HOW “13 REASONS WHY” FAILED SUICIDAL TEENAGERS

13 Reasons Why Mental Illness“13 Reasons Why” has raised quite a bit of attention when it was released on Netflix earlier this year. An adaptation of a bestselling YA novel, and one of Netflix’ by now pretty famous direct-to-stream productions, it’s been hailed as ‘The show you have to binge watch next’. And it’s true that this show was extremely bingeable. At the beginning, you are presented with the premise: There are 13 people who are responsible for the suicide of Hannah Baker, and with every episode, another person’s name and story will be revealed. You get to know a whole cast of people surrounding the main character, Clay, through whose ears we hear Hannah’s story, and you just want to know which of those people is one of the reasons, and if you find out that one person is a reason before their episode, you want to find out what they did.

But the thing is, just because something is made to bingewatch doesn’t mean that it is good. Just because you keep watching something doesn’t mean that you actually enjoy it. With the end of every episode, I did want to know what was going to happen, because there are so many plot-threads that everybody would at least find one that they’d want to follow to the end. After the first six or so episodes, the thread I wanted to follow was Tony’s mysterious involvement in everything, who I still think of as the absolute highlight of the whole show. But while I kept watching Tony, of course I had to keep watching everybody else as well. And I had a lot of time to think about this show while I was waiting for the parts of the story that were actually interesting to me to unfold.

And I decided that I would put some of my problems with this show into thoughts. I had a lot more problems with it than I’m laying down here, to be honest, but if I were to discuss all of them, this thing would have 20 pages instead of its already ginormous 7.

So, let’s begin with my reasons why “13 Reasons Why” was a pretty terrible show.

MENTAL ILLNESS IS APPARENTLY NOT A THING IN THE WORLD OF “13 REASONS WHY”

The reason Hannah Baker killed herself is because nobody was kind to her. That is basically what the author of the book said in several interviews, and at the ending of the book. It is also what is implied at the end of the show. If somebody had shown her kindness, things might have been different.

Hannah Baker killed herself because of the actions of other people. The thirteen reasons why are all people – 12 of them – but actually, only one person killed Hannah Baker, and that is Hannah Baker herself.

It is important to understand that suicide does not happen just because things on the outside are hard, or unfair, or even horrible. Suicide happens because a person is mentally ill. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline disorder – all of these are likely reasons for suicidal ideations, and, as a result, suicide. I can only speak about depression from personal experience, but mental illnesses are sneaky bitches. They will make it look like everybody experiences the exact same thing as you, as if everybody was tired or wired or nervous all the time, every hour of the day, as if all the things you were struggling with were as hard for other people as they are for you, and the only reason you are struggling is because you are weak.

So of course, it is more likely than not that Hannah Baker did not understand that something was going on with her, and of course, she would have tried to find reasons for her feelings of emptiness in her surroundings. She says it herself – when she made that list, everything clicked into place. That is Hannah’s version of events, but – and this is something the show tried to play with, but didn’t manage to actually make work – Hannah Baker’s version of events is not always true. Sure, it is her truth, but we are still presented with what she says as THE truth, in all but a few instances. Nobody on this whole show ever suggests that Hannah might be suffering from mental illness. Which is absolutely ridiculous – the producers seem to be so proud of making a show that deals ‘so candidly’ with mental illness. If the producers think that the main character is suffering from mental illness, why would it not even be mentioned as a possibility in the show?

In general, there is only one mention of anything related to mental illness that I can remember: the pills Clay’s mom wants him to take, and the talk therapy she mentions. But even there, nothing gets a name. There is talk of abstract ‘problems’, but in the end, Clay’s mom only wants him to go to talk therapy to feel better herself. Clay isn’t actually sick, of course, he doesn’t need therapy; this is just a plot device to make sure we get that his mother is overbearing (or that she cares about him? Suburban American attitudes to parenting are so strange, I sometimes can’t really say whether something is supposed to be positive or negative).

Nobody on this show suffers from mental illness. Nobody’s sadness comes from within. Hannah Baker killed herself not because her brain chemistry was off, not because there was an enemy in her head, but because of the enemies around her. Mental illness doesn’t exist in this show.

But you cannot talk about suicide without talking about mental illness, just as you can’t shoot a bullet without a gun. Not even the guidance counsellor mentions mental illness, not even when he talks to any of the parents. Is it because of the stigma? Would we feel less sorry for Hannah if we knew that her brain was not working as it should work? Does the author of the book, do the producers of the show really think that children kill themselves because people are mean to them, and for no other reason?

You can’t talk about suicide without talking about mental illness, but “13 Reasons Why” does just that. I will talk about this later, but what do the showrunners think they will achieve by portraying therapy as something useless, counsellors as passive backstabbers, suicide as a result of meanness, and of nothing else?  Do they really think if we were just kinder to each other, children with messy brains would stop cutting their wrists open? Do they really think they help anybody by denying that not all brains are equal, that not all brains work in a way that is positive for the human they belong to?

I fear that the answer to that is that they just never thought about it. They never thought about the fact that bullying isn’t the reason a person kills themselves. There are cases where bullying, especially if it leads to traumatic events, causes depression, or where bullying exacerbates depression, but depression is a disease, and like most diseases today, we can treat it. We can’t heal it, I won’t lie to you – some people heal, others never do – but we can treat it. Depression does not irrevocably lead to suicide. Bullying does not irrevocably lead to suicide.

But that is what the showrunners tell us. Their message is ‘People were mean to this completely normal, happy girl, so she turned into a sad girl, and then she killed herself’. That message is bullshit. That message ignores a sickness that could have been treated, if it existed in this world. Borderline disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia can be treated. But, you know, in “13 Reasons Why”, only overbearing moms want you to go to therapy. And not because of the way your brain is betraying you, but because they want to feel better.

There are many, many articles out there talking about this already, but it bears repeating ad nauseam until people finally start portraying suicide the way it actually happens.

Mental illness is real.

The reason for suicide is mental illness.

The enemies you have to fight are the enemies inside your head, not outside of it. And in the real world, there are people who will help you.

VILIFYING MENTAL HEALTH SPECIALISTS IN YA MEDIA CAN COST PEOPLE THEIR LIVES

Now, if you’ve watched the whole show (and if you haven’t and are still planning to, please stop reading), you know how awful Mr. Porter behaves when Hannah comes to him. She tells him she wishes everything would just go away. She basically tells him, in very plain words, that she doesn’t want to be alive anymore. She tells him she was raped, and how everything was too much for her to bear.

And what does he do?

 He tells her that if she didn’t tell her rapist ‘No’, if she didn’t say ‘Stop’, it is very unlikely that her rapist will be convicted. That there is no way to prove what happened to her. She asks whether she wants him to involve her parents or the police. And he lets a girl who has just told him that after the worst thing that ever happened to her she doesn’t have the power to stay alive anymore, walk out of his office. He doesn’t do shit.

Mental health professionals and mental health institutions being portrayed as useless, ridiculous, or even outright dangerous in films and shows is nothing new. The only show I can currently think of where a mental hospital is portrayed in a somewhat positive way is Elementary, and that show actually did a lot of things related to mental health very, very right. Other than that, you can choose between mental hospitals that are haunted, mental hospitals were parents are drugged into complaisance, and mental hospitals being run by sadists. With mental health professionals, you can choose between well-meaning morons, money-grabbing bigmouths, and people who just plain don’t care.

This is not what reality is like. Mental hospitals, and mental health professionals, save countless of lives and help countless people to live with their messy brains and horrible trauma every day. But teenagers never see the reality of this; they see asylum levels in horror games, haunted hospitals in shows like Supernatural or American Horror Story, and useless, apathetic counsellors who just want you to go away and forget about your problem in “13 Reasons Why”.

The reality is that anybody who tells a clearly suicidal rape victim to ‘just move on’ would have lost their job long ago, at least at a school that seems to be having a pretty lush budget, like the high school in “13 Reasons Why”. Of course there are bad apples everywhere, but Mr. Porter seems to have gotten a transfer from another school, which can be construed as a sign that he didn’t exactly do bad work, and to be honest, he genuinely seems to care.

And yet he doesn’t behave like a counsellor. He doesn’t manage to mute his phone during a consultation. When she tells him that she doesn’t care about anything anymore (which is literally one of the biggest warning signs that a person suffers from depression), he doesn’t do anything. He never offers her any solutions, just platitudes. He keeps contradicting her. He doesn’t even make it seem as if he cares about what she tells him. He is just another adult who doesn’t understand Hannah’s feelings. For heaven’s sake, her exact words are ‘I need it to stop. Everything. Life.’ She is 16. She is a minor. He has an ethical obligation to call her parents if he believes she is a danger to herself or others, and she could not have made that any more clear if she had told him ‘I’m going to kill myself when I get home today’.

His behavior is unrealistic, and it is unacceptable to tell young people that this is what they can expect when they seek help. And fact is, a lot of young people who watch „13 Reasons Why“ will need help with their mental health at some point in their life, be it because of a mental illness or a trauma like sexual harassment or abuse. People in their teens are especially likely to develop mental illnesses, but they also face the biggest mental hurdles in seeking help. Most teenager already distrust authority; most teenagers will not notice that they need help; most teenagers won’t feel able to talk about their mental health, because they do not have the words. And thanks to media like „13 Reasons Why“, a lot of teenagers will feel that there is no help, even if they find the words and the courage and notice that they need help. Adults are useless, according to „13 Reasons Why“, and nobody will help you.

Negative portrayals of mental health institutions and professionals keep people from seeking help. This is a serious problem. And a show that is aimed at young adults perpetuating these myths poses a real danger to young people who need help and who won’t seek it because they think every school counsellor is Mr.  Porter.

LOVE DOES NOT CURE EVERYTHING

One of the first gifs of „13 Reasons Why“ I’ve seen was from the scene where Clay says, tearing up, ‘I killed a girl because I was afraid to love her’. To be honest, I’ve been waiting for that moment throughout the show, but not because it was so touching or profound or anything, but because I was dreading it. And sure enough, once it came, my eyes basically rotated out of their sockets.

Clay is just plain wrong about this. He did not kill Hannah because he was afraid to love her. If he had loved her, chances are Hannah would still have found a way to justify killing herself. And what’s more, this again sends a terrible, terrible message to young people, which is that love can cure mental illness and every external problem in your life, which is not true, especially not of the kind of love that you will experience as a teenager. People who have just only discovered their sexuality and their attraction to other people love precariously; they mix up sexual attraction and romantic love; they fall in and out of love nearly at random, and that is just how it is supposed to be.  Your teenage years are supposed to be a practice ground for love. High School sweethearts staying together for ever is extremely rare for a reason.

Also, the way Clay frames this statement, that he ‘killed a girl because he was too afraid to love her’, puts far more blame on Clay than is realistic.  He has no obligation to love anybody, or to express his attraction to anybody. He is as much of a floating, insecure teenager new to love as Hannah Baker was. Portraying it as if it was his fault that he did not act on his feelings, and that this inaction finally killed Hannah  Baker, once again sends an unhealthy, unrealistic message to the young adult audience of this show.

HOW NOT TO DO DIVERSITY

YA has been the center of a lot of campaigns for more diversity in the past few years. We want to see more people of color in Young Adult media, we want to see more queer people, disabled people, people of different religions. On the surface, „13 Reasons Why“ delivers on the diversity factor: Out of five prominent female teenage characters, only two are white, and out of 10 prominent male teenage characters, two were gay and four were boys of color. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Except that this show is an absolute prime example of how not to do diversity. I’ll mainly look at the situation with the girls, because it’s the most egregious. The two white girls, Hannah Baker and Skye Miller, are  similar in a lot of ways. Hannah feels unpopular, Skye actually is unpopular. Hannah killed herself, Skye is implied to have had suicidal thoughts. In the end, Clay befriends Skye in an effort to not make the same mistake he made with Hannah again.

The girls of color, on the other hand, are basically the three most popular girls at school. That’s not a problem in itself, now, but if we look at the characters individually, and at how they have influenced Hannah’s decision to kill herself, it starts becoming quite problematic indeed.

Let’s start with Courtney,  because Courtney’s portrayal was honestly the most racist on the show. She is an Asian-American Good Girl who cares about hardly anything other than grades and school, who is ‘so nice’ that everybody likes her, and who eventually betrays Hannah by spreading lies about her. Her outfits look as if somebody sat down and wondered what the most ridiculously ‘Good Girl’ clothes possible would look like. For chrissake, she wears a pearl necklace, pearl earrings and a pearl headband to school! She always wears cardigans and shirts and skirts that are strongly reminiscent of Japanese school uniforms, and for Halloween she dresses as something that might either be a Katy Perry tribute or the most  racist Harajuku-stereotype outfit I have yet seen.  Let alone that she falls into the ‘Gay Couple Adopts Chinese Baby’ trope, which, in itself, is already racist as fuck

Then we get to Jessica, who is also a backstabber and who is basically portrayed as using Hannah until she finds better friends than her. Even after Hannah helps her out of a dangerous situation, she doesn’t listen to Hannah and still cuts her out of her life. When her boyfriend tells her that he is about to take his own life, she mocks him.

And finally Sheri, who is super cute and chipper all the time, playing the matchmaker for Hannah and making sure everybody understands how much of a goody-two-shoes she is – until she drives over that stop sign, and turns into as much of a backstabber as Courtney and Jessica.

Let me be completely clear here: While nothing can really excuse the extreme stereotypical portrayal of Courtney, Jessica and Sheri are actually pretty well fleshed-out characters. However, they are still negative characters, in a show where only the two white girls are portrayed in a positive way. If there had been more girls of color, more black girls who weren’t backstabbers or cowards or liars, this wouldn’t have been such a big problem.  If Hannah Baker or Skye Miller had not been white, this wouldn’t have been such a big problem. If either Sheri or Jessica had been white, or if there had been a white girl among the 13 reasons, this wouldn’t have been such a big problem.

 But what the show shows its young viewers is this: White girls are sad victims, black girls are self-serving bullies, and Chinese girls will fuck you over to save their own skin. It is important to note that this whole ‘exclusively girls of color are being mean to a white girl’ thing is a really, really bad look.

With the boys, it’s a little more nuanced. Latino boys get a break with Tony and Jeff (whose actor does not seem to be white), who are both consistently positive characters. There are plenty of mean white boys, especially Bryce, who, especially later in the series, takes the role of the Big Bad. Zach might be a petty coward, but he is consistently portrayed as a boy who actually cares about others a lot.

But once again, black boys can’t catch a break. And I’m going to include Mr. Porter here, who is very much not a boy anymore, because the first time my eyes nearly rolled out of my head was when he told Tyler that ‘At his old school, kids shot other kids’. Like, seriously? Do I even have to explain why associating a black counsellor with a place where gun violence was a daily thing is racist as fuck? Let alone that he is portrayed as absolutely incompetent, a very different look  from white Mrs. Antilly, who even Hannah begrudgingly admits was extremely good at her job.

Marcus gets a similar treatment as Courtney. He is on his track to be valedictorian, he’s in the school council, and on the honor board, he acts as if he was a genuinely good guy, but all he wants in the end is to get into Hannah’s pants, and when she doesn’t spread her legs for him, he starts ridiculing her in front of everybody. The show comes really dangerously close to the dangerous stereotype of predatory black men preying on white women, and again, that is not a good look. He is also the one who most consistently lies to Clay.

Like with the girls, if there had been any actually positively-portrayed black boys, this wouldn’t have been such an issue. And to be fair, the case with the boys is far less blatant than with the girls, since there are just more of them.

FAR MORE THAN 13 REASONS

I originally set out to make a list of 13 reasons why “13 Reasons Why” is a bad show. The problem was that I already wrote over 1k words on the first reason. So, instead of shoving a 13000 word essay in your face, I decided that I’d leave it at the points I have talked about above. I am sure there are tons of other think-pieces on the net that will reflect your own problems with this show.

Just for the curious, other reasons why I thought this show was pretty horrible are: its horrible treatment of Justin at the end (who literally gets told by his girlfriend that she does not care if he kills himself, wonderful message there), the show’s insistence on showing us every rape scene in brutal detail as well as showing us Hannah slitting her wrists in close-up (can anybody say trigger?), Hannah’s insistence that she is owed friendship, and that she is trying to get that friendship from always the same peer group instead of trying to find a new crowd to hang out with, and the very, very skewed portrayal of Justin’s guilt for Jessica’s rape, even though he actually tried to stop it despite being black-out drunk while Hannah just hid in the closet and watched instead of helping her friend.

A last reason I actually really despise this show is the fact that this show promotes the whole toxic ‘If I kill myself, everybody will be sorry’ thought, which is something that a lot of people say that they have thought during suicidal phases. Fact is, the kids in “13 Reasons Why”, except for poor Alex, will be sorry for Hannah for about a month or two. Then, guess what? They’ll move on. They’ll learn from it, but they will get over it. They will go on to grow up and live their lives. All of them except for Hannah.

About Ludovica

Ludovica is a translator, writer and aspiring librarian, which is why she already practices getting as many books into her overflowing shelves as possible. She lives in the heart of the Alps, but dreams of a life in Canada.

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