Why I have a problem with 13 Reasons Why

May 23, 2017
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If you haven’t heard of the controversy surrounding Netflix’s latest hit show, that rock you’ve been living under needs better WiFi.

13 Reasons Why has received wide acclaim from critics, and has been called Netflix’s best show in years. But it’s also elicited concerned reactions from parents, schools and mental health organisations worldwide. And in my opinion, this concern is more than justified – it’s necessary.

While a teen drama about mental health might seem refreshing and timely, the way 13 Reasons represents its central theme – suicide – is inaccurate and irresponsible.

The premise

For those of you who don’t know, 13 Reasons follows the story of Clay, a Californian high school student, whose classmate Hannah takes her own life prior to the first episode. But before her death, Hannah recorded seven cassette tapes dedicated to the thirteen people who “caused” her suicide – including Clay. As Clay listens to the tapes (at the excruciating rate of one side per hour-long episode), he discovers confronting and horrible things about his classmates.

As a narrative gimmick, it’s fairly compelling. As a portrayal of suicide, it’s obfuscatory bullshit.

The mindset

Hannah’s tapes – which serve as voice-over throughout each episode – are dry accounts of her negative experiences, laced with wit, irony and incisive critiques of their subjects’ personalities.

But the idea that a severely suicidal person will sit down to calmly and sassily record the history of their descent is highly inaccurate. Dr Fiona Shand, psychologist and research fellow at the Black Dog Institute, certainly doesn’t put much stock in it.

“It’s almost unheard of,” she tells Hijacked. “Most people are so distressed at the time that they make an attempt that they couldn’t possibly have the wherewithal to actually go through with that amount of planning and action. To be drawing trees and flowers on the cassette tape covers… All of those very deliberate and time-consuming actions seem highly unlikely.”

Beyond the tapes, the very notion of discrete ‘reasons’ that ‘cause’ suicide is flawed.

“This idea that it’s the actions of other people and the pain that you feel as a result of that that causes suicide is overly simplistic.”

But by 13 Reason’s logic, if you collect enough horrible experiences, suicide is not only a viable option, it’s a solid avenue for retribution.

This idea that it’s the actions of other people and the pain that you feel as a result of that that causes suicide is overly simplistic.

Suicide as revenge

Throughout the series, Hannah’s suicide is represented as an effective means of getting back at the people who wronged her, to teach them a lesson. It’s not a stretch to imagine that such a vision of suicide would be seductive to young, vulnerable people. Dr Shand found this aspect "worrying".

“You can still hear Hannah, it’s as if she’s still there… It was almost as if Hannah was watching her own revenge play out, and that’s unrealistic because she’s actually dead.”

Though, intellectually, the audience knows that Hannah is dead, her narrative presence gives the impression that suicide victims are able to witness and feel reconciled by events that happen after their death. By using Hannah’s voice to chastise her still-living classmates, the show distorts the finality of death on an emotional level.

Hannah’s death does eventually hit home – but in the most problematic way possible.

By using Hannah’s voice to chastise her still-living classmates, the show distorts the finality of death on an emotional level.

Graphic content ahead

In the show’s final hour, Hannah is shown taking her own life in a clear, unwavering close-up. Netflix might like to characterise the scene as “unflinching”, but depicting the means of suicide in such detail goes against recommended media guidelines. In Australia, the media are specifically discouraged from reporting on the means of a suicide – and for good reason.

“We know that whenever we talk about or portray very specific means of suicide,” says Dr Shand, “there is the risk of copycat acts.”

Surely, Netflix could have flinched a little.

Conversation starter

To be fair, 13 Reasons Why does have its merits. Its themes around rape culture in high schools, harassment, cyberbullying and sexual identity are both timely and reasonably accurate. Its central message seems to be that small, callous actions can have large, unintended consequences.

While that might be a worthy message, using suicide as a vehicle for it hasn’t quite worked. The writing does not have a sufficient grasp of suicide and the issues around it. It spends more time trying to be stylish and compelling than it does portraying suicide with the tact and nuance it deserves.

Defenders of the show – including Netflix and its consultants – have said that 13 Reasons will open up important conversations around mental health, an area plagued by stigma and silence.

But for all this talk of “having conversations”, the show doesn’t say anything new about mental health. In fact, it gets a lot of things wrong. Is it worth starting a conversation when the things you are saying compellingly misrepresent the issue? If I pen an essay arguing that babies are delivered by the stork, am I really contributing to the conversation around birth control?

We know that whenever we talk about or portray very specific means of suicide, there is the risk of copycat acts.

Selling stigma

Sure, TV shows don’t have to be 100 per cent accurate. But if you’re making a show concerning mental health, surely your first priority should be to not make things worse. I can’t help but think that this portrayal of suicide as a very public and vindictive action will add to the stigma of depressed and/or suicidal people as selfish and attention-seeking.

In the tapes, Hannah’s words are self-righteous, self-pitying and passive-aggressive. It worries me that a generation of young people will grow up with that as their defining experience of suicide victims.

I’m not arguing that this show should be banned. To borrow from JK Rowling, if you want to guarantee people will watch something, ban it. But I do think it needs to be said, over and again by many people, that 13 Reasons Why is not what suicidality looks or feels like. The show might be graphic, but it’s still a superficial yarn designed to entertain, not educate.

Time to change the tape.

If you or anyone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.


Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University.

Image: Netflix