Photo Courtesy of Netflix
June 8, 2018
Late March of 2017, Netflix brought suicide to the small screen. The visual adaptation of Thirteen Reasons Why, a 2007 novel by Jay Asher, stirred nationwide controversy as a result of its spotty approach to tackling difficult social issues, such as depression and suicide.
Though the first season sparked much needed conversations surrounding the status of mental health in young adults, the show failed to sufficiently address these issues with the appropriate amount of vigilance. The recent renewal of the popular show has once again garnered comparable interest and debate among viewers.
13 Reasons Why follows the suicide of high-schooler Hannah Baker, a victim of bullying and rape, and the 13 cassette tapes she leaves behind as a means of moral retribution to those who wronged her. These tapes function as a record of the process in which the protagonist descends into distress brought on by significant events and particular characters. The show itself presents itself as a well-intended, progressive adaptation that experiments with representations of real relationships and common, albeit unfortunate, circumstances that adolescents are familiar with. However, the show’s inadequate manner of addressing such sensitive issues makes it too problematic for it to be so widely popular.
To begin, the show divides its approach on a number of delicate topics that need to be discussed carefully and elaborately. Sexual violence, gun violence, depression, drunk driving, amongst other conflicts, are the foundations of crucial discussions that need a space in society. They deserve considerate attention within the show, rather than the quick nod of acknowledgement per episode they get.
The show is blinded by its attempt to design an intense, fast-paced drama driven by conflict, which consequently weakens the weight on each issue. Its over-ambition has ironically become its Achilles’ heel—perhaps it is necessary to be more afraid of depicting the uncomfortable.
Furthermore, with the absence of the initial shock factor that captivated the public in the show’s first season, the return of 13 Reasons Why pressures its producers to sustain the popularity, if not attract an even wider audience. The aforementioned issues have become more dramatic and inadvertently sensationalized in the process. That the role of the protagonist is played by an attractive female actress, Katherine Langford, reaffirms that the act of suicide may be glamorized throughout the show.
This type of representation may have dangerous implications for young adults. According to a research study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, after the premiere of 13 Reasons Why, the search phrase “how to commit suicide” rose 26% above what would normally have been expected for that time. Such demonstrates why it is inappropriate to exploit these topics as instruments to achieve media popularity and fame.
Granted, it is difficult to deny that the show is a successful attempt in the right direction. It has reassured young individuals that they are not alone in these struggles. It has reminded peers to look for warning signs in their friends. It has encouraged necessary conversations to take place between students, teachers, and parents. Unfortunately, good intentions and mere awareness do not always guarantee that the results will reflect these very attributes. It is important to allocate enough screen time on each of the issues discussed, to continue to promote healthy conversation, and to ensure that the impact on the show’s viewers are deliberate.