There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, adapted from a young adult book of the same name by Jay Asher. Many claim that the show glorifies suicide. Or that one of its scenes – which shows a girl killing herself in explicit detail – is triggering or informative for those who may be looking to do the same.
The show has garnered so much criticism, it recently led at least two New Jersey school districts to send home letters to parents.
Andrew Evangelista, District Mental Health Coordinator of Montclair Public Schools, wrote:
“The show fails to identify mental health issues as well as resources available to teens and makes the viewers think that suicide is only an external event when in reality bullying, excessive drinking/drug use, failure to identify mental issues and internal factors all contribute to the result of one looking to end their life.” (NJ.com)
There’s long been a tradition of schools banning books they feel deal with sensitive or inappropriate topics. Many of those books – Beloved, the Autobiography of Malcom X, Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, Gone With the Wind, the Grapes of Wrath, the Great Gatsby, to Kill a Mockingbird – have gone on to become American classics and mandatory curriculum in schools. So is it simply that the show (and book) are ahead of their time and victims of puritanical censorship? Or are there real concerns behind the upset this show has caused?
13 Reasons Why first came to my attention through a handful of Tumblr posts warning rape and abuse victims, depressed or suicidal people and those with PTSD, to steer clear of the show. Secondly, it came to my attention because my twelve year old sister was watching it.
As someone who’s suffered from clinical depression, the show struck a nerve with me. Not because it was an accurate portrayal of what I went through. But because it grossly trivialized mental health issues. It made suicide seem like a quirky revenge scheme. Hannah was your typical manic pixie dream girl (a term coined by Nathan Rabin in his essay about the movie, Elizabethtown). She was vivacious and appealingly quirky – and the only purpose of her narration was to inspire a greater appreciation for life (or a better understanding of her death) in the male protagonist, Clay. Clay – a soulful, socially awkward nice guy – lived a sheltered existence until Hurricane Hannah came tearing through his life.
The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition. Audiences either want to marry her instantly (despite The Manic Pixie Dream Girl being, you know, a fictional character) or they want to commit grievous bodily harm against them and their immediate family. (Nathan Rabin, AV Club)
Hannah was so endearingly quirky she couldn’t just write a suicide note like other girls, but created an entire catalogue of mix tapes and a charmingly, devastating scavenger hunt before she died to explain to all of her ex-friends and people in her school that they had driven her to it. Like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, except with suicide and revenge! But what actually drove Hannah to kill herself? Certainly not depression. Hannah never lost interest in her appearance. She didn’t give away her worldly possessions. She didn’t self-harm. She didn’t sleep all the time or not at all. She kept showing up to her classes. She kept going to her job. Until the last episode, she wasn’t lost in a fog of impenetrable numbness.
Depression can take the pleasure or enjoyment out of the things you love. A loss of interest or withdrawal from activities that you once looked forward to — sports, hobbies, or going out with friends — is yet another telltale sign of major depression….Depression often comes with a lack of energy and an overwhelming feeling of lethargy, which can be the most debilitating symptoms of depression. This could lead to excessive sleeping or no sleep at all. (Signs of Depression, Healthline.com)
Depressed people don’t record seven tapes on a boombox while sinking under the weight of vast, grey ocean. Those who successfully attempt suicide get just enough manic energy near the end to try take their lives. Maybe they’ll hastily dash off a note to their family and friends letting them know it’s not their fault and they’re sorry. But real suicide isn’t calculated. It isn’t done to inflict as much harm to others as possible. And it’s not pretty. Nor is it anyone’s “fault”. People who commit suicide are not “weak” as the goth, tattooed coffee shop girl, Skye, suggests. People with depression have a chemical imbalance in their brain. People who have perfectly perfect lives can be depressed. People who have supportive husbands or wives, loving kids, a gym body, a good job, straight white teeth – can get depressed.
The series poses the question, “Who Killed Hannah Baker?”
And one of its characters, replies, “We all did.”
But who really killed Hannah Baker? Hannah Baker.
Hannah is a victim certainly – of misogyny, of rape culture, of rape. I remember a list that went around my school in 7th Grade about “the biggest sluts” in our grade. I remember jealous girls and cruel boys starting a group called “HODAK – Haters of D*** and K****” – two of the prettiest (and then, most physically developed) girls in the school. I remember hurling these slurs at girls myself in high school because I was jealous they were kissing all the boys I wanted to kiss. I wanted a word to differentiate myself from “those girls” – never realizing I was those girls, we were all those girls – because we were, well, girls. And no matter how much I laughed with the boys, I would never be one of them. I would never be fully in on the joke because I was the joke.
I remember laughing at ex-boyfriends who made “jokes” about women – who fat-shamed them, who talked about them “knowing their place in the kitchen” – and I cringe. I wanted to feel like I was in on the joke, or outside of it, but I wasn’t. I was the subject of it. What men really meant when they fat-shamed was, “she doesn’t deserve to take up space“. And what men really meant when they subjugated women to outdated gender roles was, “you belong where you have no power or agency.”
In High School and College, if you were sexually attractive, you were prey. And it wasn’t any better to be the fat girl, the sexually invisible one. To hear comments from boys like, “she has big boobs, but only cause she’s fat” or from your mom’s friends, “she has a nice face; if only she’d lose some weight”. No matter what you did, you were reduced to a sum of your parts. Asking for it. Dressing or not dressing the part. Sent home to change your clothes for showing too much bra-strap or too much of your leg – even as children our skin was sexualized – and boys and grown, male authority figures were wild animals who couldn’t control themselves around a glimpse of shoulder or thigh. So we had to be the ones. We had to hold keys between our knuckles in dark parking lots and never leave our drinks unattended. We were the ones who couldn’t stop to help a stranded car on the side of the road – because the people we wanted to help wanted to hurt us.
Yes, Hannah’s a victim. But I’d be more inclined to feel sorry for her if she wasn’t manipulative and vengeful. She chose suicide and she chose it as revenge. And did a bunch of young kids – with real and complex problems of their own – deserve her heaping the blame for her choice on them? (With the exception of her rapist).
And while I’m able to filter these complex issues – my issue with the show is that kids my sister’s age are watching it. Kids that are my sister are watching it. They’re watching Justin getting choked by his stepdad. They’re watching Hannah get raped in a hot tub – watching the way her eyes go dead and she disassociates from her own body. They’re watching Hannah cry out as she sinks a razor into her wrist. They’re watching her mom cradle her dead body on the pink-flooded bathroom tile. And their brains don’t have the capacity yet to think critically – to take apart and examine these images. Like pills, they swallow the narrative shown to them on the screen – all wrapped up in pretty actors and slick 80s-sounding pop and scrawled indie mix tapes – that romanticizes taking your own life.
You think you’re grown when you’re a preteen and teenager – you laugh too loud in public, you lord over cafeteria tables and deface bathroom stalls with magic marker and try to pierce your own lip with a safety pin, you dye your hair, you write secrets in pink journals you shove under your mattress – you think you’re invincible and ready until some boy shoves his hand under your skirt in a dimly lit basement or forces you into the backseat of his car.
Hannah chose her suicide. And sometimes we have to choose for our kids. Even and especially ones that inhabit bodies that are rapidly becoming more adult, even as their brains struggle to catch up. This is a story aimed at young adults. And censorship be damned – sometimes we have to choose to protect our kids – our girls, our boys. I’m not saying that young kids shouldn’t watch it – but if your kids are – you should be aware of it and use it as an opportunity to open a dialogue. To talk critically about the issues in it. You should use it as a chance to feel out issues your own child might be dealing with.
13 Reasons Why shouldn’t be a secret shoved under your kids mattress or something watched in the dark of their bedroom after you’ve turned the lights out and kissed them good night.
If anything comes out of 13 Reasons Why, let it be more honest conversations with our kids and with ourselves.