Trigger Warning: Please exercise caution as you read this article as it discusses Suicide, Mental Health, Sexual Assault, Rape, and other sensitive triggering content.
A few years back, Netflix decided to adapt 13 Reasons Why, a popular Young Adult novel that discussed the suicide of a teenager. Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has 13 reasons that made her feel like the only option was to end her life. But before going, she recorded 13 tapes; each one had a name and the reasons why. This standalone novel became a hit, sparking controversy amongst schools and libraries as the book contained suicide, drug usage, and rape. However, the negativity toward the book only amplified when the show went live.
The book brushed over sensitive content by leaving the sexual content and Hannah’s suicide more ambiguous and left to the imagination; the adapted series brutally depicts not only the two rape scenes but changing Hannah’s suicide attempt from a bottle of pills to slitting her wrists in a bathtub. Things only got worse from there. The following season depicted another rape scene with the character Tyler Down (Devin Druid). It can be argued this scene, in particular, was the most brutal, as the second season ended with Tyler almost committing a school shooting as a result. However, it’s looked at, 13 Reasons Why might be the worst adaptation and series about mental health as it relies on shock value over substance.
13 Reasons Why’s Purpose Dwindled
The series opened with a promising premise of a thought-provoking message to possible takes on suicide prevention. Hannah Baker was bullied and ridiculed by her peers for various reasons. Rumors spread about her sexuality, along with her promiscuity. This might be a shared issue between the book and adaptation, but viewers and readers of the material didn’t get to see the side of Hannah’s internal struggles against depression. Instead of blaming depression, the show solely blames the bullies for her actions.
Hannah could have talked to her parents about what was occurring at school. By not discussing the possibility of avoiding her death by reaching out to loved ones, it gives the incentive that it’s okay not to say anything when you’re at that point in your mental health. Some actions could have been taken to help Hannah. Understandably, when things get stacked against you, it becomes too much. This is why it is so important to share what’s happening with you in your internal struggles.
Instead of creating conversations on bullying and depression, the show ultimately did the opposite:
“The Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’ was associated with a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the month (April 2017) following the show’s release, after accounting for ongoing trends in suicide rates, according to a study published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.”National Institute of Health
There was a significant increase in suicides, and it was commonly associated with the show’s release. Obviously, this is counterintuitive to the show’s initial goal. This is still a difficult topic to discuss as it begs the question of how much control the media has over young minds. Does it sway people to do heinous acts? It depends on who you’re asking. But regardless of what is influential or not, it does not take away that these scenes are created for a reaction.
There’s a way to discuss the harshness of difficult topics without showing every gory detail.
Hannah Baker Had Flaws
Hannah is an interesting character mainly because she’s not the ideal protagonist. She does things that aren’t considered ethical such as not reporting Jessica’s (Alisha Boe) rape or, for that matter, not saying anything about the stop sign when Sherri (Ajiona Alexus) knocks it over and was the reason why Jeff Atkins (Brandon Larracuente) died.
This is further set up in Season 2 when it appears that Hannah had left out important details about what happened with each reason. For example, Hannah initially forgave Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) for stealing her positive notes, and they eventually dated throughout the summer. Leaving out a significant detail for listeners about the true relationship. Hannah was a teenager who made some minor mistakes and lived a life of hardships. Still, instead of twisting it into a positive self-reinforcement of the importance of speaking up about your mental well-being, it becomes another teen drama show with plot twist after plot twist.
Graphic Depictions Does Not Equate to Powerful Conversations
Hannah’s death scene was highly graphic and triggered many audiences. In the books, she overdoses on medication. In the show… it goes a different route by having her slit her wrists in a bathtub. The scene was eventually cut from the series only two years after airing. The purpose may have been to display the harsh realities of suicide; however, showing the true nature of her taking pills, like in the book, would have been sufficient enough.
Not to mention the two rape scenes between Bryce and Jessica and Bryce and Hannah were both critically done with no sensitivity. Season 2 was worse in terms of having another character Tyler Down, being raped by an inanimate object, which was not in the source material what’s so ever. It was done out of pure, poor taste and added incentive of Tyler wanting to partake in a school shooting at the end of the season. There are so many things wrong with this plot point, as it negates that Tyler had reasons for doing what he did. The likely reason why this was shown on screen was to show that sexual assault happens to not only women but also men. Again, these scenes do not have to be as graphic to have nuanced conversations on the manner. Fading to black or eluding to trauma can also navigate conversations.
Displaying these scenes is to portray the brutality of suicides and rape victims, but it’s not always necessary to show that. This is what leads to the term: Trauma Porn. It becomes a big joke when graphic scenes are overly demonstrated throughout the series with no real resolutions involved. For example, Tyler’s sexual assault makes him want to shoot up the school. Instead of discussing his mental state and what truly pushed him to the edge, the other characters in the series cover up the incident. The person who assaulted him was put in jail, which is good! But what’s not… the characters blamed a murder that this character did not commit, excusing the death of Bryce Walker. Throughout Season 3, the whole intro was to humanize Bryce, which many fans were adamantly against because of the previous rapes he had committed. Nevertheless, it did happen, and it was weird. Then, the character suddenly died.
But what I think is the most important thing to take from this is sexual violence does not need to be explicitly shown in order to get the message across. For instance, Women Talking discussed many instances of rape, but not once did they ever show a scene to display that it happened. It can simply be inferred.
Seasons 2, 3, and 4 of 13 Reasons Why Didn’t Need to Happen
It can be argued that Season 2 did not need to happen for 13 Reasons Why, but it also displayed the initial aftermath of the tapes. At the same time, Seasons 3 and 4 did nothing but prolong the series for no greater purpose except to cash-grab the series as it was considered popular on the Network. Season 3 tries to give Bryce Walker, the main antagonist in Seasons 1 and 2, redemption for his acts by displaying that he’s trying to better himself and right his wrongs. This gets thrown out the window when Alex Standall, another person on Hannah’s tapes, kills Bryce.
He and his friends cover the murder, blaming Monty Montgomery, who is then murdered in prison. Season 4 becomes a continued murder mystery of trying to keep the secret from getting out. This all comes down to poor writing. As stated above, these plot twists and turns do nothing to the novel’s primary purpose.
There should always be room to discuss mental health in all respects. But how we portray that in the media to a young, impressionable audience can affect their minds and decisions to reach out for help when they truly need it. This isn’t to say that if a teenager watches a film where suicide is discussed, they will more than likely commit it. However, handling the topics with sensitivity and less graphic representation is less likely to exacerbate those who are potentially triggered. Continuing the series with three more seasons does nothing but add fuel to the fire.
Remember, if you are going through anything, don’t be afraid to speak out. We are in this together to live the best lives possible, and we want you to thrive.
To feel safe at all times is a basic human right; let’s work to make this world physically and mentally safe for everyone.
If you or someone you know is battling with mental health-related distress, we urge you to be kind and hold space for them, and contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (confidential, free, available 24/7/365):
→ Call or text 988
→ Chat at 988lifeline.org
→ Connect with a trained crisis counselor
For more perspectives on mental health, please click here.