So there’s been a lot of controversy stirring on the Interwebs lately surrounding the televised adaptation of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, and as per usual, where there’s controversy, I insert my opinion.
13 Reasons Why tells the story of high school teen Hannah Baker, who commits suicide after a horrific series of events happens to her—from sexual harassment to betrayal to rape—and who leaves a box of tapes for the 13 people who played significant roles in her decision to end her life. It’s a powerful story that had me sobbing like a little baby more than once while I watched the Netflix series, and it has inspired a resurgence of conversation on the topics of bullying and teen suicide.
From what I’ve seen, people either love this show or they hate it. The biggest arguments I’ve seen against watching the show (usually stylized with witty titles like “13 Reasons Why Not”) are that it romanticizes suicide, and that it doesn’t actually provide solutions to prevent suicide or resources for treating depression and mental illness. I can see where these arguments are coming from, sure, but at the same time, I know with any topic as controversial as this one, you’ll never make your entire audience happy. So the question for me becomes, is there something of worth, something important that needs to be said, happening in this work? I believe the answer is yes, and I’ll tell you why (not in 13 reasons. Hopefully that’s okay).
Starting a Conversation
Does the show romanticize suicide? Perhaps a bit. Hannah taking the time to record 13 tapes, along with an elaborate plan for ensuring they are passed to the right people at the right time, does lend itself to fantasizing how those people will react to the part they played in her suicide once she’s gone. However, it’s also important to note that the tapes don’t always have that dramatic, guilt-ridden, life-changing affect Hannah seems to be going for. Numerous times throughout the series, the teens on the tapes deny their role in Hannah’s death that she places upon them. Some of them admit they could have been kinder to her, or that they messed up, but many of them (like Bryce, who never once admits his wrongdoing, or Courtney, who goes so far as to defend Bryce over supporting Hannah’s rape accusation) do not experience the life-changing epiphany that we would consider to be “romantic.” I believe this is important. It shows that while Hannah may have fantasized about the aftereffects of her death, they didn’t necessarily play out the way she envisioned them. We don’t get a nice, neat resolution wrapped in a bow, where everyone cries about how they hurt Hannah and they immediately change their lives forever. I think that’s important for the show’s teen audience to see.
It’s also worth noting that the show does not shy away from Hannah’s gruesome death scene. We are forced to stare unflinchingly while she ends her life, and it does not look pretty or painless. It looks ugly. I think that’s important, too.
Selena Gomez, the show’s executive producer, stated that the show had achieved its goal: to generate conversation about teen suicide. I would agree with that. The show is a story, not a documentary, which is why you’re probably not going to see as much of a discussion on the show about suicide prevention as you’d like. The point is to get viewers thinking and talking about it after the show.
I’d almost make the argument that this show is more important for parents of teens to watch than for teens themselves, since, like many of the parents in the actual series, a lot of adults are completely clueless as to what goes on the daily lives of their children, especially where technology is concerned. If you watch the show as a parent and think “There’s no way being a teenage girl is that brutal,” I have news for you. I have been there, and it is. The things Hannah experiences in this series are very, very real, even if they have been dramatized for our viewing pleasure. If you don’t want your teenager watching it, that’s fine. But I still think the show does achieve its purpose of generating conversation, and I think parents need to be the ones to actively begin that conversation with their children.
At one point near the end of the season, protagonist Clay Jensen makes a statement along the lines of, “It’s got to get better, the way we treat each other” (paraphrase). He doesn’t offer an actual solution; that’s not his job. Depression, bullying, and suicide are not issues that can be solved in a television series; that’s a job for parents and teachers and counselors and all of us real, living people who need to do a better job of loving and supporting one another. The show serves as a reminder of that responsibility. It’s not required to present all the answers.
In fact, I would argue that even those who are posting blogs about why you shouldn’t support this series are inadvertently doing exactly what Gomez and the writers hoped would happen because of the show—talking about suicide. Whether you agree or disagree with the show’s portrayal of Hannah’s experience, the fact remains that we are agreeing and disagreeing, which is a good thing. Let’s keep talking about it.
I could go on and on with this, but here’s the final point I’ll make. I can be okay with folks saying they don’t agree with the show’s portrayal of suicide. I can be okay with them recommending that impressionable young people not watch the show (though, admittedly, most of them are probably not seeing anything there that they have not already witnessed or experienced themselves). What I’m really not okay with is people saying stuff like “Well, that wasn’t my experience with depression, so this show is stupid,” or “Hannah is so whiny and dramatic.”
I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s offensive, but I guess I will. If you think the show is about a dramatic, whiny teenager, I’m going to go ahead and make an educated guess that your lack of empathy means these things never happened to you. Chances are, you grew up sheltered in private school or with super attentive parents or a solid support system of friends. If that’s the case, then awesome. So happy for you. But when you start playing in to the “it didn’t happen that way for me, therefore it doesn’t happen that way for anybody” fallacy, you lose the ability to love and support those who are actually hurting at this very minute, and who are hurt all the more by seeing your insensitive post calling their pain “dramatic” and “whiny.”
See, I was like Hannah in high school.
I have dealt with depression and anxiety my entire life, and during my teen years, I didn’t know what depression and anxiety were. I didn’t know what to call them. I didn’t know how to treat them. I endured bullying and abusive relationships that tried to rob me of my self-worth and almost succeeded. I did not endure rape, thank God, but I know people who did. I did experience friendship betrayals. I experienced suicidal thoughts. I experienced sexual harassment from guys, whether that be getting my rear grabbed by random strangers passing in the hallway from age 13 onward, or being asked personal sexual questions by random classmates and teased if I refused to answer, or being catcalled or objectified—all at ages when my brain was still developing, and I did not have the emotional maturity or perspective to articulate what was happening to me and why it bothered me. And these are just the things I feel comfortable enough to mention on the Internet.
I came out on the other side stronger for these experiences. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t times when the darkness threatened to consume me. I felt like Hannah so many times during high school (and let’s be real, sometimes still do). Those feelings did not end in suicide for me, and I can only thank God for that. But I relate to Hannah’s experiences too much to invalidate them. To call them “dramatic.”
It’s really easy to look back on high school and put people down for the way they felt. When you are in high school, though, that’s all there is. That’s all you know.
It Does Get Better
If you are a teen (or heck, anyone of any age dealing with depression or bullying or suicidal thoughts), I want you to know that your feelings are completely valid. I want you to know that it will not always feel this way, and that things do get better. Reach out to me. I don’t care if you know me or not. I care about you, and I’ll help however I can. And if you need immediate help, please, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
If you are a parent or an adult, the best thing you can do for the young people in your life is to support them and make them heard. That doesn’t happen with condescending Facebook statuses. That happens with real conversation—the kind that, I think, 13 Reasons Why has successfully sparked.
Conversation leads to awareness and understanding. Understanding leads to empathy and love. We could all do with a little more love in the world.
So as long as conversation is happening, I think we’re on the right track.