Inspired by the student body’s craze over the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, the Student Scoop team and myself feel bound to publish a response. Whether through your friends, social media like Snapchat advertisements, or Netflix itself, you, PASB student, now understand that the series is about a high schooler, Clay Jensen, who listens to haunting tapes – virtually a voiced suicide letter – from his deceased peer: Hannah Baker. It would be refreshing to see mainstream media address bullying and suicide prevention, had the production not been irresponsible.
Most of us love a good old coming-of-age film or series. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Perks of Being a Wallflower are some of the ones we cherish. On the other hand, there are adolescent narratives that we “hate to love”, such as Mean Girls, because they misconstrue and stereotype the high school experience. One can watch 13 Reasons Why with these same expectations, in addition to lower ones in terms of filmic quality (narrative and cinematographic), and most urgently, as it addresses emotional issues. The series has the potential to harm teenagers as it contradicts World Health Organization recommendations. It was made for those who would not be affected as predicted by the WHO while disregarding the most vulnerable: those who would. Therefore, it is a young adult text that demands critical thinking and serious conversations to promote mental health.
One of the recommendations by the WHO on cultural portrayals of suicide is that they do not romanticize or sensationalize it. The spinal cord of the series is a quasi-necrophilic Clay and a group of students who receive the tapes, assembling exclusively to debate about the character who completes suicide, thus sensationalizing her death in their lives, and creating a thrill for the audience. To make a deceased character (for the audience) or a person (for her counterparts) a circus freak not only dehumanizes her but also minimizes the seriousness in the act. The effects of “desensitiz[ing] the community to [the] gravity [of suicide]” can both lead to a downward spiral, recklessly adopting negative language and thoughts, and underrating the destructive behavior being expressed by others. (Spoiler alert) Hence the predictability in the suicide of another character, Alex, at the end of the season, breaking another WHO rule: “Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide”, thus stripping the show of its intent to act as a cautionary tale about suicide. Historically, we have already witnessed the negative power of literature, naming the phenomenon Werther Effect.
At the same time that the series transforms Hannah into an attraction, it also attempts to justify her lamentable decision in some ways. Another endorsement by the WHO is that the act of suicide not be presented as a solution. The final scenes of the series portray a failed attempt of Hannah to seek help from her high school counselor, Mr. Porter, and her final choice. Instead of demonstrating that a blurred perspective tainted by depression determines that train of thought, the text presents Hannah’s decision as she walks through the hallway as a rational one. More than justifying, the series creates a scenario in which the intended vengeance by Hannah is successful posthumously, as if suicide had been in fact the solution for the sexual abuses, stalking, and cyber bullying she experienced; whereas suicide is a far more complex phenomenon that does not fit in a simplistic cause-and-effect relationship with social pressures. The series misses one of its many opportunities to project a hotline number, thus not abiding to the recommendation of “provid[ing] information about where to seek help”. That information for Brazilian audiences is at the end of this article.
Most unswervingly, the show infringes the guideline to “avoid explicit description of the [place and] method used in a completed or attempted suicide” especially in the graphic and final episode. The executive producer of the show, Brian Yorkey, unbelievably argues that “[the creators] did want it to be painful to watch because [they] wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide”. Moreover, the format of the show as a whole contradicts the warning that “suicide notes should not be published”. The tapes and other forms of suicide letters are one-sided rationales of ones who passed away. The unguided consumption of these texts has the potential to affect especially ones who are struggling.
If you watched the series and appreciate the diversity in characters’ and actors’ sexualities and ethnicities, and grasped as its message that we must care for one another more, excellent. 13 Reasons Why is a cautionary tale about bullying, not suicide. In the final episode, Clay’s asks a proven emotionally unbalanced character, Skye, how she is; a positive example for viewers. Nevertheless, overall, the show’s creators were ill-considered because an alternative response can be fatal, as proven by the disconnection between the series and the WHO’s guidelines. It is, in fact, alarming that a far-reaching series can only positively impact a fraction of its teenage target audience. The Netflix show resorts to presenting a binge-watching thriller that spoils the opportunity to address the dangerous issue maturely, while as other texts have proven that one can entertain young adults while still wisely encouraging hope. What we need are more characters who would hug Hannah and Alex and say: “Life is tough, and so are you”.
For more about suicide prevention and 13 Reasons Why read:
Remember that PASB counselors are available for any concerns, including if you have one about a friend. It is important that you talk to an adult. They are committed to being trustworthy and caring as sources for help. If you need to talk with someone outside of school you can call 141, in Brazil, or access: http://www.cvv.org.br/
Image credits: Amazon