I’m curious about suicide, which is morbid, but I come by it honestly. For a period of my life, it was in my thoughts regularly. At one point it got bad enough that I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital.
I strongly believe that the world will be a safer place when mental illness is destigmatized by people sharing their experiences. So I was curious when I found out that Netflix had put out a controversial show that is bringing this taboo subject into the spotlight.
So I watched “13 Reasons Why” and had a few thoughts.
The Premise and the Controversy
The show is about a young woman who kills herself and sends a set of cassette tapes around to people in her life explaining the thirteen reasons why.
Singer and actor Selena Gomez, an executive producer on the show, told the Associated Press (AP), “(Backlash is) going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about.”
That response seems a bit dismissive when critics are pointing to research indicating that the show’s depiction of suicide may actually be dangerous.
Although “13 Reasons Why” is a work of fiction, many people have questioned why it doesn’t adhere to the commonly accepted guidelines for media coverage of suicide.
Suicide contagion is the phenomenon of one publicized death by suicide provoking others. This topic is briefly breached in “13 Reasons Why,” but the show ignores convention by including a graphic depiction of suicide.
According to “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” which was developed collaboratively by multiple health, mental health and suicide awareness groups, “More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.”
The resource also explains that, “Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images and repeated/ extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”
Brian Yorkey, an executive producer and writer of the show told the AP, “Many people are accusing the show of glamorizing suicide and I feel strongly — and I think everyone who made the show — feel very strongly that we did the exact opposite.”
“What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging,” he continued.
The Good and the Helpful
The show is incredibly popular, and I’m happy to see that it takes on some important issues very well: rape culture and bullying, in particular.
Adults have a hard time with morally-ambiguous portrayals of teenagers. We would rather have everything easily wrapped up at the end of an hour with a clear moral, so young people can learn wrong from right. But we are shown time and again that doesn’t work — thanks D.A.R.E. and abstinence-only sex education!
But “13 Reasons Why” is very comfortable wallowing in moral ambiguity. Plenty of awful things happen, but there aren’t any characters who are hands-down hateable with no redeeming qualities — well, maybe one.
Popular jock Bryce rapes intoxicated Jessica. Jessica’s boyfriend, Justin, covers for him. This sounds deplorable but when watching the show, I could see why Justin feels helpless. And why Jessica doesn’t want to admit she’s been raped. And I could even kind of see what makes Bryce charming.
This is important because we live in a culture where people expect rapists to be gross and rotten to the core. And when it turns out that they are innocent-looking popular guys, we let them off with a slap on the wrist and their victims aren’t taken seriously or receive blame themselves. This is very damaging to rape survivors.
“13 Reasons Why” recognizes that the world isn’t divided into good people and bad people, but rather, that we are all people who do some good things and some bad things. And the people whose bad things damage others should be held accountable.
Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica, read the book the show was based on, and said, “‘13 Reasons Why’ was a really special story to me, especially when I read it for the first time when I was 14 because people were just really mean in middle school, and it really did change my perspective on how to treat people because you don’t really know what other people are going through.”
For a lot of people this message is really needed. And if people are walking away from the show feeling like they should be nicer to each other, that’s incredible.
The Hits and the Misses
There are some areas of the show that I feel comfortable categorically approving or disapproving. But there are also some spots where “13 Reasons Why” does a great job for a bit and then bombs.
The show’s protagonist, Hannah, like many high school girls, is harassed because she can’t seem to figure out how to be seen as attractive but not a slut.
Hannah’s feelings are hurt, but the rumors also change how people behave towards her, which compounds until it is unmanageable. I’m glad “13 Reasons Why” depicts slut-shaming as harmful.
… But all the rumors about Hannah are false. Of course this happens sometimes, but here it is a cop out. It implies that we should be bothered that Hannah is slut-shamed because she is not a slut, not because slut-shaming it is hypocritical and harmful.
The issue of consent is also rough. We see cases where people clearly do or do not consent and the following sex can be clearly defined as rape or not rape.
The main character, Clay, even asks, “This is ok?” while making out with Hannah. Verbal consent is infrequently portrayed in entertainment and it was cool that the show just kind of casually threw it in there. If you are wondering how to get verbal consent without “killing the mood,” use episode 11, minute 36 as a guide.
But watch out for minute 37 because that’s when the show’s portrayal of consent takes a nosedive. While kissing, Hannah tells Clay to stop. She tells him nine times in different ways to stop. So Clay stops and leaves. Yay Clay! He stopped when his partner told him to, even though she had previously given consent. He wins!
But oops, no he doesn’t, because Hannah tells Clay on a cassette, “Part of me was saying, ‘Please don’t leave.’ Part of me never wanted to see you again. But you walked out the door like I told you to. Why’d you have to leave? It was the worst thing ever.”
What the fuck!?!?!? I am sure that sometimes people say “no” when they mean “yes” in sexual situations. But not nearly as often as we see in entertainment. And stopping will NEVER kill someone. If a romantic partner says “no,” but means “yes,” then you need to stop. ALWAYS. The worst case scenario — you will both be sexually unsatisfied.
Nobody’s partner will EVER say, “Get the fuck out!” but actually mean, “Bone me or I’ll kill myself.” NEVER.
The Ugly and the Damaging
In her life, Hannah feels lonely and wronged. In her death, she has everyone’s attention, and her troubles are being heard. In a lot of ways, the show makes it feel like her death has been justified. It does not offer an alternative solution to death. And dare I say that this sad, pretty, dead girl is glamorous?
Hannah had a crush on Clay, and it turns out that he is in love with her too. Now that she’s dead, they don’t have to have an actual relationship where they can learn about each others flaws and eventually break up. Instead he’ll always remember her as the tragic beautiful girl who changed his life.
Hannah’s character is disappointing because there isn’t much to her other than what other people have done to her. If you look at the core of her character before everyone is horrible to her, you have the world’s most generic teenage girl — she likes chocolate, reading and poetry.
She works at a movie theater and knows how to drive. She wants friends and a boyfriend. The costume and props departments have given her a couple of other details — she likes “The Arcade Fire” and peace signs.
Oh, and she’s beautiful. Always. She cries, but her face is never puffy or blotchy because of it. And she never cries so much she has snot coming out of her nose.
There are things considered physically unattractive that often go along with people thinking about suicide, such as dramatic weight loss or gain and neglecting personal hygiene. Hannah doesn’t experience either of those.
As Yorkey, the executive producer, mentioned, the show depicts her suicide as ugly. For about a half of a minute, it is really uncomfortable.
But, visually speaking, it takes place in a nice, clean white room that becomes slightly marred with a pleasant pink. Her face is beautiful, with a single tear running down her cheek.
Her death scene is intercut with an almost direct-to-camera narration by Clay, who is earnest and handsome, talking about her tragic death. After we see her parents discover her dead body, he says, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.”
If this doesn’t sound like suicide’s marketing department just made the greatest advertisement possible, it’s because you aren’t the target audience. If you don’t understand how anyone could see this death as romantic, it’s because you don’t really get how mental illness works.
But that’s another thing — mental illness does not come into play in “13 Reasons Why.” The show breezes over the issue entirely.
According to ReportingOnSuicide.org, “Mental disorders and/or substance abuse have been found in 90 percent of people who have died by suicide.”
But nobody in the show seems concerned with Hannah’s mental health.
The message that teenagers don’t have anywhere to turn for help is another troubling aspect of “13 Reasons Why.” Hannah seeks help only one time, and it doesn’t work. In fact, she only goes to see her guidance counselor when she has already decided to die and wants confirmation that nobody is going to help her.
And it turns out that Hannah’s guidance counselor is well-meaning, but bad at his job — he doesn’t report any part of his conversation with Hannah, which is illegal.
I have seen a lot of mental health professionals and they are not all helpful. Admittedly, some have actually been dangerously bad at their jobs. But for an unqualified counselor to be the show’s sole representation of professional help is irresponsible.
It is especially surprising because executive producer Selena Gomez has told Vogue that she suffers from depression and anxiety, and that she checked herself into a treatment facility for 90 days. Gomez told Vogue that therapy “has completely changed my life.” She said, “I wish more people would talk about therapy.” So I wonder why the show doesn’t.
The show is really compelling, and I can see why it is so popular. But it’s fortunate that it is upsetting people because we would be remiss if the conversation stopped after the the cassettes were finished.
Mental Health Help
Crisis Info from 13 Reasons Why – 13reasonswhy.info
SCC Counseling Center – Free counseling with qualified counselors. FOSS Building, Room 5245, (206) 546-4594
King County Crisis Line: 1-(800) 427-4747, TTY (206) 461-3219
Snohomish County Crisis Line: 1-(800) 584-3578, chat: carecrisischat.org
Crisis Text Line: 741741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-(800) 273-8255
Images: courtesy of IMDb