13 Reasons Why - Taking on the Tough Issues
Posted on May 20, 2017

13 Reasons Why – Taking on the Tough Issues

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***I want to put a disclaimer that the following post contains spoilers for the series 13 Reasons Why and talks about suicide. ***

 

At the end of March, Netflix released the series 13 Reasons Why based off of the book by Jay Asher with the same name. For those unaware, 13 Reasons Why is about a high school teen Hannah Baker who commits suicide. Shortest explanation ever right? It’s not entirely that simple. Before Hannah’s death, she created 13 tapes. Each tape correlates to a person she holds responsible for her death. The tapes are left with specific instructions to be passed from person to person with each person being forced to listen to all 13 tapes. Disregarding these instructions will lead to dire consequences in the form of a second set of tapes being released publicly. We follow Clay, a mild mannered somewhat socially awkward teen, as he has his turn with the tapes.

The world became infatuated by Hannah Baker and the reasons that she chose to end her life. I too got sucked into the fold. Intrigued by the content and the rationale, I finished the series within a week. Throughout my time watching my emotions ranged from anger to understanding, from sadness to rage. I’ve been seeing a lot of articles out there about how 13 Reasons Why “glamorizes” suicide. How it makes suicide seem like the easy way out of a tough situation. I don’t think those people truly understood the message of the series. There’s a lot more to this story than what’s on the surface.

Devil’s Advocate

Okay, I get it. Any show depicting suicide is generally not good for the psyche. And Hannah did do her best to really stick it to the kids who were mean to her. My initial feelings of anger were at her choice to develop a running record of others’ mistakes. I mean, Hannah was slighted in those early tapes, no doubt. But who’s to say that those kids weren’t suffering in their own kind of way? Hannah didn’t know their story, not really anyway. And I felt like the tapes were so unfair to those people. How scarring would it be to receive a tape about how you were the cause of someone to end their life. How do you expect that person to live with themselves? To be honest, I still don’t agree with Hannah’s choices. I would like to put on the record that I DO NOT condone suicide in ANY way. And I most definitely don’t agree with the way that she blamed that decision on other people.

I can see how people might think that Hannah is reaching out for one last bid for attention. I mean after all, she could have written a note. She could have written 13 letters to be given to everyone. Or she could have gone quietly. But instead, she chose one last big hurrah, essentially giving the bird to everyone as she departed the world. Uncool, Hannah, uncool.

Understanding

I predicted I would dislike the series. I expected to pity Hannah and her over-dramatic high school experience. What I didn’t expect was to identify with her. Hannah’s story begins with a rumor. A rumor that implies she is sexually promiscuous, a title that follows her throughout her days in high school. Boys start to objectify her, breaking her down into attractive attributes and consistently commenting on her physique. The longer it continues, the more brazen these young men get; following her, rating her, and eventually touching her. There comes a point where Bryce, the typical high school popular jock, runs into her at a convenience store and takes it upon himself to grab her ass, commenting on how “tight” she’s keeping everything. My blood ran cold and suddenly I was Hannah.

I can remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in my high school pottery class feeling so hopeless and alone. See, rumors start out with a shred of truth. And then that truth gets mangled and twisted and evolves into something that is bigger then you could ever reign in. I had a rumor circulate about me my senior year. A rumor that started out with a bit of truth and then somehow morphed into something I couldn’t control. Denying it only made it seem more true, and the friends that I had counted as my closest confidants were the one’s spreading the poison. A boy approached me. A boy who’s reputation was renowned. He made a comment about wanting to find out if the rumors were true, gave me a wink, and commented on how I was keeping my body “tight”. He never touched me, but he didn’t have to. Those words that were laced with sexual implications made me feel cheap and ashamed. Ashamed of something that wasn’t even true.

In that moment, when Hannah runs out into the street tears streaming down her face, I got it. I understood what she was feeling in that moment. That feeling of hopelessness and anger and shame.

 The Tough Topics

13 Reasons Why brings up the tough issues that teens are dealing with today. Issues of consent, substance abuse, depression, and consequences. The idea that social media is a thing that lives forever. A rash decision, sending out a mass text, can have far reaching ramifications.  But the intent isn’t to romanticize these issues, the idea is to shed light on them. The more we don’t talk about these problems the more power they have. It’s important for people to not only hear that starting rumors is bad, but to see how one rumor can set so many other things in motion that you don’t even realize at the time. 13 Reasons Why is a starting point to a conversation that every teen needs to have. Shit, I know some adults who could use a lesson or two in these concepts. Tough topics are tough for a reason, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

13 Reasons Why - Taking on the Tough Issues

Romance of Suicide

Hogwash. Complete hogwash. Hannah’s situation builds and builds and by the time she makes the decision she feels like she has nowhere left to go. Does she? YES! Hannah is not a perfect person. And there are many areas, when watching the series, where Hannah could have reached out for help. Even when Hannah did reach out for help, she didn’t really give it her all. The creators of 13 Reasons Why in no way make suicide out to be this happy, relaxing event.

From the beginning, you are privy to her parents’ suffering. You see how devastated they are, desperately searching for answers as to why their daughter is no longer with them. Her friends, the friends that she didn’t even realize that she had are in utter turmoil. Clay, the boy who loved her, is literally losing his mind with grief and regret. The subjects of her tapes are filled with remorse. Suicide is not pretty. And high school is hard for everyone. It’s hard to see when you’re in it. You’re only focused on your pain, your suffering, your woes. But everyone around you is battling their own demons. Demons that you don’t even know exist.

After the last episode of 13 Reasons Why there is a little behind the scenes short with the directors and producers where they discuss their reasons for creating the series and some decisions as to why they did things the way that they did. One scene that held a lot of emotion and trepidation from the creators was the scene where Hannah commits suicide. They wanted you to be uncomfortable. We watch Hannah get in the bathtub, gather her courage, and fairly graphically slit her wrists. There is no glamour in that. Nothing is rosy and happy. We watch Hannah die scared and alone. And to make it all worse? We watch her parents find her.

Parting Thoughts

I had a lot of emotions while watching 13 Reasons Why. Watching Hannah in that final scene made me cry uncontrollably. I wanted so badly to just reach out and tell her that she’s not alone. That there is life after high school. It really does get better! Those jerks, will grow up and get fat and go bald. Trust me, honey, you will win in the end.

13 Reasons Why - Taking on the Tough Issues

I don’t see the need to villainies the show. On the contrary, I think it brings about some very  relevant social issues that all teens need to be aware of. Talking about these issues and illustrating them in a real way gets the conversation started. It’s up to us to continue pushing for more awareness on these topics.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, then you are not alone! Please reach out to someone for help. If you don’t feel comfortable going to a person then please call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 for free confidential help. If you would feel more comfortable then there is a Lifeline Chat that is available 24 hours. You are an important person and the world is a better place with you in it. You matter! And I would really like to get to know you.

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  • Kay

    I get so frustrated with critics who say this show is ‘glamorizing suicide’ because I assume they clearly haven’t watched the show. To me, this show could not be LESS glamorous. It’s painful, and uncomfortable, and ugly to watch. Exactly as it should be.

    I loved this show, for so many reasons, and I definitely want to write up a post about it now! I think the biggest thing I didn’t expect was to be angry at Hannah, but I was. And it seemed very purposeful. I too, thought it would be a dramatic slog where you pity Hannah the whole time, very ‘woe is me’ cliches. But it’s so complex, and while there many times I DID pity Hannah, I also got angry at her decisions and choices. That was unexpected but very powerful, and I really appreciated the complexities there.

    • Heather Marie

      Yes Kay! I totally agree! I felt so much anger at her initially and then with the finality of everything. There were plenty of moments where my heart went out to her and I pitied her, but that wasn’t the case most of the time.

      I’m happy to hear that there is someone else out there who appreciated the series for what it was. I felt that it was very powerful, like you said. Very moving in a way that I didn’t expect to come from a television series.

  • Michelle Anneliese Stallings

    I’m not a fan of this show and have many, many issues with it. And when talking to people who actually experience suicidal thoughts, self harm, sexual assault, etc they find the content triggering and see the issues it holds. My biggest issue is the complete lack of care towards the audience. There is no warnings (like you listed at the end of your post) to help someone. The show makes you hurt and leaves you that way with no help. I won’t reach and say it’s a glamorization of suicide, because it is gritty and dark and not romantic. But the show doesn’t take steps to help their audience after they watch, and that is my issue. Can the show theoretically start a conversation, sure. But the show itself doesn’t help it’s viewers aid themselves if they are experiencing these issues, and that is a major problem.

    And many people are seeing through your devil’s advocate view. That’s what they usually mean when critics say it’s “glamorizing” suicide, because it makes it looks like a way to cause revenge to people that hurt you, and some teenagers might view it that way. I think the glamour portion is because of Hannah and her choices, not the actual suicide scene.

    • Heather Marie

      I understand where you’re coming from. I believe that they do try and give a warning, for the particularly graphic episodes, on what it contains and that it may be disturbing for some viewers. I do agree, however, that there could be more done to aid in outreach for people feeling that intense feeling.

      As a person who has dealt with suicidal thoughts, self harm, and sexual assault, I found the content upsetting, yes, but I also appreciated it for depicting it in such a real way. There wasn’t any prettying it up for audience consumption. I think it’s important for someone who HASN’T experienced any of that to see a more accurate depiction of what it looks like from the inside.

      I thought the directors/producers did a good job of showing that suicide isn’t glamorous. If you look at the series as a whole (not even looking at the suicide itself), I think they showed that Hannah was flawed and that she hurt so many people around her by making the decision that she did. She hurt friends, her parents, teachers. They showed how far reaching the effect of her suicide had on people, negating any glamour in retribution that people might be taking away.

      There’s a lot that could be done better in terms of outreach for people who are having thoughts of self-harm/suicide/dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault, but for the nature of the content presented I thought they did a pretty damn good job.

  • Mariah Kaercher

    As I read Michelle’s comment below, she summed up my thoughts about the show so I won’t repeat what’s already well written.

    That being said with the tapes, I think to the man who assaulted Hannah, I have absolutely no sympathy for him being on the tapes. If you rape someone, you are not a decent person and you did something despicable so I have no sympathy for him. To other people on the tapes, I have more sympathy especially Clay. High school students are incredibly immature and I was one of them at one point in time. They don’t always do the right thing, but as we grow we learn from our mistakes.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents and I’m not sure if I will make time to watch this, but I might rent the book from the library first.

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