Thirteen Reasons Why is the latest Netflix original series being binge-watched globally – and with good reason. It’s a slickly produced, fast-paced, young-adult drama that appeals to adults too. And it’s being lauded for its no-holds-barred handling of issues such as bullying, rape and suicide.
These are important topics, and it’s about time they were included in mainstream millennial TV, so I get why the show is getting props. But bringing an issue to light and dealing with it correctly are two separate things, and that’s where Thirteen Reasons Why slips up.
Look, I’ll admit, I binged on the entire season in 2.5 days. It’s highly watchable, and it does have a lot going for it.
It’s real, it’s open, it’s well-paced, narrative-wise. It has diverse(ish) characters and a female lead who is beautiful, yes, but doesn’t look like she’s been starving herself for the camera. It’s tragically true to life in terms of portraying how white male privilege means you can usually get away with anything. The show also calls a rape a rape and a rapist a rapist, rather than trifling with the cotton-woolly ‘sexual assault’ or ‘date rape’ (because seriously now people). And there is the magic that is Christian Navarro as Tony, with his not-of-this-world hair.
However, as much as Thirteen Reasons Why gets some things right, there are also some glaring flaws that mean, for some viewers, it could do more harm than good. Because of this, I can’t see how it’s being recommended for teenagers across the board. A lot of people should definitely watch this show. And a lot of people definitely shouldn’t.
But first, the plot
The premise is fairly simple… A few weeks after his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, commits suicide, 17-year-old Clay Jensen receives a mysterious package. Inside are a series of tapes recorded by Hannah that together amount to a suicide note, explaining the 13 reasons why she took her own life (with an episode neatly dedicated to each one). Already heavy with survivor’s guilt, Clay’s world begins to unravel as he discovers how Hannah’s high-school experience had been coloured by objectification, slut-shaming, malicious rumours, harassment, loneliness and assault.
Clay is not the only person to hear Hannah’s admonitions from beyond the grave. The tapes are something of a chain letter, being circulated (as per Hannah’s instructions) to a select group of classmates, whose combined behaviour constitute the reasons she killed herself. If they don’t each listen and pass on the tapes to the next ‘culprit’, a second copy will be released to school authorities and all their secrets will be made public.
And there’s our first problem…
It assigns guilt
The over-arching message of the show can be boiled down to ‘don’t be mean to people’, with a side of ‘you never know what someone else is going through’. These are good points, ones that even most adults should be reminded of every now and again. Bullying is also a very real issue with often devastating consequences, and Hannah’s frankly sh*tty classmates certainly deserve to be held accountable (and, in one or two cases, to serve jail time). But suicide is not a tragedy with a handy, built-in guilty party to blame, and Thirteen Reasons Why implies that it is.
(Also, doesn’t it seem like a bit of a d*ck move, Hannah, haunting your ex-friends for the rest of their lives by making them feel 100% responsible for something that was ultimately your choice? There are even two subsequent suicide attempts thanks to the tapes.)
It discounts mental illness
Conspicuously missing from all 13 episodes is any mention of any kind of underlying mental illness Hannah may or may not be suffering, despite the fact that the majority of people who die by suicide annually are also experiencing a mental disorder at the time of their death. The show really missed an opportunity to explore the presence of mental health issues in young adults – issues that are already too often dismissed as teenage angst or high-school ‘drama’.
It glamorises suicide
Thirteen Reasons Why seems to suggest that killing yourself is a great way to get everyone who ever knew you to realise – and talk about – just what an awesome human you actually were. You will have all kinds of power over people’s thoughts and actions from beyond the pale. The other kids who wronged you will weep and repent (some of them, anyway) and your skin will be glowing in everyone’s memory forever.
These are just not the messages we need to be sending to our youth.
The suicide itself is also incredibly graphic and follows a step-by-step, how-to process, which a lot of suicide prevention experts are deeply worried about. And while there is a trigger warning before the show’s opening credits (as well as one for the episodes featuring sexual violence), a ‘how to get help’ epilogue really wouldn’t have gone astray either.
It suggests a suicidal person can be easily ‘fixed’
Hannah doesn’t blame Clay in the same way she blames everyone else on the tapes. Meanwhile, the show constantly suggests that if Clay had just been a little bolder, a little more forthcoming with his feelings, Hannah might still be alive. ‘I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her,’ he says, as though the validation of a teenage crush is a magic cure-all for depression. (Of course, since the show never actually makes any allusion to depression of any kind…)
Yes, you should reach out to people. Yes, maybe you can make a difference by listening. Yes, you should be aware of the signs of suffering and try to make sure that the person gets trained, professional help. But this show puts way too much pressure on friends, bullies and bystanders as having the ability to ‘save’ suicidal people through their own behaviour.
It paints a hopeless picture for anyone seeking help
I actually loved that Thirteen Reasons Why didn’t pin all of Hannah’s problems on her classmates. It showed how even her stable, loving but preoccupied parents let her down. It revealed institutional failure on the part of her school, and made no bones about how the establishment can be hostile to a woman reporting rape. And while that last one is a good reflection of reality, I can’t help but wonder if it might dissuade another rape survivor or depressed teen from seeking help through any and all channels available to them.
It calls into question a rape survivor’s word
Which would be all well and good, if the series didn’t culminate in a rape.
Remember that note she said Zach threw away, that he actually didn’t? There are a few subtle instances during the series that make us doubt Hannah as a reliable narrator. And then she tells us about her rape – denied, of course, by her rapist. I believe Hannah, but those subtle suggestions that she may have lied about some things after all just leaves the door open a crack for someone to give Bryce the benefit of the doubt, making it a he-said-she-said question. And we already have more than enough of that to go around in the real world.