I am an avid Netflix binge-watcher and a couple of weeks ago after freshly cleaning out my queue I was looking for something else to watch. Netflix suggested (and I chose) 13 Reasons Why. I haven’t read the book, I didn’t know it was a hit, I had absolutely no preconceived notions or prior information about anything to do with the story. The first episode caught me off guard and I thought perhaps I was too old to enjoy the story, but then I was hooked. I binged it over a two or three day period and absolutely loved it. Loved it in a dark, cathartic, ripping-the-band-aid off way. I posted on Facebook about it and several friends (of various demographics) agreed that they loved it or planned on watching it, and I saw a few articles about school districts suggesting parents and students watch it together. I thought: cool, this was a realistic show and I hope people take some lessons from it and that was that.
Then I started reading posts about people who HATED the show. A friend posted a status about the fact she would never finish it because it glorified suicide. A Catholic magazine I follow posted an article with a warning from clergy stating that people shouldn’t allow their kids to watch it because it glorified suicide. Other viewers and critics said they thought the show was over-dramatic and that high school really isn’t that bad. And I continued to see posts stating the show portrays suicide positively. I thought about it at length and realized it connects to something my last post touched on: the idea that talking about or portraying something in pop-culture dediabolisizes or normalizes it. I talked about my disagreement with this idea in the political arena, but it fits here too.
If you haven’t watched the show or don’t plan to, this might be helpful.
So, I’ll get right to it. I don’t think this show normalizes, glorifies, dediabolisizes, or portrays suicide positively.
I understand why people may think the show portrays suicide as a solution (especially if they didn’t watch the entire series) because in fact, Hannah’s peers only understand how their actions impacted her after she kills herself and they choose to listen to the tapes she leaves behind. But the show does not portray suicide as a solution to Hannah’s problems.
The show never shows that Hannah killing herself or recording the tapes has any effect on she and Jessica’s rapist. Their rapist never hears her tapes. He is not held accountable for his crimes. Her death does not fix Jessica’s pain. Her parents financial problems are not fixed-in fact, her death makes them worse. Her death and her reasons for killing herself do not solve any of the problems she used to justify killing herself. Her death leads directly to another student being shot in the head (we don’t know the details surrounding that situation, yet). Her death allowed her to escape her circumstances as all death does, but the producers and author never even elude to the fact that suicide “fixes” anything. *Her tape to Clay does contribute to him being nice to Skye, buy his tape clearly states he was always nice to Hannah too.
The show also certainlyyy did not portray suicide as the easy way out. If we are to believe the tapes, this was far from an easy choice for Hannah. It took thirteen separate encounters for her to decide to do it. She didn’t get knocked down in the hall one day and decide, “Welp, imma slit my wrists tonight”. Her rape wasn’t even enough to make her kill herself. She tried-12 times-to move on, to ignore, to make new friends and 13 times her efforts were met with yet another incident. The show does not portray suicide as an easy decision.
I’ve also seen posts stating that the tapes were a way to get revenge. I don’t see it that way at all. She thoroughly and diligently explains how each interaction with these 13 people made her feel. She got revenge in a passive way, of course. Those people will have to live with the knowledge of how their actions (even if they weren’t violent or mean) led to the death of someone, which is definitely some serious baggage to carry around. She uses the tapes as a way to explain why she did what she did, not as a way to seek revenge. Clay seeks revenge on her behalf, but her suicide is portrayed as an escape not as vengeance. The whole point is that she made the tapes so that people would listen to them and understand how their actions contributed to her suicide. It shows that children (and all people, really) just want to be listened to. She could have written notes. She could have left nothing behind. The emphasis is on the tapes for a reason and that reason isn’t to convince victims to kill themselves.
Also, the show explains that a HUGE part of Hannah’s suicide was caused by her OWN actions, not her victimization. Not only does it show that she ultimately chose to end her life, but two or three of the tapes (maybe more, I can’t remember) center around the fact that she did something wrong. She watched her friend be raped and did nothing. Her PTSD caused her to reject Clay and in turn made her blame herself for hurting him. The show made her an active participant in her downfall. While ultimately she was a victim, it did not paint her as someone who just had some bad stuff happen to them and decided to get revenge. If she was seeking vengeance, she was seeking it against herself as well as her peers.
Lastly but most importantly for my defense of the show, throughout the show the counselor and his lack of professionalism are emphasized time and time again. His character’s conscience is burdened from the start because he knows he did not act correctly to prevent Hannah’s death. By the end, we know that Hannah asked for professional help before killing herself! She did the right thing! She did what we are all taught to do! She asked for help. She went to a professional. She dropped her pride and fear and went to an adult. After trying 12 other times to avoid situations, to avoid being antagonized, to ignore her tormentors, to make new friends, to find love, to have fun, to express her pain through art (poetry), to anonymously ask for help (that letter in class), to change her attitude, she asked an adult for help. And that adult could not or would not or did not know how to help so then she took her life.
Bullying is a problem. Sexual assault is a problem. Yes, high school (and college and graduate school and the workplace) is that bad. People are that mean. Bullying often isn’t a singular event. People’s actions impact other’s in ways they never realize. Some children (and adults) kill themselves after they are bullied. This show portrays that in an in-your-face kind of way. Yes, it isn’t perfect. No, you shouldn’t watch it if self harm causes you to act out (although there are trigger warnings for the episode in which she kills herself, so perhaps you could just skip that one). Yes, Bryce avoiding any consequences is problematic. Yes, not addressing mental health is problematic. Yes, it’s painful to watch. I could go on. But if I listed all of the problems this show has, the glorification of suicide would not be one.