BY SABRINE BRISMEUR AND TAMARAH WALLACE
This article deals with depression, self-harm and suicide. It may be triggering to some.
The Netflix Original “13 Reasons Why” was recently released and has been the center of debate since because of its trivial depiction of various complex, dark topics. Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel of the same name, the series was co-produced by actress Selena Gomez and met with mixed, but passionate, reviews.
It was the binge-watching phenomenon of spring break that left many minds tangled in a web of raw emotion and disbelief. The new Netflix Original “13 Reasons Why” has captured the hearts of viewers across the world as they struggle to understand the plight of Hannah Baker, an average teenager who decides to commit suicide and record the reasons why she did so.
The show expertly navigates through pressing topics such as bullying, sexual harassment, depression, rape and suicide by slowly but surely telling a story that is both unforgettably painful, twisted, but incredibly eye-opening.
One of the ways in which “13 Reasons Why” brilliantly calls the viewer’s perspective of suicide into question is when it blatantly showed a character exhibiting suicidal behavior throughout the series and somehow still manages to trick many into believing a different character was the one to commit suicide.
In this way, the show forces viewers to deeply ponder what it means to be suicidal and, more importantly, recall how to identify the signs someone is going through that situation. This hands-on approach was something fresh, clever and wholly effective, inviting the audience to question their observational abilities.
Critics believe the show’s writers made a disastrous mistake is in the case of Hannah’s love interest, Clay Jensen. Clay coming to the conclusion that it was partly his fault that Hannah died and that it was his inability to show his love for her that contributed to her demise was one thing that critics could not let go of.
However, it is a perfect example of the effect of death on friends and family as well as how vulnerable the mind is at that point in time. It takes the simple logic of an outsider, or viewer, to understand that Clay’s judgement is distorted by his love for Hannah. Therefore, it is clear that the show is shrewdly depicting Clay in a common stage of grief.
The series presents the potentially suicidal with possible ramifications of their actions. By projecting the worried faces their own loved ones onto those of Hannah’s friends and family, they now can imagine the impact that suicide could have on the people they are leaving behind- something that might not have made a difference before they watched the show.
In many cases, critics have said that the show romanticizes the aforementioned deplorable situations, most of all suicide, by depicting Hannah’s seemingly logical rationale behind it as well as portraying it as solely an act of revenge.
However, it is apparent that it does quite the opposite. The series does its best to characterize Hannah as unstable in that she makes the mistake of blaming thoughtless teens for her own decision and is clearly painted as an unreliable narrator. Many aspects of the stories she recounts on the tapes were warped, most significantly, the subplots following some of the students who did her wrong.
The notion of a mentally tumultuous Hannah is furthered in the last 30 minutes of the series as the creators, as well as writer of the novel the show was based on, explained that Hannah is undoubtedly a mentally ill character. Portraying her in this way is the only way to demonstrate the thought processes and demeanor of someone who is in this situation and subsequently a perfect way to teach viewers about this type of instability and how to spot it.
While there are some accepted flaws within the series, the main idea of it remains resolute: that bullying, rape, sexual harassment, depression and suicide are all issues within our society that need to be the forefront of our global conversations. They should not be stigmatized but rather discussed openly with compassion and impartiality. That is the only way we will be able to progress further as a cohesive, capable society and mitigate these actions in the future.
There is a lot of good about “13 Reasons Why”: the acting, the character development, the subtle cinematography and the mature tone of the series. Clearly, the writers weren’t afraid to tackle dark material and controversial, hard-hitting topics.
The message of the show, something along the lines of be kind to everyone; you don’t know what someone is going through and you could save a life, is undoubtedly important in a nation where one in five high school students have reported being bullied.
So what’s the problem, then?
One of the glaring issues with “13 Reasons Why” is the manner in which it treats suicide. Critics of the series have argued that it simplifies Hannah’s suicide by treating it as a direct result of bullying and actions by her peers.
For most people, the reality is far more complicated.
90% of those who commit suicide suffer from mental illness, but the show makes no mention of mental illness relating to or playing a role in Hannah’s life.
In truth, suicide is often a far more complex issue that cannot be traced back to any individual moment or person. Mental illness is so prevalent in suicide victims for a reason: it can catastrophize any event, making a mountain out of a molehill and causing an individual to feel as though there is no other option than suicide. It can blur reality and result in people who act irrationally and are unable to handle certain situations that a healthy person could.
In “13 Reasons Why,” there is a very plain line that connects her peers’ choices to her suicide, and everyone involved is at fault for her death. The show portrays it as something that has blame and liability – at one point in the show, a main character remarks that “We all killed Hannah Baker.”
Of course, bullying can be a reason for suicide, and the people in her life who caused her such anguish should be held accountable. But at the end of the day, they are not responsible for Hannah’s decision to kill herself, nor is anyone else in a real-life situation.
“13 Reasons Why” fails by assigning direct blame to the individuals in her life and missing a vital opportunity to discuss, undoubtedly, one of the largest causes for suicide: mental illness.
When nine in ten people experience the same issue that leads them to commit suicide, only giving voice to that one outlier is not representative of the problem at hand. This is a huge mistake.
Furthermore, the series glamorizes suicide by making Hannah Baker’s suicide an act of revenge. The premise of the shows suggests that Hannah’s suicide is the only way to get back at those who harmed her and force them to realize the consequences of their actions. In death, Hannah holds all the power. She’s trying to prove a point, and maybe, just maybe, those who hurt Hannah will be careful not to bully and treat others badly in the future.
Portraying suicide in such a way is dangerous, especially for those vulnerable individuals. Suicide isn’t a petty act of revenge, a last shot at those who hurt you. It’s a life-ending act, not an acceptable way of payback.
“Teenagers are especially susceptible to seeing suicide depicted in such a way, and taking dangerous and inaccurate lessons from it—such as that suicide is a viable coping mechanism when you feel hopeless or in despair [and] that it’s a glamorous way to get the attention you’ve been seeking (by never being forgotten) or the revenge you’ve been dreaming of (by getting back at people who’ve wronged you),” writes Korin Miller of self.com.
But perhaps the worst thing “13 Reasons Why” could possibly do is suggest that suicide is something that could be solved by love.
“I cost a girl her life because I was too afraid to love her,” romantic interest Clay says, lamenting over Hannah in the guidance counselor’s office.
No single person is responsible for keeping someone alive and happy, nor should they be. Suicide is too complicated and serious to even entertain the thought that it could be prevented by love. Trivializing suicide to teenage angst that could be cured from a boy sucking it up and having the nerve to ask you out is a disservice to every individual who has considered suicide, attempted it or committed it.
Of course, viewers could always point out that “13 Reasons Why” is merely a TV show with fictional characters and no real-life impact. However, the series could have done a better job in its depiction of suicide and more accurately represented the issue.