CW: Subjects concerning rape, suicide, and mental illness
On March 31, 2017, Netflix released the first season of a TV show called “13 Reasons Why”, based on the Young Adult novel of the same name. It quickly gained popularity, and I regularly saw “Welcome To Your Tape” memes all over Facebook and Instagram, as well as people’s criticisms of the show itself; critiques by those who have seen the show, and critiques by those who haven’t. They both say the same message, but I figured I’d give my own input by writing this review and critique, shortly after watching the show myself. I must say, what an adventure I’ve had watching it. I don’t know if it’s a good one, but it was certainly a ride.
If you are reading this article and you have not seen the show, I will start off by reminding you of the content warnings I wrote above. Please read at your own risk.
The show focuses on Clay, the main character of the story. The show starts roughly a week after the suicide of Hannah Baker, a classmate, friend, and love interest of Clay’s at his high school. The show begins world-building almost immediately, and somewhat haphazardly, as one of the first things you see in the school is a pair of young girls taking a selfie in front of Hannah Baker’s locker (which is now decorated with R.I.P. letters) and one says to the other, “Hashtag never forget, right? This’ll be perfect for Instagram.” Anti-millennial message, and a possible clue of how stupidly written the women are.
After a somber day at school, Clay returns home and stumbles upon a lone shoebox full of numbered tapes. He listens to the first one. It’s Hannah’s voice. Now the premise is this: Hannah, shortly before committing suicide, created 13 tapes detailing her reasons why she committed suicide. Each reason is a person, all of which were required to listen to the box of tapes and pass them on to the next person under the threat of exposure to the public. Hannah’s orders are continuously repeated on the tapes to listen and pass them on.
Clay, who actually was a close friend of Hannah’s, wonders why he was given this box of tapes and spends most of the show having constant panic attacks, hallucinations of Hannah, and is haunted by the idea that he may have hurt her.
13 episodes, all of which are summarized quickly below. Spoiler alert:
- Hannah finds herself quickly attracted to Justin, one of the main athletes of the school. They communicate through playful texts, and have a casual encounter in a playground. Justin takes a picture of her going down a slide in an up-skirt fashion. Bryce, Justin’s friend, sees the picture and sends it to everyone else in their grade, giving Hannah a “slutty” reputation.
- Hannah befriends Jessica in school and they quickly form a friendship over hot chocolate at their favorite coffee shop, Monet’s. They also befriend Alex, another loner, and the three of them bond over time. Jessica then becomes briefly attracted to Alex and they date and inevitably drift away as friends.
- Alex finds himself somewhat attracted to Hannah even though he was dating Jessica. He constructs a “Hot” List and writes that Hannah has the Best Ass, the worst being Jessica. This magnifies Hannah’s reputation of being a “slut” and it nails the coffin in Jessica’s lost friendship with Hannah.
- Tyler, the school photographer for the yearbook and all school events more or less has a reputation for being the “nerd” stereotype. No one talks to him. A few pick on him. He is physically attracted to Hannah, and spends his free time stalking her and taking secret pictures of her. Hannah concocts a plan to expose the person stalking her with her friend Courtney. While waiting for the stalker, Courtney and Hannah begin physically hooking up, and before Tyler is exposed, he manages to take an incognito picture of the both of them kissing.
- Courtney is an overachiever in school who deals with the overwhelming pressure of being the perfect child to her two fathers. After her short-lived hookup with Hannah, she actively avoids her, afraid to come out as gay. The photo that Tyler took of them making out is sent to the whole school, and even though Hannah is immediately assumed to be one of them, almost no one suspects it is Courtney. When Courtney is occasionally asked if the other girl in the picture was her, she immediately denies it, and instead instigates a whole new rumor that the other girl is Hannah’s “girlfriend Laura,” and that they both asked Courtney for a threesome, outing Hannah’s queer identity.
- The Dollar Valentine Quiz, which is a questionnaire that all participating students can fill anonymously to seek out potential matches, comes to the school. Marcus was Hannah’s top match. He also happened to be the class president and top of the honor roll. He asks her out on a date, but a few minutes into it, he sexually harasses her, causing Hannah to loudly reject his advances. He screams at her in the presence of his other friends and storms out.
- Minutes after Hannah rejects Marcus’s advances, Zach, one of Marcus’s friends, comes back and sits with her silently, and apologizes for his friend’s harassment. She at first reacts with hostility, but appreciates Zach for his silence and apologies. They quickly become friends. Later on, Zach asks her to be his date for an upcoming dance. Hannah believes this is a trap, and rejects his offer. Zach then retaliates by calling her a “slut” and other things, and isolates her by secretly removing notes of kindness from her bag in their communications class together.
- Hannah decides to join the poetry club in the public library and befriends another student; a cis gay boy named Ryan. She happens to write a very raw poem about being sad and stuff. Ryan takes that poem and publishes it in his school magazine without her consent. Even though the school never finds out its her poem, she resents him for taking her poem without her consent.
- Hannah gets very intoxicated at a certain party and Sheri offers to take her home. On their drive back, Sheri swerves into and breaks a stop sign. Hannah requests calling the police, but Sheri drives away in fear, causing the death of Jeff, another classmate, due to a car accident that follows that same night.
- Justin pt. 2 – At the same party that Hannah gets intoxicated at, she sits in a bedroom privately to recollect her thoughts when Jessica and Justin stumble in, about to have sex. Hannah then hides in the closet. Jessica, too inebriated, falls asleep and Justin leaves. Bryce actually comes in a few minutes later and graphically rapes Jessica despite Justin’s attempts to stop him.
- Clay and Hannah finally confess their feelings to each other and are about to have sex in another bedroom of the house that the party takes place in. Because of her trauma, Hannah stops him and repeatedly tells him to leave. Clay apologizes before leaving. However, she takes this tape to apologize to him, remind him that he has done nothing wrong, and that she really wished for him to stay, despite her telling him to leave repeatedly.
- Hannah leaves her house one night and stumbles into Bryce’s party. She sits in a hot tub alone, enjoying the stars, when Bryce arrives and forces himself on her.
- Hannah at first seeks Mr. Porter’s help for her suicidal thoughts. Mr. Porter is visibly uncaring as his phone repeatedly rings and he attempts to answer the calls. She finally confides that she’s been raped but is reluctant to tell him that it was Bryce. He offers unhelpful advice – telling her she must “move on”. She walks out of the office disappointed, and even more so when she stood for a few seconds hoping that Mr. Porter would come after her. Instead, he continues his work and answers phone calls.
The way the show is filmed is actually quite interesting; the story is told in a non-linear fashion, with flashbacks told alongside immediate flash-forwards to present day. The flashbacks are colorful while the current state of the school is constantly grey and dreary. Hannah appears next to Clay and disappears as her narrations end.
However, none of that saves the show from its flawed writing. The characters, while acted very well, portray common stereotypes seen in high school films. I cannot account for most people’s high school experiences, but we have all seen this – the Asian-American perfectionist, the popular athletes and their over-emotional cheerleader counterparts, the greaser boy, the LGBTQ poet, the creepy photographer who’s in love with the pretty girl, the band geek, and the “nobody”.
Courtney, the Asian-American girl with two gay fathers particularly bothers me. She often feels this pressure to be a model student in front of her two fathers. While she is quite a well-behaved student in the sense that she doesn’t go out to party every day and she doesn’t spend a lot of time pining over boys, her arch in the show is her struggle to come out as a lesbian to her parents. You would think that a character with two gay fathers would have a little less trouble coming out. The writer of the show and the book seems to think that queerness is a flaw. The way the show handles queerness in general is entirely problematic. Courtney hides it with shame, while Hannah uses her suicide as a weapon to out her, which brings me to my main point.
Hannah’s portrayal, in the entirety of the show, is an enigma. She carries herself as a sarcastic, witty, and particularly clever human being, which actually is a nice break from the “shy and timid girl” stereotype that is usually shown in portrayals of teen suicide. However, the point of her suicide is to show every subject of her reasons the errors of their ways. She is purposely using suicide as a weapon to hurt everyone else. While the show does an interesting job in pointing out rape culture (gas lighting, bullying, slut-shaming), it does a poor job in portraying accurately what depression is about.
Depression is an insidious mental illness that manifests itself in the most subtle ways. Depression comes as a result of trauma and/or chemical imbalances in the brain. For me in particular, my depression has been with me ever since I was, well, sentient. I’ve always had a warped sense of happiness, but statistically, suicide is most commonly an impulse decision. No person of any mental illness usually would be calculated enough to record 13 reasons to commit suicide. In fact, if I had to make assumptions, Hannah was not simply depressed. This show seems to portray Hannah, not as a poor young misguided girl who needed help, but more as a malicious person who romanticized suicide to bring attention to herself all while addressing everyone’s wrongdoings.
- Hannah used her suicide to guilt Alex into shooting himself possibly fatally in the head.
- Hannah used her suicide to guilt Ryan that simply stealing a poem was enough to kill her.
- Hannah used her suicide to out Courtney before she was ready to come out.
- Hannah used her suicide to blame Sheri for the death of Jeff, who was merely in a car accident beyond her control.
Hannah used her suicide to guilt Clay into listening to stories that frankly have almost nothing to do with him, and causing him guilt for simply respecting Hannah’s boundaries.
What was Clay supposed to do after attempting to be intimate and then being told to leave? Is the show implying that love can fix trauma? That love can just make everything better? That mental illness can be cured with love? None of this was an act of depression. This was manipulation. It can’t be simply depression. Mental illness is not that simple and it exists in many forms outside of depression.
Why am I so bothered by this?
- Because “13 Reasons Why” pretends to have this “deep” message about mental illness.
- That it can exist in people that you wouldn’t believe have a mental illness.
- That it can be cured by love.
- That it is only caused by horrible amounts of trauma.
- That it can be used as a weapon to hurt those that you once cared about.
- That it can be excused when used as a weapon to hurt those that you once cared about.
What the show portrays about suicide can somewhat be true. What Hannah has gone through in the show can be relatable to many young teens and adults. Isolation, trauma, and emotional damage can all be valid reasons to bring someone further down the rabbit hole into their mental illnesses. That is true. That is real.
But the creators of the show and book insist that this show is meant to “expose” what depression is like. The show acts as a PSA to all its viewers, saying, “these are the signs of depression and we should talk about it and love each other.” The show was written by a bunch of neurotypical idiots who used depression and other mental illnesses to address other ugly issues without having any decent knowledge of how mental illness works, or how people in high school work for that matter.
But some of the most horrid things about this show are the graphic rape scenes and the suicide scene in particular. The show did not take enough time to warn me and several viewers about the rape scenes and I was horrified by them. That’s not to say that it should’ve been censored. I’m saying that the show should’ve taken more time to warn viewers about the scene.
And lastly, the suicide scene was practically a list of instructions. The viewers could listen to Clay describe in detail, step by step, how Hannah committed suicide, and then the viewers can see it unfold in its entirety.
However, what the show DOES seem to portray well is the insidiousness of rape culture and ignorance. Hannah’s experience being sexually harassed by Bryce and others is a common thing among young girls. Being sexually exploited while intoxicated is a common and saddening phenomenon in culture. Everyone’s ignorance and eagerness to shove it off is another common phenomenon. People often overlook the words of rape victims, and to be frank, Mr. Porter’s conversation with Hannah in the final episode is one I hear almost too often.
I get that it’s a TV show and that every show can have flaws. Breaking Bad is one of my favorite TV shows of all time, but the difference is, it doesn’t have a particularly deep message about anything, except maybe the flaws in our healthcare system. It didn’t pretend to have a big message about the dangers of cooking meth, addiction, mental illness, or anything. It was a very well-written drama TV show about a man with cancer being pushed to his limits. But it’s just a show and it knows is.
“13 Reasons Why” is simply a show.
Is it entertaining? Yes.
Is it filmed pretty well? I think so.
Is it easy to understand in a literary and story-driven sense? Yes.
Is it an accurate portrayal of depression and suicide? Absolutely not.