In defense of this series: The cinematography is good. But that’s all, really.
Ever since the new Netflix original series came out, my Facebook timeline has been flooding with messages about it. Most of it is praise – people seem to be glad mental illness is being discussed in popular media – and some of it consists of warnings, speculations on alternate endings, or discourse. Organisations, varying from suicide prevention hotlines to mental health charities, speak out on why they’re not happy about the series. But most people who are truly in the know about depression and suicide, speak positively about Thirteen Reasons Why. I, however, will not be one of them.
First things first, I did not watch the entire series. I have, however, read the book. Did I finish it? No. It’s one of the very, very few books that ended up back on my shelf with a bookmark somewhere in the middle. I made a vow to myself to read every young adult novel discussing mental illness that seems half decent, even if it’s just so I can rate it somewhere on a scale from “ah, this author clearly only read the wikipedia page on the protagonist’s condition” to “shit this is so accurate that it stabs me straight into the internal organs, i will never forget about this book because it’s the best thing done to sliced-up trees since, well, medieval times.” Like, seriously, I’m passionate about this stuff and I will absolutely choose to dedicate a post to the best books on the topic.
One of the reasons I’m so serious about this is because I am, in key, serious about representation. The majority of demographic groups I am or have been part of, are severely unrepresented in media, written on otherwise. People of mixed race, children who grew up in poverty, (former) foster kids and topics like taking care of your chronically ill parent, child abuse, and so forth aren’t very common to see in young adult novels – and whenever they’re seen, they’re often used to create an easy and predictable storyline.
There’s an easy explaination for that: Writing characters living in these conditions is harder, more complicated and asks for more research. I’m not yet sure which is worse- No representation at all, or just being a cliche.
Now, for Thirteen Reasons Why, let’s get the facts straight. Hannah is dead. She committed suicide. The number one question in everyone’s mind? Why. Why did Hannah kill herself. I wonder, statistically, whether this question is really as common as media makes it appear. Most of the time, people who commit suicide have a years-long history of severe mental illness. The why-question often isn’t the biggest one – instead, people wonder What could we have done to prevent this?
Allright, that’s a detail. A beginner’s mistake, really. Except the entire book/series is written around this question. In order to clear the sky surrounding this question, Hannah left a bunch of tapes (really? It’s 2017. Were the fuck do they still sell something that plays tapes, other than Urban Outfitters?) all centering around the people who made her do this. So really, it’s not much of a why-question. It’s more of a who-question. We’re blaming kids for another kid’s suicide here. That’s pretty nasty, don’t you think? I’m starting to like this Hannah person less and less.
No pal, you didn’t. The only person who killed Hannah Baker was Hannah Baker.
So, what do we have so far? High school student kills herself. Leaves the people she blames for it a bunch of tapes (again, how are they supposed to listen to those? I wouldn’t have an idea what to do with tapes, and people already consider me old-fashioned for making people mix CD’s.) and blackmails them into listening and forwarding them, because if they don’t, the footage is going public. It unfolds that Hannah was a bullying victim, so it’s kiiiiiiind of strange she’s basically bullying people post-mortem. Not to forget she did not hate all these people. I mean, I can get into being fuck-it-all and leaving your bullies to deal with what they’ve done. But Clay, for example, seemed to be on pretty friendly terms with her.
Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us to conclude that Hannah was probably not a really nice person. Does that mean she deserved all this? No, of course not. And there’s something to say in favor of unlikeable characters; especially when you do eventually grow more fond of them. So if this were all, I wouldn’t be here, writing this major rant.
However, next up is the idea that suicide is caused by a who. It’s never a who. Even in the case of bullying, we’re talking about a complex reaction to a complex situation. How much could have been different if the school had a decent anti-bullying protocole in place? Can bullying be the sole reason someone decides to take their own life, or is there always an underlying condition such as depression? (I’d think so. And this comes from someone who has been bullied. Badly. For years.) Not only is it harmful to blame people for your death, it’s also downright harmful to install the idea on viewers that people are the factors who cause someone to end their life. It can cause vunerable young people – who I’m sure do watch this series – to think that maybe, they were one of the reasons someone in their life committed suicide. They’ll never know, but it might give them the idea. This way, the causes of suicide are severely simplified; because what the series does not discuss, are all the other reasons someone might end their life, varying from childhood abuse to ‘simply’ a chemical disbalance in the brain.
And as the series lacks attention for all the other probable causes of suicide, it also lacks attention for all the possible ways to treat these underlying causes. Clay’s parents casually tell him to come up to them if he’s having a hard time dealing with Hannah’s loss, but never further inquire about it. At school, students are urged to speak up about eventual thoughts of harming theirselves, but there is no counselling, no serious class discussions, no discussion of how depression is an illness, not a character flaw. Nothing is being said to give the students a feeling of hope or to truly stimulate them to reach out. Considering how graphic the series is going to be, it would have been nice if the viewers could have been told that if they’re familiarizing theirselves with Hannah, it might help to talk about it.
Because yes, things are about to get graphic. And that might be the biggest issue. Viewers are almost handed a manual on how to end their own lifes, as they watch Hannah end hers. There are tons of studies and even media guidelines advicing strongly against this because we know it causes copycat suicides. Yes, of course we knew this was going to happen eventually. But compared to other TV suicides, this is pretty damn dark and pretty damn graphic. Especially when we take into consideration that this show’s target demographic is young adults, a group that’s already not the most mentally stable.
If Selena Gomez wants to produce a series or movie so bad, there are countless topics she could have done a way better job at. Being chronically ill as a young person for example, taking lessons out of her personal struggle with Lupus. Or the downside of being a child star, perhaps. That way, she could have done more for representation than Thirteen Reasons Why ever will.