'13 Reasons Why': Suicide Controversy
I've heard so many stories about me that I don't know which is the most popular. But I do know which is the least popular: the truth.— Hannah, '13 Reasons Why'
First of all, I have to say, I loved 13 Reasons Why. Netflix's controversial show depicts a teenage girl's suicide, and its aftermath for everyone at her school. But even though I liked it, it can surely be said that some aspects of it are unsettling, problematic, and troubling to many people. The main question becomes, is this show respectfully calling attention to problems like teenage depression and bullying? Or, is it unhelpful and exploitative? Dangerous, even?
Let's get into it.
Spoiler Warning: Will Contain Spoilers. It is advised that you read this article AFTER watching the show (well, the first season, as of writing this article a second season has been announced, but not produced). Content Warning: '13 Reasons Why' contains graphic content that may be unsettling including handling the following topics: rape, bullying, stalking, harassment, depression, self-harm, and (obviously) suicide.
13 Reasons Why follows various characters dealing with the grief after their classmate Hannah killed herself. Hannah left an unusual suicide note, that causes a lot of trouble. This note takes the form of a personal letter to 13 people whose actions all played a role in her eventual decision to commit suicide.
This letter takes the form of her voice, recorded on a series of 13 cassette tapes.
The setting for this show is not the past (although it might just be because the book was written when cassette tapes were a thing).
Clay, our main viewpoint character, was Hannah's friend, coworker, and (it later comes out) boyfriend. He is severely broken up by her suicide. He discovers the tapes and listens to them looking for answers, but they lead him on a chase to try to get revenge on people who wronged Hannah, who are all named and shamed on the tapes. What follows is teen drama like you might see on any old teen soap opera, but also a genuine, heart-wrenching exploration of grief.
The show is making the case, I think, that what adults (and some teens) shrug off as "teenage angst nonsense" that shouldn't matter, to some teenagers going through that stuff, it DOES matter. And we should be listening.
This comment, from Entertainment Weekly's article on the announcement of Season 2 for this show, probably says what many of us are thinking:
"I feel so conflicted about this show. On the one hand, I think it can be a powerful warning to parents and teachers about the spiral of depression and suicidal thoughts. I think it can be a powerful warning to kids about how their behaviors impact others. But I also think this show does seem to portray suicide as a (successful) form of revenge, rather than pointless, irrevocable reaction. It makes a person's suicide the fault of survivors for their imperfections. It does not do enough to portray that these events are from Hannah's (sick, depressed) perspective and that many of the other characters had other perspectives and motives. That ALL kids suffer the slings and arrows of teenage life. It doesn't do enough to drive home the point that taking a single life is like destroying the entire world of not just yourself, but of so many others. It destroys her parents, Clay, Tony, and some of the characters whose mistakes were not worthy of this. So it's riveting, but really problematic."
So, the main problem identified by many who've watched the show is, the show seems to be unintentionally promoting suicide. Hannah's perspective is right, and an evil cabal of bullies are seen as in the wrong. Therefore, the show depicts suicide as a kind of glorious middle finger raised in righteous anger.
Obviously, the problem with this view is that depressed people should never be encouraged to commit suicide, they do not have a clear grip on reality, and self-harm is not a super-cool edgy way of dealing with bullies and peer pressure. Hannah was sick, but she is depicted as "woke" as the kids are calling it - that's a serious problem.
The question becomes, what else should we do? We should not, it is my firmest opinion, stop talking about suicide. We can't keep plugging our ears and shutting our eyes and pretending it doesn't happen just because talking about it is uncomfortable. We don't deserve to be comfortable in a world where so many young people are killing themselves due to bullying. We need to address every problem Hannah confronts on the tapes. Sure, the tapes have this "misery lit" problem of seeming like a compilation of yucky things that would not realistically all happen to one person unless she was super unlucky, but these things do happen to real people, and we need to be pro-active about confronting that.
How can a show talk about suicide though, balancing pressure to be responsible with pressure to be entertaining? As one comment on the EW article says,
"At this stage, they have stopped only just a hair shy of glorifying suicide. We know she is getting some level of justice/revenge in her death, and that was the fundamental goal of the tapes. If the show doesn't take a hard stance, future episodes run the risk of starting a proverbial epidemic. It doesn't mean we sweep it under the rug, but it does mean that when you tackle a subject as weighty as this, you can't just use it for entertainment. Look at Facebook live, and the string of suicides taking place on live videos. Teen suicide is a real problem, and the show has almost no responsible choice than to proceed in a very narrow way. And frankly, that kind of didactic storytelling is not entertaining (see later seasons of Glee)."
Almost no responsible choice? I agree that this show, by touching on an uncomfortable taboo topic, is going to have an uphill battle moving forward, trying to tell a good story in a responsible way without sounding like a damn phony after-school special.
One thing I'll give it credit for, is 13 Reasons Why so far has done something extraordinary in terms of writing a show that feels real and raw. It's not like an after-school special, but not like the worst of the worst "misery lit" fiction either. It does not fetishize pain, but it seeks to understand it. It does not "glamorize" suicide, but simply states it as a fact. A fact people need to hear, even if it makes them uncomfortable or upset. It tries to understand not only the hearts and minds of suicidal people, but it also studies in depth the people responsible for driving others to that unfortunate choice.
Whether you're upset by 13 Reasons Why and its style of depicting suicide as a "Scooby Doo mystery" as one person called it, you have to admit that it's reached a wide audience and gotten everyone talking about suicide, self-harm, depression, sexual harassment, stalking, homophobia, rape, and other issues, which are all important and worthy of serious discussion. We live in troubling times. That second comment I cite is correct - teen suicide is a serious problem. However it is depicted, it is important that someone has the balls to depict it.
There are, however, a few personal bones I have to pick with 13 Reasons Why:
- It's too simplistic. Hannah and Clay good, everyone else bad. It's implied that Hannah is an unreliable narrator, but anyone who doesn't believe Hannah in the story is a card-carrying villain.
- Hannah gave her school counselor a secret ultimatum: help me, or I kill myself.
- The school counselor could have helped Hannah without necessarily trying to force her to either pursue prosecution against Bryce, which would have made her bullying issues worse, or "get over it". I refuse to believe that even the most incompetent bumpkin who holds a school counseling license would use language like "get over it" to a rape victim!
- Like others have pointed out, the show depicts suicide as noble, and as a means of revenge against your enemies. It should not be seen that way.
Yet, I am not one for saying that Netflix should be considered responsible for copycat suicides inspired by this show. Who we should be blaming is the people responsible for making those children depressed, hopeless, and suicidal in the first place: their parents, their peers, their school counselors, their social circles. TV shows didn't create that depression in them. They probably would have killed themselves if that show hadn't existed - it just wouldn't have created the waves of controversy it created on social networks.
It kind of takes me back to the "post-Columbine media witch hunt" back in the late 90's that I remember, vaguely, even though at that age I was too young (8 or 9) to have consumed any of the "harmful" media blamed for the Columbine school shooting, including Marilyn Manson, the video game Doom, South Park, and so on. (I would eventually come to appreciate Marilyn Manson and South Park, but that's another story for another time.) Everyone wanted to blame some external, "demonic" influence on what was really a problem of teenage madness caused by isolation, neglect, and bullying. Doom didn't make people shoot up their school, and 13 Reasons Why didn't make kids kill themselves. Harmful impulses are deep, personal, intimate, coming from the self, the friends, the family; not simply the result of evil influences from "the media", which is a common bogeyman and scapegoat, allowing those actually responsible to shift blame away from themselves.
So while 13 Reasons Why will have to proceed very carefully in its next season, perhaps with future episodes making up for some of the show's more controversial aspects, I think it's mostly a good thing that this show is calling attention to many of the problems that young people (and even many adults) face.