How To Start The Wrong Conversation ( And Other Damaging Ideas)
By Jack O'Dwyer
Content Warning: Suicide, Self-harm, Bullying, Sexual Assault
Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why. Duh.
Before I begin, a few resources:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Let it be known the lengths I had to go to in order to sit through not just one season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, but both consecutively. I sat there in front of my laptop for over twenty-four hours taking notes that can be summed up entirely by the words “wow” and “why”. Listen, I am entirely ready and itching for a serious, impactful representation of depression, suicide, and mental health. I want to start a conversation. I am extremely candid about my own mental health and struggles for that such reason, I want to talk about this. At this point in my life I am dedicated to the destruction of stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I take the failings of this show so personally.
In case you’re one of the few who has happened to abstain from the convoluted not-quite-80’s world of cassette tapes - and, later, Polaroids - I’ll do a quick recap for you. The show picks up after the suicide of Liberty High student Hannah Baker, who has left behind thirteen double-sided cassette tapes to be passed around to the thirteen people she held responsible for her death. The story is told through Clay Jensen, a socially awkward fellow Liberty High student who was hopelessly in love with Hannah this whole time. Each episode is set up as a mix of flashbacks and Game of Thrones-style plots to destroy the tapes before… something - either Clay passing them on, which doesn't make sense, or the tapes getting out to the public. The next season focuses on the Baker parents’ lawsuit against the school for negligence, Jessica and her story processing her rape, and the eventual prosecution of Bryce.
There’s a lot I don’t like about 13 Reasons Why, both content wise and artistically. The dialogue in this show is painfully cryptic at best and obvious at worst. It’s as if the writers forgot the rule of “show, don’t tell”. They attempted to write contemporary dialogue based off the assumption of what teenagers sound like versus what they actually sound like. While watching, I kept getting this image in my mind’s eye about a bunch of 30-40 year old men sitting around a table trying to crack the ever-complicated persona of a sixteen-year-old girl. Amazing. You can tell a scene is important if a character emerges dramatically from the shadows and tells you basically everything you need to know about that scene from the get-go. The show consistently hits you over the head with its “don’t be mean” message, which is valid, but almost becomes so banal that it misses the point entirely. Clay’s “wound-time” shorthand to distinguish between past and present would be clever if not for the overtly slower rate to which he heals compared to everyone around him. Alex gets beaten within an inch of his life and still heals faster than Clay wiping out on his bike.
Also, the names. Anders Anderson? Courtney Crimsen - instead of crimson, like blood, because, you know, Hannah killed herself that way. Are these real people?
The worst part of the whole show, though, is Hannah Baker. She is the hollow cut out of a martyr built solely for the purpose of being so. You can tell she was written by a bunch of older men -- Ernest Hemingway Lite, if you will. There is no depth to be found here. We learn basically nothing about her besides the fact she likes blue nail polish and is being bullied. What does she do for fun? We eventually learn she writes poetry, but we never see her do it unprompted. Hm, it’s almost as if it was invented for her plot. I mean, it was either writing or painting huge murals on her off-white bedroom walls. What “unconventional, free-spirited” female protagonist doesn’t have a surface level self-expressive hobby? For fuck sake, do we even learn her favorite color? Favorite place in her new town or how her old town compares? How does she feel about working with her parents? When is her birthday?
She is consistently painted as someone who is oblivious to her own inner feelings toward Clay (Season 1, Ep. 6) and later toward Justin (Season 2, Ep. 5), since women are clearly mysterious enigmas who don’t even understand themselves half the time without a man. In time, she gets twisted into a manipulative liar by the show (Season 1, Ep. 7; Season 2, Ep. 10), making the idea of her suicide being a calculated revenge tactic all the more tangible.
Despite the fact that 90% of folks who commit suicide have a mental illness, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t address mental health. At least, not as outright as it does with literally everything else. Not once do we hear about it in relation to Hannah - the closest we get is her mother mentioning that the women in her family tend to be anxious. All of the mental health associations come from Clay who suffers from social anxiety and is then prescribed duloxetine, an SNRI, at 90mg a day -- a day, after not taking it for years (Season 1, Ep. 2). What are they trying to do, make him manic?
Speaking of which, he then goes on to date a woman, Skye, with bipolar disorder. She really displays more like someone with borderline personality disorder, but we later learn it’s bipolar because she decides to tell us instead of it being clearly depicted. My favorite part of their relationship is when Clay grabs her wrist and aggressively confronts her about her fresh, very visible on camera self-harm wounds. Skye replies to this by saying something to the effect of “This is what you do to not kill yourself because suicide is weak”, implying that self-mutilation is the strong thing to do (Season 1, Ep. 11). Amazing.
The romanticization makes me sick. I can barely even begin to describe it because there is just so much. Clay states that Hannah killed herself because he was “too afraid to love her” as if all suicidal/depressed folks could just cuddle their maladaptive behavior away. That’s another problem, however. Hannah Baker doesn’t have depression, despite mental illness being a huge risk factor in suicide. She might be depressed, but she does not meet the criteria to have depression. Two of the larger symptoms of depression, anhedonia and avolition, aren’t present here. Up until the very last episode, she still enjoys her hobby of writing, is outwardly social when given the opportunity, and even goes on to date and have a healthy sexual relationship with Zach in Season 2. You could argue that all this is a mask, but from what we see during her private times with him and what we know about her normal body schedule, the signs don’t add-up. This gets even worse in Season 2 when we see that, when all the stories come to light, Hannah actually had a good share of positive experiences with the people who made it onto her tapes.
These discrepancies are what give the negative theories about her taking of her own life weight. Despite only appearing on the first tape, Justin apologized to her for Bryce’s mass-text and they continued contact after the fact. Why wasn’t this included? Hannah said that Zach crumpled her note to him, but in reality he kept it in his wallet all that time. Jessica tells us that it wasn’t her who stopped showing up to Monet’s -- it was Hannah. It’s as if the show can’t make up its mind about just how she feels, which threatens to paint her as a character prone to acting out of hysterics instead of taking the battle of suicide seriously. It isn’t until Season 1, Ep. 13 that we see her begin to exhibit the thoughts of worthlessness and isolation that typically come with depression. Hell, Alex does a better job of showing the signs of someone about to commit suicide than Hannah does. He presents with the cognitive errors common found in depressed patients, flat affect, begins to drop the things he cares about and behaves recklessly/uncharacteristically until he attempts to drown himself in Bryce’s pool (Season 1, Ep. 3).
It all just feeds into the calculated revenge fantasy mindset this show is so eager to spoon feed its audience. Hannah plots out exactly where her life went wrong and is so dedicated to inflict guilt on those who wronged her that she spends several days -- and yes, it is days as we see her come into her parents’ store to pick up more tapes for a “history project” she’s been working on -- recording on cassette tapes with a recorder she had to borrow from Tony. She then makes a detailed map of all the places terrible things happened to her, writes note with instructions about how the tapes should be handled, and has a point where she wants to turn it all around… For a few hours. She leaves us with the line “Some of you cared, none of you cared enough”.
Again, you could argue that she only made the tapes to ensure nothing happens to anyone else like it happened to her, but recall her opening statement. The “rules of this game”, as she puts it, are quite clear so that any infraction results in the tapes being released to the public. Not that they weren’t going to be anyway, since the last person to get them would be the school’s guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. This whole concept gives off the message that suicide is a tool to make others feel bad about what they did to you, like it’s some ultimate flip of the bird that makes others pay. “People who commit suicide are just looking for attention. They are weak. They’re only trying to hurt people and cause a scene.” See what I’m getting at?
I’d also like to throw in that any show that uses suicide like a jump scare (Season 1, Ep. 5) clearly doesn’t care about the severity of its material. This is further evidenced by the fact that, while the staff consulted with experts on how to best go about putting their show together, they completely ignored the advice. They also ignored that their audience’s age demographic is facing a suicide epidemic. I had to skip Hannah’s suicide scene because just the still shots of it as I ran my mouse along to find where it ended triggered a massive sensory/panic attack for a good fifteen minutes. Clearly, I’m not the only one.
We should also talk about how Tyler’s arc perpetuates the idea that being bullied is the sole cause for school shootings, despite the fact that most school shooters were already violent to being with. It’s not like the Texas shooter specifically targeted a girl who turned him down or anything. That was a nice touch, given the current climate. Thanks. Amazing.
I sincerely don’t understand how one program can be so problematic. Is this watered-down Riverdale what neurotypical people think our lives are actually like?