**TW: Mentions of sexual assault/abuse and suicide**
For fans of the popular YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, March 31st was an exciting day. Netflix released the much awaited televised adaptation of the book. At first, viewer response was overwhelmingly positive. The storylines and characters are complicated and complex, making it difficult to truly— in the typical sense— claim anyone as a hero or villain (besides Bryce Walker, of course). Everyone is complicit in bullying, victim blaming and general ignorance that sent the arc of events spiralling into its tragic ending. However, as the show started to gain more attention, criticism came about claiming that the show actually does more harm than good.
The first element of this critique, or maybe what’s necessary to understand the critiques of it’s display of suicide, is a phenomenon titled, ‘suicide contagion.’ Suicide contagion an explanation for the spike in suicide attempt rates any time a high-profile suicide is successful. The nature of how the show handles Hannah’s suicide (we watch helplessly as she cuts both of her wrists) is truly dangerous in its graphic portrayal. Though the show intends to de-romanticize the fantasy of suicide by dirtying it up through scenes that are hard to watch, those scenes can actually have the opposite effect— it can make the act of suicide more appealing to individuals who are already struggling with mental illness.
In addition, the show includes two very graphic rape scenes. Much like Hannah’s suicide, the scenes are very viscerally disturbing, the intention being to make a point about rape and rape culture. Both Hannah and her former best friend, Jessica Davis, are sexually assaulted by repeat-offender, Bryce Walker. Though the show does offer trigger warnings at the beginning of both episodes, and the story arc then focuses on the impact of those assaults on the victims (including instances of victim blaming), Constance Grady of Vox.com brings up the element of voyeurism and how that impacts the intention of those scenes.
Now, the show itself calls out our culture as one being centralized around the male gaze— this is highly present in film, in how female characters are objectified and eroticized, even in moments of sexual assault. There’s a twisted sense of voyeurism, of eroticization and though 13 Reasons Why avoids presenting the sexual assaults as anything other than rape, it begs the question of whether they needed to be shown in such graphic detail in order for us, as viewers (and Clay as the listener) to believe that they happened. As though the word of a victim isn’t enough.
On the other hand, maybe that’s part of the point. We, as a culture, find it very difficult to believe the reports of victims, and in turn, take action on those reports. Maybe these are instances in which our cultural mindset is set to “seeing is believing.” Maybe the point of those scenes it to make us think critically about how we perceive stories of sexual assault. Or, maybe (most likely) I’m placing my own bias and justifications on a show I really want to root for.
Overall, I enjoyed 13 Reasons Why from a storytelling and filmmaking perspective— I think the cinematography is beautiful, the editing is smart the stories and characters are complex. However, from a critical standpoint on its coverage of topics such as suicide, rape and bullying, I think we can do better. In my opinion, a huge contributor to the show’s failure to be truly impactful, is its failure to bring up a discussion about mental health and alternatives to suicide. Though it is clear that Hannah is likely suffering from a combination of different mental illnesses (depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.), the show poses no discussion about those topics, leaving the blame solely on bullying and not the emotional and mental impacts of bullying on the mind of a seventeen-year-old.
Additionally, despite the production’s attempt to distance itself from this awful truth, this is a story about a revenge suicide, painting it as something to be done as a means of getting back at people who have hurt you. Not to mention that it is highly lacking in alternatives to suicide such as getting professional help. While Hannah does reach out the guidance counselor, he is painted as someone who is entirely unqualified and incompetent, which is a dangerous portrayal to those seeking professional help for suicidal thoughts.
However, I do believe that though the show isn’t as successful in its intended impact, it is successful in creating discussions about how we view suicide in the media and it is successful in creating discussions about how to have better conversations.
Featured image here.