Warning: This article discusses potentially distressing subjects including suicide, mental illness and sexual assault. It also contains spoilers for the series 13 Reasons Why.
Camilla Duke reviews the Netflix original series, 13 Reasons Why, analysing its representation and discussion of suicide and mental illness.
The Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why (based on the 2007 young adult novel of the same name) has been making waves in the media over the past few weeks for its controversial depiction of teen suicide, with reviews ranging from high praise to outright disgust. The show centers on the death of a high school student named Hannah Baker, who commits suicide after enduring a number of instances of bullying, sexual harassment and, eventually, rape.
Hannah leaves behind 13 cassette tapes as a kind of suicide note, each directed at a person in her life who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. The main character, Clay Jensen, receives the tapes and listens to each one over the course of the show as he tries to figure out his role in Hannah’s tragedy. 13 Reasons Why brings to popular-media attention issues that often get swept aside in the chaos of more sensational news. Teen suicide is widely understood to be a sweeping problem, but it has got to the point that stories of these tragedies are hardly noticed. The question is, then, how much good does this show do in reminding audiences how serious this problem is?
I do not want to speak for anyone else’s experience of watching the show, but I felt incredibly conflicted about it. There were moments that resonated deeply with me, but I also felt a lingering unease regarding the way the story was being told. As Clay slowly and painfully makes his way through Hannah’s story, the anxiety and guilt he experiences felt very real and honest.
Since watching the series, I have spoken with friends who also watched it and discussed the parts that we appreciated, and the parts we were frustrated by. Interestingly enough, for a story with such specific characters and instances, we all felt a haunting familiarity in certain moments and interactions. One thing the show does well is to portray the feelings that come with being a girl in an unwanted situation and feeling completely helpless. 13 Reasons Why is wholly unapologetic and honest in the way that it broaches the instances of sexual assault, which occur over the course of the series, particularly when it comes to deconstructing the idea that rape only occurs when a girl walks down a dark alley alone at night.
However, despite on-going consultation with mental health professionals and trauma experts while filming, the show has received a great deal of backlash for the way it frames the narrative of teen suicide. Since it is a TV show, it heavily dramatises the narrative of Hannah’s life and death. Some of this dramatisation should not be brushed aside as Hollywood theatrics, however. Amongst the struggles Hannah faces, each person who watches the show is bound to feel the jarring sense of discomfort that comes when you see yourself or your peers reflected in someone else’s story. In a way, these harsh and unexpected reminders are precisely what make the show so poignant. The show’s depiction of suicide in the setting of a high school demonstrates the unfortunate truth that these tragedies occur closer to home than we would like to believe.
However, other aspects of the show’s dramatisation should be taken as just that. The show frames the narrative of Hannah’s suicide as a weird sort of revenge fantasy, in which Hannah ultimately succeeds in showing her classmates how they wronged her while she was alive. The on-going plot ends up focusing more on the drama that occurs amongst Hannah’s classmates than on a serious assessment of how mental health is handled in schools. Perhaps most notably, although the entire show is centred on the issue of suicide, the role of mental illness is essentially never mentioned. Hannah’s tapes enumerate the situational contributors to her suicidal ideation, but the role of mental illness, be it depression, PTSD, anxiety, or anything else, goes implied at best. While the show makes it clear that the school and the people in her life handled Hannah’s situation poorly, it fails to demonstrate how they should have handled it.
The sensationalized and specific causes of Hannah’s suicide shine a light on the negative impact of bullying and rape culture in high school. However, by extension, 13 Reasons Why somewhat discredits the reality that sometimes suicide cannot be mapped so simply and that mental illness is often the main contributor, the individual circumstances simply being triggers. The frankness of 13 Reasons Why’s conversation about suicide is, in some instances, upstaged by the drama involving the classmates Hannah left behind. In this way, the show does not fully follow through with its message of the bleakness of suicide.
Nevertheless, 13 Reasons Why broaches the subjects of suicide and sexual assault unflinchingly and without apology. The importance of this cannot be understated. For all the show’s problems, bringing these stories into mainstream discourse and encouraging open dialogue around these difficult subjects is of the utmost importance when it comes to making progress in combating these issues.