Editor's note: This article is based on a complete viewing of Netflix's show 13 Reasons Why. As such, spoilers will be discussed without any warning save for this one. So, spoilers ahead.
Unless you live under a rock, you have heard friends rave about Netflix’s most tweeted-about show ever: 13 Reasons Why. The show centers on a high school junior, Clay, whose friend Hannah recently committed suicide and left behind 13 tapes explaining why. This hard-hitting teen drama confronts suicide head-on by showing audiences the positive and (particularly) negative effects that people’s actions can have on someone else’s life. Actions, in the show, are like the butterfly effect: small ones, be they good or bad, quickly stack up. Therefore, we must treat everybody carefully, or else our little actions could have monumental consequences. As our protagonist says in the last episode, “It has to get better; the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.”
This is not a bad message. I'd even argue it's a good one. The show says it forcefully: we should be careful about how we treat our fellow human beings. It is true that we never know what is going on in someone else’s life, and we should aim to be kind and compassionate to all we encounter.
The problem is, the show seems to stop here.
I'll summarize, thesis-style, how 13 Reasons Why misses the mark: first, consciously or not, it ends up victimizing Hannah and blaming her suicide on everyone else in her life. Secondly, the show provides nearly no hope for anyone else dealing with the mental and emotional demons that she was burdened with.
Let me clarify myself for a second. Was Hannah in a lot of ways a victim? Absolutely. She was the victim of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, gossip, bullying, physical abuse, and multiple sexual assaults. She endured humiliation, isolation, and violence. Each and every one of these instances was in no way her fault, instigated by her, or "allowed." I am not victim blaming or saying, in any way, that she "asked for it." Hannah was indisputably wronged, horribly; some of the scenes were particularly difficult to watch.
On multiple occasions, though, 13 Reasons has people blame themselves for “killing” Hannah. At one point, our main character, Clay, asks his friend, “Did I kill Hannah Baker?” and his friend says yes! Interestingly, the only times you'll hear the show mention that the suicide was Hannah’s choice is when it comes out of the mouths of the show’s bad guys--her abusers. Her rapists. Her bullies. If anyone claims that Hannah was being dramatic and overreacted, we as the audience were strongarmed into ignoring these claims because they were sandwiched by horrible people doing horrible things. 13 Reasons Why instead has its good characters blame themselves for Hannah's death, and we as the audience are supposed to agree. The show seems to suggest that the only way for people to never commit suicide again in the future is if everyone else learns to read everyone else’s minds constantly, to know when "no" really means "yes," to understand when "get the hell away" means "please stay and figure me out," and to never make any mistakes or address when someone has hurt you.
Wait on your heroes to come and save you, 13 Reasons suggests, because your life is in the hands of those around you.
This is problematic.
People make mistakes. People hurt each other. We live in a broken and hurt world where though we should always try to be kind to each other, we can never know the effect our actions will have. Clay has moments in the show when talking to Hannah where he says completely harmless things, but they still affect her in a dramatic way. Hannah doesn’t admit this to Clay when she is alive, but blames him and torments him for it in her postmortem confessions. Hannah one time yells at Clay to “Get the f*** out!”, and after the third time she yells this through tears and rage, he finally obeys. Later in her tapes, she blames Clay for leaving, saying maybe he could’ve saved her if he had ignored her and stayed. She never spoke out and said she was hurting. She never asked for help. Hannah wanted Clay to read her mind. That is a harmful and unrealistic standard to hold a person to, and a downright cruel thing to hold over their head after her death.
By giving someone intent on playing the victim the last word and the final say, we give no hope to those hurting--to everyone feeling the way Hannah does. By expecting others to perfectly make her happy all the time, Hannah put herself in a place where she couldn’t ask for help. She made up a narrative where anyone who had hurt her in the tiniest way (her parents, friends, the school counselor) not only couldn’t help her, but was out to get her. She refused to tell people how she was feeling and refused to ask for help. There is one sliver of hope at the very end of the show where Hannah talks to the school counselor. Hannah starts to open up about her hurt, but when the counselor says one wrong thing, she bolts. He messed up, and therefore, she can’t be saved. Because other people couldn’t make her happy, Hannah felt she had no hope in life.
And this is the real tragedy the show preaches: if you are depressed, bullied, or hurting, there is no help for you. Unless everyone around you comes to your rescue, there is no way to escape suffering except through death.
Tragically, the show actually glorifies Hannah’s suicide because it works. Hannah killing herself turns out to be the key to successfully shaming everyone in her life; her suicide is the act that incites justice; her tapes are the gospel by which truth is established. She torments the living--including Clay, whom she said on his tape shouldn't have been included in the first place--through her death. She manipulates the people she'd interacted with while she was alive and facilitated their own meanderings into depression, isolation, and paranoia. She succeeded in hurting those who had hurt her, thus exacting her final vengeance. What a hopeless message to give to anyone who has ever felt Hannah’s despair. The show says that not only are friends, and family, and professional help useless, but suicide is actually useful for getting what you want.
And the show emphasizes this point by ending in another (attempted) suicide. One of the students that Hannah torments after her death, Alex, ends up being so overwhelmed by the burden of his past and the tapes that Hannah left that he shoots himself. Alex also felt that he had no one to talk to, no other choice, no hope. And the show provides none.
Furthermore, the show paints counselors and therapists as bumbling idiots. It declares parents oblivious old people. It shows peers as nothing but insensitive bullies. The show gives its audience no solution to perfectly justified pain Hannah felt aside from death.
13 Reasons Why had so much potential to speak beneficially on an important issue. It had the chance to examine debilitating mental illness in an honest and beneficial way but instead decided only to justify self-victimization--this is part of what makes it such a dark exploration of an already dark topic. It had the chance to demonstrate to those hurting how suicide is not the only answer, but instead it made suicide the perfect solution: in the scene leading up to her final act, melancholic, yet mildly triumphant music plays in the background as we watch Hannah speak her final words into her tape recorder washed by beautiful, yellow sunshine.
This show did a frankly impressive job of leaving the audience with the desire to go and be nice to the people around them, but that's about it. It squandered every chance to demonstrate to those suffering from the unspeakable desire to not be here anymore all the resources available to deal with their depression, apathy, and isolation, but instead, it portrayed those outlets as useless and empty. Rather than give hope to the hurting, the show painted a world of guilt, shame, regret, and nothing more.
A note from the CBC:
According to Mental Health America, 1 in 5--more than 40 million--adults, alone have a mental health condition. Healthline reports that 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and 16 million American adults had a major depressive episode in 2012.
This is not including the statistics on Middle- and High-School students.
Please know that you are not alone, that you are not "abnormal," and you are not beyond hope if you feel this way. We are glad that shows like 13 Reason Why are bringing mental health issues into the mainstream conversation because we believe everyone who needs help should be able to get it.
If you or someone you know suffers from:
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Eating Disorders
- Physical Abuse
- Emotional Abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Relationship Issues
or anything else that impedes your mental well-being, help is right next to you. If you text the word "CONNECT" to 741741, you will instantly be connected to a professional from the Crisis Text Line who can take you from a "hot moment" to a "cool calm" entirely confidentially and for free. They can also help you find the professional help you need to help prevent further episodes down the road.
-The CBC Staff