13 Reasons Why had many ambitious goals. Here are 13 reasons why it fails at every single one of them.
(Content warning: discussions of suicide, sexual assault and self-harm)
Based on Jay Asher’s young adult novel, Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why follows the aftereffects on a school and its community after a student kills herself. After her death, Hannah Baker (Katharine Langford) leaves behind 13 tapes with instructions that they be delivered to the people she believed played roles in her decision to take her life.
It was supposed to be a show to get people talking about teen suicide, bullying, sexual assault and more. It was supposed to open and encourage dialogue between generations and demystify how insidious cyber- and other kinds of bullying can be in the age of social media. 13 Reasons Why had many ambitious goals. Here are 13 reasons why it fails at every single one of them:
1. It glorifies and romanticizes suicide.
You don’t get any more romantic than a charming dead girl speaking from beyond the grave — on cassette tapes, no less — about everyone who wronged her, as if she’s merely hosting a podcast. Whenever suicide is presented as the only option, a fait acompli, we are in dangerous territory. And that’s exactly what 13 Reasons Why does.
2. It romanticizes self-harming.
When one of the main characters Clay Jensen (Dylan Minette) notices a ladder of cuts up his classmate Skye’s (Sosie Bacon) forearm, he asks how she is any different from Hannah. Skye says, “Suicide is for cowards. This is what you do to not commit suicide.” Um, no. It isn’t. Like suicide, self-harming is a symptom, not a solution. There is nothing romantic about either.
3. It’s sensationalist, reductive and the narrative structure is manipulative.
Featuring the mother of all manipulative narrative structures, the show throws out one cliffhanger-reliant gimmick after another. Since 13 Reasons Why claims to be about issues, these cheap narrative tricks to keep the viewer bingeing are an insult to everyone’s intelligence. The 13 episodes are needlessly drawn out and the content frightens people for shock value, not to help make sure another teen doesn’t kill themself.
13 Reasons Why should have told the tale in realtime rather than flashbacks. That would also allow people to watch the horrible story unfold at their own pace, without feeling that they desperately need to know what happens next. Enough with that nonsense.
4. There is no positive modeling for a show that is issue-based.
How do you present an issue-based narrative without any positive modeling at all? Why are suicide and self-harming the only things this show presents as solutions for teenage troubles? We meet a group of the worst teens ever, even including the girl who killed herself. We also meet the worst adults ever, who are all so self-involved or absent they have no clue what the children are up to. We can talk all day and all night about what not to do, and it isn’t productive. We need to start modeling what TO do. Promoting honesty and open communication is a good way to start.
5. The show begs sympathy for bad behavior.
Hannah’s pre-suicide tapes should not have cycled through half a dozen classmates before reaching the hands of an adult or the authorities. The tapes are evidence of multiple rapes, manslaughter, sexual harassment and every kind of bullying. These are misdemeanor crimes and felonies. Not to report the tapes — and worse, not to go straight to Hannah’s distraught parents — is super problematic behavior, and everyone does it. And yet the show encourages us to identify with them, including the “hero” Clay. Hard no.
6. On-screen rape is always problematic.
On-screen rape risks sexualizing the victims, which is what happens in 13 Reasons Why. You can bet your fur that some viewers got off on those graphic rape scenes. The creators would have been better off having Jess (Alisha Boe) and Hannah describe how they felt using their words rather than putting those horrific scenes on film. Everyone gets the point without needing to see it. And those of us who have lived it do not need to relive it through someone else’s experience.
7. The show panders to the heterosexual male gaze.
Even though 13 Reasons Why is about a girl who killed herself, we see her confessional through the eyes of her male classmate. (The problematic on-screen rapes also serve the male gaze.) And while there are both male and female gay characters, the only ones we see getting intimate are two women, in spite of the fact that the other main male character Tony (Christian Navarro) has a steady boyfriend featured in many episodes. The hetero male gaze needs to be deconstructed, not elevated.
8. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is a sexist fantasy.
It is impossible to present a realistic vision of what led to a suicide when the girl who kills herself is presented as a two-dimensional sexist trope. Laurie Penny has written an excellent analysis on this trope for The New Statesman.
9. It sends the message that it’s acceptable to shift blame.
Hannah’s tapes, and all of the people on them, give the impression that we don’t have to take responsibility for our actions. We can set the villagers with pitchforks onto someone else who did worse wrongs in order to avoid our own roles in a tragedy. 13 Reasons Why suggests shifting blame is a viable option. It’s not.
10. The show is confused about The Bystander Effect.
In the post-show documentary Beyond the Reasons, they discuss the Bystander Effect in relation to Hannah Baker witnessing the rape of her classmate Jess. That isn’t correct. What happened to Hannah in that closet was the fight/flight/freeze response to trauma.
Actual evidence of the Bystander Effect in the show involves the dozen classmates who do not report the variety of crimes they have been party or witness to because they are waiting for someone else to go first. In real life people are much more likely to act when we see we are the only one available to. If the creators don’t even know how these psycho-social responses work then how can they purport to educate anyone about suicide, let alone any of the other issues?
11. No discussions of mental illness and depression.
Like many Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Hannah Baker is suffering from depression that is disguised as quirky eccentricity. The show does not discuss how and why mental illness contributes to suicidal ideation just as much as the social conditions of bullying, sexual assault and poor decision-making. This is one of the show’s biggest failures.
12. There is no acknowledgement of race.
Yes, the diversity in 13 Reasons Why is a huge plus. However, in real life, people are often bullied, harassed, and/or targeted because of their race. Or they might become bullies to align themselves with a group for protection. All of these issues go hand in hand and need to be on the table for discussion. Intersectionality or bust.
13. It solidifies the notion that we are all alone.
13 Reasons Why is one of the bleakest pieces of visual media I’ve seen in a long time, and I watch horror films regularly. The way the story plays out demonstrates in no uncertain terms that we are on our own in this life. No friends will help us, no parents, no teachers, no counselors. I haven’t had suicidal ideation in some time, but I had strong inclinations to mentally go there while watching this show. With all the horrible in this world right now, ain’t nobody got time for unhealthy narratives like this one.
Find another way to open a dialogue with your kids and community that involves positive modeling and teaching effective communication skills and trust. 13 Reasons Why is far from any kind of useful solution.