TRIGGER WARNING: suicide; self-harm
Today I want to talk about a show that has had a big impact on me: Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s a Netflix series based on the book with the same name by Jay Asher. The book was (and still is) very popular with teenagers, which partly explains the success of the series. Of course, the involvement of Selena Gomez and the brilliant performances from the whole cast didn’t hurt either. But there’s another reason why everyone’s talking about it and that’s the controversy surrounding the show.
For those of you who haven’t read the book or haven’t watched the show, Thirteen Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes behind. Every tape reveals a reason (or rather, a person) that made her life unbearable and eventually lead her to commit suicide. The story is told from the point of view of Clay Jensen, who was a friend to Hannah.
I’m not going to lie: Thirteen Reasons Why is hard to watch. I know there are a lot of people who binge-watched it in a day or two but, personally, I couldn’t. I had to take a break every two to three episodes just to get in the right headspace to watch the next one.
Why? Because the show doesn’t shy away from hard, taboo topics such as suicide, sexual assault, bullying, self-harm, and rape. It faces these issues head on and gives the viewer a detailed insight into Hannah’s life and emotions without holding back. I can honestly tell you I’ve never felt so bad for a fictional character before. All throughout the show, I was wishing and hoping something would change, that things would miraculously get better, and Hannah would still be alive, but that didn’t happen.
In the last episode, we see Hannah slit her wrists in the bathtub and bleed to death. And, again, this was hard to watch. It’s very uncomfortable. Unbearable almost. There are many people who couldn’t watch it this particular graphic scene and averted their eyes because it felt so real.
And that’s where the controversy comes in. While the show has received many positive reviews for bringing attention and raising awareness for topics that are not discussed openly (when they should be), it has also received backlash.
Even more so: the show has been labeled dangerous both for younger viewers and viewers who might be triggered by the graphic scenes. Critics argue that the show romanticizes suicide and presents a “revenge fantasy”. They believe that, when falling into the wrong hands, Thirteen Reasons Why is a “suicide manual” and that Hannah’s suicide is justified.
While I understand these concerns, I don’t agree. I don’t believe the show romanticizes Hannah’s suicide. Had they showed Hannah taking an overdose of pills after which she dozed off before she died, then, yes, I would’ve agreed. But I think the scene works because it is graphic. Suicide isn’t easy or pretty. It’s extremely painful and there’s no way back, and I think that’s what the show is trying to portray.
As for Thirteen Reasons Why being a “revenge fantasy” I have to disagree again.
Do I believe that these people were responsible for her death? No, I don’t.
Mental illness is more complicated than a straightforward cause and effect relationship. I don’t believe anyone – not even Clay- could’ve “saved” her. They could’ve helped her on the way to recovery, yes (along with professional help) but they’re not responsible for not “saving” her.
Do I believe Hannah thought they were responsible? Yes, I do.
And I think that’s what’s important here. This is Hannah’s story and Hannah is a flawed person. She’s suffering from mental illness, specifically depression, which leads to impulsive, irrational behaviour.
In an ideal world, she would’ve reached out to her parents or to Clay or to any other character and found professional help. We all want everyone who’s had to suffer like Hannah did or who’s had to deal with trauma to seek out help and get better, but, unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We’re not perfect people.
A lot of teenagers don’t reach out. They don’t get help. Which is partly why suicide is the second leading cause of teenage death in the US.
But just because Thirteen Reasons Why shows a realistic account of what’s happening with a lot of teenagers right now, that doesn’t mean it glorifies/romanticizes the subject. Overall, I think the show does a good job of showing the aftermath of a suicide. It shows that someone’s life is always going to be changed forever. For Hannah, it’s her parents and Clay and Alex and Jessica and so many others.
There’s always someone that loves you and who can’t bear losing you, even if you think they don’t exist. In short: you are someone’s Hannah even if you can’t see it.
I can honestly say this show has changed me. It made me aware that everything you say and do can have a huge impact on someone’s life. And I think that’s another important thing I’m taking away from this show: we should always strive to be kind to one another because we truly don’t know what someone else is going through in their life.
But, most importantly, I’ve learnt to never give up. Things can get better and it starts by reaching out to as many people as necessary and getting professional help.