By Mirjana Vujovich
Photography by: Kimberly Lai
Content warning: This article discusses self-harm, suicide, and sexual assault.
“Welcome to your tape”, four words popularized by the Netflix original 13 Reasons Why, quickly became the punchline to Internet memes after the show’s release. The phrase originally appeared as Hannah Baker, the deceased protagonist, introduces listeners to her explanation for why they’ve earned the special spot as “one of the reasons [her life ended]”. The show’s premise is simple, taken from the novel of the same name, though it has since capitalized on its success in 2017 (as it stands, there should now be thirty-nine reasons). Drawn-out plotlines aside, the first season and the jokes that ensued have unsurprisingly caused the issue of suicide to enter the public consciousness. With the words of a girl on her metaphorical deathbed rendered comedic material for failed Instagram comedians, one must ask if the near-instant popularity of 13 Reasons Why has done more harm than good.
The show has, undoubtedly, broached the ever-sensitive topic of suicide to a perhaps uninformed audience, yet when ninteen-year-old Emily Bragg imitated Hannah’s on-screen suicide, complete with her distraught mother’s reaction, it seems difficult to justify the merits of “raising awareness”. Though younger viewers arguably have little exposure to mental illness and suicide, they aren’t clueless – jokes are widespread enough to prove that. Setting aside morals for a second, the critical reception to 13 Reasons Why was initially favorable, with the first season earning a 79% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes; though subsequent seasons have been torn to shreds by critics. Its score on Metacritic, which weighs reviews from critics across the web, dropped from 76 to 23, with reviewers describing how the writers had resorted to exploitative, illogical plotlines in an attempt to prolong the lifespan of a show that should have only lasted a single season. Audiences still tuned in, though, as with televisation comes the inevitable drama, perfectly crafted to keep audiences hooked. Take the character of Alex Strandall, whose attempted suicide never occured in the novel, yet was written roughly halfway into the season. This is certainly not the furthest the writers have strayed from the source material (remember the twenty-six extra reasons), yet 13 Reasons Why’s depiction of sexual assault, substance abuse, and of course, suicide, has time and time again proved to glamorize dangerous experiences, creating torture porn for teenagers that turns a suicidal girl’s confessions into a melodramatic soap opera.
Studies and even an article published by the United States National Institute of Health have stated that media portrayals of suicidal behavior have “potentially negative influences and facilitate suicidal acts” to viewers; if that enough has such an effect, the image of Hannah bleeding out into her bathtub is more than likely to have a less-than-desirable impact. Though the scene has since been removed and trigger warnings added, it has been deemed “too little, too late” by those like Bragg’s mother, who dealt firsthand with the aftermath. In a world where the issues discussed in the show have been deemed taboo, credit must be given for the detail given to such topics; but the youth that frequent Netflix and jumped on the Selena Gomez-endorsed (and produced!) show should never have been a target demographic.
13 Reasons Why’s primary audience is largely young and female, and though Netflix doesn’t release detailed statistics on viewership, three-quarters of those who streamed the series are below the age of thirty-five. Even after the first season had run its course, the premiere of the second season garnered over six million views within the first three days. Its influence was shown to stretch further than just its juvenile demographic, though, as parents and educators quickly became aware of the show and its impact. The aforementioned story of Emily Bragg, wherein even someone well past her volatile high school years took the wrong kind of inspiration from the show, may be a part of the reason for 13 Reasons Why’s later measures to ensure viewers’ safety- the warnings and dedicated website advertising helplines. Originally, however, the content was presented without deterrents, easily accessible on Netflix or any other piracy site. Though accompanied with a TV-MA (or its equivalent) rating, it’s common knowledge that those labels are rarely noticed, much less taken seriously by the teenage demographic. On Common Sense Media, a website where mainstream media is reviewed based on its quality and appropriateness to different age groups, one allegedly twelve-year-old reviewer described the show as suitable for those aged sixteen and above. Even with this acknowledgement, the child themself was willing to, presumably, watch all thirteen episodes and emerged with a glowing, albeit strangely hypocritical, review.
It still seems unfair to hurl criticisms without directly analyzing the source material, however, so what is actually wrong with 13 Reasons Why? If its powerhouse of a first season was so well-received (The Daily Record’s Garry McConnachie said that it “could be Netflix’s best creation yet”), then the storytelling can’t be at fault. The “unflinching portrayals” of high school life and teenage bullying are simply there to enlighten viewers, to expose the dark underbelly of seemingly innocent youth, but likening it to a red pill may be going too far. As a thirteen-episode series created for the masses, its primary purpose is to entertain, so that as many people as possible would watch it. Despite the all too often-mentioned importance of the show’s message, Netflix would have almost certainly pulled the plug if it didn’t do a good enough job of amassing attention and viewers.
So, what made 13 Reasons Why compelling enough to gain such popularity? The reason is simple- it’s a good show. But since “good” is subjective, what that really means is it appealed to many people. Teenagers and critics alike have tuned in for the story and how it’s told. Tragedies have always played well, from Shakespeare to Good Will Hunting, and the accessibility of 13 Reasons Why has rendered it a tale for the masses. The writers, directors, and most notably the cast have executed many aspects without issue; Katherine Langford’s performance as Hannah was considered “stunning”, and lead actor Dylan Minnette and actress Kate Walsh (who plays Hannah’s mother) were also lauded for their portrayals of “tenderly crafted characters”. The raw emotion behind the story is difficult to contest, too, with the chemistry between Langford and Minette heavily referenced.
In a more important vein, the show’s message is inherently positive. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the (admittedly hackneyed) adage, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a message woven into each episode, along with the gruesome consequences of bullying as an extra warning. Extremely explicit statements don’t make for good television, but the character Bryce Walker, resident rapist, is clearly depicted as an antagonist, a small blessing in a cinematic universe of morally dubious characters. It’s shown that viewers are (naturally) expected to feel sympathy for Hannah, through the backstories that depict her torn between conflict and at the mercy of her classmates. Hopefully, after watching thirteen episodes of the emotional torture endured by Hannah, moral compasses will be recalibrated and empathy will be deepened among viewers.
Though there is clearly one “wrong” event- the eventual, inevitable, suicide that viewers dread- incidents leading up to it throughout the season are shown through different characters’ perspectives, thus fostering a sort of moral gray area. This ambiguity plays a positive role in forcing viewers to examine the nuances of treacherous scenarios where people’s lives end up being at stake. The brutal honesty of messy reality deserves respect; where other shows may shy away, 13 Reasons Why faces these issues head-on. However, the quality of the show and its willingness to address sensitive topics does not necessarily mean it does so in a productive manner. It’s alarming that the stigma surrounding mental illness is still so severe, so at least 13 Reasons Why is able to raise public awareness, though whether it actually has destigmatized these issues or not is debatable. In retroactively adding trigger warnings and encouraging viewers to reach out for help, it does provide a platform for legitimate awareness to be raised, or at least to support those who actually struggle with the very topics that guide the show’s first season. The uninformed, too, can venture outside of a bubble of prior ignorance and experience the discomfort of gritty reality. The World Health Organization estimates that somewhere between ten to twenty percent of teenagers experience mental health issues, so it’s not as if these issues are purely fictional. They are achingly real to millions of adolescents worldwide, and therein lies the main issue with 13 Reasons Why. However well-intentioned it may be, its portrayal of the topics that make it so provocative is disappointing and even harmful.
Take the example of one specific glaring factual misstep. Before the scene was removed from Netflix (the uncut episode can still be found online, complete with in-flight entertainment-esque warning), Hannah was shown committing suicide in the final episode of the first season. The original scene didn’t leave much to the imagination; the viewer is privy to Hannah’s final moments, watching as she digs into her arms with razor blades, a voyeur to her death as the blood flow slows, dissolving into the bathtub as she bleeds out. Aside from copious grunting and semi-loud cries of pain, the process seems peaceful enough. In a couple of minutes, her parents figure it all out and react as expected. Even without context and to those who might usually call themselves squeamish, Hannah’s death is heartbreaking and painful to watch, but its feasibility has to be questioned. Relatively reliable sources (in this case, the engineer-run blog Numerickly) have said that when cuts are made along the arm, death by exsanguination would likely take over an hour. In most instances, it would actually never even occur as it’s extremely difficult for a person to physically cut deep enough into their own arm to induce deadly blood loss. Showrunner Brian Yorkey said that he aimed to portray suicide as “painful and horrific… certainly never an easy way out,” and yet the surreal peace of Hannah’s silent death directly contradicts that sentiment.
It does seem cruel to reduce a tragic death to number-crunching and its technical difficulty, but with the aforementioned “copycat” death of Emily Bragg, 13 Reasons Why’s impact on impressionable, vulnerable, audiences is undeniable. Data proves this to be more than just a single anecdote; a study conducted by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that “the overall suicide rate among 10- to 17-year-olds increased significantly in the month immediately following the release of 13 Reasons Why”. Although, of course, correlation does not equal causation, the fact that this unusual uptick and the corresponding correlation exists is worrying enough.
More important than the viability of Hannah’s suicide methods, though, is how her death is spoken of. The show attempts to steer clear of romanticization through the sheer (and obvious) tragedy as Hannah’s life ends before the viewer’s eyes. However, Clay’s words soon afterwards bring the respectful illusion to a halt. He tells the school counselor, who he is recalling the tale to, “you could have stopped it. And I could have,” continuing onwards to list those who he believes are responsible for Hannah’s death. He finishes his speech with a line for the books, “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her”. As romantic as this may sound, it is so frustratingly subtle in its grandiosity (not to mention cliché) that many young viewers may see as the conclusion to a tale of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet but with Walkmans. Yet the idea that Clay, an average teenage boy with no remarkable traits except, perhaps, his kindness, would have been able to somehow “save” Hannah is almost laughable. The long-lasting effects of the trauma Hannah endured, as well as her underlying mental illness, are not within the realm of Clay’s magical healing abilities, no matter his endearing charisma. And there lies the crux of why 13 Reasons Why, even in novel form is so harmful: the way its premise tackles the issue of suicide is inherently flawed and damaging and made-for-television drama has made everything worse. By assuming the love of one person- namely, Clay- could have simply made Hannah happy, 13 Reasons Why perpetuates misinformation regarding mental illness while simultaneously creating the expectation for ordinary people to save the lives of others whose suffering is never that simple.
If the message that 13 Reasons Why is putting forward with regards to suicide and mental illness is that kind words and actions will destroy the notion of suicide, then it’s painful to wonder how this idea is internalized in its young audience. When Clay says, “you can’t love someone back to life,” he wasn’t wrong; but you can’t love someone to keep them alive either. Depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and suicidal ideation is a symptom of multiple conditions that cannot be alleviated by simply kissing them better. It’s clear that the trauma Hannah endured played a part in this, but her characterization certainly doesn’t lend its way to what would be expected. For someone suffering enough to consciously end her life, painting her as vengeful and petty even on her deathbed didn’t do much to destigmatize depression- that’s for sure.
To those lacking prior exposure to scientific truths and unglamorous reality, 13 Reasons Why is a poor introduction and will skew their perceptions, not to mention the graphic content if viewed before the eventual censorship. And to those struggling with such issues themselves? The suicide scene wasn’t the only example of gratuitous quasi-gore; the rape scenes mentioned earlier have caused less controversy but are nonetheless damaging. Triggers are often joked about, but their repercussions for unaware viewers (especially before the addition of warnings before episodes) can be severe. In the end, it’s clear that the issue isn’t with 13 Reasons Why’s artistic quality- many a bad movie or show have been made without severe repercussions, it’s the premise and how that informs the show’s depiction of suicide, among other sensitive issues; and when topics that should be taken incredibly seriously become fodder for memes, something must have gone wrong. Though 13 Reasons Why has undeniably raised awareness surrounding mental health, the negative impact that it has had (and will continue to have) among those from the uninitiated to the far too well-initiated cannot be ignored.