13 Reasons Why has sparked an intense internet debate since it was released on Netflix at the end of March. It’s the story of a teenage girl who commits suicide and leaves voice-recorded tapes behind for her peers to explain why she left and why they are to blame. Initially the television adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel was widely praised for its message of the necessity of kindness and for bringing the topic of suicide to the surface of public and private conversation. More recently, after many viewers made it to the final episode, the show has copped criticism for being too confronting.
Do I think it’s intense? Yes. Do I think it’s brutal? YES. Do I think it romanticises depression and suicide? To a particular audience, maybe (it’s the kind of thing you don’t see until someone tells you about it . . . if you watch the show a second time around with this in mind, of course you will think it romanticises these issues). Is it something which should be boycotted? Of course not. For me, it’s a really important step in removing the taboo on suicide and mental health. On this blog post I will discuss some common criticisms of the show and why I disagree with them.
A Rebuttal Against Common Criticisms
- Hannah’s mental illness is “invisible”
The show has received criticism because Hannah generally seems fine in her flashbacks. There’s no indicator she suffers anxiety, depression, or any other “illness” . . . so her suicide is unrealistic.
I have probably never been so agitated over an online debate before. Of course she appears fine, THAT’S THE POINT. You never know what someone is going through. Hannah’s an attractive girl, she smiles, she seems confident . . . it triggers me that because she isn’t portrayed as dark or unstable, people think her suicide is illegitimate. She was sad. She was hurt; that’s why she ended her life.
2. Hannah’s death scene is “too graphic“
It’s terrible how a modern show has the nerve to depict a suicide as graphic and terrible – especially when suicidal women are “supposed” to be beautiful, graceful and angel-like, as is the case with most suicidal female characters in literature and film (source); a prime example being Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Compared to the regular media portrayal of suicide as
(a) Peaceful, regal and feminine; or
(b) quiet and private;
13 Reasons Why has made it public and graphic – and caused a huge conversation in doing so. In my books, the igniting of this conversation makes this production a huge success. When we hide issues such as mental health or suicide from our society, we make them something to be ashamed of – and that’s how suicide wins.
Everyone is talking about this scene. Even those who appreciated the show at the beginning ceased to be fans by the end due to the graphic nature of Hannah’s suicide. I won’t post it on this page because I’m hoping my words are strong enough to convey the message (it’s all over the internet if you would like to view it yourself). I don’t argue with the critics on this point; it is downright disturbing. It’s not nice to watch at all; I kept looking away, I turned the volume down, I turned the screen brightness down; it is so, so painful to watch a girl destroy herself in such a gruesome manner.
But that’s why it’s important.
3. Hannah’s suicide is portrayed as “Attention-Seeking”
The basis of this criticism is that Hannah leaves behind cassette tapes designed to “explain why” thirteen of her peers are responsible for her death. Critics have argued the production places too much emphasis on revenge and not the students recovering from the shock of Hannah’s death. It has been argued that the ‘recovery’ of the students could have been an effective portal and positive influence on mental health education in teenagers and young people.
I don’t see the tapes as attention-seeking – I feel that the revenge element is only apparent because Hannah chose to tell her story. If the story wasn’t told, I think the show would lack one of its more important lessons; be kind. When Alex writes her name on the ‘hot list’, he never intended for her to get that upset over it. When Justin took that inappropriate photo without consent, he didn’t know he had pushed over that first domino that would spiral her life out of control and lead her to suicide.
The purpose of the tapes is to relive what hurt Hannah; for the young audience to stop and think about things they have done or said to their peers which could have hurt them more than intended. Most of the content on the tapes happens in western schools; it’s not all outrageously rare and unrelatable. Hannah went through what so many people go through in high schools today.
I lost a friend of my own to suicide less than two months ago; it was real and brutal and painful and everything Hannah’s death was. I thought she was happy. I thought she was fulfilled, confident and living her life fully – the last girl you’d expect to leave this world by choice. But she was so, so sad, and my friends and I only found this out after it was too late.
You think this show is too confronting?
Try standing silently in front of a church as your close friend from high school arrives in a coffin, pulled by a horse and carriage because that’s what she wanted on her wedding day. Try holding your breath as you hear her parents sobbing and see a crowd of people form around her eldest sister, who has sunk to the ground and is screaming in grief. Try sitting with your friends in the back row of the church, struggling to comprehend why the minister keeps saying “taken too soon” when she chose to leave us, because of what people did to her. Try being hugged by her mum, and trying to figure out what to say to her when she thanks you for coming. Because there is nothing to say. Try laying a red rose on her casket before it’s taken away – forever.
She rarely leaves my mind.
And she’s not the only one.
We need to be talking about this.
A production like 13 Reasons Why, despite its controversies, and despite it’s ability to make people “uncomfortable”, is absolutely pivotal to getting issues out into the public sphere. Suicide needs to be recognised as a relevant issue, one that is not “too graphic” to consider, but as something that impacts young people and their peers, and as something which can be AVOIDED. In 2015 8.3 suicide deaths occurred daily in Australia.
At the end of the day, the audience response to the content is up to us. We can criticise it, tell people to boycott it, switch it off because it makes us uncomfortable . . . or we can use it to social advantage, and educate teens and young adults on the serious issues presented in the series. We need to get this stuff out in the open, guys. If you have any comments, feedback or opposing views, throw them in the comments section and I’ll respond.
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14