Graphic content

Sensitivity in television shows

Two years after its debut in 2017, the Netflix original “Thirteen Reasons Why” removed its controversial scene depicting the main character Hannah Baker committing suicide. Showrunner Brian Yorkey released in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter that the show’s original portrayal of the “painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail” was to discourage such acts to “make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it.” However, his decision to delete the scene was intended to minimize any harm that could potentially result from the explicit scene. Yorkey’s creative choice speaks to the importance of limiting graphic content to strike a balance between showcasing reality and ensuring viewer safety.

In television dramas, depictions with graphic details are motivated by agendas to either expose sheltered audiences to harsh realities or to increase viewership. The former aims to spread awareness to underrepresented subjects that are generally viewed as taboo, such as suicide, drug abuse and sexual assault.

Programs that aim to educate their audiences on sensitive subjects tend to receive intense backlash as a result of their explicit nature. For instance, HBO’s “Euphoria” pilot episode introduced Zendaya’s character, Rue, overdosing on antidepressants to cope with anxiety. Despite the show’s good intentions, it received polarizing reviews because of its explicit depiction of drug addiction. Television shows cross the line when they include uncensored scenes that inevitably exposes more vulnerable audiences to possible harm.

Alternatively, shows can avoid explicitly showing graphic content to mitigate any risk that may arise. Audiences can be triggered by any images or language of sensitive topics which can result in relapses. In response to “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the National Association of School Psychologists warned against watching the suicide scene as “exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide.” This very reasoning should prompt television shows to address sensitive topics in a more tactful manner.

The overarching motive behind airing scenes with graphic detail is to essentially shock audiences into sparking conversation. However, to optimally address sensitive topics, television shows should rely on implications to convey mature themes. ABC’s “American Crime” most notably addresses topics, such as sexual violence and rape by blacking out the explicit scenes. Censorship is a viable alternative that concurrently emulates similar impacts of explicit details and lessens endangering audiences into reliving trauma.

On the other end of the spectrum, dramas solely use graphic content to promote viewership. Most famously, Game of Thrones and American Horror Story frequently showcase graphic details, including violence, sex and nudity to advance nothing but the plot and enwrap audiences into watching the next episode. This is fine for the sake of entertainment being entertainment, but it is nonetheless important for the shows that have an agenda to educate viewers to be held to a higher standard and consider how to represent issues with the utmost sensitivity.

As part of the audience, it is important to recognize that television dramas will never be able to fully capture the severity nor the nuances of every issue it attempts to tackle, and people should not base their expectations or actions on skewed dramatizations. Regardless, television dramas largely direct people’s attention to what they show and with this in mind, they must be held accountable to how they choose to disseminate their content.

By Sherman Wu, Print editor-in-chief
Editorial Cartoon by Daniela Marquez