The first scene of “13 Reasons Why” pans out on a high school locker, decorated with condolence cards and memorabilia. Brief flashbacks and glimpses of the characters’ lives reveal that Hannah Baker, the narrator, has committed suicide, leaving both her apparently pristine family and her school community searching for answers. Then, the music suddenly stops and we hear Baker say the show’s most infamous line:
“And if you’re listening, you’re one of the reasons why. Welcome to your tape.”
After the recurring line is uttered for the first time, viewers learn more about the premise of the show; before Baker’s death, she recorded 13 tapes dedicated to the 13 people whose actions drove her to suicide. Starting with a sexting rumor that earned Baker a reputation as “easy,” to a guidance counselor’s advice to simply move on from a sexual assault, Baker uses the tapes as a cathartic way to posthumously justify her suicide.
The show garnered exceptional media hype even from its launch announcement, being based on a widely popular novel and produced by Selena Gomez. But upon release, critics ranging from magazine review writers to mental health experts were quick to deem the show as dangerous and unsafe, especially for teens struggling with the subject matter. The controversy surrounding the show even reached the district level when SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill sent an email with a warning to parents about the potential risk “13 Reasons Why” could pose to a younger audience following the police shooting of TPHS student Jacob Peterson (9) in early May.
My initial observation was that “13 Reasons Why” takes a lot upon itself; within 13 one-hour episodes, the producers attempt to consolidate intense subjects that undoubtedly affect countless viewers. Citing almost exclusively high school students as the reasons for Baker’s suicide, the show strives for relatability; the logic is simple: the more students relate to an episode, the more likely they are to watch.
But here lies the problem with “13 Reasons Why.” Covering suicide is a challenge for any show; producers and directors must show particular caution when balancing the importance of awareness with the dangers of commercializing suicide. Despite warnings and scrutiny from the National Association of School Psychologists regarding the potential harms the show poses to a young audience, Netflix decided to initially run the show without an age restriction or trigger warning before the show.
Even though a notice was later added to the beginning of some episodes, the warnings are not enough to compensate for the insensitive handling of graphic imagery and controversial topics. Especially with high school-centered storylines and characters, it’s particularly important that the makers of the show balance the weight of suicide with closure, something the show greatly lacks. Every time Baker experiences something traumatic, the show makes it seem like there is no possible recourse for victims. Even though it is undeniable that victims of sexual assault or rape are often shunned and even victim-blamed, the show completely misses a key opportunity to advocate for anti-suicide resources while knowing that their target audience would be one which highly contemplates suicide.
Some argue that the show’s distaste was for the sake of keeping true to the original novel, but after watching the show, it’s even more clear that the makers of the show had no intent on sticking strictly to the original story line. The most blatant dissimilarity is actually the scene of Baker’s suicide. In the book, her suicide is described to be a perpetrated overdose on pills she found in a cabinet, but in the show, she is seen to cut her arms with razor blades before she submerges herself in a tub of water as she slowly bleeds to death until her parents find her. It’s clear that the producers of the show were going for the shock value: the imagery of a teenage girl sitting in her own blood is difficult to digest and her parent’s reaction is supposed to be a final display of the emotional distress suicide can have on a community. But despite the show’s intention, the issue of potential copycats is unavoidable and the show ultimately reinforces the notion that the only option is suicide.
“13 Reasons Why” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The makers of the show advertised a method of advocating for suicide prevention to the masses while completely avoiding any mention of prevention and zoning in on a graphic suicide. There’s nothing inherently wrong with covering suicide in popular media; in fact, when done well, it can be some of the most powerful programming. The problem with “13 Reasons Why” is not the subject matter but rather the handling of it. The show had to end in suicide; the entire show surrounds a teenage girl’s path to suicide and the juxtaposition of her community’s treatment of her while she was alive versus when she’s dead. But the show misuses its popularity and is almost unrecognizable as a step towards suicide prevention.