was solid. I didn’t think it was gratuitous. I wondered who the audience was—the prime demo seemed to be either cautionary tale folk, or death-obsessives. I suspected I would never watch it again.
But I also care a great deal that an extended scene, detailing the methodology of the central character’s suicide, has been removed by the showrunner from the version on Netflix.
The dubious reason cited is that said scene encourages young people to off themselves. If you watch that scene and think that’s what you need in your day, your issues are not steered one way or another by a program. The sequence reveals just how hard surceasing life can be. It’s not a finger snap removing you from this world. You have to labor at ending yourself. Somebody is going to need a lot of Clorox later. For parts of you.
The bigger problem is not what is censored or self-censored, but that there is censorship after the fact. Watching that scene almost made me vomit. It would have made me feel that way if my life was rosy, because of an ever-diminishing thing called empathy.
But reading about the scene’s removal also is an emetic. You wonder what will be spared, because as visceral as that scene is, it’s nothing compared to what you get in a lot of books, films, operas, records, paintings.
Are most works of art that work this visceral vein untouched right now simply because they’re not as visible as splashy series on Netflix? Will they get this same treatment, in the name of mental health, should there be occasion to kick any of them back into the light, which is where we need them?
If you are triggered into death by that scene in 13 Reasons Why, you can’t handle Dostoevsky. You can’t handle a lot of late 1960s cinema. You can’t handle the Velvet Underground.
What’s worse is the slickly edited scene that the show is now using is a gloss over on suicide. It obfuscates suicide’s raw physicality, making it dream-like, something that happens off stage. It de-messies, if you will, suicide’s nature as blunt-force trauma.
Such an edit is not a solution. It’s not a life solution, it’s not a showrunning solution, it’s not a societal solution—it a truth-shield.
We are creating these buffers, which might not mean anything in a given instance. People flippantly remark that one vote doesn’t matter, so why does removing a scene from one show matter? It matters because trends, like trails, can begin with breadcrumbs. Examples that seem to happen in isolation, pool together like the Blob in the old sci-fi film, then it’s “oh dear, here we go” time, and by then it is too late. Same deal when you’re in a tub and the razor has bit far enough into the veins of your wrist that control is entirely wrested from you. Censorship is the societal version of that.
To keep myself going, I climb a 300 stair obelisk ten times every day. I’d be dead without this routine. Inside the obelisk, I encounter out-of-shape people who sit and sprawl out on the narrow stairs, looking like they are on the verge of a health crisis. They can get lippy when you politely ask to pass. And I think, “Maybe this is not the best place for you.”
I thought that when I was watching 13 Reasons Why on that lonely Thanksgiving, so I stopped. But I also ask myself that question now regarding art, with people who want to install buffers. Maybe reality is not the place for you. The rest of us need it. Even when we simply choose not to look at some forms of it. There is power in knowing that it is there. The power of life.