When 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix in March 2017, there was an almost immediate backlash to the handling of the sensitive subjects it attempted to address. The show, for anyone unfamiliar, focuses on Clay (Dylan Minnette), whose friend Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) recently killed herself. Clay learns that before her suicide Hannah recorder thirteen tapes detailing the thirteen reasons why she chose to end her life.
The main issue that many people had with the show is its portrayal of the subject of suicide. In the final episode of Season One, they show Hannah’s suicide step by step, detailing exactly how she did it. This level of detail within the show has been criticised for romanticising mental health issues.
In 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, a Netflix special discussing the show, the producers make clear that they wanted to present the reality of suicide. Executive producer Brian Yorkey claimed that they “did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted to be very clear that there is nothing in any way worthwhile about suicide.” Within the show, however, the graphic scenes do not actually seem to be the ones that hit the hardest, which in turn raises questions of their necessity. Hannah’s parents finding her body is a raw and emotional moment and far more upsetting than the actual scene where she dies. The horror of Hannah’s suicide does not need to be graphic. The horror is there in the reaction of her friends, in her parents’ grief and in her own internal pain. Nothing is added by seeing the act itself.
When looking at the show’s handling of mental health, the producers have said that their intentions were to present a realistic high school and a group of students who face real problems. Hannah’s thirteen reasons may not all seem as bad as each other but the fact is that they all, in some way, affected her. Yes, she did have people that could have helped her but again the show does a good job of not making any of these people the ‘bad guy.’ Her parents, the school councilor, and Clay all wanted to be there for her but weren’t able to see the signs and help her in time.
Here is where they hoped the show would spark a national debate and assist in removing the stigma around these topics. However, the result has been less positive. One suicide expert has claimed that Netflix hired him to review the series before it’s release and he warned them that it shouldn’t be released at all, a warning that Netflix ignored. After airing there was a spike in Google searches related to suicide, multiple school districts reported a rise in self-harm, and there has been at least one copycat death.
Given all this, Netflix had a lot of damage control when it came to Season Two. Their main argument for continuing the show was that ignoring the problem wasn’t going to solve it. However, this was never the critics’ argument. Their anger was directed towards the way in which they chose to portray these problems, not the fact that they were being discussed in the first place.
The second season does indeed try and show the reasons why not. It details the devastating effects that Hannah’s suicide has had on those around her. Again though, any merit to this discussion is overshadowed by a graphic scene in the final episode, a rape scene much more horrifying than the first season finale.
Despite honourable intentions, the showmakers seem to have missed the main point. Issues like these need to be discussed but shocking their audience isn’t the only way in which to start a conversation. The dialogue surrounding the show has been centred around the wisdom of showing these scenes and not the problems they want us to talk about.
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