Books / Netflix

In Defense of “Thirteen Reasons Why”

clay13 Reasons Why, courtesy of Netflix

**beware of spoilers**
Over the past couple of weeks, Thirteen Reasons Why has been getting a lot of backlash for its take on suicide and mental illnesses. Some people criticize it for glamorizing the topic. Others describe the show as a story about a girl with an ultimate revenge plan. Frankly, I find those accusations quite odd.
Let’s go through the most popular misconceptions that are being brought up on the internet:

#1 SUICIDE IS ROMANTICIZED 
How did anyone come to this conclusion? The scene itself is utterly disturbing, graphic and even if you close your eyes (which I did), you hear Hannah’s haunting, muffled cries. If anything, the creators tried to teach young people that suicide is never the easy way out. It’s horrifying and it doesn’t award you with a feeling of relief or mollification. You are spending your last seconds on earth in pain and alone. You’re turning your reality into an actual horror scenario.
13 Reasons Why does show you the outcome of Hannah’s actions. Most importantly, you see the heartbreaking reactions of Hannah’s parents. How could they lead a normal life after finding their only child, dead, in a bathtub filled with blood? It’s highly doubtful that Brian Yorkey (the show’s creator) derived some sort of sick satisfaction from portraying this.
Not only did Hannah hurt her parents, she traumatized her friends in the process. Over the course of the series, the story crushes you bit by bit, when you get to see how Hannah’s actions leave a negative impact on mainly innocent people. And that leads me to….

#2 IT GLORIFIES THE REVENGE SUBPLOT 
The message I got from the show is that Hannah is not only the victim. The representation of her character in the narrative gives us a clue, she can be a troubled, toxic person. You are NOT supposed to root for her at all times.
The tapes are not demonstrated as the greatest tool for revenge since innocent characters are deeply touched by the content that is on them, and are struggling with everyday activities after listening to them. The viewer is aware that there are only about 3 or 4 people who deserve to face the consequences after what they did to Hannah (and Jessica). Hannah is in the wrong for putting the blame on everyone else and it goes without saying, she can be relentless and impulsive. She expects a lot from others (Clay) and lashes out when they don’t meet her high expectations. I think the message here is very clear, you can not drag somebody else down with you because of your personal issues. Her fragile state causes her to point fingers at people who according to her, didn’t show enough interest to stave her off her suicidal impulses. The display of Clay’s internal struggle alongside the shots of him kicking himself for not saving Hannah in time, allows the realization to sink in… Hannah’s plan is cruel and inconsiderate. But we have to keep in mind, Hannah is a teenager, a teenager who struggles with depression and alienation after being bullied for several months and in the aftermath, raped. How much can we hold her responsible for her actions?

hannah13 Reasons Why, courtesy of Netflix

#3 THE SHOW DOES  NOT ADDRESS MENTAL ILLNESS
If tv shows or movies straight-up tell me in a line of dialogue, a character’s psychological diagnosis, I consider it lazy storytelling. I prefer movies that actually show me the occurring symptoms and then perhaps state the mental health condition. The signs of Hannah’s depression are visible after the drama with Zac and Ryan’s betrayal. Hannah feels like she can’t trust anyone anymore, her loneliness overwhelms her. According to researchers, people who suffer from depression tend to chop all their hair off to gain back control over their life. And that is exactly what Hannah does. Weeks of bullying, sexual harassment and betrayal result in her feeling numb. She chooses a completely different look to have a fresh start and feel something again but as she soon realizes, the world stayed the same and the deep overpowering feeling of hopelessness is still heavy on her chest, she comes back to self-destructive thoughts.
Just like Jay Asher in his book, the creators of the show acknowledge Hannah as an unreliable narrator. Clay finds out that she twisted the truth about Zac throwing away the letter and she might have lied about Jessica ending their friendship. For the first time, we see a manipulative side of her and it catches us a little off guard. At this point of the story, we should ask ourselves. Why is that? Is Hannah’s depiction of reality different from everyone else’s? If so, does that link her to some sort of psychiatric disorder?

Secondary characters are clearly suffering from different types of mental illnesses.
Clay behaviour points to anxiety disorder.
Jessica has post-traumatic stress after the events that happened during her infamous party.
Alex’s guilt over what happened to Hannah leads him to depression and eventually that pushes him to attempt suicide. He deliberately provokes a fight to get brutally beaten up because he feels like he deserves it. He is acting recklessly, not caring about his own safety, that includes substance abuse and irresponsible driving.
The idea the creators tried to get across is that Hannah’s actions scarred her listeners for life, leaving them with endless self-loathing.
13 Reasons Why doesn’t use terminology to describe Psychological Disorders. Isn’t that the whole point of the show? That no one actually verbally addresses those issues? And that’s what makes it even more daunting? The adults prefer to quell inside their panic that the kids might be suffering from mental illnesses. They dismiss it as if it was just another teenage rebellion. The show gives prominence to the fact how ignorant society is when it comes to mental health and how it fails to recognize the issue.

jessia13 Reasons Why, courtesy of Netflix

#4 GRATUITOUS RAPE SCENES 
There is controversy surrounding the rape scenes but truth be told, they weren’t filmed in a male gazey way at all. Game of Thrones takes the cake for that. In 13 Reasons Why, female characters are not exploited for male pleasure nor are they the subjects of gross male fantasies. They are not sexualized. The sexual violence against women is not normalized for the entertainment factor, it’s quite the opposite. Bryce, a privileged jock, is without a question, the biggest villain of the story who deserves to rot in jail. The show doesn’t shy away from depicting the rawness and ugliness of rape, and the trauma that follows it. In both scenes, there is almost no nudity (you can only see a brief shot of Bryce’s ass), and the camera focuses on the girls’ facial expressions rather than their exposed, violated bodies. During Hannah’s scene, there is a massive close-up of her face. I will never forget her empty stare, her eyes slowly losing their spark and her limbs gradually going limp. Directing wise, the shot hit a nerve HARD. I like how the show touched upon issues like consent; how it’s not always saying “NO”, fighting back, kicking and screaming, how you are not always drunk when it happens etc.
Did those scenes really have to be included? In this case, yes. Remember when I upright said Hannah was an unreliable narrator? Okay, so if Brian Yorkey were to leave the rape sequences to imagination, then someone could simply imply she lied and quote Justin (a character from the show) by saying she made it all up “for attention”. The creators couldn’t risk that.

It keeps people talking
Don’t get me wrong, the show is by no means perfect but the bottom line is, it started a proper conversation. We can’t condemn it for talking about serious, painful experiences. 13 Reasons Why persuaded people to discuss things that are considered taboo; bullying, mental health and sexual assault. I know people keep bringing up how triggering the content is (there are warnings before the most jarring episodes) but we can’t ignore the positive impact of the series. All over the web, I see comments from teenagers, saying how it enticed them to call the hotline and how they feel the will to live. It reminded them they are not alone and other people suffer from mental illnesses, too.

13 Reasons Why highlights the importance of cherishing every little moment. The premise of it is that life is too fragile and it needs to be nurtured. Not to mention, the show has a diverse, talented cast, a great soundtrack and top-notch directing. That’s a lot for just one little series.

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