At first glance, Netflix’s latest series, “13 Reasons Why,” looks like another run-of-the-mill teen drama full of angst, raging hormones, and good-looking actors.
However, since its March 31 release the show has received rave reviews and become the center of much conversation, with many talking about its portrayal of rape, bullying, and suicide.
“13 Reasons Why,” which is based on a book of the same name by author Jay Asher, has been called “Netflix’s best new show in years.”
There are spoilers below.
The show centers around the life and death of high school teen Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford). The story begins with a set of cassette tapes that were placed on the doorstep of her friend and love interest, Clay Jensen (played by Dylan Minnette), not long after Hannah commits suicide. As Clay starts listening to the tapes, he realizes Hannah intentionally recorded each cassette to represent the 13 reasons (and people) who had influenced her decision to end her life.
In the beginning of the 13-episode series, Hannah recounts being the victim of slut-shaming, name-calling, bullying, and other spirit-breaking assaults at the hands of her peers. The show takes a particularly dark turn around episode 10 when she witnesses the rape of a former friend at a party. In episodes 12 and 13, viewers see Hannah’s final moments of life where she's raped, tries to confide in a counselor days later about the assault — the counselor tells her to get over it — and then commits suicide in her parent’s bathtub while home alone.
“’13 Reasons Why’ wisely humanizes and contextualizes grief, depression, suicide, and the aftereffects of sexual assault through characters and scenarios that viewers will be unlikely to forget," TV critic Maureen Ryan wrote in Variety.
“The suicide toward the end of the series might as well have been a handy dandy how-to graphic for how to kill yourself,” Jamie Harrington argued on her blog, one of the reasons she wouldn’t advise letting any teens watch the show.
Hannah's suicide is shown in its entirety. She carefully selects the outfit she dies in, runs a bath, gets in fully clothed, slits her wrists and groans in pain as the blood oozes from her arms. There's a valid argument that showing her suicide in detail could be harmful to those watching, especially young viewers. However, "13 Reasons Why" perfectly counters this argument by pointing out the immediate consequences of suicide: Hannah's parents discover her lifeless body in the blood-soaked bath, devastated that their only daughter took her life.
It’s gruesome to watch but the author of the book argues it would be tone-deaf to not show the suicide and its consequences on-screen. “It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK,” Asher told BuzzFeed News. "It needs to be.”
It’s also hard to not notice the graphic rape scenes in "13 Reasons Why." The assaults aren't used as cheap plot devices, however, as is often the case in television and film as of late.
Episode 12 ventures into murky waters when Hannah attends a party where, while in a hot tub, she is raped by the same jock she witnessed weeks earlier rape her friend. It’s hard to witness — she eventually gives up fighting his advances and her eyes gloss over as he forces himself onto her, but she never verbally says no.
“I wanted guys to be uncomfortable when they read it, and both the book and the TV show made a point of noting that Hannah never says no.
The story's author said that scene was important. “Because that’s what we always hear, right? ‘When a girl says no, she means no.’ But there are plenty of times when a girl’s afraid to say no for various reasons, and it doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, as long as they don’t say no, then everything’s fair game.’ You need to be a better person than that,” Asher told Buzzfeed News.
A number of critics have called these scenes inappropriate for teens. However, it’s important to note the show is rated MA for mature audiences, and the episodes with the rape and suicide have warnings at the beginning.
“This show was overly graphic,” Harrington argued. “These rapes are gritty, horrifying and not something your children need to actually witness just in case they need to deal with something like this. They did a good job of showing Hannah (the girl who committed suicide) and how she felt during the rape, but watching her body writhe with each 'thrust' was completely unnecessary and not something we needed to watch in order to understand the gravity of the situation.”
Neither Asher nor Netflix tout the show as aimed at a teen audience, and ultimately it's up to parents to decide if they want their kids to watch this show.
"Evidence does support the idea that suicidal behavior can be influenced by how the media handles suicide and messages about suicide. At the Lifeline, we know that sharing positive stories of hope and recovery, those stories where someone who has been in a dark place shares the story of how they were able to find a way out, can help those who are suicidal find hope and can have a positive impact overall," Frances Gonzalez, director of communications at the Disaster Distress Helpline at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, told ATTN:.
However, “Suicide is the third leading cause of death among persons aged 10-14, the second among persons aged 15-34 years," according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adolescents and young adults “aged 15 to 24 had a suicide rate of 12.5” in 2015, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Additionally, in 2013 the CDC found that 17 percent of students grades 9-12 “seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months (22.4 percent of females and 11.6 percent of males).”
Gonzalez went on to say, "Suicide is not inevitable or unavoidable, and everyone can take action to help someone that they believe might be in crisis."
There's been a great deal of talking about these subjects because of the show, with people noting on Twitter how it shouldn't take watching "13 Reasons Why" to get people to realize how they treat others matters.
"13 Reasons Why" has opened the floodgates for people to reckon with how they treat others and it's gently pushing people to discuss rape and suicide a bit more openly, too. That beats sweeping it under the rug or censoring it — because sometimes the truth, no matter how it looks, can be a little uncomfortable (but necessary) to confront.