Spoiler Alert — Trigger Warning — For The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Call 1–800–273–8255
When I finally finished binge watching 13 Reasons Why, I was feeling a little shell shocked. Besides the obvious and extreme discomfort of watching a highly detailed suicide scene, there was an unsettling feeling at the actual handling of these heavy issues: rape, suicide, bullying. After I had a day to collect my thoughts, I sat down to write this list.
Mental health advocates are concerned.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 34, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I am not an expert on suicide but Suicide Awareness Voices of Education executive director Dan Reidenberg is. And Reidenburg said, “We actually may see more suicides as a result of this television series.” Sound extreme? He is not alone in this belief. Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, headspace, also shares in concern. Many experts point to the copycat effect that sensational and graphic depictions of suicide can spawn.
The whole show builds up to a suicide… like it’s exciting.
The show is structured to actually create and sustain anticipation of a tragic suicide scene. The suicide is the crux of the show, the highlight, the turning point from which all the cogs move, all the characters react — the moment from which all the story flows. 13 hours dedicated to the small part of Hannah’s life that influenced her death making the suicide arguably the most important moment in the show. But suicide is not something to look forward to. Suicide is not exciting.
The messy details.
Did we have to see everything? The actual details of the suicide? Two graphic rapes? I, of course, understand that we are supposed to be shocked, uncomfortable, and appalled. We can argue about desensitization in film and television. There is a fine line between brutal realism and exploitation. The suicide scene is so excruciatingly detailed that it almost teeters on the edge of being a how-to guide. We get an up-close look at the actual method and research suggests depictions of methods of suicide can be a potential risk to vulnerable people and those impacted by suicide.
The show actually doesn’t present a viable alternative to suicide.
This point speaks for itself. There are alternatives to suicide, there are resources, there is hope. Bullying does not always end in suicide. Bullying should not end with suicide.
Suicide is not simple.
There is not always a bullet list of “reasons.” It is not logical. There is not always a note. 13 Reasons Why is eager to oversimplify with its constant cause-effect story line. Those who commit suicide are often suffering from some underlying psychiatric disorder that is triggered by environmental issues. The show skirts around Hannah’s mental health, only somewhat addressing it in the final episodes, which is an incredibly convenient way to avoid handling this sensitive, real issue in a thoughtful way.
They play the blame game.
For the majority of 13 Reasons Why, the viewer is misled into believing there is someone to blame for Hannah’s suicide. In fact, they literally state, “We ALL killed Hannah Baker” at the end of the show — like it is a conclusion. USA Today writer Jaclyn Grimm writes, “The premise perpetuates the idea that there is always liability when someone commits suicide. There are no magic words or gestures that can make a suicidal person want to live. Teenagers should be aware of signs of depression and suicidal thoughts, but they shouldn’t think their kindness can “fix” anyone. That idea prevents depressed teens from getting actual help and places an enormous weight on the shoulders of the people left behind.”
Important issues are handled flippantly.
When Skye is asked about her self-harm scars she says, “This what you do instead of killing yourself.” So actually I guess the show does provide an alternative to suicide: self-harm.
“All I could focus on was the power the main character had after her death.”
This quote from a writer at USA Today “All I could focus on was the power the main character had after her death.” Which leads us to:
Suicide is not glamorous.
Suicide is not romantic. Suicide is not edgy. Suicide is not cool. Grimm writes, “Baker — a character whom no one loved — dies, and suddenly, everyone is intrigued by her, paying attention to her, making her memorials, grieving for her, and devoting themselves to understanding her thoughts. Her enemies are guilt-stricken and hate themselves for pushing her over the edge. That’s exactly what people who commit suicide want. Unrealistically depicting the aftermath of suicide in this way shows teens it’s a good decision because it makes them a hero and hurts the people who hurt them.” Look at all the attention Hannah Baker gets! It’s easy to forget that she isn’t there to enjoy it BECAUSE:
Hannah is shown alive throughout the show, despite having committed suicide.
Rolling Stone says, “Due to the tapes, we don’t witness the utter emptiness and grief that occur after someone commits suicide. Dead is dead.” Suicide is the end for that person. Their experience is over. Their life is over. Because of the nature of the storytelling, the reality that Hannah is gone — forever — never really sinks in. The permanence and devastation is lost.
The rape scenes.
As Rachel Edidin wrote in her critique of sexualized rape scenes, “Women are exaggeratedly — and always — sexy. They’re sexy on the phone. Sexy on the job. Sexy fighting. Sexy tortured. Sexy dead. Sexy raped.” Although Edidin did not write that specifically regarding 13 Reasons Why, she captured my feelings well. Rape is not sexy so why are these scenes shot so similarly to healthy sex scenes: close-ups, skin, bra straps, breathing, movement, hips, etc. These images and similarities provoke some of the same reactions but they are completely different situations. And do we need to see it with so much detail, for so long? Wired writes, “When rape is introduced as a part of a character’s storyline — either in the past or the present — we seem to need those assaults to play out before our eyes in order for them to seem real.” And, if we do have to show them, can we at least treat rape scenes with a bit more sensitivity?
The show is not that great.
Controversial issues aside, 13 Reasons Why is cheesy. The writing often rings ridiculous. Some of the acting leaves much to be desired. The story is thin, clumsy. The pacing drags. What began as a short book has now been stretched to 13 hours so it is no surprise that the integrity suffers. The characters seem cruel and I often could not understand how I was supposed to believe anyone would react the way they did and why I should care about these kind of people.
Triggers, triggers everywhere but not a lot of help.
I want to talk about these issues. I want there to exposure for the real, gritty, messy, difficult things that teens are dealing with. I want there to be shows that tackle them in a provocative way, that help teens feel understood and raise awareness. I want there to be projects that educate and inform, offer hope, offer help. But 13 Reasons Why is not the education we need. The show doesn’t actually talk about mental illness or depression. Mental health is never spoken on, to, or explicitly about. 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from mental illness. Grimm writes, “While external circumstances such as bullying can contribute to suicide, the show misses the opportunity to discuss the underlying cause.”
“Teen suicide is still the second leading cause of death for teens — over 5,000 kids attempt it every day in America — and we have to approach the topic as a society if we ever want to see those numbers fall. We have to educate faculty and adults about the negative power that social media has with regards to suicide and rape culture. Every school should take advice from 13 Reasons Why and put up posters with free hotlines and counseling services in the hallways. Do school boards really need to watch a show to realize that, though?”
— Rolling Stone
Whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to go through it alone. The Lifeline is here for you, 24/7, at 1–800–273-TALK. Or send me an e-mail at [email protected] so we can talk & find more resources together.