13 Reasons Why: Problematic or Progressive?

delves into 13 Reasons Why’s controversial exploration of teen suicide

Image: Netflix

This article contains spoilers and potentially triggering and graphic details about suicide and rape.

13 Reasons Why marks addictive television, I finished it in three days. With fleshed out characters, strong performances, a gripping plot, and a strong episodic format inside a serialised dual narrative, it’s been a critical and commercial success, with a 91 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the most tweeted about Netflix TV programme ever, and the most tweeted about programme of 2017.

However, there’s no denying that 13 Reasons Why is controversial television: how could it not be, given that it revolves around the suicide of a 17 year old girl. Hannah Baker has committed suicide and left her note in the form of 13 tapes. And if you’re listening to these tapes (including you, supposed good-guy Clay Jensen), you are one of the reasons why she chose to take her own life. In this respect, the whole premise of the series is intrinsically controversial, as killing herself has given Hannah Baker control, and its whole tape structure is almost an extended revenge fantasy. “Some of you cared, none of you cared enough” Hannah signs off tape 13 with, but in killing herself Hannah suddenly made everyone who had previously shun her care deeply. Suicide empowers Hannah, which is a dangerous message to peddle to teenagers; the only way to gain the upper hand is to end one’s life.

Hannah also seems to not accept responsibility for her own suicide. While the show makes it clear that it was her decision, it also arguably paints the picture that suicide was the only option for Hannah by the end of the series, the only “way out” of her situation. It casts the blame onto other characters, with each episode, each reason, each tape, delving into the culpability of another for Hannah’s decision. “We all killed Hannah” Tony tells Clay after Clay listens to his own tape, but I’m not sure this is entirely true. All the featured characters had a role in making Hannah’s life a misery, there’s no denying that. But did they kill her? Jessica’s crime was over reacting to a rumour and severing her friendship with Hannah; Zach’s was stealing Hannah’s positive notes from communication class. Neither of these actions are necessarily nice, but do they really mean these characters should have to carry the burden of culpability in a girl’s death for the rest of their lives? In an extremely poignant scene where Hannah rejects Clay’s advances at the last minute, he tells her he loves her, won’t hurt her, and will never leave her, to which she responds “Why didn’t you tell me this when I was alive?” Even though the show absolves Clay of responsibility, his crime was, in his own words, “being afraid to love her”. Is this really so bad that he must go through all the emotional turmoil, hardship, and being pushed to near suicide himself simply so that the show resolve him and can end his character arc full circle back to “good guy”?

One thing that 13 Reasons Why does do, however, is to shine a light on taboo subjects. For all the controversy around the show, it has created a conversation about these topics: just think back to its Twitter accolade. Teenage suicide has been thrust straight to the front of popular culture, and now that the dialogue exists, perhaps some teens won’t feel that suicide is their only option left. Many news outlets, American school boards, and even the New Zealand censorship board, who created a whole new rating classification for the show, have denounced 13 Reasons Why for romanticising suicide, but I’m not sure that it does. Rather, the show presents an daringly honest portrayal of it in Hannah, and the horrors and impact it can have on those left behind.

Important topics such as rape and consent are also explored, showing that rapists aren’t purely archetypal bad guys. The show’s conversation surrounding rape culture is arguably as important as its one about suicide. From the beginning Hannah is labelled as a sexual object for many guys in the series, the “class slut”: Justin’s first crime is this; Alex’s is his objectification of Hannah; Tyler’s is harassment of Hannah through stalking. Bryce Walker, Hannah and Jessica’s rapist, is the school jock, claiming that the girls both “wanted it”, refusing to believe that they didn’t give consent, refusing to believe that their silence did not mean no, that their absence of protests did not mean a yes. Bryce is a sexual predator, and the show works to highlight the fact that most people are not raped by a stranger.

Finally, we come to the most controversial issue of all, the actual suicide scene. The charity Samaritans and a select committee of MPs have both issued guidelines saying suicide methods should not be depicted. The fateful scene has been criticised repeatedly, with many declaring that the show’s decision to show Hannah physically slit her wrists lengthways was an irresponsible and dangerous decision that could help to facilitate teenagers already experiencing suicidal thoughts to actually commit suicide. Netflix has agreed to add additional trigger warnings, and I completely understand why some disagree with including this scene. In a conversation about the show, a friend described her view to me that the show wouldn’t have lost anything by not including the scene. And while I see her viewpoint, I happen to disagree, and far from the fact the scene was Hannah’s narrative catharsis, it was also a brutal and unflinching portrayal of how horrific suicide is. The camera didn’t give the viewer an easy way out by cutting away as Hannah slit her wrists, but stayed in a lingering wide shot for much longer than was comfortable.

This is reason why 13 Reasons Why, in my view, does not romanticise suicide. It depicts the full horror and tragedy of the act. It wasn’t overtly graphic for cinematic frivolity, but instead depicted a brutal reality. The scene is hard to watch: I half covered my view, and despite watching two horror films the same day as the finale, this scene is the one that lingered with me. It is harrowing and terrible, devastating and almost unwatchable. And that is precisely the point.

Suicide is preventable. Readers affected by the issues raised can contact Samaritans on 116123 or Mind on 0300 1233393, and University of York students can also contact Nightline on 01904 323735 or the University Open Door team on 01904 324140.

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