I recently took a job at Barnes & Noble, and during the past two weeks, I’ve put 13 Reasons Why into the hands of more mothers and young girls than I care to admit. As such, I decided that I needed to know what everyone was talking about so I could sell and talk about the book intelligently. However, because I’m juggling a handful of deadlines at the moment, I didn’t splurge for the book, but rather gave the Netflix series a go because that’s one of the ways that I like to reward myself with some head space between writing sessions.
Having said that, this show was not head space. In fact, I got so fucked up during this show that it shot me into a three-day depression after watching it. See, when I was younger, (ie: the YA age group this show/book is geared toward), I was dealing with my own mental health issues, so seeing a lot of what Hannah and her friends went through was a huge trigger point for me. But that’s not the problem I have with the show because I don't believe in censorship and I very rarely sugar coat things. When I was middle school and high school, I—like I imagine most of our teenagers do—turned to fiction to find my way through the pain. I read books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Kerosene by Chris Wooding, Cut by Patricia McCormick, and everything by Ellen Hopkins, whose books were, fun fact, my number one reason for wanting to be a writer. These books didn’t sugarcoat anything that I was going through or thinking about doing. They were honest, vulnerable, and they made me rethink every thought that went through my head, not to mention what the repercussions of those actions would be.
The problem that I have with 13 Reasons Why is that not only does it portray suicide as a valid reason for dealing with pain, but it glamorizes it in a chic, almost trendy, revenge fantasy. We’re introduced to Hannah Baker, a young girl who suffers unspeakable trauma, and instead of seeing how it affected her and how she dealt with it, we see the effects it’s having on everyone around her, i.e. we see her as a victim and as a problem.
This makes me want to spit.
High school is hell. Middle school, at least for me, was arguably worse, but being in a position where you feel attacked, singled out, threatened, and bullied on a daily basis is for some of us, part of our every day lives. 13 Reasons Why showed us all of that on a variety of levels, but instead of learning (or watching) how to positively handle any of these feelings, viewers instead become voyeurs to the tragedy.
I’ve heard a lot of people talking about this and saying things like “it was her fault” or “she never asked for help,” or my personal favorite, “if she would have just given the name to Mr. Porter, she would have been fine.” This breaks my heart. I’m not here to lecture anyone for their opinions—because by all means, you’re all entitled to having your own thoughts--but speaking from a very real and scarred part of my heart, let me tell you that sometimes asking for help when you can’t see a way out, when you can’t see the light or even care enough to search for it anymore, is quite honestly, damned near impossible sometimes.
Women often don’t report sexual abuse because most of the time, no one listens to us. Mr. Porter is a perfect example of that. Instead of counseling her, comforting her, listening to her, he immediately makes the assumption that she asked for it, that maybe she did something she regrets and changed her mind about. No, Hannah couldn't give a name because giving a name meant putting a face to her attacker. It means telling the world that someone violated her when she’s already feeling worn and used and filthy. It puts her in the spotlight by placing yet another target on her back for the events that follow naming one’s abuser. Most notably though, she doesn’t want to confide in someone who already 1) has skeptical feelings about what she is saying and 2) has obviously shown that outside of naming her abuser, the only way to handle this issue is to put it behind her and move on.
Do I think she should have said something? Absolutely.
Do I think that’s easier said than done? Absolutely.
Do I blame her? No. Not even the slightest bit.
I was (and am) blessed to have a family where we can talk about anything. My father and I have had some truly horrific conversations throughout our lives about some of the darkest topics you could imagine. My family is genetically predisposed to depression and suicide is something that tends to be a part of our lives. I didn’t get the sense that Hannah had that lifeline when watching the show. Her parent’s don’t seem to question her at any point, nor does the school handle any of the obvious bullying/rape issues that are raging throughout the halls. Why aren’t the men held accountable for their actions? Why is gaslighting not addressed? There are countless times when, yes, Hannah does ask for help, maybe inadvertently, but the signs are there and no one answers her. No one helps her.
This brings mevto the second issue I have with the show: resources. Despite my immense distaste and anger at how the counseling aspect was handled in this show, no one is responsible for our mental health but ourselves. We have the power to make a change, to find our voice, to allow ourselves to heal, but 13 Reasons Why doesn’t show us any of that. We don’t see resources and we don’t’ see coping mechanisms. No one is talking to their kids about depression, drinking, or their distant behavior. Bryce is left alone and is essentially raising himself. Justin is in an abusive home and no one notices that there's anything wrong,despite him not showing up for school. These are just a couple examples of what the show isn't talking about but rather is focusing on how 13 (11) people are responsible for someone else’s choice to take their life.
I know that sounds harsh, and to some degree, yes, it is. Suicide is a personal decision, and I think that’s the only aspect that the show got correct. Viewers got to see how Hannah’s death effected everyone around her: friends, family, the community. I liked that part of it because it showed us that even when we think that we’re not loved or like or cared about, we are. But having said that, everyone at the end just fades into the background. No one is held accountable for their actions—not even Hannah.
What I mean by that is:
- Justin and Bryce get away with everything and viewers never get to see if they to be held accountable for their actions, i.e. sending the message that sexual abuse can be swept under the rug and will eventually disappear if ignored long enough.
- Alex, another suicide case in the show, is used as a gimmick rather than a tragedy, i.e. reinforcing that suicide is an accurate way out to punish yourself and those around you.
- Jessica Davis lies at the end of the show about what happened and then is shown breaking down to her father at the end. This was an important moment, and quite arguably, a teachable moment with the potential to be one of the most climatic points in the show. We could have seen how to properly handle an issue like this, but we didn’t. Furthermore, her alcoholism was always rampant throughout the series and not addressed once, DESPITE there being a “drunk-driving” incident.
- Tyler Down is never held accountable for his actions (or pictures).
- Courtney’s actions relay an anti-gay message and reinforce negative stereotypes. Sure, we expect her to struggle with her sexuality because we all do/did at that age, but it’s never resolved and she never comes to terms with it. Yes, it’s hinted at that maybe she is going to come clean about some issues, but we don’t see it, and again, that’s a problem.
- Jenny Kurtz supposedly called the cops and reported what she and Hannah did the night of the party, but we never see anything come of it.
Now speaking from an entertainment standpoint, I have to say that I binge-watched the show in two days, so something was obviously pulling me in, right? That’s what I thought, too, until I sat down and really thought about why I was so fixated on the show. It wasn't because I thought it was good. It was because it was horrific and painful to watch, and it opened old wounds that I thought I had long since stitched up. Every time I think we're taking a step in the right direction with suicide awareness, it always seems that it's one step forward and then two giant steps back.
Hannah’s death—which was changed, by the way —was violent and used to reflect a how-to guide in terms of committing suicide. In the books, it’s done with pills, but in the show, we have a graphic portrayal with blood and razors. Unlike others, I actually don’t have a huge problem with this, but what I do have a problem with is the fact that the ending was obviously changed to show a grotesque portrayal of something that is already horrific enough, therefore making it a case of violence for violence sake, i.e. let’s show something raw and brutal and we’ll get more viewers.
To be fair, I don't know Jay Asher, and I don't know what his intentions were with this book, but I do know that when I sit down and reflect on the material that I have written that there is a ton of stuff that I wish I would have done differently or reworded in a different way, but once it’s out there, there’s no going back. The message that Asher unfortunately sent with this series/book is that suicide is glamorous, and it’s a way to get back at the people who hurt you, and as someone who has lost family to suicide, who has struggled with it herself, and who has seen the day-to-day effects that it has on someone who has found one of its victims, I find this not only distasteful, but offensive, and in a lot of ways, unforgivable.
I have a hard time selling this book now, and often times when I see someone with it, I try to recommend a handful of other ones to counteract the message that it's sending to our children. Fiction is fiction, yes, but books are dangerous, and if there are kids looking for help through escapism, much like I did, I worry that this book might push some of them in the wrong direction. So, please, for me, if you know someone who is struggling with depression, addiction, or who is having suicidal thoughts, talk to them and let them know that someone is always there, always listening. Hell, give them my contact information. I'll talk to them myself personally because the first step to combating any of these issues is to talk about it, and while that might be hard, and for some people, impossible, there are ways to talk about it that don't put you in the public eye.
But know that you're not alone.
There are millions of people rooting for you and your beautiful soul deserves to see every light because you are loved and your life is worth it.
For further information and resources, please see the information below:
Crisis Hotline: http://www.pleaselive.org/
Suicide Prevention Hotline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education): https://www.save.org/
AA (Alcoholics Anonymous): http://www.aa.org/
Rape Crisis Network: http://www.rccmsc.org/
RAIIN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network): https://centers.rainn.org/
Project Semicolon: https://projectsemicolon.com/