“Thirteen Reasons Why” … Or Why Not: A Point/Counterpoint

13 Reasons Why
art by Carrie Ou

Based on Jay Asher’s novel published in 2007, Netflix’s “Thirteen Reasons Why,” aired on March 31, 2017, emphasizes how serious teenage bullying and suicide can be. Viewers follow Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a junior attending Liberty High School, as he listens to the 13 cassette tapes Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) left before she took her own life. She dedicates each tape to a different person who drove her closer to her decision to commit suicide. On the tapes, she recalls instances of sexual harassment, rape, slut-shaming, and vicious rumors.

The anti-bullying message behind “Thirteen Reasons Why” is prominent and powerful, but the way it is presented is controversial. Some believe that the series glorifies suicide, presenting it as an ‘easy way out’ to teenagers going through troubles similar to Hannah’s. So, is “Thirteen Reasons Why” a revolutionary, powerful show, or is the backlash well-deserved?

 

Point: Netflix’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” adeptly tackles the subject of suicide and makes for a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece.

by Dina Hedeisha

There was a lot of buzz when Netflix released season one of “Thirteen Reasons Why.” With American actress and singer Selena Gomez as its producer, it’s not surprising that so many people were excited to watch the series. The series has much more than a famous celebrity producer, however. “Thirteen Reasons Why” tells the riveting, tragic story of Hannah Baker by walking us through the cassette tapes she left behind as an explanation for her suicide.

While suicide is a heavy subject, the plot of “Thirteen Reasons Why” weaves in Hannah Baker’s star-crossed lover to lighten the plot. It was a smart decision on the part of the writers and directors to focus more on this relationship than Hannah’s suicide. Had “Thirteen Reasons Why” been solely about Hannah’s suicide, it would have been too dark for most audiences to stomach.

Clay’s presence gives viewers something to hold onto and root for throughout the show, which may have kept them watching despite the graphic and upsetting scenes. Clay’s heartbreak may also have an impact on viewers who may be having thoughts of suicide because it shows the impact suicide can have on loved ones. Many people contemplating suicide believe that the world would be better off without them, and Clay’s regret over failing to tell Hannah he loves her while she was still alive may give people hope that they do mean something to someone.

There is a lot of uproar over the graphic scenes in the series, especially the scene of Hannah Baker’s suicide. Some believe that since these scenes can be triggering and should not have been included. However, a trigger warning is included at the beginning of each episode that contains a graphic scene, with a brief description of what exactly may be triggering. Those who continue watching do so at their own discretion.

In addition, the graphic portrayal of Hannah’s suicide, including her mother’s initial reaction to finding her body, conveys a more powerful message because it emanates the permanence of suicide and the effect it can have on loved ones.

When Hannah seeks help from her school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), he dismisses her problems and does not offer any substantial emotional support. People criticize this depiction of Mr. Porter and believe it to be unfair, but it is true to reality. People contemplating suicide usually do seek some sort of help; according to Mental Health America, 64 percent of people who attempt suicide visit a doctor the month before their attempt.

This reality will allow schools and health professionals to expand the resources available to teenagers with depression or suicidal thoughts. As screenwriter Nic Sheff puts it, “Facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life.”

The message behind “Thirteen Reasons Why” goes beyond a simple “don’t bully.” It sheds light on the harm bystanders can cause. There were many instances of bystanders in the series. For example, Hannah and Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) stayed silent while Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) raped Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) at a party. Clay didn’t say anything when the slut-shaming rumors of Hannah spread around the school.

The truth is, silence is just as harmful as bullying; if you’re not against the bully, you’re often complicit.

 

Counterpoint: Netflix’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” treats the subjects of mental illness and suicide irresponsibly, destroying all of the show’s potential.

by Victoria Huang

There is no argument that “Thirteen Reasons Why” does not bring attention to suicide; however, this attention may cause more harm than good. There is a reason why suicide awareness groups across the nation have expressed concerns about the show.

There are many problems with the show—the biggest one being the lack of attention on mental disorders and illnesses. Whether the directors or writers of the show avoided the subject of mental illness on purpose or not, it comes off as careless and irresponsible for them to miss such a prominent factor in Hannah’s downfall.

Furthermore, “Thirteen Reasons Why” idealizes and glorifies suicide. As Dan Reidenberg, the executive director for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), says, “Young people are going to over-identify with Hannah in the series, and we actually may see more suicides as a result of this.”

The show depicts Hannah committing suicide as a form of revenge, since the series shows her leaving the tapes behind for the people who hurt her to show them what they did to her. This is detrimental and undermining to people who struggle from suicidal urges, as entertainment journal “The Edge” notes, “It perpetuates a ‘suicide as revenge’ mentality, a message of getting justice against everyone who wronged her.”  

I’m not one to victim-blame because it is certain that Hannah has had an impossibly rough time from her peers that she blames in her tapes, but the show almost vilifies her. The tapes she records explaining why she killed herself will make viewers question exactly why she chose to do that.

There are many graphic scenes in the show which can trigger people who have had similar experiences or have thought about doing the things Hannah has done. Though some people favor these scenes because they’re realistic, they almost seem like a how-to guide to suicide when the show explicitly shows how Hannah takes her own life.

A Stuyvesant junior who would prefer to be left anonymous feels strongly about these graphic scenes. When asked about her experience watching said scenes, she said, “[I have suffered from having suicidal thoughts] for most of middle school up until the end of sophomore year. [The show] deals with really dark subject matter and visualizes the very dark thoughts I’ve been working on and off therapy to repress; for instance, in Hannah’s bathtub scene, [I had] the exact thought and [seeing] it on screen prompted a panic attack.” She agrees that it is important for the show to expose teenagers to this topic, but the way it is portrayed isn’t actually providing anything for youth suicide prevention. Instead, it may cause a potential relapse.

Unlike the novel, the Netflix original is anything but sophisticated. While the 288-page book has depth and truthfully depicts belligerent school environments and teenage anxiety, the show stretches the plot line across 13 one-hour long episodes so much that the meaning becomes lost. Instead of focusing on Hannah and her mental health, the plot focuses more on the relationship between her and Clay. This relationship is stretched so thin that it becomes flimsy and transparent.

The writers and directors of “Thirteen Reasons Why” claim that its purpose is to prevent teenage suicide and show those who are struggling that there are people out there who can help. However, the show does nothing to elaborate more on that. Hannah does not talk to a professional until the last episode, where he dismisses her and doesn’t suggest any treatment at all. She also does not talk to her parents, which is common for many who are suffering from suicidal thoughts.

If this series is really supposed to show that it’s okay to talk about one’s said thoughts, Hannah should have done this to possibly influence many others who are watching. The poor image of adults in helping Hannah is damaging and enforces the idea that they don’t understand and won’t ever listen to a suicidal teenager’s thoughts. We see her loved ones failing to help her, which ultimately leads to her decision to take her own life.

Netflix’s “Thirteen Reasons Why” has good intentions, but it comes off as irresponsible and hurtful. Maybe if the directors had depicted mental illnesses more realistically, the series would have had a different outcome.

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