HOW 13 REASONS WHY GLORIFIED SUICIDE AND WAS DETRIMENTAL TO TEENAGE MENTAL HEALTH
Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive topics depicting suicide, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and self harm.
There are many issues posed when speaking about this problematic show as it had an explosive reaction with its initial release, worrying many parents with the negative outlook of the show. The series “13 Reasons Why” has been running for 4 seasons and was firstly released on Netflix on March 31st 2017, following a teenage boy, Clay Jensen, who just received a classmates suicide tapes listing her 13 reasons why she decided to take her own life. This classmate, Hannah Baker dedicates one tape to each person that was “responsible” for her suicide. Right of the bat, it is evident that the show has to tread lightly when depicting these themes especially when the audience is targetted to teenagers and young adults as they are susceptible to the media they consume. Throughout this article, the main topics that will be mentioned are in Season 1 of this show as well as overall themes presented.
The first concerning factor is how famous actress and singer Selena Gomez was an executive producer of the show; catching a large amount of her fan bases attention. This poses a large problem as Selena Gomez is mostly known for her uprising roles in Disney shows and movies, making 13 Reasons Why a show that is in a drastically different direction than anything else she has even worked on. She spoke of how this show has been a passion project of hers and how she holds it close to heart; “hitting close to home”. With 381 million followers on Instagram, Selena Gomez’s involvement sparked many young teenagers interest who look up to her, already creating a very sensitive point surrounding the show and its stigma.
Diving into the content of the show, the way that sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide is depicted comes off in a romanticized manner. They depict Hannahs's cassette tapes in a retro and nostalgic way; almost poetic. These tapes in which she outlines all the ways people wronged her show a creative way never seen before when speaking of suicide notes or messages left behind, sparking inspiration in those searching for an escape in real life. They also include many graphic scenes such as when we follow Hannah as she watches her friend get raped. This isn’t commonly seen in mainstream shows, evidently because it is a scarring thing to see and could easily have been portrayed through the usage of storytelling. Another example of a problematic scene was in Season 1 where Hannah takes her life, showing the method of how and later how her mother walked in and found her. This hit close to home for many viewers of the series, coming off as extremely traumatic and graphic. This scene was received so negatively that the show's producers even decided to remove it after its release.
Not only do they outline various disturbing scenes but they also misrepresent the whole idea they were vouching for. The show was initially made with the intention of “tackling tough real-life issues experienced by teens and young people” where in reality, it glorifies it as well as simultaneously making it seem like there is no solution to those struggling with mental health problems. The show does a good job at representing how neglect from parental figures and others can lead to negative repercussions and worsening mental health, however, time after time we see how Hannah is ignored by all of those around her, making it seem like there was never any salvation for her. Many other characters like Jessica who was raped are left defensless with no support system or outlet to turn to. With the usage of these tapes, the show is also able to represent the shift of blame with those close to her begin to go on a downward spiral and never-ending cycle of self-blame and hatred because of it.
The way the series was also structured also arose discussions within critics, how it came off as another “cash grab” technique. The show repeatedly left cliffhangers at the end of their episodes and made the series follow a flashback - present day depiction instead of being done in a linear manner. This was done in order to hook viewers into watching more of their episodes making many feel like it overshadowed the message trying to be represented.
There were a variety of consequences following the airing of the show, one of them being a large increase in suicide rates. A few days after the release, it was found that two teenage girls died by suicide a few days apart, with one of their parents releasing the statement "Don’t go through with the renewal for the second season of 13 Reasons Why. Stop this. This is wrong. You’re making money off the misery of others." The public was imploring the end of the production of the show, many asking for Selena Gomez herself to release a statement to break the silence following these heartbreaking occasions. The American National Institue of Health conducted a study where it was found that in “April 2017, had the highest overall suicide rate for this age group in the past five years” for people between the ages of 10-17; leading to 195 suicides in the following 8 months in the USA. Alongside the research of the study, the association came out with needing to “always be cautious when trying to draw casual conclusions from correlational data”, leaving this study to not be regarded as absolute fact. Other countries were also quick to add their own measures. This can be seen with The Australian mental health organisation issuing a warning about the show and New Zealand advising those under 18 not to watch the show without parental supervision.
The show however continued to be produced and was renewed with currently 4 seasons available to watch. A response and small alteration that was found was the warning seen in the beginning of each episode:
“The following episode contains graphic depictions of suicide and violence. Which some viewers may find disturbing. It is invented for mature audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.”
Evidently not being enough change coming from such a popular show and famous producer. The series continued to miss the mark with the themes they were speaking of and producing, making many more critics and viewers upset and outraged. A common concern that kept on arising was the constant redemption of rapists, homophobes, and school shooters.
The storyline of season 3 had the intention of making the viewers sympathize with Bryce Walker, a known abuser and rapist, where “he only starts to realise the pain he inflicted once it directly impacts his own life. Not only are his attempts to change selfishly motivated by this, but they're also undermined by a number of violent instances that remind us of his true nature.” A large range of articles can be found criticising the show as well as common viewers coming out and sharing how offensive they found the show when depicting subjects they struggled with personally; feeling as if they weren’t being taken seriously.
What can be taken away from the making of “13 Reasons Why” is how harmful and influential mainstream media can be on the average viewer; especially a developing teenager. Although they bring light to issues that people should be educated on and isn’t conventionally seen on TV, they misrepresent the large population and suggest very harmful ways of thinking. A show that has a large budget as well as being streamed on one of the most famous platforms should have a larger amount of monitoring in what can be released or not. The show continued to ignore their viewers opinions and concerns, not making any considerable or evident changes to their production style. With the global increase of social media and technology, teenage mental health continues to be an evergrowing issue that should be regarded with great attention and care; putting the utmost emphasis on TV series. The use of shows contributes greatly as accurate representation can be the differentiating factor for someone who is seeking help and reassurance; wanting to understand how they can get better and who they can turn to.