“13 Reasons Why” is the hit new Netflix original series that has stirred up a lot of feelings on the internet. It deals with some seriously heavy subject matter, so some trigger warnings are in order: sexual assault, suicide, death, bullying.
Also, major spoiler alerts below, so if you plan to watch it, stop reading right now.
Full disclosure, I started watching this series and got halfway through episode 6, so exactly half way through the series, before I stopped watching. When I first gave up on it, I couldn’t have told you why, I just stopped; however, now I can pinpoint why: it made me uneasy, in the extreme. Now, before you say “well duh… it’s supposed to” I want to say this, I revel in TV and movies that make me feel icky and uneasy, I love horror movies, suspenseful thrillers and shows like Law and Order: SVU which constantly deals with topics of sexual assault and the like, and I have an almost disturbing fascination with true crime shows like 48 Hours which I will binge watch at midnight. This was a different kind of discomfort. This was the kind of discomfort I felt when I hear about the kind of apathy that seems all too prevalent in society these days, when the message of “bullying is bad” is so overused that it has genuinely lost all meaning and people mock that message.
To give a brief background, the story revolves around a teenage boy named Clay, who receives a set of 7 tapes recorded by Hannah, who recently committed suicide, on each tape, there are 2 sides and each side focuses on one individual who Hannah blames in some way for her suicide.
Some of the reasons are, at face value, petty; fights between friends etc, but quickly it turns darker. Hannah is the victim of bullying and rumours, stemming from the fact that she kissed a boy, who started a rumour that she performed oral sex, among other things. As this is one of the first reasons we are presented with as to why Hannah committed suicide, I was on board with the show at that point, bullying is a leading cause of teen suicide in many developed countries, however it gets murkier and darker from that point.
It strays deeper into territory that should be dealt with carefully, especially in the context of teenagers, mental health and suicide.
As the series continues, it becomes clear that Clay isn’t the first person to hear these tapes and that they are in fact, a somewhat open secret within his high school community. It is implied that the only people who have heard them are the people who have a tape recorded about them by Hannah. Those who have heard the tapes prior to Clay have not contacted the authorities, nor have they made any notable effort to reach out to Hannah’s parents to apologise for their roles in the suicide of their daughter (whether they should or not is also an entirely different issue, suicide is a personal decision, but people should not target someone to the point where the victim feels that suicide is the only way out). It is clear that Hannah’s parents are reeling from the apparently shocking suicide of their daughter, who as far as they were concerned was a normal teenage girl. Hannah left no note to her parents detailing why she chose to end her life, and her parents find that one of the most difficult aspects to comprehend, which is a very common reaction to suicide of a family member or friend.
This is one of my bigger concerns with this show: the obvious implication that if you’re struggling in any way as a teenager, the last thing you should do is confide in your parents or another trusted adult. The show glorifies the idea that teenagers should manage these thoughts without outside help and nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone who is struggling with thoughts of depression or suicide should seek help.
Suicide is never a solution. There are no caveats to that statement, no “except in the case of…” nope, none of that, suicide is not a solution. Thirteen Reasons Why seems determined to portray suicide as an appropriate way to handle bullying, isolation and trauma. The entire premise of the show is revenge, wherein Hannah tells the chilling tales of what each individual did to her and thus blames them for her actions.
I’m sure most adults recall people who bullied them in high school, or if they weren’t bullied, at the very least recall something awful someone once said, and at the time they probably thought that revenge would be a great way to address the problem, but with the benefit of hindsight few adults would say that getting revenge on a bully was the way to handle it. That’s not to say that adults have all the answers, or that adults can accurately recall what bullying feels like, however the benefit of a few years distance from an event can have a massive impact on the ways we would have handled it if we had a “do-over”.
In recent weeks this show has been controversial. From the research I’ve done it is popular among teens, and not so much among adults. This could be many factors, but my suspicion is that it is because it seems so unrealistic in some ways and hyper realistic in uncomfortable ways.
The unrealistic aspects are the fare of normal Hollywood films: one of the male characters (who is meant to be in high school) had full sleeve tattoos and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a nightclub, which is jarring when compared to the main male character who looks much closer to the age he is meant to be portraying, coupled with the fact that for the most part the parents are absent in the extreme, and there seems to be no consequences when the teenage main characters do things that are not only unacceptable behaviour but also occasionally illegal. This lack of consequences for behaviours such as under age drinking, drugs and sex is yet another example of why this show should not be marketed towards teens.
In essence, I stopped watching this show because it glorified the idea of suicide as revenge and made it seem glamorous. Suicide is the least glamorous thing a person can do. It is permanent, it traumatises those left behind immeasurably, and in the case of 13 Reasons Why, if it is done in revenge, the person who takes their own life cannot see the consequences and see if the revenge has “worked”.
If this article has sparked any thoughts of depression, self harm or suicide, please call lifeline (in Australia) on: 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline (Australia) on: 1800 55 1800. If you are outside of Australia please call your nearest mental health helpline.