Asking Why About 13 Reasons Why
May 16, 2017
13 Reasons Why is taking Netflix by storm. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s a series of 13 episodes that tell the story of the life and death of 17 year old girl Hannah Baker. Based off the 2007 publication of Jay Asher’s ‘Young Adult’ novel, this show has stirred up a world of controversy as critics have attacked everything from content, to that content’s presentation. The show follows the series of events from freshman to junior year that ultimately conclude with Hannah’s decision to end her life as she struggles with topics from cyberbullying to rape. The question lies at one fault line: what is and is not “acceptable” to portray on the screen?
Asher spoke out on the painful topics he covered in the book saying, “If we’re doing this, it can’t be something that you can look away from or just gloss over in your mind.” He continued, “You have to be uncomfortable when you’re watching it; otherwise you’re not in her mind. In a way, it’s disrespectful if we say, ‘We know this stuff is happening, but we don’t want to be made uncomfortable by it.’” Yet the real problem is in the glamor that any film production immediately implies. Reading a book allows the audience to create the imagine for themselves as detail becomes self determined. For critics, the tapes Hannah creates have become a symbol of the unrealistic nature of teen suicide perpetuated. Hannah records these tapes for each person she blames as part of her death, with each tape dedicated to a particular person or event that was part of the culminating disaster. In the Netflix series, the tapes create this illusion of mystery and suspense, which feel all too similar to a show created for entertainment. Suicide is not entertainment. Yes, I have a personal statement here, because I see the depiction of Hannah’s legacy as far from accurate.
Executive Producer Selena Gomez has spoken out on many occasions to defend the implications of the show. “They [young viewers] have to see something that’s going to shake them. They have to see something that’s frightening. … I want them to understand it. … I would do anything to have a good influence on this generation.” I must admit that the first episode made me angry. I finished it thinking, In what world does suicide have this much glamor? I was mad at the beautified production of a topic that deserves all the seriousness in the world. Yes, we must have these discussions but we must do them justice. At the end of each episode was a cliff hanger-style conclusion, which in and of itself is typical of the entertainment world. For me, that reflection of entertainment on a topic like suicide felt morally wrong. I must admit that as the series continues, the shows and topics become heavier and each character is visibly more distressed and unnerved.
Netflix recently added trigger warnings to the beginning of each episode, after backlash that viewers felt unprepared for the events they would witness. One viewer, aged 19 who previously dealt with depression said , “Had I been watching that as the vulnerable, fragile kid that I was when I was 13 or 14, I might have watched that and thought, Oh, that’s the easy way out. This is going to get me the attention that I need. This is what I have to do.” This highlights a second major flaw: Hannah is never diagnosed or states openly that she struggles with depression. For viewers that are experiencing this condition, Hannah’s reactions to situations can seem “over-dramatic” and “ridiculous” as some feedback stated. But the more important point to note is that little things add up. Despite her reactions seeming what they may- the moral is there…we all struggle no matter the scale of our problems. For Hannah, her problems felt massive and too large to bear.
A recent study by CNN revealed alarming numbers and findings. In 32 children’s hospitals around the country, 118,363 children between the ages of 5 and 17 left the hospital with a discharge diagnosis of suicidality or serious self-harm. Of these numbers, 60% were female- with that number rising each year- up to 66% for 2017. It was found also that “females are more likely to attempt, but males in general are more likely to succeed.” With numbers like this on the rise, and shows like 13 Reasons Why it is hard to conclude with any solution. My personal opinion is that YES we need to talk, and talk openly. And if we are to portray these topics in film they must be done with the most accuracy possible and be aware of the reactions for those who might be impacted at a personal level.