13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series adapted from a novel of the same title by Jay Asher that depicts the life of a seventeen-year-old high school student named Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who has committed suicide. She left thirteen tapes, each addressed to a different one of her peers explaining their actions that contributed to her wanting to take her own life. Although the show has good intentions and the premise is a worthy one, there are some issues I had with it: some from a filmmaking point of view and others with its portrayal of suicide and mental illness.
From a filmmaking point of view, the show is brim full of cheesy high-school movie clichés that are unrealistic and unnecessary, especially in a show dealing with such a serious, real life issue. Some of the characters’ words and actions are so ridiculous and unrealistic they border on comical, like when Jessica (Alisha Boe) slaps Hannah in the middle of a café full of people and not a single person around them so much as bats an eyelid. The dialogue is often contrived and unnatural, for example when Alex (Miles Heizer), Jessica, and Hannah all hold hands and proclaim “FML for ever”. Although admittedly, the teeth-clenching cringe decreases after around episode seven, the first half of the series is difficult to watch at times. Of course, the second half is difficult to watch for very different reasons (which I’ll explain later). The show also has some seemingly pointless subplots which lead to nothing. For example, the subplot in which we see Tyler (Devin Druid) purchase a gun, and later his hidden collection of weapons, leads to apparently nothing. Although there’s always the possibility this will be explained in a second series, it adds nothing to the narrative of the first, apart from maybe giving fans an opportunity to theorise.
The way the show portrays suicide is misleading. While some of the things that happen to Hannah, like being raped and stalked, would understandably drive somebody who was already struggling to committing suicide, mental illness isn’t always an accumulative process. Depression can affect absolutely anyone, regardless of their personal circumstances. However, not once in the entire series does anyone utter the words “depression” or “mental illness” or any terminology of that sort. The overarching message of the series seems to be: “be nice to people or they might commit suicide”. Kindness is of course a noble message to endorse, but to suggest it could prevent someone from taking their own life is unhelpful and frankly untrue. It oversimplifies suicide by unfairly blaming Hannah’s peers (some of whom seem fairly innocent) for her choice to take her own life, thus ignoring the medical reality of mental illness. It’s often unrealistic in its depiction of depression and how it’s percieved, e.g. when Hannah tells her school councillor that she’s been sexually assaulted and that she feels she can no longer cope with life; he basically hands her a box of tissues and tells her to get over it. He does not even acknowledge depression as an illness or suggest the possibility of therapy or medication, which is what any professional would do.
Furthermore, the overly graphic depictions of sexual assault and suicide do more harm than good. Although I can understand the intention of shocking the viewer by revealing the true horror of suicide, studies have shown that graphic depictions of suicide have the exact opposite effect and that they can cause individuals who are already feeling suicidal to tip over the edge. It certainly doesn’t glamorise or romanticise suicide or rape in any way, but the scenes in which they occur are far too long and far too explicit. The particularly painful way in which Hannah chooses to take her own life (slitting her wrists) suggests an underlying mental health problem which would not have been cured by kindness. Mental illness is exactly that: an illness. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain which can be treated, and it may have existed in Hannah’s mind regardless of the way she was treated. The show almost suggests that Hannah committed suicide as an act of revenge, wanting to make those who hurt her suffer by blaming them for her death. This is not only a cruel act of narcissism which even leads to one individual on the tapes committing suicide as well, but it is also a negative and inaccurate representation of people struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, who already feel misunderstood and stigmatised.
Although 13 Reasons Why has succeeded in opening a dialogue about important issues such as sexual assault and suicide, the inaccuracy in the depictions will lead to more stigma and misunderstanding; while the explicit nature of certain scenes are too difficult to watch and may cause people who are already struggling to relapse.