Amicus Curiae: A New Category of Censorship for the Controversial ’13 Reasons Why’ Netflix Series

By Isaac Chen
Content warning: the following article mentions sexual assault and suicide.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification – the New Zealand classifications office – has recently created a new category of censorship for the controversial Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why. This is due to concerns of the wider public and mental health professionals over the content depicted by the series.

The series, which was released in New Zealand at the end of March, chronicles the sexual assault and suicide of Hannah Baker, who records an extended suicide note through a series of 13 tapes explaining her decision.

The new censorship category is RP18, and the Classification Office decision sets out that content classified under this is: “Objectionable except if the availability of the publication is restricted to persons who have attained the age of 18 years, or who are accompanied by a parent or guardian.” Accompanying the rating is this warning:

Series deals with suicide, bullying and depression. Episodes may contain violence, sexual material, drug use, and frequent offensive language. Some episodes contain graphic depictions of suicide and rape.

They consider ‘guardians’ to be responsible adults that include over 18 family members or teachers who can provide guidance. Tips are also offered on material classified as RP18, which highlights the restriction as a means to help the younger viewer understand the context, themes and material presented on the screen – giving them an opportunity to think about and discuss any issues the film has raised for them, so as to mitigate the potential harm of the child or teenager seeing the film, which may contain challenging content.

As an independent Crown entity established under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, the Classification Office’s two primary functions are to classify publications such as films, books or computer files which may need to be restricted or banned, and to provide information about classification decisions and about the classification system as a whole.

The Classification Office used the criteria set out in the same legislation to come to the decision that the series needed to be age-restricted due to the likelihood to be injurious to public good. Part of the reasoning given noted that her death is represented at times as not only a logical, but an unavoidable outcome of the events that follow. They express that:

The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it. People often commit suicide because they are unwell, not simply because people have been cruel to them. It is also extremely damaging to present rape as a ‘good enough’ reason for someone to commit suicide. This sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual violence about their futures and their worth.

Netflix has also taken steps following the decision. The company said they worked voluntarily with the New Zealand authorities on a classification, as well as with other authorities globally, by adding explicit warnings on the three most graphic episodes, and producing an after show, Beyond the Reasons, that delves deeper into some of the tougher topics portrayed. They also created a global website to help people find local mental health resources.

The Classification Office’s response in their decision was that Netflix should consider doing more, and as a consequence of the classification they were required to display a clear warning in respect to the series, as well as in respect to each episode. There was also a call for the warnings to include information pertaining to localised services such as helplines, websites, support numbers, crisis services to be made immediate before people watched the series. The immediacy of this information being provided without any effort on behalf of the viewers was cited as allowing for a higher chance of intervention for the episodes’ most needy or vulnerable viewers.

This is an interesting insight into the Classification body in New Zealand, and highlights the classification office as a body that not only seeks to preserve an archaic notion of ‘moral decency’, but also engages with modern topics and popular media. Even if there are concerns, they note the merits of the depictions in the series, and by not banning it outright, provide a space for these topics to be discussed, so long as appropriate and immediate support in the engagement of the themes contained in the series is made apparent, to not only the young people but also the adults.

 

Need help?
The Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below:

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
  • Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.
  • WHATSUP children’s helpline – 0800 9428 787. Phone between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays, and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at whatsup.co.nz.
  • Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
  • Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

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