Standard warning of spoilery content, as well as talk of triggering subjects like self-harm and suicide. Please proceed with caution.
All good? Okay, go!
Let me preface this blog entry by saying it outright: I didn’t like 13 Reasons Why.
Cinematographically speaking, it was a good TV series. I liked the acting, the writing, and the pacing a lot. But I feel it totally dropped the ball on awareness of mental health and suicide. It did a good job starting a conversation on the presence of bullying in schools, which I suppose is its saving grace, but as someone who has suffered from mental health issues and who has friends that have tried self-harming and/or committing suicide, I found this show deeply insulting and incredibly shallow. Here’s why.
1. It oversimplifies the issue of suicide by making it seem like it’s totally a result of external events like bullying and sexual assault.
The truth is, incidents like that create an isolating environment which then contributes to the individual developing mental illness like clinical depression, which may lead to suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. There are people out there who are suffering from clinical depression and other such mental illnesses who haven’t experienced isolating events like bullying or sexual assault. By making it seem as though Hannah’s suicide was a direct result of her being bullied and sexually assaulted, the show invalidates those who are suffering from mental illness yet had no such isolating experiences.
2. It fails to address mental health at all.
The words “depression” or “mental illness” are mentioned a grand total of zero times. Everyone talks about bullying and sexual assault – which is great, don’t get me wrong, it is. I just wish that the show had paid the same amount of attention to mental illness, since this in the end is what caused suicide attempts by Hannah, and later on Alex. Suicide attempts do not exist in a vacuum along with being bullied or having something similarly traumatic happen to you. These events are factors in the development of a mental illness, but – as I mentioned earlier – they are not the direct cause of suicide attempts.
3. Hannah’s characterization is insulting to those suffering from mental illness.
Here is a detailed article outlining why Hannah Baker is the actual worst. Beyond the bullying and rape plot lines, Hannah is portrayed as nothing more than a self-absorbed, whiny middle class high schooler with an “I’m not like other girls” shtick just like any white attractive YA heroine. Her character perpetuates the negative stereotype of mentally ill people as being dramatic and attention-seeking. While characters like Justin, Alex, Bryce, and Courtney definitely deserved their tapes, characters like Clay, Jessica, and Zach did not – and as we see from Jessica and Zach’s narratives, Hannah’s perception of what happened is totally incorrect. Which leads you to the question, how much did she get wrong?
4. It glamorizes suicide.
This, I feel, is 13 Reasons Why’s biggest flaw. Hannah committing suicide is portrayed as the ultimate solution – the perfect revenge against the bullies who wronged her. Her suicide is a means by which her tormentors are condemned and made to feel guilty, rather than an exploration of the mental illness she clearly suffered from. While the book gives us a message of empathy and understanding for your peers, the TV series focuses on getting revenge. Suicide is portrayed as way to get back at people. “If you commit suicide, all the people who have done bad things to you will regret it.” That is not a message anyone, least of all the teen demographic this show is aimed at, needs to hear.
All that said, this TV series has some good points:
- Its cast was truly diverse, and certainly not just for diversity’s sake. It also didn’t fall prey to racial stereotypes. The Asian characters are not grade-conscious nerds with overly-involved parents. Michele Ang plays Courtney Crimson, whose background involves her being insecure about her sexuality; Ross Butler (*insert dreamy sigh here*) plays basketball star Zach Dempsey. The black characters are not sassy tokens in the cast. Alosha Boe and Ajiona Alexus play popular cheerleaders Jessica and Sheri, and Steven Silver plays the president of the student council Marcus Cole.
- The creators were coming from a good place. They wanted to tell people, your words matter. They wanted to warn us, everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about, so be kind. That’s admirable, and there was certainly nothing wrong with wanting to make a TV show about that.
Still, the fact remains that the show totally failed to show us why those words and the lack of kindness shown to Hannah affected her so much. Watching the show, without any mention at all or the slightest acknowledgement of depression and other mental illnesses, the message is ineffective. Hannah wasn’t just a kid being bullied at school. She was a kid being bullied at school, who also had mental illness. That is the factor in the equation that 13 Reasons Why utterly fails to deliver on.