Then it became a Netflix series. And suddenly there was no longer anything stealthy about it. Jay Asher’s “13 Reasons Why” is now the story everyone is talking about. Like Hannah Baker, the suicide victim at the heart of the tale, “13 Reasons Why” has found a way to ensure its own immortality — for better or for worse.
As you probably know by now, the story begins after Hannah’s (Katherine Langford) suicide. While her fellow students are still creating memorials and taking selfies in front of her locker, a bombshell drops on her friend Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette). A shoebox full of cassette recordings that Hannah created before her death is left with him — recordings addressed to 13 different people whom she says gave her reasons to kill herself.
As Clay begins to listen, dreading the moment when he’ll hear his own name, the high school experience comes to life around him, through both flashbacks and present-day storylines — an experience that the viewer soon begins to wonder how anyone could survive. While their parents hover anxiously but helplessly on the sidelines, and teachers make fruitless sporadic efforts at guidance, the kids in their care endure a journey that makes “Lord of the Flies” look like “Gilligan’s Island.” Drugs and alcohol flow freely, bullying and sexual assault are facts of life, an innocent photograph or a few whispers can wreck a reputation, and the person who’s your best friend today could turn on you tomorrow.
“13 Reasons Why,” the book, was a sad and difficult read. “13 Reasons Why,” the series, is troubling at much deeper levels, in ways that have as much to do with its format as its content. In fact, it’s perhaps one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of Marshall McLuhan’s classic aphorism “The medium is the message.” In order to turn a 288-page novel into a 13-hour television show, a lot had to be added — subplots in which characters struggle for justice or vengeance or simply to silence each other, new character backgrounds and arcs, love interests and other new relationships — most of which simply adds bloat without substance. More to the point, it all makes the whole story darker and much more intense, enveloping us in a world where there’s little light or air or hope.
What has particularly bothered many parents and educators about the show is that Hannah’s voice floating above all these stories gives us the impression that she lives on after death — moreover, that death gave her a power she never had in life. Watching the way that Hannah’s revelations begin to unravel the lives of the kids listening to them, some have even used the term “revenge porn” to describe what she’s doing. This is one of the ways in which “13 Reasons Why” works against its stated purpose: to discourage teen suicide.
As Jaclyn Grimm writes in USA Today, for instance:
I’ve dealt with depression and suicidal thoughts since middle school, about the younger age of 13 Reasons Why’s audience. I never imagined logistics: razor blades cutting delicate skin, the quick violence of a gunshot. What I saw in my mind was crying peers and thousands of flowers and people wishing they had reached out to me. I didn’t want pain; I wanted control. While watching the show, the bullying, assault and even the suicide itself didn’t stand out to me. All I could focus on was the power the main character had after her death.
The way the show portrays these things, it doesn’t always seem to matter that Hannah is not actually around to exercise and enjoy that power. What matters is simply that she has it at last.
Similarly, I think the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide may have backfired. In the book, she took pills; in the series, she slits her wrists in the bathtub — and viewers see it all, including her parents’ horror when they discover her dead body. The creators’ stated intent was to make suicide look unappealing and avoid glamorizing it. But witnessing this dark and ugly act as the culmination of all the darkness and ugliness we’ve already seen seems to suck away the very last remnants of hope in the show’s world. It stirs great compassion for this lost and hopeless girl, but it also tempts us to despair like her own. And it leads us to understand why experts warn against explicit portrayals of suicide.
Though life goes on for others, though Clay desperately says of the school’s poisonous atmosphere, “It has to get better,” we see no actual reason why it might or will. Because people learn to be more aware of each other’s problems, and treat each other better? That’s the goal — that’s how we see Clay finally behaving at the end, after a period of lashing out and trying to get revenge on Hannah’s behalf. But a fundamental flaw in both versions of the story is that so much responsibility for one girl’s mental health is placed on other people. Yes, it matters deeply how we treat each other, but the idea that kids are responsible for keeping each other alive is neither true nor fair.
The same goes for the all-too-pervasive idea — trickled down from movies for adults, without a doubt — that romantic relationships can save us. Clay is haunted by the thought that Hannah died because he was “afraid to love her”; though the school counselor tries to talk him out of the idea, he clings to it. So many of these characters have a need for love, an instinctual understanding of its importance, but no concept of the kind of love that actually does save. Religious faith is mentioned only in passing, and not in any way that suggests it could provide real and lasting help. Romantic relationships, heterosexual and homosexual, abound, but most of them are as messed up as you might expect from a bunch of teenagers guided only by their hormones. And more than once, they cross the line into brutality.
Interestingly, the show pulls a punch I didn’t expect at a climactic moment. Whereas in the book Hannah gave in to consensual sex with a boy she despised, out of sheer despair and self-loathing, in the show it becomes a clear case of sexual assault. I wish they had stuck with the original scenario, because it showed such a realistic picture of the “gray area” where so many kids live when they’ve done something wrong but have no moral framework to think or talk about it. But in both versions, a visit to a counselor who also has little moral framework does no good, and Hannah finally gives up on life.
Does “13 Reasons Why” have any value at all? Some people I’ve talked to — including those who work with kids — suggest that it draws attention to struggles and difficulties that kids have been undergoing for a long time. There have been disturbing stories of suicide attempts tied to the show, but there were also disturbing stories of rising teen suicide rates long before the show premiered. The f-bombs flying through the school halls are very similar to what I heard in junior high; the rates of drug and alcohol abuse among this age group are no secret; and nearly every woman alive could tell you stories of harassment — or worse — similar to what Hannah and some of her female classmates endured. Many kids have been crying out for help; perhaps “13 Reasons Why” has served to amplify their voices.
But by the series’ own lights (or lack thereof), it’s hard to see how there’s ultimately much hope for any of us, and that is the greatest problem with “13 Reasons Why.” I don’t fault Jay Asher or the show’s creators for thinking they had a project on their hands that might strike a blow against suicide, but the limited and flawed worldview they brought to it meant that they were deeply, dangerously wrong. Troubled kids need and deserve better.
For Further Reading:
Colby Itkowitz, “These students who’ve struggled emotionally are sharing ’13 Reasons Why Not’ over their school loudspeaker,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2017.
Image copyright Netflix. “13 Reasons Why” is rated TV-MA for suggestive dialogue, coarse or crude language, sexual situations, and violence.