Moral panic, here is your tape.
[This post contains spoilers of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.]
Though 13 Reasons Why—the Netflix teen soap opera about a teen girl who dies from suicide, leaving behind a box of cassette tapes explaining why she did it—has been available to stream since March 31, this past week was the week in which adult journalists and critics finally decided to parse their feelings about it.
In an article published May 1 by the New York Times, suicidologists and psychiatrists claimed that the series glamorizes suicide and mental illness and could even lead to a rash of copycat suicides, a very real phenomenon. On the same day, Vox pondered the “social responsibility of art.” Vulture astutely argued that 13 Reasons Why back-burnered its message about suicide to make for a more thrilling mystery. The Cut, doing what every outlet should have done, spoke to actual teens about what they think of the show and they responded with ambivalence, as well as a stated confidence about the sort of content (which, in 13 Reasons Why’s case, includes two rapes and a graphic suicide) they can or cannot handle. (My teen sources told me that they didn’t watch the show because they knew it would be triggering and they disapproved of the series’ handling of depression—an illness that, in the course of 13 episodes, is never really discussed.)
All adults who wrote these articles still don’t know what to make of this show. I don’t either. It’s not Degrassi; Degrassi, while dealing with equally dark subjects, is more careful and sensitive to the message it’s projecting. It’s not Skins, either, though the characters do say “fuck” and get drunk at parties, which we all agree is very edgy. 13 Reasons Why gives the impression that it’s trying be a little bit of both and, unfortunately, it fails on both levels. It is a less thoughtful Degrassi and a less interesting Skins—it’s a messy show that’s riddled with very upsetting, jarring moments like the lead character Hannah splitting open her wrists with a razor blade she stole from her parents’ store and bleeding to death in her bathtub. What’s worse, it doesn’t provide any tools for the young audience to fully comprehend what has happened.
“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous,” series creator Brian Yorkey said in a featurette about the series. “But we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.”
It’s a given that Yorkey—in adapting a beloved YA novel by Jay Asher—wanted 13 Reasons Why to be a sensitive depiction of teen life, but unsurprisingly, a lot of nuance can be lost when a suicide narrative collides with a revenge fantasy for the sake of exciting storytelling.
In the story, Hannah (a beautiful dead girl who is present even in her death) devotes each tape she leaves behind to a person whose wrongs have led her to end her life. While this could be read as a plea to viewers to be more sensitive to their classmates and understand how even the smallest cruel action can turn into something more damaging, it instead comes off as cruel and manipulative on Hannah’s part: She airs her grievances, but gives her offenders no chance to make amends. The show’s other main protagonist, Clay—the Romeo to Hannah’s Juliet—finds himself in a state of emotional agony after receiving the tapes because he’s so convinced that he’s done something that’s led his high school crush to end her life. (Again, depression is hardly mentioned at all throughout the series.)
One thing that is intriguing in regards to the series are the liberties Yorkey and his writers took in straying from the source material. In Asher’s book, Hannah dies of a pill overdose instead of slitting her wrists. Clay mostly experiences the tapes alone, learning—through Hannah’s narrative—the harm which boys his age can unwittingly cause their female classmates. While the show entangles Clay in a conspiracy that involves death threats, physical assaults, and what almost promises to turn into a school shooting plot for Season 2 (which Netflix just green-lit), the book is more about Clay learning that everything he thought he knew about Hannah were his own projections and, really, he didn’t know her very much at all.
Sometimes, in Asher’s story, the lesson is very simple:
(Hannah’s audio recording is in italics. Clay’s thoughts are in normal text.)
If you ever caught me reading one of those teen magazines, it wasn’t for the makeup tips. It was for the surveys.
Because you never wore makeup, Hannah. You didn’t need it.
Fine, some of the hair and makeup tips were helpful.
You wore makeup?
Other instances—such as when Clay learns of Hannah being endlessly sexually harassed with “harmless” jokes and, ultimately, being sexually assaulted at a party (another scene that is very graphic in the show)—are more brutal.
The book, which was written in 2007, has its own issues—the revenge fantasy element is there, often playing out like the commonly held teen fantasy of witnessing one’s own funeral. And it still fails to be a true resource for teens struggling with their own suicidal thoughts and depression. But unlike the show, it rarely reads as sensationalizing or glamorizing Hannah’s suicide.
My own pearl-clutching aside, some of last week’s reactions to 13 Reasons Why struck me as over-the-top and disingenuous as the show itself. Teenagers and tweens have been reading Asher’s book for 10 years now—the American Library Association chose it as one of the “Best Books for Young Adults” and it was well reviewed in the New York Times, on NPR, and in Publisher’s Weekly. The book has had a large fanbase for quite awhile, and there’s been no rash of teen suicides as a result of kids reading it. From Romeo and Juliet to Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret to Girl, Interrupted to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, teens have been fiending for melodrama depicting their peers for centuries and most of them (even those of us who grew up with depression) emerged from reading those books mostly unscathed.
Of course, the last thing anyone wants is for a teenager to prove that 13 Reasons Why is glamorizing and making a trend of suicide, which is why it’s good that we’re having discussions about it. It was these very discussions that led the show to put trigger warnings and suicide hotline information as bumpers on the episodes (why no one thought to do this before the show was released is truly mind-boggling) and is pushing the cast and producers to think more critically and speak more thoughtfully on the subjects of teen depression and alienation.
What makes no sense, however, is parents and school administrators attempting to shut 13 Reasons Why—and conversations about it—down. While suicide contagion is dangerous, refusing to talk about it is even more so. (And when has adults panicking over a trend ever made said trend become less popular?) If anything, it’s conversations about the show’s content that seems to be benefitting teenagers the most. A lot of teenagers—like my teen sources—know what the show is about and are able to decide how watching it might affect their mental health. For others, the series—which, first and foremost, is just not avery good show—has allowed them to vocalize what’s wrong with depictions of teen depression in media.
As one 14-year-old told The Cut:
“I actually started watching it and really enjoyed it, but then I read a lot of things online about how it’s been harmful for victims of depression and self-harm. And once I watched it more, I realized how badly it portrayed suicide. When you watch the show, you don’t think of it as real.”
These kids are not dumb. Maybe they like corny soap operas (who doesn’t), but that doesn’t mean that they are unable to think critically about them, especially with a little help from their surrounding adults—just so long as these adults aren’t Helen Lovejoy-ing all over the place and shutting down important conversations about suicide rather than carefully curating them.
Entering its sophomore season, 13 Reasons Why—and its writers—should be on edge. The show has an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the first season, which ended with an attempted suicide and the foreshadowing of a school shooting: It can either go full soap opera and leave the moralizing behind, or it can choose to take its subjects—teenagers—as seriously and considerately as their subjects take it.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.