13 Reasons Why: Binge Watch or Cringe Watch?
13 Reasons Why, based on best-selling author Jay Asher’s young adult novel, is one of the most popular web series of the year. The story revolves around a seventeen year old girl, Hannah Baker, who kills herself and posthumously seeks justice through a series of tapes left behind for those she held responsible for her death.
Prior to its airing, Netflix hired Dan Reidenberg of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, for his professional opinion. Reidenberg disapproved of the show. “Although it’s created a conversation about suicide, it’s not the right conversation,” he said.
Netflix responded with an additional graphic content warning before the first episode and a website: 13reasonswhy.info, dedicated to suicide prevention. The show was still aired, and the youth started devouring it like the latest drop by The Chainsmokers.
One commendable thing the show did is spark a worldwide discussion on topics such as cyber bullying, depression, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, suicide, that are otherwise deemed inappropriate for teenagers by adults, even as teenagers are living through it. Many schools and parents decided to put their heads together and educate themselves on the real life traumas faced by their children and how to help them deal with it.
Another eye-opener is the character of Bryce Miller. The rapist being portrayed as the friendly neighborhood jock makes you twice as wary of the people you surround yourself with. It wasn't Hannah or Jessica's fault for not being able to see through his facade. The show is a brutal reminder that just because it looks like a human and it talks like a human, doesn't mean it's human.
The writer, Nic Sheff, didn't shy away from defending his decision to graphically depict the suicide itself on screen.
“…When it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist’s suicide in 13 Reasons Why, I of course immediately flashed on my own experience. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like — to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.”, he wrote. “It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all - it’s a screaming, agonizing, horror.”
But what about those people who do not need reminding of suicide, of what rockbottom feels like?
The gratuitous suicide scene triggered many vulnerable teenagers and compelled some to relive their own past horrors whilst watching Hannah slit her wrists in the bathtub.
It doesn't end here. Stupid people on the internet are like cigarette shops on the pavements of Calcutta - they're everywhere. They were quick to create “Welcome to your tape” memes as a response to minor annoyances, hence trivialising depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, something that is pronounced more discreetly in our society than Voldemort’s name in the wizarding world.
The show completely overlooks Hannah's mental health, much to our disappointment, and focuses instead on playing the blame game, which makes it much harder to empathize with Hannah Baker.
In the end, it does more harm than good. Hannah seemed to receive everything in death she had hoped for - sympathy, lost friendship, and ultimately love. The series thus romanticizes suicide and instils in young impressionable minds the false idea that Hannah Baker gets the upper hand and lives on even after death through the tapes; as though life too comes with a second season.
The truth of this was realized when after the show's release, 23 years old Franco Alonso Lazo Medrano of Peru ended his life and left behind a note that included instructions with names of people selected to receive tapes he had previously recorded.
As noble as the intentions of the cast and crew may have been, 13 Reasons Why exploits adolescent issues and depicts suicide as an effective way of delivering comeuppance. I sincerely thank the show for adding a number of incredible songs such as Vance Joy’s Mess Is Mine to my playlist, but that is too big a price to pay for somebody’s life.