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A Necessary Conversation for the Wrong Reasons

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"13 Reasons Why" Review

Staff Writer Grace McGuire gives her thoughts on the new Netflix series,

Staff Writer Grace McGuire gives her thoughts on the new Netflix series, "13 Reasons Why."

Author’s note: If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Like most people who read The Sage, I am an avid consumer of Netflix shows. When “13 Reasons Why” was announced, I had mixed feelings. The premise was as follows: junior Hannah Baker committed suicide after a series of bullying-related incidents at her school and mailed out thirteen tapes to those who had hurt her as a sort of suicide note. The tapes end up in the hands of her close friend Clay Jensen, who is left with the responsibility to put together the pieces of why she took her own life.

I remembered reading the book that the show is based on in eighth grade, especially the powerful impact it had had on angsty 13-year-old me. This was the only book I knew of that dealt with suicide in such an open, honest manner. With such a strong impression of the book, I decided the show was worth a watch.

My initial impression of the show was negative. On a surface level, I disliked several aspects: the acting from minor characters was subpar in the first few episodes and the writers tried too hard to make the teenagers talk in modern lingo (have you ever seen a group of teenagers toast their coffees to the acronym “FML?” Because I sure haven’t).

As the show delved deeper into the circumstances around Hannah’s suicide, my problems with the show grew more dire. To truly explain my issue with “13 Reasons Why,” I need to go on a bit of a tangent.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the 1989 cult classic Heathers, for a myriad of reasons. I won’t delve into that here, but I will say this: Heathers is another piece of media aimed at the teenage audience that addresses suicide, but in a far different tone and context. The movie comments on the media reporting of suicide, specifically how teenage suicide is glamorized until it becomes popular.

In the movie, when local TV networks cover a string of suicides that happened at a high school, they focus on the students holding hands in a fabricated, pseudo-emotional display of “solidarity,” even though some of these students played a part in the decision to end their lives. The protagonist Veronica watches in horror as her parents are glued to the screen. She turns the TV off, shouting, “Can’t you see? These little programs are eating suicide up with a spoon. They’re making it sound like it’s a cool thing to do.” And that well-delivered line is a near-perfect summary of the problem I and many others have with “13 Reasons Why.

A Netflix show based on a very popular book is going to have a large audience, and due to the subject matter, it’s very well possible that the audience is easily influenced by images of bullying victims. In the show, suicide is presented as a way to ensure that those who bully and ostracize a person will forever feel emotionally and psychologically damaged. Hannah is pushed to the brink by the people at her school, but once she’s gone, she’s martyrized. At multiple moments in the show the decisions of the characters are motivated by “what Hannah wanted” despite the fact that she’s dead, and she can’t object to what happens after her death.

One of the most objectionable aspects of the series is the choice to show, in graphic detail, Hannah slitting her wrists. This is not a decision that sat well with me. It’s irresponsible- even outright dangerous- to depict a suicide onscreen.  I can concede with the creator that it’s important to make the scene “painful to watch” in order to emphasize the notion that suicide is never the answer. But in fact, it accomplishes the exact opposite effect- the show gives its audience the opportunity to reenact her suicide.

There is a phenomenon known as the “Werther effect,” in which someone who views graphic, suicide-related material may be inspired to mimic it. According to a study published by David A Phillips, in which the term was coined, the more media attention a suicide receives, the more suicides it will inspire.

Netflix has shown in the past that they are capable of skillfully addressing mental illness through a character on one of their shows- Suzanne Warren on “Orange is the New Black” is a good example of this. An inmate in a women’s prison, Warren is given an opportunity to grow from the lowest points in her mental health and learns to behave in a healthier manner. She is supported by close friends even in a corrupt system.

Hannah is not a prisoner, though she exists in an environment nearly as toxic as prison (high school), but she is given no support or outlet for the pain she endures. She is left unable to recognize the symptoms she experiences and get help. Warren’s story is inspirational, but Hannah’s is a warning sign.

It’s evident that the show’s creators intended to open a dialogue about bullying and its toxic effects on a person. However, the show misses the mark of an eye-opening, poignant exposé and instead is more akin to watching a reality TV show. The circumstances surrounding Hannah’s suicide are dramatized to maximize the show’s binge-watching potential. As an audience, we are more encouraged to follow the drama surrounding the consequences of the tapes’ release than understand the steps that could have been made to prevent her suicide in the first place. The plot is filled with twists, turns, and teases that detract from the creators’ intended message.

The series ends with a shot of the protagonist Clay looking thoughtfully out the passenger side window of his best friend’s car while they drive through a stretch of freeway, Bob Mould’s “See a Little Light” playing optimistically in the background. When witnessing this ending, I felt cheated. I had been through hell with Hannah and Clay; I’d witnessed graphic depictions of sexual assault, suicide, physical violence, automobile accidents, seen the worst that humanity had to offer. To be left with a vaguely upbeat ambiguous ending to such an emotionally tumultuous story felt unfair.

The viewers were left with so many unanswered questions. We are not given a thorough understanding of the repercussions of Hannah’s suicide, instead people are left behind and hurt both physically and emotionally. Hannah has enacted her revenge and gotten exactly what she wanted, at a much larger cost than she could have comprehended. This is a dangerous impression to leave on a teenage audience, and I don’t think the creators realize that this is the impression they have given.

All in all, “13 Reasons Why” got audiences talking about a serious issue. Whether or not it treats the subject with tact, the show has served to inform the teenage audience about the harmful consequences of bullying. I cannot say I am a fan of the show, but I am appreciative of media that informs the public about the importance of mental health awareness. The fact that we can acknowledge the show’s flaws is a good sign- we have suicide prevention groups to recognize and explain those problems. Unlike the dramatized reality that’s presented in the show, we have resources for those struggling with mental health issues.

Personally, I take this show as a warning on two levels: the events of the show warn us of what happens when you leave a struggling individual without a support system, but the glorified way in which the show presents suicide demonstrates the consequences of being too graphic, too glamorized, too dramatic and not enough careful.

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1 Comment

One Response to “A Necessary Conversation for the Wrong Reasons”

  1. Darius Rahmanian on May 1st, 2017 4:59 pm

    DISCLAIMER: These thoughts being portrayed below are a subjective view taken into context. This is not meant to hurt,offend, and or subjugate anyone to harassment , merely to expand upon the authors original concept and ideas as well as to provide another perspective to such a controversial subject .

    I agree with the point being made here. The point that its gotten that the media can glorify suicide as some sort of self martyrdom is ridiculous. and then then sell it to an audience that believes its progressive is at most terrifying and at the least laughable. 13 Reasons Why promotes the edgy slice of life youth fiction that pulls teenagers out of the real world where there are problems that need to be pragmatically solved and lets them believe that problems can just be solved muh feelings, corrupts a sense of self responsibility. Though it is on our part as the consumer of the media to sift from fact and fiction. As stated before this show has disclaimers that state that you should not watch if you have these inclined tendencies or current emotional struggles. Many people of course read past these and then get triggered by the content they were warned about not only a mere hour ago. In the end one has to realize these are big corporate execs who will sell anything from white privilege accusations(Netflix’s Dear White People that was promptly cancelled after appropriate backlash) to terrible Adam Sandler movies. I agree Grace, suicide should not be packaged and sold to entertain a growing populace that finds itself secluding itself into safe spaces, not wanting to discuss or acknowledge truths or shocking realization, they just be kept to them selves and not face the problems of a harsh and cruel world.

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A Necessary Conversation for the Wrong Reasons