BY AHLIA DUNN ’20
“13 Reasons Why,” Netflix’s new show based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, premiered on March 31. The series, named the “most tweeted about show of 2017” by Entertainment Weekly, has become a hit — but also sparked controversy around its portrayal of mental illness and suicide, both online and on campus.
The show follows high school junior Clay Jensen as he listens to audiotapes recorded by his classmate and friend Hannah Baker, immediately before she committed suicide weeks earlier. Each of the 13 tapes explain one of the reasons Hannah took her life, each dedicated to a classmate who drove her to do so. Flashing back between past and present, the show is captivating and well-acted.
Over the course of the 13 episodes, the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion. In each episode, the tape reveals what one person did to push Hannah toward the edge while the show follows their current emotions in the aftermath of Hannah’s death. The actions of the past range in intensity, some seeming inconsequential while others are traumatic and heart-wrenching.
The show has been given mixed reviews. People have made memes using Hannah’s foreboding “Welcome to your tape” line. Some people have criticized these jokes, saying that they trivialize mental health issues. Others have used the show to create an open dialogue about self-harm, suicide and rape culture.
Virginia Guerra ’19 liked the show’s portrayal of the characters’ lives. “It showed the complexities of high school … [of] relationships and friendships and how that affects individuals,” said Guerra. Many fans relate to the characters’ struggles. Kimberly Neil ’17 appreciated the show’s nuanced treatment of sexual assault. She says it “did not try to simplify sexual assault by only showing it from the survivor’s perspective,” and that the storyline could “open up discussion about rape culture.”
A relevant critique of “13 Reasons Why” is that it may be harmful to viewers who have survived assault or experience mental health issues. Surprisingly absent from the show is any explicit discussion of mental health. It was an afterthought. We see the results of suicide without ever really understanding the underlying problems or how to move forward. We feel empathetic and sad, but not much else, unless it is a scenario that one can personally relate to, in which case it can be triggering and potentially harmful.
The show has been said to use a cause and effect plot to explain Hannah’s suicide, as if suicide is something one does as revenge or for other people to feel bad about their actions. Jacyln Grimm criticized the show in a USA Today article, writing, “[Hannah] gained power through suicide, and that’s a dangerous message.” Unsure if it was the graphic nature or the slow buildup of the show, Hannah Westcott ’17 was not a fan, but respects the effort. “Everything they tackled in the show is such a sensitive topic. I’m not sure there’s a right way to do it, but I commend them for their attempt at bold honesty,” said Wescott. Like many other viewers, Westcott says she will not watch the show again.
The show has also been criticized for its graphic content. According to Vox, many fans dislike the voyeuristic nature of the show and its depictions of rape and suicide in “graphic, cringing detail.” Though there are trigger warnings at the beginning of graphic episodes, many do not believe that they were prepared for how graphic the show would get. Viewers see several sexual harassment situations, as well as the rape of two of the show’s characters. The main controversy comes, however, at the portrayal of Hannah’s suicide, which is extremely graphic.
A writer of the episode, Nic Sheff, argued in Vanity Fair that the show does not romanticize suicide and in fact does the opposite. “It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse,” he wrote.
No matter how you feel about “13 Reasons Why,” it certainly provides a perspective that gives new life to the young adult drama. But make no mistake, this is also a cautionary tale. The harmful nature of the show’s portrayals of mental illness will also be a part of its legacy — and a testament to work that still needs to be done.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.