How “13 Reasons Why” Misses the Mark (or several)

Suicide is an often shied away from topic in the media. Perhaps, the connotation or stigma towards the act causes people to turn their heads to other tragedies for subject matter. On March 31, Netflix released an original series that stepped into the risky discussion creating a product that demonstrates the all too familiar interpersonal hostility of high school and consequentially but unintentionally normalizing and glamorizing suicide as a solution.

A Questionable Series

The 13-episode Netflix adaption of Jay Asher’s novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why” delves into the life of high school student Hannah Baker following her suicide. The concept sounds just like the title. Before taking her own life, Hannah filled a box with several tapes on which she recorded herself on each discussing a different reason why she did.

Each reason related to a specific person who let her down and ultimately contributed to her sense of loneliness and hopelessness in the end. While several of the tapes reveal Hannah dealing with the struggles of many high school students, rumors and disrespect, drama and being misunderstood, others address actions she simply witnessed and was indirectly affected by.

An issue with the series is its romanticism of suicide as a form of revenge. The show does not address mental illness whatsoever. It seizes to mention depression or mental instability as potential causes and only claims the suicide happened because of the people who wronged Hannah.

Meanwhile, it depicts the personal lives of some of the characters on her list, which are not so flawless either. They each have their own set of hardships, from being bullied to having no home to having parents on drugs. Hannah would make statements in the tapes assuming the “popular” kids never understood loneliness and that all boys were the same.

While her view was tainted because of her own experiences, it completely undermined the struggles of everyone else. The tricky thing about suicide is its not a black and white act and just grouping together all the kids with seemingly perfect lives and calling them “fine” does not effectively portray suicide.

Romanticizing Suicide as “Revenge”

Similarly, romanticizing suicide as the ultimate form of revenge does not effectively portray the causes of suicide. There was a reason Hannah Baker felt she could only find closure by killing herself and that the others did not feel that way. Her perception was different and maybe she was struggling with mental illness and was unaware.

Yes, there is a lesson to take away from this show. Every little action people make and every statement said can impact someone’s life immensely so it is important to be careful.

The discussion about suicide needs to occur more often. Society doesn’t need to be blinded to the fact that suicide does happen and is one of the leading causes of death among teenagers. But the conversation does not need to promote blame or put the guilt on others. The conversation needs to promote community and openness, acceptance and compassion.

Suddenly now, a generation of teenagers with their angst and emotional whirlwinds, grudges and regrets, are seeing Hannah Baker’s death as an example. Yes, the circumstances would be difficult for any new student at a school dominated by jocks and their girlfriends that places more emphasis on basketball game results than obvious cries for help.

The events described in Hannah’s tapes ring similar to things that happen to high school students in real life, so where is the line to be drawn? The series surely does not draw one.

Harmful or Necessary Depictions?

The show dances on the line of too far and too sensational. The visual depictions of rape shed a light on a too familiar situation that people in real life often ignore. These visual displays void of sensors are necessary to initiate a discussion about sexual assault.

However, the unfiltered visual display of Hannah killing herself in the last episode enters the dangerous “how-to” zone. If not a trigger for a person who can relate to Hannah, the depiction of her suicide can put the wrong ideas into young minds.

The Netflix drama attracted a large following and is the most tweeted about Netflix original ever. There is no doubt the show brought up an often ignored and stigmatized topic but there is a doubt that it did so in the most tasteful way.

Suicide should be addressed but it should not be sensationalized or glamorized. However, viewers spend so much time learning why to blame each of the individuals on Hannah’s list and reliving the events in her testimony that it is easy to forget the ultimate reality of Hannah’s choice- she is gone forever and the idealized “closure” she so desperately wanted is unattainable.