COMMENTARY: How much do we need to see to be moved by a powerful story?
Warning: the following contains scenes of a graphic nature.
As we are becoming desensitized to that frequently used cautionary call, it seems the more explicit the content, the more the accolades.
Boundary-pushing premium cable network HBO leads the 2019 Emmy nominations pack with 137 nods, followed by streaming giant Netflix with 117. Beyond the battle of bragging rights for having the highest award haul between these two outlets over the past few years, we have also seen increasingly graphic content in the works they are producing.
It begs the question, how much do we really have to show to tell a strong story? Sometimes it’s what we don’t see — where the story-teller pulls us in close and paints just enough of the picture, then leaves the rest to our imagination — that keeps us most haunted, thrilled or overcome with joy.
But with shows like Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, 13 Reasons Why and HBO’s latest teen-trauma-drama Euphoria, there is very little left to the imagination with such graphic scenes of sex (often violent sex), drug use and even suicide.
This week producers of the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why announced that they edited a graphic and controversial suicide scene out of the show’s first season on the advice of medical experts. This comes after years of pushback and “ongoing debate around the show.”
The original scene graphically depicted the death of the show’s protagonist, Hannah. It was nearly three minutes long. Three minutes. I have never grappled with suicidal thoughts, but even for myself, that is an incredibly uncomfortable amount of time to watch that scene. I can only imagine how triggering it could be for someone experiencing such feelings.
While I laud producers for finally removing this scene, I wish it hadn’t been there to begin with because I feel the damage has already been done.
A study done by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) published in April found a correlation between an increase in suicide rates among American children between the ages of 10 and 17 years old and the show’s release in 2017. According to Lisa Horowitz, a clinical psychologist at NIMH, she viewed the series depiction of suicide as “almost prescriptive” and that “it glorified [suicide] in a way.”
There is intent and then there is impact. Show creator Brian Yorkey said the creative intent of the scene was to portray the ugly, painful reality of suicide in graphic detail and tell the truth about the horror of such an act. “We believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.”
I don’t refute the creators’ intentions, but I also can’t deny the impact of such graphic content on its viewers — especially young viewers.
Enter teen-drama, Euphoria. This series is so sexually explicit the lines feel blurred between commentary on teen sex in the digital age, which can lend to pornographic mimicry, and actual scenes of pornography. And yes, we’re used to seeing a lot of sexual content from HBO, but this particular drama is so disturbing because it’s expressly about teens.
Centred around drug-addict Rue, played by the formidable Zendaya, the first episode felt like a literal overdose of the extreme, from multiple sex scenes, frequent nudity, depictions of drug use and the aftermath of an overdose. The second episode doesn’t slow down. I haven’t made it to episode three, and I’m not sure if I will because I’m not quite sure who this series is meant for. As a parent, it feels like all of our worst nightmares not so neatly wrapped up in a very sticky box.
And I equally feel a lot of this content is too much for teens. Acknowledging these are the very real issues teens are grappling with, I just don’t know if such graphic depictions are needed.
Scripted after the Israeli series of the same name, Sam Levinson, creator of the American version of Euphoria, said he infused his own experiences of drug abuse into the story. But the series for all the “authentic content” it boasts shows a lot more than an anxiety-ridden, drug-addicted teen.
Canadian rapper Drake is one of the producers behind Euphoria, and rose to fame himself through teen TV, namely Degrassi: The Next Generation. Like Degrassi’s tagline claimed “it goes there,” the series brought a lot of taboo and difficult conversations for teens to the forefront. But it didn’t go nearly as far as Euphoria has in the first two episodes I’ve seen, which have gone well beyond “there.”
As content gets more extreme and explicit, I wonder if it’s just for the sake of sensationalism or simply lazy storytelling.
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There is one particular film that comes to mind when I think of what I didn’t see that left me haunted and that is The Kite Runner, the film adaptation of the Afghanistan-set bestseller by Khaled Hosseini. There is a traumatic scene where young Hassan is sexually assaulted. The scene has no nudity and was portrayed in a very impressionistic way, but you are given glimpses of telling elements, like the undoing of a pant buckle and the pants being tugged at, and there is no mistaking that the young boy was abused.
It is horrific. And it stayed with me for a long time — even now. But I didn’t see any actual violent sex acts in that scene nor did I need to in order to feel the enormity of the violation. It was powerful story-telling.
But that was 2007. Story-telling, at least in the unrestricted space of streaming and premium cable, seems to be no holds barred, pushing the limits of pleasure, pain and shock.
In the era of the extreme, hopefully, we will be able to navigate new ways to speak openly with young people about these difficult topics but also be vigilant in seeing the signs to take care of them when the viewing gets too much.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service (CSPS), available 24/7, at 1-833-456-4566. For more information on suicide and to find help nearest you, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.