Brian Yorkey’s 13 Reasons Why, has taken the world by storm. It is the most tweeted about show of 2017, and perhaps the most controversial. Netflix’s new series, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, focuses on the traumatic suicide of 17 year old high school student Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford. Hannah records 13 tapes before her death, listing the 13 reasons why she is going to kill herself, and the 13 people who are to blame. Co-produced by Selena Gomez, the show is brilliantly structured, filtering between two parallel time frames, with every episode based on a different tape.
The show does highlight a bunch of important issues including bullying, sexual abuse and depression, and also successfully depicts the dangers of social media in amplifying them. However, it’s also faced a huge backlash in recent weeks, questioning the affect it could have on impressionable young adults in light of the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide. In New Zealand, the show has been given an RP18 warning classification, and at St. Vincent Elementary school in Canada, the students have even been banned from talking about the show. Selena Gomez has responded to the show’s criticism by stating that: “We stayed very true to the book and… initially what Jay Asher created was a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story.”
As a young female myself, I know the trauma of teenage angst all too well, so I too, was intrigued about the show. Towards the end of the series, I found certain moments extremely hard to watch, Hannah’s suicide especially, but more significantly, the effects it had on her family and friends. As suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in America, the show promotes a discussion, which desperately needs to be heard. However, with this undertaking comes a big risk.
One of the main reasons for the backlash 13 Reasons Why has faced is that it presents no link between Hannah’s mental health and her suicide. The World Health Organisation states that nearly 90% of global suicides stem from mental disorders (including depression) but this is not depicted in the show.
The tapes Hannah records, listing the reasons for her suicide and blaming her classmates for it, present her suicide as a vengeful act. This portrayal of her suicide as a victory against those class mates who wronged her destroys any link between mental disorder and suicide, reducing the end of her life to an act of spite by associating her decision with petty high school disputes and boyfriends drama. Surely this sends a damaging message, that suicide can be used as a method of revenge?
Furthermore, the stereotypical high school characters in the show – the popular jocks, and the unpopular girl who makes the cheerleader squad and leaves her old friends behind – gives a high-school chick flick edge to the show, despite the serious issues that are raised. Although the high school setting of the series forces its watchers to recognise that these problems do occur within spaces that we trust, it gives the drama a juvenile aspect that reduces the gravity of Hannah’s suicide.
Although the way Hannah is sexually objectified by the boys attempts to expose the misogyny that is still rampant, show also implies that the affection of Hannah’s romantic interest, Clay Jenson (played by Dylan Minnette) could have prevented Hannah from committing suicide. This sends a contradictory message to its audience, suggesting that the love of a boy could have solved all of Hannah’s problems. As I sat and watched the all too familiar presentation of the girl as the damsel in distress, and the boy as the hero, I found myself, honestly, quite angered.
One of the more serious worries that I have about 13 Reasons Why, is the lack of help Hannah receives. Hannah reports her rape to the school counsellor, as well as admitting her suicidal feelings. Disturbingly, but unfortunately, quite possible, Hannah receives no help from the counsellor, and is even somewhat judged for the sexual assault. Could this send a message to our generation, that there is no point trying to seek help?
And then, of course, there is the fear of copycat behaviour. There is always going to be danger when producing a show that is so raw and controversial – but the romantic portrayal of Hannah’s suicide could be more than just risky. The turmoil that Hannah’s suicide leaves behind, and the lives that it affects, may suggest to its watchers that suicide can make people pine for you, make them miss you and that suicide can make you important. This is not the case.
Yes, suicide needs to be discussed more openly, and yes, I do believe that there are positive aspects of this show. However, I plead that if you do decide to watch the show, watch it with caution.