'13 Reasons Why' explores the disturbing aftermath of a teen suicide
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13 Reasons Why
Includes spoilers and mentions of suicide and sexual violence including rape.
In a pretty spot-on adaptation of the YA bestseller “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the new Netflix series follows Clay Jensen as he receives a box of cassette tapes left on his doorstep and, upon pushing play, is greeted by the voice of Hannah Baker: a classmate, coworker, friend, crush and, recently, victim of suicide. For the next 13 episodes, she explains — “live and in stereo” — why she is about to kill herself, and we listen.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this series, which has sparked a lot of debate over how this story should have been told, or if it should have been produced in this medium at all. From a purely stylistic standpoint, there are times when it feels manipulative and overly drawn out. Hannah’s instructions for the tapes are simple: listen to all of them, then pass them on to the person whose tape is after yours. Instead of listening to all the tapes at once, Clay takes breaks after each one and talks to the other students who have heard them, demanding answers, apologies or retribution — which doesn’t quite make sense, as his questions could be answered if he just finished listening to the tapes the way everyone tells him to. This gimmick allows the show to last for 13 episodes, and leads to Clay seeming more self-righteous than he does in the book. On top of that, there are several conversations between some of the other kids about how they’re going to deal with the possibility of the whole school learning about Hannah’s tapes that feel almost sickening in their self-interest, almost to the point of feeling unreal.
But the further into the season you get, the more these aspects seem to somehow fade into the background. The show allows us to visualize things that the book can’t, like how it feels to see the parents of the dead girl you bullied and know they have no idea about the role you played in her life, or how fake it can seem to have posters about suicide prevention plastered on the walls of a high school brimming with pain and oblivion.
Is “13 Reasons Why” raw and real, or is it romanticized? This seems to be the main determinant for whether or not this show is worth watching, but I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Some have voiced criticism that because Hannah gets to tell us her story, the show romanticizes suicide; some are worried about copycat suicides occurring among youth who watch the show. Others feel that it’s misleading to tell a story about suicide without ever really engaging with the role that mental health plays in the large majority of cases. Some feel that certain scenes are gratuitously graphic, especially the rape scenes and, of course, Hannah’s suicide itself.
Personally, I haven’t figured out what I think or feel about this show. When I read the book in high school, I felt like it got a lot right about how it feels to be in Hannah’s or Clay’s position, and showed just how shitty high school and high schoolers can be. It conveyed just how disconnected adults can be from the lives of their children or students and, just as importantly, how dangerous it is to keep subtly blaming victims of sexual assault for their own assaults. It’s weird to watch the show now, being in that strange place between adolescence and adulthood; I fully understand the concern surrounding it.
But I also think it’s a story worth telling. No, the show does not discuss whether Hannah has issues with her mental health, but a lot of the criticism I’ve seen of this show based on that aspect seems to gloss over how deeply painful and isolating Hannah’s experience of being bullied was. Some articles don’t even mention the fact that she was raped — something I find incredibly, deeply disturbing.
Something makes me want to defend this show, despite its faults, but I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure to what length or if I’m right to feel that way. Maybe it’s all of the comments I’ve read under think pieces about it from parents who are watching it with their kids and using it as a jumping off point to talk about bullying, sexual violence and male entitlement to the bodies of girls and women and suicide. Maybe it’s the fact that it represents at least some kind of exposure to stories that so often get buried with their owners. Maybe it’s the fact that by talking about what this show does wrong, we can get closer to talking about how we — as friends, as classmates, as parents, as school administrators and counselors — can do better. Because like it or not, it does nothing to talk about how artistic portrayals of suicide are incorrect without discussing the problems of how we talk about bullying, sexual violence and mental health in our schools. Perhaps one of the actual most romanticized elements of Hannah’s story is that she points to 13 specific reasons. If only it were actually that simple.