Suicide shouldn’t be packaged as a slick revenge fantasy
Teen suicide is on the rise. As reported in 2016 by NPR, suicide rates have climbed in the United States, particularly among adolescent girls. Young adolescents are as likely to die from suicide as from traffic accidents, according to the New York Times. So it’s no surprise that the topic has been taken on by entertainment titan Netflix, which premiered the show 13 Reasons Why in March 2017. The series, which draws from Jay Asher’s 2007 young-adult (YA) novel of the same name, has gotten a lot of attention: in April, Wetpaint dubbed it “the most tweeted about show of 2017 thus far.” But parents and their kids should know what they’re getting into before watching the show. (Note: the following review includes spoilers.)
For those who don’t know the premise, 13 Reasons Why is a drama-cum-mystery in which shy, nice-guy high schooler Clay Jensen receives a package of seven double-sided cassette tapes with a directive from his classmate Hannah Baker to listen to them all. Hannah has committed suicide. The tapes, which are accompanied by a map marking locations important to Hannah’s story, explain the reasons why she killed herself. Each side of the tape is devoted to one person (13 people in all) who contributed to her decision to take her own life, and every person is instructed to listen to the tapes in their entirety then pass them on to the next person listed. If they don’t, a second set of tapes will be released publicly so that everyone’s transgressions will be made public.
The show follows the premise faithfully and is structured so that each of the 13 episodes represents one side of a tape. An earnest Clay, who harbored a crush on Hannah, listens to the tapes in a fever of misery, uncertain as to how he contributed to her death. He’s afraid to find out and afraid not to. In the show, he’s winningly portrayed by actor Dylan Minnette, and his interactions with Hannah, played by Australian actress Katherine Langford (with a convincing American accent), are probably the best part of the series. In fact, the entire cast is good, notably Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James, the actors who portray Hannah’s grieving parents. But good acting can’t save this production, which portrays suicide as a revenge fantasy and glosses over the reality that suicide is a person’s decision, not the sum total of other people’s actions.
Good intentions can’t save the show, either. In a 14th “episode” titled “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons,” cast members, producers, psychologists, and Asher himself attempt to communicate why the show is important. “As a society, we tend to shy away from these hard topics,” Justin Prentice, the actor who convincingly plays douchebag Bryce Walker in the series, says. Actress and singer Selena Gomez, who was originally slated to play Hannah but elected to executive produce instead, says, “Suicide should never ever be an option.” And showrunner Brian Yorkey says, “Teenage brains don’t work the way adult brains work.” He’s referring to the fact that the frontal lobe of the human brain isn’t fully developed until one’s 20s. Kids still act impulsively, and the frontal lobe, responsible for decision making and planning, isn’t necessarily developed enough to help kids process tough emotions.
Yes, 13 Reasons Why undoubtedly addresses a hard reality. And Gomez is right: suicide should not be an option. But the irony is that 13 Reasons Why, in its seemingly sincere efforts to present a crucial topic, fails the very audience it means to engage: teens whose brains aren’t fully developed and who may miss the larger message because of the irresistible allure of a slickly packaged and presented show.
To begin with, the story’s premise is problematic. Hannah begins the story as a likable, bright-eyed high school sophomore, new to the area and eager to make friends. As we learn of the “13 reasons” she took her life, no mention is made of mental illness or depression, per se. In fact, her suicide is attributed solely to the people who made her life hell in ways large and small. The slights build off one another, and, suffice it to say, some of them are appalling: there’s a stalker kid with a camera, not to mention a sociopathic jock rapist. To be sure, the actions of others cause Hannah to suffer—and if there’s anything to be learned from the story, it’s how what we do affects others. But the story places so much emphasis on the actions of others that it overlooks any other contributing factors, such as depression, that might contribute to someone taking his or her own life. And because the conceit of the tapes (more about them in a moment) hangs retribution over the heads of anyone who ever wronged Hannah, 13 Reasons Why ultimately devolves into a sort of revenge fantasy in the “I’ll show you for making me hurt” vein. At best, 13 Reasons Why seems bent on scaring kids into being kinder. At worst, it preaches the gospel that when someone takes his or her life, it’s got to be someone’s fault—and that’s a conceit that veers into dangerous territory.
The cause of suicide can be incredibly complex. “[T]he message that suicide can have simple, or a simple set, of causes, or that suicide represents some type of solution, is unfortunate,” writer Patrick Devitt says in a May 2017 Scientific American article about the show. “There is never one reason why, or even thirteen.” And yet the show hammers home the message, again and again for the sake of contrived drama, that there are 13 reasons why, and dammit if someone isn’t going to be held accountable. “We all killed Hannah Baker!” one character, Alex, agonizes early on in the show. “Maybe we should be blaming ourselves,” Hannah’s mom broods in episode six. Late in the season, Hannah’s old friend Kat says, “If I hadn’t moved away . . . she’d still be alive today.” The show lets its young viewers take this reasoning as gospel, while ignoring all the complexities of depression. This is a facile treatment of serious stuff, and even when the show tries to raise any counterargument, it’s done half-heartedly. When ineffective school counselor Mr. Porter says to Clay, “[Hannah] made that choice, to take her own life,” Clay’s response is an angry one. “I think we should blame ourselves. I think we all could do better.”
One can’t really argue with the fact that any of us, on any given day, can do better. And “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” takes pains to point out that there are several characters in Hannah’s life who might have been able to provide her with support. But if the show gives a nod to the ways in which Hannah might have sought help, it’s a perfunctory one. Throughout the season, Hannah elects not to burden her frazzled if loving parents with her troubles; her one effort to reach out, near the end of her life, to the overworked Porter, is really more of a setup than anything else. During her meeting with Porter, Hannah refuses to divulge much other than that she’s unhappy and empty, and records the conversation so as to add Porter to her list of wrongdoers. (He becomes the star of episode “Tape 7, Side A,” in fact.)
Which brings one to the tapes themselves. The story would have us believe that by episode 13, Hannah is pretty done in. And she is: effectively portrayed by Langford, she’s dead-eyed and empty after being raped in a hot tub by Walker. And yet somehow she rallies when creating the tapes, which turn out to be an almost James Bond–esque exercise in cunning and stealth. Hannah visits the home of the stalker kid who took salacious photos of her (and marks the location on the map she includes with the tapes). She summons a knowing, self-possessed voice in which to tell her story. “Welcome back!” she chirps on side B of Tape 1. “So glad you’re still listening. . . . What did you do? How did you end up in these tapes?” The mocking tone—“Knock knock, Tyler!” is interspersed with hackneyed philosophical musings and bad poetry: “[Some girls] find harmonies in their laughter. Their linked elbows echo in tune.” Ugh. Forget for the moment that this is a character who has experienced trauma. No one talks like this. Well, maybe not unless they’re a character in a facile YA novel.
The dialogue would almost be forgivable if it weren’t for the cynical nature of the story line. “Aren’t you desperate to hear [your tape], though?” asks Alex at one point. Well, yeah, is the answer he gets. But it’s unforgivable that Netflix is betting that its substantial teen audience will be desperate to find out, too. And what with the show’s sly presentation and the angst-ridden machinations of the survivors (at one point, Alex lets himself fall into a beautifully lit nighttime swimming pool to the swelling score, which includes music by Gomez as well as Lord Huron and The Cure), the show plays out more often than not like a stylized music video.
It’s this irresponsible pandering that makes 13 Reasons Why so dangerous. The real message here should be, as Gomez tried to assert, that suicide should not be an option. Furthermore, suicide is a decision on the part of the person who takes his or her life. But 13 Reasons, with its gorgeous, angst-ridden players and swelling music and revenge-fantasy plotline, detracts from those points. Graphic scenes, including two rapes and an episode that depicts exactly how Hannah takes her life, were presumably included as a sort of deterrent: rape is ugly, as is suicide. But sometimes less is more: as reported by Newsweek in April 2017, depictions of suicide can encourage copycat events. “Numerous studies have found that when the media detail a suicide or its aftermath in a certain way, such as with sensational language or with specifics about the suicide method, it seems to give permission to some who are considering suicide,” the article warned. “Young people are especially prone to the contagion effect [of suicide], studies have found, and advocates claim that the show [13 Reasons Why] makes the risk of contagion worse.”
The show makes the risk of suicide contagion worse in part because the finger-pointing foundation of the plot essentially absolves any would-be suicides of responsibility while simultaneously seeming to hold out the promise that those who have hurt you will pay. To a young person in pain, that absolution/vindication can seem downright attractive—much more so than a difficult (and less theatrical) effort to seek help. Yes, Hannah’s adversaries in 13 Reasons Why are assholes. They behave badly, and at least one of them is downright evil. But ultimately, the decision to take Hannah’s life falls on Hannah, a truth the show chooses to sidestep by assigning blame. “Some of you cared,” Hannah intones at one point. “None of you cared enough.”
The show isn’t without its strengths. Its treatment of slut-shaming, for example, is shockingly apt. Once Hannah gets a reputation as “easy” among the boys at her school, it can’t be overcome. “On the one hand, girls feel incredible pressure to . . . be popular, to be good looking . . . and yet if it goes just a touch too far somehow now you’re a slut,” licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Helen Hsu says in “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.” Peggy Orenstein explores slut-shaming in her book, Girls & Sex (HarperCollins, 2016), and it’s realistically portrayed in the show.
Ultimately, though, 13 Reasons Why is damned by its treatment of the very topic it purports to care most about. Suicide is a tragedy. It’s messy and painful and disturbingly on the rise. But suicide is not, as the show might have the more impressionable of its viewers believe, a sexy revenge fantasy played out by beautiful people to a hip score. Suicide is a story that needs to be told, but 13 Reasons Why is not the vehicle through which to tell it.
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Schools across the country have already responded to the show with communications to parents: as one East Coast–based school counselor suggested, “While we would advise against allowing your child to watch this show . . . we strongly recommend watching it together if you do allow, and having a discussion during and afterward.” Parents, be aware: the story’s not over yet. 13 Reasons Why has been green-lighted for a second season that explores what happens to the characters going forward and how Hannah’s death continues to change their lives.
Note that the JED Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing youth suicide, has developed a series of talking points parents may refer to when discussing the show with their child. And Netflix, which includes links to suicide-prevention resources in “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons,” has stated that it will include “an additional viewer warning card before the first episode,” as well as beef up “the messaging and resource language in the existing cards.”
Editor’s note (7/18/19): Ahead of the show’s third season, set to begin airing later this summer, Netflix announced on Twitter this week that it and the show’s creator and producers have removed the graphic suicide scene from the show’s first season. As showrunner Brian Yorkey shared in a statement: “Our creative intent in portraying the ugly, painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail in season one was to tell the truth about the horror of such an act and make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it. But as we ready to launch season three, we have heard concerns about the scene from Dr. Christine Moutier at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and others, and have agreed with Netflix to re-edit it.”
Indeed, “After season one was broadcast, Netflix formed an advisory team of people working in suicide prevention to discuss the program. A lot of the issues with series one they fixed for series two, and they’ve talked to us about season three as well,” Colleen Creighton, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, told the New York Times.
Also likely fueling the decision is the fact that viewership for previous seasons of a Netflix show often increases when a new season of the show begins, the Wall Street Journal reports, therefore potentially exposing even more viewers to the controversial scene. As Yorkey said in his statement, “We believe this edit will help the show do the most good for the most people while mitigating any risk for especially vulnerable young viewers.”
Thumbnail credit: screen grab from 13 Reasons Why | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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