Is ’13 Reasons Why’ Dangerous?


Netflix released a new original series in recent weeks called ’13 Reasons Why’, based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher. There has been much public discussion about the potential impact of the show’s depiction of suicide, self-harm, sexual assault and depression with some making the claim that the show may be ‘dangerous’ for young viewers. Others feel as though the show creates the opportunity to discuss these issues in an honest way.

Regardless of your opinion there’s no denying that there has been an impact. Headspace Australia has reported an marked increase in calls to their help centres from young people in crisis. This may indicate that the show is prompting young people to feel as though they are in danger or that it has encouraged them to speak up.

We’ve taken a look at the show in its entirety and I would like to share my totally unqualified viewpoint and what I feel are some of the problems with how the show is put together.

13 reasons why clay hannahFashion is obviously not a problem.The premise of the show is that a high school girl named Hannah (Katherine Langford) has committed suicide. Before killing herself she records a series of tapes explaining her ’13 reasons why’ and leaves them with a friend. The intention is that everyone has to play this ‘game’ (yes, they call it a game) where they listen to the tapes so they understand their involvement and then pass them on to the next person. No-one gives the tapes over to the authorities as they will then be implicated in their wrongdoings, and one random guy has taken it upon himself to ensure that they get passed on to the next person.

Firstly, the good. The producers of the show have clearly taken pains to ensure that the depiction of suicide is not in any way glamorised or romanticised. In regards to that goal they have succeeded. The scene showing Hannah’s suicide is brutal and unflinching. The steady camera, realistic colours and minimal editing emphasises the physical pain of the act and the emotional distress of her parents upon finding her. It’s brutal (even if many mental health professionals recommend against this).

But…

The problem is the other 12 hours and 55 minutes of screen time surrounding this scene where Hannah’s peers listen to the tapes she left behind. It is through these tapes that Hannah’s suicide becomes positive and even justified. Now Jessica, who was raped by the school rapist (he really doesn’t have any character beyond ‘rapist’), has the courage to stop drowning her woes in alcohol and report her rapist to the authorities. Another girl, Sheri,  who was involved in causing a fatal car accident and never came forward now understands how important it is to confess her crime and put people’s minds at ease. The main character, Clay (Dylan Minnette) goes from being a shy, awkward misanthrope to being reinvented as a confident, confrontation, strong willed character who also gets a girlfriend. In about 3 days.

clayIt just takes a friend’s suicide to make it work.13 Reasons Why presents viewers with the idea that suicide can be a way of getting back at those who have hurt you. Hannah’s suicide not only has an unusually positive impact on many of those left behind but brings a rapist to justice, unveils a neglectful school administration and generally makes the world a better place.

This is a fantasy. Author Asher has stated that the novel was written in response to his own suicidal thoughts. The thought process is accurate, it’s not uncommon for those feeling suicidal to feel as though this is a way of getting back at those who drive them to it this grim end. The story functions as a fantasy of how things will change has the result of one’s suicide and how people will respond to it. What will more likely occur is guilt, anger, confusion and possibly ‘suicide contagion’, a spread of suicidal intent through exposure to suicide related themes and imagery. Suicide does not lead to justice and people being inspired to better themselves.

Batman-Jim-Lee.jpgSuicide is not Batman.Yes, it’s a fictional show but it works so hard to create a sense of realism. The more upsetting the content of a scene, the more realistic they make it. Yet the premise itself is pure fantasy. This is where the film creates problems, as it reinforces the harmful thought process of a minority group of viewers who are experiencing similar problems.

The show does, surprisingly, acknowledge the concept of suicide contagion. It gets discussed by the characters and as a result of Hannah’s suicide another character does attempt to shoot himself in the final episodes, setting up a plot for season 2. Putting aside how goddamn crass it is that they used a suicide as an episode cliffhanger this shows an alarming lack of self awareness. They put it in the script, but they don’t see how this may impact on the viewers? They say they want to start a discussion, but TV is a one way form of communication. They aren’t having a discussion with the audience, they’re dumping this topic in their lap and leaving them to deal with it.

This is the kind of moronic decision making we would expect from someone who dated Justin Bieber. Wait…what do you mean this was produced by Selena Gomez?

selena-gomez-justin-bieber-basketball-650-430She can’t even work out how to kiss.Then there’s the character of Skye. Skye is an alternative/emo/goth barister who challenges Clay with her upfront opinions. At one point Clay notices that Skye has scars from self-harm on her wrist. Skye notices and claims that Hannah was weak because she killed herself.

Is…wait…is Skye saying that cutting yourself is the strong alternative to suicide? I’m completely confounded by this exchange. It sounds like complete lunacy. At the end of the show Clay asks Skye out. In the novel it’s depicted as Clay reaching out to Skye because she was clearly in pain, but in the show she’s a prize for him coming to terms with losing Hannah. That’s kinda messed up.

SKYEFIX1104_2.jpgIt’s like these people don’t know what they’re doing!If there’s anything the show could start a real discussion about it’s depression and loneliness. As the show goes on Hannah begins to exhibit an increasing number of symptoms of depression. Of course 13 Reasons Why goes to great pains to show the number of options open to her and…yeah, I’m kidding. It’s completely unhelpful.

People suffering from depression, especially young people, often feel as though there’s no-one they can turn to. Nobody will care about their problems or will take them seriously. In the show Hannah attempts to speak with school counselors, teachers and parents but for the most part they are oblivious to her pain because grown ups just don’t get it, guys. There’s a scene early in the series where Hannah and Jessica mock an adult working at their school for having the audacity to suggest they try being friends. I understand that this is a TV show made for entertainment purposes and not a public service announcement, and for the story to work they have to get Hannah into that noose, but they really are sending out the wrong message at every opportunity.

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The final big issue is sexual assault. In this case the show has, no joking, done fairly well. Hannah and another character are the victims rape and harassment. Well before this takes place Hannah is shamed by a misleading photo distributed around the school and rumours about her performing sexual acts that she did not partake in. Her pain and embarrassment at these events and the way she is confronted by it frequently is an effective story element that could cause some people to question the damage they have inflicted on others by spreading such rumours. The show even shows boys making comments they perceive as being complimentary without seeing the distress they are causing. The show has done good work here, but we still prefer the way the topic is used in the new Power Rangers where we see the consequences of being the perpetrator rather than the victim. That was a fresh angle.

On the whole we do not recommend this show. It may have gone in with the right intentions but it has not done the right thing by the audience. The producers and film-makers have essentially done every that mental health workers warn against the media doing. If you feel that you may be affected by the show you’re not missing out by skipping this one. Netflix just uploaded a bunch of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Watch that instead. It’s super fun.

jonahbots-1024x576Tom Servo will always bring happiness.Oh, did we mention they’ve set up school shootings as the topic for the next season. I’m sure they’ll handle that it a super helpful way and not just go for shock value.

If you do feel as though you are in distress or crisis please speak to someone about it. Below are the helpline numbers for the countries the majority of our readers reside in.

USA: 1-800-273-8255

Aus: 13 11 14

UK: 116 123

If you need help finding a helpline for your region please use http://www.befrienders.org/

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