A lot of buzz these days about 13 Reasons Why, the new book-to-Netflix adaptation about a teenager who kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining what led her to that point. I’ve heard praise for it and also, recently, a lot of criticism based on how the show treats suicide.
The show is basically what I said - a girl, Hannah Baker, kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why she did it. Her friend and would’ve-been-boyfriend Clay is the main character and we see things through his eyes as he listens to them and figures out this unwinding mystery of sorts. I was drawn into it almost immediately - not in the least due to the incredibly thick suspense and tension about it. It turns into this bat-shit crazy thriller set in a high school with this group of teenagers trying to keep those tapes hidden and save their own asses from the mysterious crimes that begin to unfold. I couldn’t help but be invested. It was exciting shit. I had to find out what was really going on.
What I did find was also a very well done and poignant show about the teenage experience, the isolation, the confusion - it had powerful and relatable themes, and it wasn’t just a show about suicide so much as it was a show about the whole experience of being in that world and going through these problems. The way the show tells these interwoven stories of escalating isolation, bullying, sexual assault and more is compelling and important to show on screen in some way.
Now, going forward - keep in mind that I have a fairly laissez-faire approach to art. I believe you should be able to talk about absolutely anything in your art if you're going about it with the intention of expressing a sincerely-held truth that you believe. That said, obviously opinions will vary on the execution of those things. That's where pretty much every discussion, debate, etc over film criticism and the meaning of films, especially in terms of important real-world topics, comes from.
This is an unreliable narrator story. We’re seeing things solely through the eyes of these kids, and a lot of it tends to ring true - as high school students, they don’t have the breadth of knowledge to recognize depression or see the long-term consequences of all their actions like the bullying. People can kind of suck and kids are mean to each other. The way the side characters are developed in the wake of the suicide is also excellently done, with a lot of attention to detail and important social commentary woven in there as well. And there are scenes of Hannah’s parents trying to reconcile what happened - they didn’t see the suicide coming either. It happens. No one thinks something like that is about to come their way. I can believe it.
What the show DOESN’T feature is a more in-depth look at Hannah’s own psyche or whatever it really was inside her that made her want to kill herself - the kind of deep depression or illness that, maybe, it could’ve been. So I get why that troubles people, because it seems on the surface like it’s trivializing or glamorizing suicide. But we don’t really see inside Hannah’s thoughts. We just hear her words on the tapes, and teenagers like her character are not fully formed in the way that they can rationally explain everything up front. That’s all we’ve got - it’s an unreliable narrator thing and it isn’t supposed to be the Truth, per se. I took this as a show about bullying and about the American teenage experience, with the suicide as a theme as well, but not as some way to explain or rationalize suicide - merely to present it as a stark fact of something that happens, without offering a true explanation, of which there usually is none. Sure, you get the tapes, which is an over the top and unrealistic thing, but it’s just used as a way to convey this story in an artful manner and move it along to get the point across.
Though I appreciate that people critique this aspect of it - some have said it’s sensational and teaches kids that after their suicide, they’ll be important; that sort of thing. It’s a fair argument. I am not sure how suicide should be handled in fiction. The best we can hope for is that it opens up the lines of discussion. Either you shouldn’t do it at all, or you should do it in such a way that discussion is encouraged. I think this did well for the latter. After watching the little featurette on Netflix, "Beyond the Reasons," I think the creators and cast were doing their best and I can side with them here.
And you can find a number of articles where mental health experts decry the show’s portrayal of suicide in that it could cause more suicides, or make it look fashionable or glamorous. I understand that. It's a thin line to walk. As I said, I’m not sure what the 100% reliable way to show these topics on screen is. In the final episode, they show this incredibly awful, graphic depiction of Hannah killing herself. The creators say they wanted to hammer home how suicide isn’t the right decision. Opponents say it could encourage more people, particularly young kids, to kill themselves. I think the existence of this scene, and the show, are enough to make the argument that this is exactly why we need to be more active in talking to kids and making sure this does not happen. We should be so open and honest about these topics that we can prevent as much of it as we can. That’s the value of this show and what good art about serious topics should aspire to do.
You should know what your kids are watching and you should talk to them about important stuff like bullying, rape, suicide, etc when applicable. 13 Reasons Why accentuates the reasons for that. I can understand the critiques of this show and I am not saying they’re not valid. In fact I think they’re part of the discussion I think is so important. Keep talking about this stuff.
The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
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