Warning: this piece discusses suicide, rape, depression, and other potentially triggering experiences in detail.
At the beginning of the month, Netflix dropped their most internet popular show to date: 13 Reasons Why. It’s based on a young adult book of the same name and tells the heartbreaking story of a high school girl who takes her own life. Initial internet reactions were positive—it’s about time YA television portrayed the harsh realities of teen life. But almost three weeks later, the hype is fading, and eyes are opening.
I went into the series with high hopes—I read the book in middle school, and producer Selena Gomez is one of my semi-problematic faves. It starts off with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) receiving a set of 13 cassette tapes in the mail. They were recorded by classmate Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) before she committed suicide to identify those she deemed responsible. Jensen—who’s reminiscent of Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Charlie Kelmeckis —is included on the list, but he has to listen to them all to find out why. The story relies heavily on flashbacks of Baker, many of which are very graphic. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety, I found myself in a bad place by the end of the season.
But it’s the portrayal of Baker and the events that led up to her tragic decision that make this show especially dangerous. In the last few episodes, two rape scenes and the suicide itself are explicitly shown—with appropriate warnings in the first couple seconds of the episode. Mental health experts are criticizing this depiction as one that might actually increase suicides. As one Facebook friend of mine phrased it, the show is “trauma porn.” Its goal was to raise awareness for mental illnesses, but for people with mental illness, all it does is bring back memories they don’t want to remember.
In fact, 13 Reasons glorifies suicide. No alternatives or help lines are mentioned, and everyone Baker reaches out to shuts her down, sending the message to viewers that no one will help them. Even the school guidance counselor shames Hannah and rationalizes a rape committed by a student. It isn’t until she dies and leaves the tapes that justice is finally served; the bullies get called out, administration is forced to confront their issues, and a lawsuit is filed by her parents against the school. Some might even see her suicide as a heroic sacrifice that brought much-needed attention to important issues in the community. A teenager watching this show might even identify with Baker to an unhealthy level—the show’s portrayal of high school hits the nail on the head. A fellow Beacon staff editor said she read the book in high school while struggling with depression, and it actually made her suicidal thoughts even more frequent. When the only seemingly effective option that’s shown is death, what is a suicidal student to think?
The last few episodes are centered around Jensen battling his own demons and fighting for Baker—a sentiment that can’t help but feel like too little, too late. It was almost a relief to finally see someone besides Baker’s parents so emotionally affected by her death. However, the show ends on a cliche coming-of-age drive in a bright red vintage car with—of course—an ‘80s song blasting through the stereo. The camera focuses on Jensen smiling out of the window, his first moment of peace since the show began, zooms out from the city, and fades into black. It’s a beautiful ending for any young adult show, but this is not a regular young adult show. Jensen satisfying his guilty conscience and developing his own confidence is not what the story is about. Quite frankly, I don’t really give a shit. Baker is still dead, and at least two others might be. What happened to the raw, uncomfortable scenes? Suicide doesn’t have a happy ending. Giving it one is irresponsible.
But none of this compares to the memes floating around social media. Jokes about Baker being sensitive, quotes from the show (“Welcome to your tape,” “It’s Hannah, Hannah Baker,” etc.), and even posts fangirling over Justin Foley, an attractive asshole, are everywhere online. On the outside, this might seem like a simple case of the internet just being its problematic self, but it’s more than that. On April 17, Netflix clapped back to a shady Hulu tweet with “Welcome to your tape.”
Making light of such a harsh, real, permanent situation—whether this particular scenario was fictional or not—undermines the seriousness of it. With the show’s producer joining in on the “fun,” it’s obvious 13 Reasons did nothing more than show relatable high school scenes and some explicit violence.
Every day, over 5,420 teenagers attempt suicide in the United States, and it’s no secret that Emerson also has almost twice as many cases of mental illness than the national average. As a school of artists, we’ll be creating these shows. Some of us already are. It’s important to remember that the best intentions aren’t good enough.
If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Appointments with Emerson’s Counseling and Psychological Services can be made by phone (617-824-8595) or in person. The after-hours crisis service is available at 617-824-8595. There is always another option.