13 reasons why this show is unhealthy

By Tanya Kureishi and Cleo Aukland

13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix series about a girl explaining the 13 reasons behind her suicide, aired in March, yet there is still much controversy surrounding it. The show is based off of the original 2007 book Thirteen Reasons Why written by Jay Asher. The show is set in a high school with typical high school tropes, complete with bullying, letterman jackets, and locker decorations. The story unfolds through a series of 13 tapes that protagonist Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, recorded and sent before taking her own life. Each tape gets its own hour-long episode and details one reason why Hannah felt driven to suicide. The tapes are all dedicated to at least one of her peers, classmates or administrators. The show is glossy, set to a soundtrack, and its drama is pumped up for the thrill-value.

Unlike the book where Hannah herself is the protagonist, the Netflix series centers around Clay Jensen played by Dylan Minnette, a shy and seemingly good-natured boy who receives the tapes and spends the entirety of the show trying to figure out where he fit into Hannah’s story. We learn a little more about Hannah and her story with each new tape Clay listens to, but are still watching the series for the ultimate climax of Hannah’s suicide  through the lens of a boy. It’s unnerving to watch a television show where we’re invested in the demise of a girl we’ve come to know, and that we’re built up to this point. “[Being kind to one another is] a noble idea, but unfortunately it’s embedded in a show that doesn’t effectively explore mental health and that ultimately uses suicide as the catalyst for a revenge fantasy,” Jenna Guillaume wrote in an article for Buzzfeed.

While the series has good intentions to unmask gendered violence and spark conversation around it, the execution falls short. First, the show has a number of incredibly dark and disturbing scenes throughout which neither prepares the viewer with adequate trigger warnings nor provides a healthy and constructive way for viewers to process afterwards. Towards the end of the show, there are two graphic rape scenes leading up to the final moment of Hannah slitting her wrists in her bathtub to end
her life.

Though I appreciated that the show did not shy away from the ugliness and violence of rape and suicide, and instead tried to portray it as realistically as possible, I was left pondering my next steps as a viewer. My disarray took me to the after-the-show special Behind the Reasons where I continued to feel confused and outraged by the way the cast discussed mental illness and suicide. The people behind the show’s production spoke about suicide in inconsistent and irresponsible ways. Even the hired psychologists that were brought onto the show to advise production spent their interview time talking about how teenagers tend to feel more dramatic as though their drama and pain will last forever. I do not understand the prioritization of these types of conversations when more constructive dialogue about mental health and recognizing warning signs should be encouraged instead.

Secondly, it is disturbing that Hannah’s life and suicide is only validated because a good-natured boy, Clay, loves her, and chooses to confront the people who harmed Hannah. Clay is the ultimate ‘boy next door’ and becomes increasingly unsettled by listening to Hannah’s trauma. His desire to avenge her death by punishing the people that hurt her grows throughout the series. Here, we see the classic trope of a damsel in distress needing to be saved by her knight in shining armor. Over ten people listened to Hannah’s tapes before they get to Clay, but the story begins with him because his love for her brings her into existence and relevance. Additionally, though the story is focused on Hannah, we learn surprisingly little about her character. She is a one-dimensional girl in distress compared to Clay, who is portrayed as complex, studious, shy yet socially capable, and an obedient son and friend.

Finally, there is always something problematic about trying to do justice to serious issues like sexual assault, suicide and bullying when it is overdramatized and done by 20-something year old, extremely attractive actors playing high school students. Everything about the show is overly sexualized, and even if you started episode one with the genuine intention to learn about important issues, you cannot help but be sucked in by the drama. At the end, you find yourself itching to finally see how Hannah kills herself in all of its darkness and gore. People love the series because of its inherent dramatic value and lap it up as another trend, often without realizing the gravity of the
subject matter.

There have been many articles on the merit of the content in 13 Reasons Why, including in The New York Times, detailing the controversy that lingers over the show’s entertainment value versus its handling of serious issues. Some adults cite the importance of beginning a dialogue between themselves and the younger generation the series focuses on, while others are alarmed at the explicit content and its portrayal. According to Guillaume in the Buzzfeed article, “Rather than a nuanced exploration of the complex reasons people kill themselves, experts say 13 Reasons Why presents a rather simplistic blame game, dangerously reinforcing the incorrect idea that suicide is the only way you can truly be heard, or that it can be used as a tool to make those who have hurt you suffer.” The article later cites Kirsten Douglas, a spokesperson for the Australian organization Headspace which provides resources for youth mental health. Douglas details her concern that 13 Reasons Why portrays an idealized version of events where the dead speak from beyond the grave and are able to  control people’s reactions and perceptions after death; this concept does not recognize the finality and irreversibility of suicide.

While it is important to start a dialogue about serious issues, as was the intention of executive producers including Selena Gomez and Mandy Teefey, they are often ignored in lieu of entertainment and shock value. The production team has made efforts to ensure their intended message of suicide prevention gets across, such as giving the show a TV-MA rating (for mature audiences) and including Behind the Reasons, the documentary/interview with the cast and crew discussing the subject matter of the show. The documentary automatically plays a mere five seconds after the final scene of the show itself, rather than the typical 15 seconds of other Netflix shows, presumably so viewers would actually watch it. However, the final scene of the show plays an ambiguously upbeat song, perhaps to portray the shift in the teenagers’ regards to one another, and ends with no message about suicide prevention or seeking help.

After doing a bit of research, I read that the makers of 13 Reasons Why created a website with a list of outlets for help, including suicide prevention hotlines, text lines, counseling websites and crisis hotline telephone numbers depending on different countries (13reasonswhy.info). I applauded the sentiment and the effort, but realized soon after that even after Googling “13 reasons why” the help website didn’t show up on the first page of search results, or the second, third, or fourth. I stopped looking after that. It seems telling that the only example of concrete suicide prevention put forth by the production team is hidden by the hundreds of articles, video links, ads, reviews, summaries, videos, spoilers, fan sites, and more.

It is important to talk about 13 Reasons Why to push against the way it fetishizes suicide. There is a difference between talking, learning, advocating for and fighting against gendered violence and airing it on a sexy television shows to be consumed by young adults. Gendered violence is real. It is not as attractive as portrayed on television and there must be more realistic, less airbrushed representations of sexual assault and mental illness to do justice to the millions of people that suffer from these injustices in real, everyday life.