Disclaimer 1: I don’t know whether I’ll write about shows more often, but this one deserves a reflection.
Disclaimer 2: My judgement refers to and bases on the Netflix production only, not the novel.
There are a lot of different ways to criticise a piece of cinema, however in this blog post my intention is not to call out the acting of the cast or any other element to this show that is linked to its technical, cinematographic aspect, even though I would have more than enough to say about that. I will also try not to talk about the form of 13 Reason’s narrative, meaning I won’t talk about tension or structure. Instead, I will focus on the content of the narrative, in a way that connects both the actual topic as well as the way the narrative of this show has dealt with it.
So take a seat, grab some popcorn and bonjour to 13 Reasons Why We Need a Better Representation in TV shows like this, that obviously affect a great percentage of young viewers. This includes reflections on important aspects to the whole topic that haven’t been mentioned or shown. And while it can be argued whether it’s important to show them to educate viewers and victims watching such shows or whether, for the sake of an authentic representation of ‘real experience’ they should be left out, I think you’ll eventually be able to see my stance shine through.
Those are very subjective views and, obviously, my own view on the topic. You’re encouraged to comment on this and engage in a discussion.
Friendship is everything. It can actually turn out as a lifesaving thing to have close and loyal friends to our side. Now, inside 13 Reasons Why, protagonist Hannah Baker obviously can’t simply decide to befriend people. It is not that easy. We’ve all been through the process of making a true friend, it’s something very rare, and something you constantly have to work for. And also, most definitely, something that has to do with luck and chance. But here’s the thing. There’s already a character written into the narrative that could take over that part. Clay is the only person I would describe as a friend to Hannah. I don’t see her as without any friends, and it’s not Clay’s fault that he was written in such a passive manner. How could friendship have been represented better? Well, I wish they would have shown what a true friendship can do. Sure, the show wouldn’t have been half as dramatic. There might even had not been a suicide. … Wait. You see? Now, I get that without the suicide as the central topic, this show wouldn’t have been what it is. But the writers should have written a narrative that reflects the wonders one true friend, just one, can do. Nobody can promise that she would been saved, but I’d like to believe it to be possible. If we have a loyal support system who takes us serious and backs us up, somebody to trust, somebody who listens and who shows us what we’re worth in times in which we forget… well. Things, and darkness, and pain are easier to get through. Again, this is very subjective. You might say, that even the greatest friend couldn’t have stopped Hannah. And you’re allowed to have this opinion. From my own experience, however, just one true friend can change everything. And I wish it would have been shown.
What could have been represented better isn’t the actual bullying. Hell, they’ve played and written that well. I felt like going through my own highschool experience right again. If we leave out the episodes that were marked with a trigger warning, the violence played out on Hannah’s costs was for the biggest part of psychological violence, which breaks one’s own will day by day, until nothing is left. The narrative has done a great job on this. Again, this is a question about whether you want the series to show the naked truth as it happens out there, or if you’d like to show solutions to the problem, because there are solutions to bullying. There are no excuses to bullying, no apologies, it can’t be excused with age, nor with group pressure, nor with victim blaming. However, there are ways to prevent it. The State and teachers are equally responsible to create an atmosphere of inclusion and acceptance in schools. Bullying has to be taken serious, and bullies need to face consequences for what they do. It is the only way that bullying can be prevented, and nobody even mentioned a bit of it in the show.
This one isn’t easy. I’m not a parent, so I am technically not entitled to talk about this at all. However, I do believe that even though sometimes parents love their children, they are losing access to them as well, which is something they are helpless about. I remember when I went through bullying and didn’t tell my parents a single thing about it, and even when they found out later, I’m not sure if I ever told them the real extent of it. But it’s important as a parent to establish a relationship with a child that is marked by strength and empathy. Strength, because when we’re feeling like a loser, we need somebody to point out the greatness in us, somebody to see the light instead of the pitch black darkness. And empathy, because it’s important we’re not pushed beyond what we can take, but to know that there will always be a safe space at home. In Netflix’ 13 Reasons Why, nobody talks about the way parenting has to change in order to create that relationship. Nobody mentions what big of a part parenting can be as a support system.
We all know education is key, right? I do believe that knowing about things can increase empathy and tolerance. The world proves it: The more open discourse about mental illness, sexism, homophobia, immigration is becoming, the more we open the gates of our little worlds and reach out to other people, respect their experiences and see how we can grow with each other. Now if a narrative is set in an institution of education, why are the efforts to teach each other compassion and respect so minimalised? It’s true, Hannah is going to a communication class, where people are supposed to learn how to communicate their feelings, which is a great first step. But even more importantly the school’s agenda should be changing. My university for example makes a very clear statement about being pro refugees, anti-sexism, inclusive and respectful. Its agenda is so powerful that it reaches out to us students and I can count the fellow students I have that are of a less tolerant opinion on one hand (though I could be wrong about that, of course, I can’t look into people’s heads and don’t know every single student.) So while it’s alright for the narrative to represent an ordinary school during Hannah’s time there, I would have wished for a significant change after her death, a realisation, and more education on all topics than just hanging up “don’t commit suicide” posters with a ridiculous institutional imperative.
Well, let’s get to the core of the show a bit more thoroughly. Throughout the entire show, I’ve heard people say over and over again they wish they knew what led Hannah to do what she did. And while the tapes provide some clarity to the people who’ve listened, it’s not enough to teach the audience about how suicidal thoughts develop and even more importantly, how they can take control over somebody’s mind. It’s briefly mentioned how Hannah disassociates as a protective method after being raped, and she’s also shown to tell her counselor that she feels empty and doesn’t care about anything anymore. Having been in suicidal states myself, I can agree to that feeling, however there is more to the complex process of thoughts that is running through our heads when we’re at the edge of what’s bearable. There are so many real life persons in this world that can give you very clear and accurate descriptions how it feels like to be so drowned by life that you can’t wrap your head around any other option. How it feels like to not even feel in control anymore, like an uncontrollable force. At this moment right here, I will not go deeper into the feeling itself. I do however wanna call out the show for not shedding more light on suicidal feeling.
06. Graphic Content
Now this has basically been mentioned everywhere…and they’re right. While everything else isn’t represented enough, this might be overly represented. I am not saying at all that it shouldn’t be shown. I believe it’s vital for the narrative to be shown, because the terrifying feelings the audience is going through are making the experience real. And to be fair, there are trigger warnings at the beginning of difficult episodes, and an advise for younger audiences to not watch it. But making such a show, one has to take the risk that they will watch it nonetheless. I am a little torn about this point. On one side, the stable and healthy me wants it to be shown, especially for the means of representation, for evoking a better understanding. On the other side, the unstable me is still terrified by how cold my own wrists went for a few minutes while watching Hannah take her own life, and how my skin tickled from the idea of what she did. And it did trigger a feeling that I’ve tucked away, namely the imagination of how it would feel like. Now, I have developped coping mechanisms that secure me and my life so I am able to detach from that imagination right when it comes up, but there are people who are exposed to this with no coping mechanism whatsoever and we have to be aware of that.
07. Mental Illness
This one is important. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I cannot recall any scene in the show in which any character has even vaguely brought up ANY mental illness. Now there is a lot to say about that. The way Hannah has been treated, both by what was actually done to her and also by how passive her support system was, basically leads the way to depression. But depression isn’t the only mental illness that has an increased vulnerability to suicidality. At no point in the show is any of that mentioned. This would have been a great moment in popculture, to make the topic of, say, depression accessible to all audiences. The last years, many people have been shaken by suicides of celebrities, and there have been a lot of people who couldn’t understand. Listen, folks, we’re not incapable of explaining what we’re experiencing, but we do feel robbed by a platform to tell our stories at. This narrative could have offered so much space for that, yet it never mentions it. This is one the greatest failures of the show.
THERE IS GOOD COUNSELLING OUT THERE IN THE WORLD. It is important to get that message out there, so people keep trying. Counselling isn’t therapy, but it’s an open ear and a first stop of help for any lost person. The show makes it look like all counselling is awful. That’s simply not true. Sure, it might be at a lot of schools or universities but I bet there are just as many that are of true help. I couldn’t imagine a professional asking a rape survivor whether she said No, and then question a “potentital decision” she might have made. A professional also wouldn’t victim blame her, nor ignore Hannah’s more than clear suicidal thoughts which she shares with the guy. This isn’t on her. She’s doing the right thing with telling him, but he doesn’t take her serious in the slightest. While this might have driven her to her final decision and thus might have made sense for the narrative from a dramatic perspective, it is horrible representation of what counselling is capable of. I’ve been visiting counselling myself for almost a year and it has helped me through so much. It helped me find who I am, it helped me understand some problems I have, it prepared me for therapy, it took away stress I’ve had, it was an ultimate safe space in which I was taken serious and my problems were valid and seen. I want others to make that experience as well.
09. The System
This leads me to the system behind it. I don’t even have to point this one out anymore. Add a lack of education to a toxic atmosphere to awful counselling and there you have it, an awfully shameful school and educational system. And like I’ve mentioned before, it would have been great to see alternative systems, because they do exist. Because there are places that implement ethics of care and respect.
The awful counselling aside, this show represents ZERO options to suicide. It seems like from the moment it all started, everything led up to that moment. Don’t get me wrong, I emphasize a lot with Hannah, I’ve gone through similar experiences, we all have at a point, I’ve been feeling – almost – everything she felt, and I also understand her final decision. It’s not what I blame. I blame the show for presenting it as the only sensible option there was in store for her. A show like this has an educational mandate, to educate the audience about other options. But of course, if you don’t mention mental illness, you also can’t mention treatment for it.
There are many forms of therapy in this world. I am not an expert by any means. I am not saying it can help everybody. None of us are the same, we face different emotions and process them entirely different as well. But if even one of us can be helped with such options, then that’s already something.
I’ve rejected therapy for a long, long time, but a few months have already improved a lot in my life and it’s taken away suicidality. It’s not granted that it will stay away, but therapy has made me more stable than I’ve ever been the last three years.
So yes, there is psychotherapy. There are clinics. There are forms of meditation, yoga and mindfulness training that have been proven to support treatment. There are many, many other ways to help. None of them are a promise, but every single one of them is an option.
The show simply failed to show any of this, which is inacceptable.
11. Rape and Victim Blaming
Now, I won’t say much about this point, because I am too respectful to the personal experience and space of survivors. I wouldn’t dare talking about something I haven’t lived through. But here’s one thing that I can talk about: The way it’s being treated. Not just by counselling, asking the most damaging questions one could ever ask and eventually even BLAMING the victim, which is a general flaw of our social system. But in addition to that, among the people of Hannah’s school it seems to be a common agreement that if everybody denies what happened, it didn’t happen. While this might be painfully close to reality, the narrative should have focussed on more appropriate/professional counselling and empathy.
Now this is the only point I have to criticise about Hannah. On 13 tapes, she gives 13 reasons on why to kill herself, out of which are, if I counted right?, 11 of her fellow students including Clay and her counsellor. All I want to say to this is… I would never in my life protect those fellow students. They’re the most disgusting people one could ever encounter (with exceptions like Clay for example). They’ve done things which are not only not to be excused by any means, but which also stir anger, aggression and desire for justice in any person watching them. However, Hannah taking her own life was her own decision. Yes, her support system failed. Cruel things have been done to her. Her decision is painfully relatable. Yet, to postmortum blame 12 other people ruins some of those people’s lives. Now, some of them deserve it, even from my point of view. Bryce’s life for example can’t even be ruined enough for what he’s done. He deserves the most awful shit life could throw at him. He’s the most despicable being. Some others have done bad things too, but them being called one of Hannah’s reasons is a big act of blaming which might traumatize them for a lifetime. I am thinking of the counsellor here, or of people like Jessica or Alex.
13. Romantisation & Glorification of Suicide
This is probably the biggest criticism (along with never mentioning mental illness) that I have about the show. Right from the first episode all the way to number 13, I’ve been thinking: She’s so being glorified for what she has done. All of a sudden, she becomes this mysterious creature, and it’s awful and painful to even write that, but she seems to be turning into the most popular girl of the school. It’s like her suicide was understood as this big act of revenge and the message had been delivered. People take selfies in front of her locker, like it was some famous person’s vacation house. It makes me sick to the stomach to see a show dealing with such a sensitive topic narrate a character that gets this glorified. For every single person out there who, like me, has been in position where they’ve felt particularly suicidal, and they might even have had a concrete idea and then took all the bravery they could find and backed off until they felt safe enough: I stand with you.