Suffice to say, the internet is exploding following the release of Netflix’s 2017 hit show ’13 Reasons Why’ based on the book by Jay Asher. And I can totally understand why – the story is compelling, heartbreaking, captivating and frighteningly relatable. Each episode is confronting and uncomfortable to watch. As viewers, we watch on as mere spectators while Clay Jensen antagonises over the suicide of his friend via cassette tapes she’s left for her classmates, pinpointing their contributions to her fate. We watch each character tear themselves apart, bouncing from accepting to denying their role in Hannah Baker’s death, all the while becoming incredibly self destructive. Countless articles and think pieces have flooded the internet, both commending and criticising the adaptation and the blunt depiction of suicide.
Some critics have pointed to increased calls to mental health and suicide prevention hotlines as reason for parents and teens alike to watch and study the series in hopes of raising awareness of and opening the discussion surrounding teen suicide and mental health. Other schools of thought suggest the act of suicide is almost glamourised in the show, and that by showing the main character take her own life, the series is almost creating a ‘how to’ guide on suicide. It’s a tricky issue, right? Do we shield teenagers, the target audience and central character base, from something so visually frank out of fear it promotes the act? Or do we endorse its viewing, hoping teens will reflect upon their own behaviour towards others and make any necessary social changes? If nothing else, 13 Reasons Why has raised awareness of teen suicide, sexual assault and violence – but is awareness always enough?
I’m not totally of the opinion that ’13 Reasons Why’ romanticises the act of suicide as such – ‘the scene’ is confronting and difficult to sit through without feeling distressed, but this was the aim of writer Nic Sheff, who, in an op ed with Vanity Fair, asserted that his aim was to dispel the commonly believed myth that suicide is more like drifting off into a deep sleep, and that it’s painful and hard and most importantly, it’s permanent. I truly believe the show is successful in their objective, but I do think it needs to be watched with considerable caution. Part of the premise of the story is that even after death, we can seek self-justice against those that have wronged us; we can make the people who have torn us down feel just as inadequate. This is the show’s greatest undoing – with the characters of high school age in the digital era, this is far too relatable for teens now, and I genuinely fear how this show could act as a trigger for those going through tough times; those not at the top of the popular list; the Hannah Bakers of the world. Despite the old adage suggesting that living well is the best revenge, who wouldn’t get some serious satisfaction out of seeing our bullies suffer, even just a bit? I worry that this show would push those teetering on the edge of taking their own lives and cause them to leave notes, tapes, mp3s, vlogs, blogs…anything, really, as one last ‘fuck you’ to their tormentors. I watched this series (having not read, or admittedly, heard of the book) as a 28 year old, long out of high school and with an emotionally stable frame of mind and soul. I was able to watch this series completely objectively and feel as much as I could for each character without any episode acting as a catalyst or sending me down an emotional spiral. I could follow the narrative without becoming increasingly fixated on the idea of taking extreme and permanent action against people I felt had wronged me over the years, and against myself. Yes, the series raises awareness of bullying, sexual assault and violence and teen suicide, but that awareness needs to be followed up with open and honest discussions about the key points outlined in 13 Reasons Why – plainly stated, the show should be watched with a grain of salt, but the discussions that follow should not.
High school wasn’t terrible for me. I grew up very lucky in that Myspace was just taking off as I was entering my final years of high school, and Facebook wasn’t even a thing – let alone Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat. I had a good group of friends who were no drama and were one of the more stable cliques of the class. Of course, as any high schooler will tell you, there were some instances were I was targeted, usually based on my weight or looks, but there were as many instances where I targeted other girls. I would have preferred the latter, especially, hadn’t happened, but it did and it needs to be acknowledged. And I think this is the case for so many people – the easiest defence when you’re being bullied is to deflect onto someone else; someone seemingly weaker. What I’m particularly grateful for is not having the avenues teenagers have today to assassinate/be assassinated by schoolmates online. When I was in school (gawd, how old do I sound right now?!), schoolyard bullying was exactly that – schoolyard, and contained to the fences surrounding the school. Home was a sanctuary during those tougher times and I wasn’t confronted by bullies in my bedroom like kids are today – I could re-group, put myself back together and get ready for the next day. Now, teenagers are bombarded with social media sites and apps where bullies can unite and slander their targets in such mass volume it’s completely unavoidable and it’s unrelenting. There’s no time for the bullied to put the pieces back together and walk into school with their heads held high the next day. This is addressed so perfectly in 13 Reasons Why and I feel it sheds some light for parents curious about their kids’ online activities, their attachment to their mobile phones and the general up and down moodiness that comes with adolescence. We watch Hannah, retrospectively, get beaten down by classmates in the class room, in the cafeteria, on the way home from school and in the confines of her bedroom, until she feels like she has no other option available to her. We see her carry the weight of the world on her shoulders across the 13 episodes, each episode bearing more baggage for her to shoulder until the final episode where she takes her own life by cutting her wrists in a bathtub. The suicide being shown on screen has set tongues wagging and has become divisive with some saying it needed to be shown in full to round out the story and take out the gloss of taking one’s own life; others feel the clear demonstration of suicide is far too confronting for teens to see. Plainly stated, it’s really fucking hard to watch. In an interview with ABC, Headspace’s national manager for school support Kirsten Douglas said the mental health service experienced a spike in phone calls relating directly to the show over the last few weeks, with concerns relating to the confronting depiction of suicide. Douglas stated that the act seems attainable for those who have seen it. The more optimistic critics are taking the increased calls to mental health hotlines as a positive; that the show has encouraged those previously unwilling to talk about their own experiences to call and share their stories, while others are concerned the series is counterproductive to those working towards stabilising their mental and emotional health and the distressed calls and feelings of anxiety might not be occurring had the series not been aired. This comes back to my earlier question – do we discourage young vulnerable minds from watching the show out of fear it will trigger disconcerting thoughts and actions or do we promote its viewing in hope those needing help will seek it?
If you were looking for a hard ‘one way or the other’ opinion here, I’m sorry to have let you down. I write this piece only as an objective viewer, who was lucky enough to not be bullied so harshly in high school; who was lucky enough to be able to seek refuge beyond the schoolyard; who was lucky enough to see beyond the moment and know there’s more out there than what people will have you believe in high school. But not everyone is as lucky, and 13 Reasons Why breathes new life into an issue often addressed in such a roundabout way. It promotes the idea that our actions and behaviours towards those around us have a bigger impact that we would think. It tackles the abhorrent issue of sexual assault and violence, which, while sparsely addressed here, needs to be raised in open forums to establish from a young age that ‘no’ means ‘no’. It tackles teen suicide in a way we’ve not yet seen – quite literally. I promote the awareness of these issues the series has left viewers with, but awareness means very little if we don’t do anything about it after we’ve been made aware. Have the conversations. Take action. Save a life.