In a society that grows more unapologetic every day, we tell each other to be more open about ourselves. Just not too much, apparently.
What I’m about to write about might make you furious or annoyed. That’s cool. Seriously! With a topic so delicate, it’s impossible for us all to agree. When I read peoples’ reactions of Jay Asher’s page to screen icon, 13 Reasons Why, I naturally had to weigh in, too. Even if my opinion doesn’t seem to be as popular as all the others.
Incase you have no idea what I’m talking about, let’s flash back to 2007. Ten years ago, Jay Asher published a young adult novel that would come to be #1 of the New York Times Bestseller List, a Netflix series, and a great debate on morality and censorship. The novel chronicles a high school student’s life as it leads up to her decision to put it to an end. Hannah, our protagonist, starts out as psychologically stable as can be: supportive family? Check. Two best friends? Check. Outspoken, confident, witty, and gorgeous? Check. Of course, however, there’s a catch. It is rare that somebody, anybody, is as “psychologically stable” as they seem. We learn that Hannah is no exception. That’s the idea here. You never know, do you?
Hannah’s life crumbles until she hits what she establishes is rock bottom. She becomes the antipode of everything she once was: self-sabotaging, introverted, depressed, and suicidal. Hannah concludes there are 13 reasons why she wants to commit suicide, and those 13 reasons are all people. She records 13 cassette tapes, one for each person responsible, with the intention of each of those people hearing them. The idea is to hear Hannah explain why she ended her life after she already did. And, if you’re listening, you’re partially to blame. You listen to all 13 tapes, you pass it on to the next person on Hannah’s list, and you wonder how you never knew the hurricane that was going through this girl’s head.
The novel came to Netflix ten years later this March. I couldn’t wait to watch it and experience this “Netflix binge” everyone talks about (I’m pretty sure The Office doesn’t count for one because, come on, that’s just a given). 13 Reasons Why is one of two books that I’ve only ever read twice, I wrote papers on it in high school, and I used it for a practice lesson plan in my ed class last semester. I was highly anticipating the arrival of the story to Netflix, and finally, it came. When I watched, it was suspenseful, uncomfortable, and emotional. I had to look away a lot. It made me squirm. I thought it was brilliantly done.
Naturally, not everyone had that same reaction. I have been reading a multitude of responses that reject the show, how it was portrayed, and its overall message. Some argue that the show romanticizes suicide and mental illness, representing it all wrong. Others say the show sends the message that if we are kind to people, they will not commit suicide. “No one can make a person commit suicide” is something I see everywhere.
Maybe it’s you who wrote response articles and blogs and Facebook posts parallel to these thoughts. Like I mentioned earlier, that’s totally cool. I won’t sit here and write, agree with me, I’m right and you suck, because what does that do? Change your opinion? Yeah, and then magical unicorns fly around, too.
I’m just here to advocate for the show because I think it’s excellent. There are anti-13 Reasons Why points that I agree with, like how suicide can’t be stopped just by saying nice things, and that nobody can make anybody commit suicide. Those are completely valid, and I hear you.
One thing I will make very clear, however, is how triggering this show can be for those who are struggling. Copy cat suicides are common, and the show’s graphic depiction may give someone an example they are seeking. If you are struggling, watch this show with caution. It may put you in a dark place. I am in no way saying that everybody should watch this show with passion no matter what. What I am saying is that if you think you feel up to it, by all means, check out the show.
Here are some reasons why I’m glad I checked it out:
The show is hard to watch. As it should be. It’s never an easy subject to talk about. What, are we just going to act like suicide doesn’t happen? Unfortunately, it’s real, and it does happen. We can’t ignore that. If we ignore terrible things, those terrible things continue. The show features two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide scene, both very graphic. The three episodes that show these scenes are all prefaced with a message warning exactly what type of graphic material they will show, so nobody can say that they didn’t expect it. These scenes made my skin crawl, which was a healthy reaction and exactly what the producers were going for. If you want to get the message across that rape is disgusting and suicide is horrific, don’t beat around the bush. Make it out to be what it really is. That level of disgust and horror must never be sugar-coated.
You never know when the little things are adding up. We have all put a front on at least one time in our life. No, that comment didn’t sting. No, I don’t need help. No, I’m not upset. You never know when people are lying to make themselves seem cooler, or tougher, or stronger. Nobody wants to appear weak, ever. So how do you know when someone is lying and that comment really did sting or they really do need help or they really are upset? Most of the time, you don’t. So, don’t make a rude comment. Don’t be a jerk. You never know when a person is waiting for that one last comment, picture, or rumor to say, “I’ve had enough.” Don’t give them that opportunity. This show does a good job at portraying how seemingly meaningless things can secretly be snowballing. An embarrassing picture, a petty rumor, or a “hot or not” list may seem trivial by themselves, but imagine facing all of this head on, and then some, and then some?
The writers consulted mental health specialists to preserve accuracy. The following is an excerpt written by Brian Yorkey, the show’s creator, in his open letter: “We enlisted a group of medical and psychological experts to help us accurately portray these events, and to ensure we were being truthful to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ these kinds of things happen; and to show them in some measure of rigorous detail. We wanted to be sure we were serving these issues well, not being gratuitous, not being violent for the sake of being violent — but rather portraying these events in a way that would make their impact unmistakable, and hopefully further the dialogue around these issues in our culture.”
The diversity is applaudable. When I read the book, I had notions of what the characters looked like in my head. The show does a good job in presenting diversity amongst all the characters while keeping them void of stereotypes. Courtney is Asian and has two dads. Marcus is black, but he isn’t a star basketball player, and he isn’t getting into trouble; he’s leading his peers on the student council. Zack is also Asian, but his parents don’t harp on him about academics; they encourage him to excel in his sport career. Alex has a septum piercing and bleached blonde hair, two elements that may seem characteristic of a gay man, but he is a straight character. Not all characters in the show are white, and those who are not white do not fall victim to common stereotypes about their race.
It begs for accountability. All the characters in the plot seemed great and wholesome at first glance. When we learn what they all did or said to Hannah, their true faces are shown. This show sheds a light on people who seem like saints but in reality are selfish and betraying. The charismatic class president made an inappropriately sexual move on Hannah, then screamed at her for not wanting it. The adorable student council rep made up a false rumor to humiliate Hannah, all to save her own ass. Then, they become paranoid about the tapes getting out to the public in fear of having to save their own assess. If you surround yourself with people, what you do has a direct effect on others. We need to take responsibility for our actions and words, and realize that even the most angelic face can be just that: a mere face.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255