Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo | 1 May 2017
[tw: discussions of suicide and rape]
Netflix’ recent series, 13 Reasons Why, has been subject to a wide chasm in reception. The story follows a teenage boy, Clay, as he listens to the tapes left by his friend and love interest Hannah, detailing the 13 reasons why she committed suicide. The show depicts Hannah’s fights with friends, her parents’ financial troubles, her experiences of bullying, misogyny, and rape by fellow students, and, very graphically, her suicide. Given this wide chasm, what are some of the main critiques of the show and what problems does it engender?
While many are pleased to see representation and discussion of teen mental health and the rampant misogyny young women have to navigate during their crucial formative years, others have found the series rather problematic. The Ontario Ministry of Education is just one of the bodies to warn against it on the basis that “The material is graphic and potentially triggering for vulnerable young people.” New Zealand’s Office of Film & Literature Classification takes issue with its presentation of suicide as “fatalistic,” contending that “Suicide is preventable, and most people who experience suicidal thoughts are not thinking rationally and therefore cannot make logical decisions” . The British Board of Film Classification deemed it unsuitable for “those who are not adults.”
The latter statement by the British Board of Film Classification is perhaps missing the point. Netflix gave the series an 18 rating, a decision that seems largely facetious considering that the series is primarily about adolescents and they are in many ways its target audience (in fact, the series is based on a YA fiction novel). Furthermore, the series is undoubtedly triggering for those with mental health issues, but mental health issues are not an adolescent phenomenon—the series is just as problematic for adults as it would be for any teenager.
Despite these issues, 13 Reasons Why is engaging and its popularity is not entirely surprising. It’s character development is compelling and the storytelling is of the book-you-can’t-put-down kind. Nevertheless, it left me feeling uncomfortable and somewhat betrayed. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with this show is that, as a portrayal of mental health issues, it fails. Besides committing suicide, Hannah shows absolutely no signs—to others or in her own monologue—of being mentally ill. On the contrary, her suicide is presented as a reasonable response to outside stimuli. Her tapes— her take on the suicide note—are largely a form of revenge, and reveal nothing that would suggest that Hannah was suffering from anything other than pain caused by the actions of other people.
One of the main problems in this narrative supposedly about Hannah’s mental health is that we view her almost entirely through Clay’s perspective, and she functions primarily as his take on the manic pixie dream girl trope—the manic pixie dead girl. Hannah’s suicide is especially disturbing due to the way that it is used by the narrative. Hannah’s death is highly romanticised. Indeed, the scene follows a tape in which, due to a misunderstanding, she describes her belief that the boy she has a crush on will never reciprocate her feelings. She’s rhetorically positioned as a kind of Juliet figure, whose death could have been prevented had there been clearer communication with her Romeo, not to mention the fact that her death seems to leave her forever immortalised as beautiful and tragic. She is essentially the personification of an emo teenage girl meme (memo?). Not only does this trivialise all of the very serious problems she faces throughout the series, it glorifies suicide and those who commit it, making the series extremely dangerous for vulnerable viewers. The suicide scene itself is gratuitous, lingering for far longer than necessary, graphically focussing on the details, and again, is highly romanticised.
There are undeniably valuable elements to the series. It calls attention to the very serious issue of misogyny and sexual abuse; while many have considered this too shocking or adult for a teenage audience, these are issues teenagers experience, and hence issues that need platforms for productive discussions that include teenagers. Indeed, the misogyny teenage girls face nowadays is a different beast from that which anyone who was a teenager before the age of social media experienced. The technological capabilities provided by the internet and smartphones makes it so that bullies can work 24/7, that any social interaction can be tainted, and that a picture or a conversation can follow you everywhere you go. Furthermore, mental health awareness is crucial. We need frank and unstigmatised discussions about mental health issues that so many of us and our loved ones endure. But removing stigma is not the same as glorifying. Teenage girls, and the rest of us for that matter, need resources that empower with agency, coping mechanisms, and hope. This series, unfortunately, offers no serious alternatives to suicide for viewers who may be experiencing similar trauma; instead it presents suicide as, at best, a way to make life better for others (Hannah’s fellow students finally decide that they need to be better to each other following her suicide), and at worst, a way to enact revenge on those who have wronged you.
Resources for people struggling with bullying, depression and/or suicidal thoughts:
- studentsagainstdepression.org is a website for students who are depressed, have a low mood or are having suicidal thoughts.
- bullying.co.uk is a website for both children and adults affected by bullying.
- samaritans.org (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com.
- www.depressionalliance.org is a charity for sufferers of depression, and has a network of self-help groups.
Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.