Thirteen Reasons Why is a popular and controversial Netflix series that deals with the issue of suicide, which in a way is also popular and controversial. It’s based on the book of the same name. I’ve read the book and seen the show so I figured I should share my thoughts on them.
Since my reviews tend to get long winded I’m going to start by answering three important questions in the most succinct way possible.
Is Thirteen Reasons Why a good book? No
Is Thirteen Reasons Why a good show? Yes
Does Thirteen Reasons Why glorify suicide? Yes
The story was an interesting one and it held my attention the whole time so I’ll give the book that much but Jay Asher is just not a good writer. It’s a good thing he had a decent editor. At the end of book the original ending of the story before the editor changed it was printed. It was so bad and ridiculous I found myself cringing in second hand embarrassment.
Movies based on books are almost never as good as the books but in my experience shows based on books tend to be better than the books. I wasn’t all that impressed with the book Orange is the New Black (although compared to Thirteen Reasons Why it’s a masterpiece) but I love the Netflix series (although I think it may have jumped the shark at season 5.) The series added all kinds of intriguing details and scenarios that weren’t in the book.
While I wouldn’t say I loved the Netflix version of Thirteen Reasons Why, I did like it. Just like the Netflix version of Orange is the New Black, it touched on all kinds of details that the book just barely skimmed the surface of. Most notably we got to know the suicide victim’s parents and they filed a lawsuit against the school.
The lawsuit angle raises the question of how much responsibility other people have for someone’s suicide both legally and morally. Obviously the suicide victim is the one who chose to commit suicide and no one else forced them in to it but if you actively encourage someone to commit suicide, it seems pretty clear to me that you’re responsible for their death. Recently there was a news story about a girl who was charged with manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide and I agreed with that verdict.
What’s less clear is how responsible you are for a suicide victim’s death if you don’t encourage them to commit suicide but make their life a living hell. In Thirteen Reasons Why this is what the school bullies did to Hannah. The story also explores the ways in which well meaning people who love the suicide victim can contribute to their death, not only through their actions but through their inaction. Most of the people on Hannah’s thirteen reasons why tapes were people who treated her cruelly but the main character, Clay, had treated her kindly and cared about her.
There has been much concern that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide and I’ll get to that shortly but there was another aspect of it I found concerning that I haven’t seen anyone talk about. There’s a scene where Hannah and Clay start making out and Hannah freaks out and tells Clay to go away. He does so. It’s later revealed that Hannah told Clay to go away because she was scared but she really wanted him to stay and it’s suggested that if he had, maybe she wouldn’t have committed suicide. Clay regrets listening to Hannah and leaving the room rather than continuing to touch and talk to her.
I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea from that scene and think that it’s okay to continue to touch and talk to someone who’s asked you to stop. If someone has asked you to stop touching and talking to them, the proper thing to do is to listen to them, even if you suspect they really want you to continue. In this world of rape culture it is so important to take people at their word and not do anything to them that they haven’t consented to. I’m not going to say that the show glorifies rape or touching people without their consent though because Hannah’s rape and her witnessing of someone else’s rape factor heavily into her decision to commit suicide.
I do think that Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide, not because it makes suicide seem pleasant or admirable but because it sends the message that suicide is a way to be noticed, to get your voice heard, to make the people who wronged you feel bad about what they did, to make them suffer for it. The people who wronged Hannah didn’t seem to feel bad about what they did or realize how much they’d hurt her until she killed herself. They also were not held accountable for their actions until she killed herself.
For people who are not depressed and who are respected and treated well by their peers, I think the message this story sends is a good one and that it has the potential to influence their behavior in a positive manner. If you hold the social power, you should use that power to be kind to others, rather than to be unkind because you never know what kind of a battle someone is fighting or what effect your actions could have on them. Yet I have serious concerns about the effect this story could have on a depressed, tormented, socially rejected adolescent. Those are the people who feel powerless and this story presents suicide as a way to gain power.
Another criticism I’ve seen of Thirteen Reasons Why is that it portrays suicide as a revenge tactic and that stigmatizes people who commit suicide. There was certainly an element of revenge to Hannah’s suicide but I did not get the impression that was her sole or even her primary motivation for ending her life. Her suicide scene was graphic and maybe if I hadn’t heard about it beforehand I would have been shocked and horrified by it but I’d heard so much criticism of it beforehand that it ended up not being as graphic as I was expecting it to be.
I had a lot of sympathy for Hannah but I did not find her to be an entirely likable character. However, I do not see Hannah’s flaws as a flaw in the story. I don’t think someone needs to be a perfect angel in order for their suicide to be a tragedy or for us to mourn the loss of them. The truth is that if someone is suicidal or suffering from mental illness, there’s a good chance they will behave badly, that they’ll do things that others find hurtful and off- putting. That does not mean the suicidal person is a bad person.
It is often said that suicide is selfish. I don’t think that’s a fair criticism because while it’s true that suicide is devastating to the surviving loved ones, the mind of a severely depressed person can convince them that they are so horrible and such a burden to everyone around them, that they are doing their loved ones a favor by killing themselves.
I can personally relate to this story on multiple levels. I’ve never attempted suicide and I’m not sure that I’ve ever been truly suicidal but I have been severely depressed and had thoughts of wanting to die. I wasn’t bullied or ostracized by my peer group much as a child or an adolescent but I was as an adult. The bullying did not make me suicidal but it did damage me emotionally. I’m not sure that the people who bullied me realized how badly they were hurting me or that they thought of what they were doing to me as bullying.
I’d like to say that I’ve never bullied or been cruel to anyone but that would be a lie. The truth is that when I was in high school my friends and I played a cruel prank on a girl who was emotionally vulnerable. Our prank did not result in the girl’s suicide but I know that it could have. In fact when the teachers found out about our prank we were required to write a play to show that we learned our lesson and I proved that by writing a play about our prank that did result in a suicide attempt. A few years later there was a news story about an adult who played the same kind of prank on a teenage girl and it resulted in her suicide.
The prank I participated in was not something I ever would have done on my own but people tend to be influenced by their peers and to do cruel things in groups that they wouldn’t do individually. This was an extensive prank that went on for months and there were times when I did feel guilty about my participation in it but I always brushed that guilt aside. I told myself it was just a silly prank so it wasn’t really bullying and surely it wouldn’t hurt her that badly and if it did she deserved it because she”d been mean to me and she wasn’t a very nice person and….we can always think of ways to try to justify cruel, bullying behavior but at the end of the day there really is no justification for it.
As I said before, you never know the kind of effect your actions will have on someone else, whether they be acts of kindness or acts of cruelty. Something that seems insignificant to you could have a profound impact on someone else. At the end of the day, unless you’re a psychopath, you don’t want someone else’s blood on your hands so play it safe and don’t be an ass. If you see someone being an ass to someone else stand up to them and reach out to the victim.
As Thirteen Reasons Why proves, cruelty and indifference to cruelty can have devastating consequences. I can only hope that the predominant consequence of Thirteen Reasons Why will be a decrease in cruelty in the real world, rather than an increase in suicide.