“13 Reasons Why”: Helpful or Harmful?
Note: This article contains spoilers for “13 Reasons Why” and possible triggers.
This year’s latest phenomena is Netflix’s first season of “13 Reasons Why,” based off of Jay Asher’s 2007 book. The show follows the basic premise of the book. Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why she killed herself. Each tape is dedicated to a specific person who contributed to her death. The person on the first tape passes them on to the person on the second tape, and so on. To ensure each person listens to the tapes, Hannah designated her friend Tony to guard a second set of tapes and release them if anyone breaks her rules. While the story is mainly narrated by Hannah, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is our other protagonist, and we follow him as he listens to the tapes and confronts the other people on them.
Many of the show’s viewers read the book in high school and were prepared for what they would see in the first season. The first series remains fairly true to the book, with some necessary changes due to an extended timeline. These changes include things like giving the background characters more detailed lives and having Hannah’s parents file a lawsuit against the school, possibly to set the foundation for a second season. Another important change was having Hannah commit suicide by slitting her wrists instead of taking pills. This change, and the series itself, evoked various responses from viewers, with some arguing that the show could contribute to the youth suicide rate, and others claiming that the show will help youth recover from similar situations.
Erin Stewart explains one side of the issue in an article for Junkee. She discusses the phenomena of “contagion,” which says that young people are more likely to attempt suicide if they know someone else who has. The article goes on to say that, when addressing suicide, the method used should not be referenced because “research has shown that graphic and/or sensational portrayals of method can increase suicide risk among audiences.” Other articles agree with this position, including one that crudely states that “watching Hannah Baker cut her wrists in High Definition isn’t doing anything for youth suicide prevention.”
While we have to acknowledge and consider these concerns, not all viewers feel the same way about the show. Writing for Cosmopolitan, Lauren Hoffman shares her own experiences as a suicidal teen and explains her take on the show. She believes that the show should have focused more on showing compassion and empathy to Hannah, which might help teens struggling with depression or just teach them how to interact kindly with one another. Similarly, Selena Gomez, who worked as the show’s executive producer, said that the project was very personal for her after she opened up about her struggle with depression and anxiety largely due to her diagnosis of lupus. She hopes that teens will connect to the real portrayal of issues that many of them have experienced and that they will become more understanding of others.
Another debated element throughout the show is sexual assault. In the first season, it is revealed that Hannah and her friend Jessica were both raped by the same boy. These, and other instances of sexual assault, revealed some of the problems with things like consent and victim-blaming. While The Huffington Post commended the show’s realistic and disturbing depiction of rape, it also stated that any explicit depiction of rape can help to normalize it. One of the other changes made to the show was that Clay records a confession from Bryce, the rapist. Although this seems noble at first (and it creates a plot for a second season), it also makes Clay seem like the male savior and somewhat devalues what happened to Hannah by turning the story into one about seeking justice. Some reviews have said that this simplifies the very complex issue of suicide and puts too much focus on Bryce as the cause of Hannah’s death. This pushes aside factors like depression, which is never truly addressed in the show.
So, while the book and the show had the potential to reach out to teens in situations like Hannah’s, did it accomplish that? Could its graphic depiction of suicide cause increased suicidal ideation amongst teen viewers, or will it push them to seek help? Potentially, these questions will be addressed if the show is renewed for a second season; however, it may only serve to take the focus off of the issues the book was originally designed to examine. If you have seen or read “13 Reasons Why,” share your thoughts about how the story could help or hurt teens struggling with depression, bullying, or suicidal thoughts.
Note: “13 Reasons Why” raises many tough topics. If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with someone on their website.