When I realized that Netflix was making Jay Asher’s novel into a series, I was admittedly intrigued. I read the book back in 2014, and while it didn’t wow me, I enjoyed the story. It follows Clay Jensen, a 17-year-old struggling in the aftermath of his big crush, Hannah Baker, taking her own life. Clay receives a mysterious package that turns out to contain Hannah’s suicide note in the form of 13 cassette tapes. As he listens, Clay discovers that these tapes detail the 13 people who most wronged Hannah, 13 reasons she took her own life—and that he is one of them.
We certainly have a societal obsession with suicide: what makes someone do it? who’s responsible? how can we prevent it, particularly when it comes to teenagers? These are all questions that the show attempted to answer—with mixed results, in my opinion.
I think this goes without saying, but I’m not going to withhold any spoilers for this post. If you haven’t watched the show yet and still intend to, read no further.
This post may very well be triggering. Please, my angels, use your discretion. Potential Triggers: slut-shaming, rape, self-harm, suicide.
some context for my opinions
This is not an easy show to watch or even talk about. I am not currently suicidal, but I’ve been dealing with clinical depression off and on since high school. Like the main character in the series, I didn’t really fit in with my peers. I was incredibly isolated in and didn’t really trust my inner thoughts and feelings with anyone but my trusty journal collection. I was, however, lucky enough to escape outright bullying. I went to a private Christian school where that sort of behavior just didn’t happen; everyone claimed to be best friends with each other, although that didn’t necessarily reflect reality.
While I never experienced the kind of bullying Hannah encounters, I could relate to her feelings of isolation, increasing depressed mood and feelings of worthlessness. I have never attempted suicide. I have, however, lived with a general desire to cease existing, a feeling that often persisted for weeks or months at a time.
13RW as discussion starter
One of the positive aspects of this show is the way it acts as a catalyst for discussion of suicide as well as bullying in our social media society.
13RW absolutely shows the very harsh reality of what teenagers deal with, how one rumor and one picture can seemingly ruin your entire life. Something that should be kept in mind here is the fact that teenagers are still pretty egocentric: it doesn’t mean that they’re completely self-absorbed, just that events that happen to them can take on a heightened meaning in a way they might not for adults.
The show does a good job taking Hannah’s situation seriously. Suicide is not a joke, and neither is rape, self-harm, and slut-shaming. Watching what Hannah goes through becomes increasingly painful as a viewer, particularly if you’ve experienced anything similar. What the show does is show people that our actions, our words, have consequences. You never know what someone else is going through, how you’re contributing to their deep emotional pain.
I really appreciated the honest, if incredibly upsetting, depiction of date rape. Most of us know that rapists are often people we know well, and that girls are often terrified to come forward. Hannah’s and Jessica’s storylines show just how devastating rape can be. In Hannah’s case, being labeled the class slut ultimately enabled guys to think they could treat her like crap, which, it could be argued, led Bryce to rape her. It shows how serious the slut label really is, and just how impossible it can be to shake that off.
My hope is that this show sparks an honest discussion about how we treat other people. My hope is that education professionals sit up and take notice, double down their efforts to prevent teen suicide and punish those who are bullying others. My hope is that this show sheds some light on what teenagers with depression may be going through. But these are my hopes, and perhaps not the reality.
the downside: who needs to watch this show?
As much as I hope 13RW will be a discussion starter, in my heart I know that the kids who need to be watching this show aren’t going to get anything out of it. The kind of kids who slut-shame, sexually harass, and date rape other kids aren’t going to watch this show. Or, maybe they watch it, but they don’t take it seriously.
This is apparent to me in the scenes when Hannah’s tormenters discuss what to do to cover their own asses. The popular kids, particularly the jocks, are more concerned with keeping their behavior a secret than with how their actions affected Hannah. They see Hannah’s revenge as being overdramatic and attention-seeking, rather than as a last resort for someone who feels invisible and unheard. At no point does the show itself call out these kids, address how problematic it is to continue to refer to someone’s behavior as “drama” rather than as a clear call for help.
There’s another scene, in Mrs. Bradley’s communications class, that really upset me. Hannah, out of desperation, drops an anonymous note for Mrs. Bradley that is later read aloud to the class. The note expresses Hannah’s feeling of emptiness, despair, and isolation. While Skye points out that the writer of the note is clearly in a lot of pain, other members of the class claim it’s attention-seeking, or maybe just a joke. Again, the show doesn’t really point out how inappropriate these comments are.
What I’m getting at, here, is that the show leaves itself open to those who will say Hannah’s behavior was over-dramatic, attention-seeking, and vengeful—that she blew things out of proportions and should’ve just gotten over it. You know, the kind of things people have said to me on some of my darkest days in the past ten years. These comments, more than anything, drive a person to feel that the world would be better off without them.
Bottom line: it’s not okay to invalidate someone else’s feelings, but the show doesn’t actually address that in a way that I feel is effective. In fact, the show fails to address Hannah’s behavior as someone struggling with an actual mental illness.
the missing culprit: depression
When I watched the first few episodes, I had really high hopes for the show. I even tweeted about how much I appreciated the representation of depression in Hannah’s character. Because in the beginning, Hannah seems “normal” in that she’s smiling, social, etc. Problem is, as Hannah deteriorates, the show fails to talk about the real culprit here: Clinical Depression.
In fact, 13RW actually perpetuates some harmful ideas about suicide. A person doesn’t take her own life in order to seek revenge on those who’ve hurt her. A person takes her own life because, in that moment, she doesn’t see another way out. A person takes her own life when she’s struggling with a mental illness—be it depression, bipolar disorder, whatever.
As I watched the show, I tried to take note of moments when Hannah exhibited some of my own experiences with depression, such as the way she pours her heart out in poetry. Her writing ends up backfiring on her when Ryan publishes the poem anonymously without her permission; Hannah then stops writing, withdrawing from an activity that had previously given her, if not pleasure, then at least relief. Toward the end of the show, Hannah’s affect totally changes, going from cheerful and smiling to a completely downtrodden expression—which no one seems to notice, of course. The way she talks about herself mimics the way I have felt in my darkest days. AND YET not once does anyone talk about depression.
I don’t want to imply that bullying isn’t a serious issue. I certainly don’t want to imply that being raped wouldn’t be devastating. What’s missing, for me, is the recognition that intent to commit suicide comes from the person’s lack of emotional resources to handle everything that’s happening to them. By not talking about mental illness in general or depression specifically, the show leaves out a huge factor in teens and adults who end up killing themselves. And by not acknowledging that Hannah was struggling with depression, the show leaves itself open to the “dramatic” interpretation of Hannah’s suicide.
graphic depictions of serious topics: the problematic side
I really struggled with this. A big part of me wanted this show to represent me and the many, many people out there who are struggling with depression—and the many more who have ended their own lives. I appreciated that Netflix had actual trigger warnings for the particularly graphic episodes, so that you know what you’re getting yourself into. And yet, I don’t feel that it’s ever appropriate or necessary to depict a girl slitting her wrists in a bathtub. I am not currently suicidal, but when I watched the suicide scene, I felt like my heart was pounding out of my chest. I had to pause, look away, take deep breaths, and then get through it.
Which is bad enough. But before the final episode, we have multiple graphic rape scenes, depicted in flashes of remembrances that are jarring and uncomfortable and just awful. I understand what the show was trying to do, I really do. But the rape episodes gave me actual nightmares—and I’m not a rape survivor, just a person who, while watching this show, felt helpless to stop what was happening to these girls.
And then we have Skye, the heavily tattooed and pierced cliche of a girl who has scars on her wrists from cutting herself. When Clay points them out, Skye replies, “This is what you do instead of killing yourself” and it’s left at that.
I don’t personally struggle with self-harm as a coping skill; I don’t have the pain tolerance. From what I understand, though, self-harm isn’t something you do instead of killing yourself. It arises out of great emotional pain, when you feel that maybe physical pain would distract you from what’s inside. It’s something that’s incredibly harmful, yet the show doesn’t really address this in Skye’s statement. Skye would’ve been a great character to talk about mood disorders and depression, but instead they just drop her statement and the image of her wrists in there and leave it at that.
Overall, I’m left wondering, are these graphic depictions in there to get conversations started? or are they just for entertainment value? Ultimately, we need to talk about these things; but what does it say about our society that it takes a television series to get us talking about cyber bullying, slut-shaming, rape, self-harm, and suicide? It says that we’re not really taking these issues all that seriously.
Ultimately, this show left me wanting a lot. I worry about the suicidal kids who are going to watch this show and be tempted to copy Hannah. I worry about the fact that the show drops in that Alex tried to kill himself, only to not resolve that storyline. I worry about the kids with depression who hoped to find themselves represented but didn’t really get any answers. And I worry about those asshole kids who are going to think this whole thing is a joke.
It’s been a couple weeks since I finished watching the show now, so I’ve had a while to process my thoughts. Ultimately, I’m pretty conflicted. As I said, it was so refreshing to see my own experiences with depression reflected in a major media production. At the same time, I felt the actual depiction of suicide to be emotionally upsetting and pretty irresponsible.
At the end of the day, though, I’m left with this: if 13 Reasons Why helps one single person, allows them to see that they’re not alone and that suicide isn’t the answer, then I can’t knock the show as a whole. I doubt the Netflix series will be a help to everyone struggling with depression—in fact, I think it may be very triggering for anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts. But if it helps one person understand what it’s like to live with mental illness, then I guess I’ll be satisfied.
What are your thoughts on 13 Reasons Why (the show or the book)? Do you agree with me, or do you think it’s ultimately a good representation? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to talk about this further!