It’s only been two weeks since the hugely successful teen drama 13 Reasons Why has launched on Netflix’s ubiquitous streaming service, and as more and more praise is heaped on it, I have to wonder how so many people are missing the problematic message that seems to permeate the entire series.
Now I know that not everyone struggles with depression, or has experience with suicidal ideation, but I genuinely thought that most people were familiar with the very common teenage fantasy of revenge by suicide. How many times have we heard phrases like “I’ll show them” or “You’ll miss me when I’m gone” associated with teenage suicide in particular? Though this sentiment is not unique to teen and adolescent self-harm and suicide, this is the market that 13 Reasons Why is clearly aimed at, and also the audience most likely to pick up on the glorification of such a concept, on a subconscious level if not a cognizant one.
To rewind a bit, in 13 Reasons Why (based on the 2007 novel of the same name) pretty, smart, kind and well-spoken teenager Hannah Baker commits suicide after being bullied and mistreated over the course of a school year. After her death, a collection of cassette tapes begin making the rounds, wherein she tells her story, while exposing the reasons why, and how, each of the people named on the tapes contributed to her death. Essentially she reveals their secrets after her own death in an elaborate plan that serves to punish them by showing the truth of their character to the world at a time when everyone is, of course, ready to listen to her.
Now obviously we’ve all been bullied, and we’ve all been made to feel small in our lives by others. This is why it’s totally natural to identify with Hannah and her postmortem crusade but there is a small problem here, and it’s one that 13 Reasons Why seems to sidestep: Hannah is fucking dead. Hannah cut her wrists, and the blood ran out of her body until her heart stopped pumping and her brain shut down. After that her empty remains were buried in the ground. There, her beauty, intelligence and talent all melted away while she broke down into decaying organic matter.
But hey, great job Hannah, you really showed everyone.
Look, I’m not at all trying to make light of suicide, or the struggles people go through with depression. On the contrary, I’m a suicide survivor myself, and a former self-harmer. What I take issue with is the glamorized portrayal of suicide as a way of settling grievances and getting even with those who have wronged you. At a low point in your life, it is natural for a depressed person to turn to suicide more and more as an option, especially as their feelings isolate them further and their dread spreads over their entire being. As this process continues, it becomes easy to fantasize about how sad everyone will be once you’re gone, how they’ll regret not trying harder, or treating you better, how much they’ll miss you, and how your death will ultimately effect them.
Is there a truth to these sentiments? Maybe there is, depending on the situation, but you won’t be laughing down from some happy sky cloud at how you showed everyone at last with your untimely death, you’ll be a bit of carbon and fertilizer that a lot of organisms on this planet will happily use up, while what you think of as “you” will have disappeared completely about three to five minutes after the moment of body death.
Suicide is not glamorous. I’ll refrain from posting pictures or medical statistics for evidence, but they’re readily available for the perusal of anyone who can stomach them. By allowing Hannah to be a pervasive force throughout the series, even giving her the ability to narrate the events of each episode, 13 Reasons Why allows her the kind of weight and voice that is absolutely denied to those that commit suicide. Though they may fantasize that they will be like Hannah, haunting the living and speaking to them of their pain, the truth is that they will stay dead and have very little say in how the world views them after their self-inflicted demise.
Life is not an Edgar Allen Poe story. We do not get to punish those who have wronged us from the confines of the grave. We do not reach out ghostly tendrils, whether supernatural or technological, from beyond the pale and inflict pain and judgment upon those who have wronged us. To suggest as much, especially to an audience as young and impressionable as those in the target demographic of a show (or book) like 13 Reasons Why is troubling, and frankly, dangerous.
If you want to watch and enjoy 13 Reasons Why, all the power to you. It’s your Netflix, and presumably you’re paying $10 a month like the rest of us. But don’t buy into the revenge aspect of the show, please. Hannah didn’t get even with anyone. Hannah is well and truly dead, and all of the eloquent tape recordings in the world won’t alleviate that fact for even a single second.
Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about games. Through some miracle he’s still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there’s hope for him, there’s hope for everyone. He’s the Features editor for Goomba Stomp, and can be found weekly on the Random Encounters podcast.