Scene 1: Justin Foley circulates a picture of Hannah Baker’s crotch which he took covertly while the two were hanging out in the park. Lewd comments and cat calls become a norm for Hannah in school.
Scene 2: Hannah’s stalker Tyler takes pictures of her kissing a girlfriend, and once again it lands into the phones of the entire school. The bullying gets worse.
Scene 3: A desperate Hannah reaches out to her school counsellor and tells him about feeling “empty” inside. He misses the signs, she slits her wrist.
Through scenes such as this, Netflix’s popular and controversial series 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker — played by Katherine Langford (in picture) — an American high school student who commits suicide after becoming a victim of cyber-bullying, sexual assault and vicious rumours. She leaves behind 13 audio recordings for her friends detailing the reasons behind her decision, and revealing in the process a dark world of body-shaming, depression, drugs and self-loathing.
Since its release on March 31, audiences are polarised — critics say it “glamourises suicide” while fans say it holds up a mirror to the realities of high school. Netflix recently added a warning for viewers.
But that is just part of the commotion the series has triggered. Several schools have issued advisories to students and parents against watching the show. New Zealand has a special rating for it: RP18, under which parental supervision is mandatory for those under the age of 18. And Indie rock band Car Seat Headrest, that composed a song for the show, has slammed it. “It’s kind of f**ed… writers: please don’t tell kids how to turn their miserable and hopeless lives into a thrilling and cathartic suicide mission,” reads a post on Car Seat Headrest’s Twitter feed.
The American National Association of School Psychologists has also issued a public statement against the show: “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticise the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”
For its part, Netflix has defended the series, citing “members” who have told them that the show has “helped spark important conversations in their families and communities around the world”.
But does the series, based on Jay Asher’s bestselling young adult novel of the same title and produced by American singer and actress Selena Gomez, really “romanticise suicide”, or does it, as its makers argue, confront the uncomfortable truths of high school?
“In 13 Reasons Why, I saw the opportunity to explore issues of cyberbullying, sexual assault, depression… I recognised the potential for the show to unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens,” Nic Sheff, a writer of the show, told Vanity Fair. The writer of Episode 6 says he was once a crystal meth user himself who, like Hannah, once tried to take his life.
Countering criticism around the “extremely graphic” depiction of Hannah’s suicide in the series, Sheff contends that “the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all”. “In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all—it’s a screaming, agonising, horror,” he says.
But the show’s premise, notes Marissa Martinelli in Slate, goes against everything we know about suicide, its causes, and means of prevention. “It places the responsibility for a person’s suicide on the survivors of suicide loss, creates a false illusion that a suicidal person can be in control after her death, and offers up no alternatives for Hannah besides killing herself,” she writes.
Writing in Vox, Constance Grady lends some perspective to the row: “Aesthetically and artistically, 13 Reasons Why’s approach to the material makes sense: It avoids turning the suicide into a soft-focus glamour shot that fetishises Hannah’s beautiful corpse… the controversy here… is over the level of responsibility artists have toward their audience, and how much they have toward their art, and what to do when those two responsibilities conflict with each other.”
The show and the advisories against it have also left parents in a fix about whether they should let their wards watch and discuss it, for it may trigger “copy-cat suicide behaviour”.
The chief TV critic of Variety, Maureen Ryan, feels that asking children to not talk about the series would be akin to “banning hormones and backpacks”. “The point is, how do adults join the conversation?… I think part of the reasons kids are watching 13 Reasons Why is because, in a world where we’re practically drowning in content, there are not all that many realistic depictions of assault, depression… and going through the kind of casual but devastating public shaming that can take place now that so much of kids’ lives are online,” Ryan writes.
In a recent interview to The Hollywood Reporter, actor Brandon Flynn, who plays Justin Foley on the show, asserts that the show is relevant, while recounting his own troubles with bullying and substance abuse. “When I was in middle school, I dealt a lot with people not being cool with me being into acting. It put me in a dark space of not wanting to be myself… Many kids don’t know how to turn to their parents because their parents don’t offer that outlet. I sure as shit remember feeling that way at that age,” the actor says.
Much of the discussion around the series has been centered around parents, and whether, like in Hannah’s case, they often fail to spot the signs of suicide. “Parents of school bullies are dictatorial, mean-spirited or absent. They have no idea that their kids are getting drunk, doing drugs or torturing their peers… Even Hannah’s well-meaning, affectionate parents don’t see the signs that she was shrinking in front of them because they are too busy trying to keep their household afloat…,” writes Melanie McFarland in Salon.
Several cousellors and mental health professionals have been “galled” at their portrayal in the show, especially in the scene where Hannah’s school counsellor “shuts her out”. “That’s unethical behavior. School mental health professionals do not behave that way… It sends the message that school mental professionals are not a trusted source for help,” complains Kathy Cowan, spokesperson for the National Association of School Psychologists, in The Washington Post.
Amidst the debate over the series, it would also be worth listening to 19-year-old Maddie Robinson (name changed), a suicide survivor from New Zealand, who argues that the criticism is reflective of the “stigma” in the society over suicide. “The show isn’t about revenge suicide and justice. It’s about how the little things add up… How we as bystanders, friends and family may influence that. Perhaps Hannah just wanted to be heard. We need to stop the stigma and we need to talk about suicide,” she writes, adding, “I fall into the category of people that others are scrambling in front of to protect from the show… We literally survived death; we can survive a TV show.”