This is something I wanted to talk about. I think it’s incredibly important. However, I put off watching the show after I heard my brother’s comments and opinions on the show. (He isn’t a fan.)
*Let me provide you with a brief synopsis: This show is based on the young adult book of the same name. Hannah Baker commits suicide, and instead of leaving a suicide note, she records 13 tapes. Each tape is addressed to a particular person Hannah blames for her suicide. The tapes are to be passed through the people consecutively, one after the other. If a person decides not listen to the tapes and pass them on, there is a threat that there is an identical set of tapes that will be released to the authorities. The show focuses around Clay Jensen, who receives the tapes at the beginning of the show. He was Hannah’s friend, and had a crush on her, and so he finds it very difficult to listen to the tapes. He is the 11th tape, and as he works his way through the tapes about his peers, he challenges their “stable” handling of the tapes and Hannah’s death. However, Hannah’s parents are filing a lawsuit against the school because of bullying, and targets one of the 13 students. This further makes the situation between Clay and the others tense and sometimes dangerous.*
Before I get into the nitty gritty of my opinions, I want to make something very clear: Suicide is something that needs to be talked about. It is a dangerous choice that many people, teenagers especially, decide to make. It’s devastating and impacts many people. The year after I graduated high school, my class lost two people to suicide, in the span of two weeks. Suicide needs to be talked about. But there is a difference between talking about suicide and handling suicide
Though this show talks about suicide, it doesn’t handle suicide. Let me explain. This show focuses on a young girl’s suicide, and how it affects her high school. Suicide itself is talked about, and the ripple effect is examined. But it is does not handle suicide. It doesn’t talk about the warning signs, or ways to help. If anything, the show focuses on bullying and harassment. These things is still important to talk about, and definitely a key factor in many suicides, but then the show should be labeled as a show focusing on such.
I also want to make it clear that, as of writing this, I have yet to finish the show. I am less than half-way through, and in all honesty, I can’t take any more. I initially decided that I wasn’t going to write about this show until I finished it, but honestly, it’s having a negative effect on my mental and emotional state. I’m watching it slowly, and it’s still getting under my skin.
I have never really considered suicide. (Well, there was one evening four years ago, for about a span of forty-five minutes, where I desperately didn’t want to wake up the next morning. But that was due to a heart-wrenching situation, and I already it mentioned here, point 3.). I love my life. I am full to the brim with excitement about my future. If you were to stop me in the street and ask me about my hopes and dreams, and my plans for the future, my eyes would light up and I would get very excited to talk about those things. I’m saying these things to paint the picture of how much I love my life, and am not suicidal or depressed. But this show is causing me to have scary thoughts. Thoughts such as “What would my room say about me if I was gone?” or “Am I the ‘real me’ to my parents, family, and friends?” or even “How would my death impact others if I was gone?”.
I will be 21 this year, so these thoughts are scary to me, because life is still so bright before me. But now imagine these thoughts in the minds of depressed teenagers. The gravity of that situation is enough to shake me to my core. And if suicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers ages 15-19 (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), is it not terrifying that a show that creates these types of thoughts is advertised for teenagers in that demographic?
Thirteen Reasons Why is not a show that spreads awareness about suicide. In fact, if anything, it trivializes it. Instead of focusing on the young girl’s mental state, it instead seems to focus on harassment and bullying. Please don’t misunderstand me. Harassment and bullying need to be talked about and some of the things the characters did were absolutely atrocious and deserve to be addressed. However, not in the way the show addresses them. For example, one of the students, Tyler, was on the yearbook staff, and began to stalk Hannah. She hears him outside her window late one night, taking pictures. What he did was obviously not okay. However, instead of telling authorities, Hannah decides to sit outside his window as she records his tape, telling those listening to those rocks at his window. That is not okay.
The other thing I can’t stand about this show is how Hannah’s word is held as law. I understand respecting the dead, and their wishes. But I draw the line at holding those wishes above the well-being of other people. In the same situation with Tyler, instead of throwing a rock at his window, Clay takes a picture of him while he’s changing, and sends to kids at school. When he is confronted by Tyler about it, Clay says that what he did was equal to what Tyler did. I partly feel bad for Clay, because he liked Hannah, he feels the need to honor her and seek revenge. However, I would argue his actions make him just as bad as the things the other people did. Also, every person who listens to the tapes seems to think they have no choice in the matter, that they have to listen to them and pass them on. They seems to hold their reputations and futures above Hannah’s grieving parents, and other students. Those of who that have experienced the effects of suicide closely, does this sit well with you?
Now, this show is listed as TV-MA, due to the language and sexual content. Hannah Baker is sexually assaulted and raped, and from the episodes I have seen, I have reason to believe the rape seen will be shown in detail. And because all of the episodes are available on Netflix, people have the ability to watch the entire show in one sitting. This is a lot of emotional and upsetting material to take in all at once. I could just about handle both seasons of Broadchurch, and I am going to have to find the emotional fortitude to watch the third and final season. That show was handled gently and with cautious delicacy, in terms of the more unsavory scenes. But this show, it feels blatant and aggressive. It feels frank, but not in the prudent or well thought-out way. (Also, I want to note that the intro music to the show creates a very stark contrast with the nature of the show. It is a relatively happy tune, compared to the dark subject matter.)
I have not finished the series, but in doing research for this show, I’ve learned that Hannah’s suicide is depicted in full graphic detail. First off, as someone who is naturally sensitive to scenes like that, I know that moment would cause me serious emotional distress. But secondly, there is research to suggest that visual, graphic depictions of suicide can increase viewer suicides. Imagine teenagers, who already are suicidal or have suicidal thoughts, watching that scene. They may be more compelled to commit suicide. That scares me.
The final thing about this show is the way it concludes. It is alluded that one of the students, the first student named and the one targeted by the lawsuit, is about to commit suicide. On top of that, it is also alluded that there will be a school shooting. These are terrifying things, and should not be handled lightly. However, I would argue that the students involved in these end-of-the-show tragedies, are doing so because of the blame placed on them by Hannah. I would argue that it was Hannah’s tapes and her persistence that they be listened to, that drove certain people to suicide or revenge through a school shooting. I think this creates a flawed idea that one can still have an impact on other people after one has died. Let me put this plainly and has gently as I can: If you commit suicide, you relinquish your control and impact on others around you. You no longer can tell people what to do. And mostly importantly, you cannot blackmail people from the grave.
I have issues with this show because of how it seems to glamorize revenge harassment and how it trivializes suicides. It doesn’t seem to place things in proper proportion. I have been a teenager, and I have been in high school. But this show makes high schoolers and counselors seem uncaring, incompetent, and totally disillusioned. I have not finished this show, and as of right now, I do not plan on it.
I agree with this article, “13 Reasons Why’s Controversial Depiction of Teen Suicide Has School Counselors Picking Up the Pieces“. I feel those people that actually want to help are left to try to make this show a working part of the conversation about suicide. They are left to steer the conversation away from some of the really glaring issues with the show, back towards help and safety and prevention.
If you still want to watch this show, please do so knowing it is a work of fiction and should be understood as such. It represents graphic depictions of bullying, cyberbullying, sexual harassment, rape, and suicide. If you already have suicidal thoughts, or know someone who does, please do not watch this show. I do not know you, but I love you. I do not know you, but I care about you. I do not know you, but I want you to live. You are worthy of life, and beautiful and wonderful.
If you or someone you know is exhibiting suicidal tendencies or is showing any of the warning signs for suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The line is open 24 hours a day, and there is even the ability to chat online, if necessary. Please reach out; there are people to care about you and want to help you.