By Beth Winze
I will shamelessly admit that when the release date for the Netflix Original show based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel “13 Reasons Why” was announced, I marked that date on all three planners and added it to my Netflix list. Having read the book when I was in my mid-teens I was curious to see how they would make a book that contains so much hard-hitting, gritty, and dark material into a Netflix original and address all of those topics the way the book did. I spent my entire weekend binging all 13 episodes and was upset when I finished the last episode. For those of you who have not heard about this book/tv show or have and are unsure if this Netflix Original is for you, I do want to discuss this show in length and why this show could change the way we talk about suicide, rape, bullying, and complicated young adult emotions that are not being properly addressed. If you do not mind SPOILERS keep reading. I do think that if you are on the fence about watching this show, this post will hopefully help guide a decision on whether to invest your time into it. So with this prequel being written, and my SPOILERS disclaimer addressed, let us get to the conversation.
To begin the conversation, I will add another disclaimer in regards to the rating that this show has. It is rated TV-MA (mature audiences) for what I would consider a significant amount of language that includes: f***, g**d***, s***, b**** (and other derogatory female slang), d*** (and other derogatory male slang); brutal rape scenes, and a graphic suicide scene. I’m going to be also a little controversial in saying that I think the language and graphic scenes were necessary for this show to deliver the truth of it’s content. I will explain this further later on. I think the best way to discuss this show is to break it down in the overall themes that the show contains and to address them one by one. I have included the book description in order to provide context for this post.
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker—his classmate and crush—who committed suicide two weeks earlier.
On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out how he made the list.
Through Hannah and Clay’s dual narratives, debut author Jay Asher weaves an intricate and heartrending story of confusion and desperation that will deeply affect teen readers.
– 13 Reasons Why
The most encapsulating topic this show revolves around is the suicide of Hannah Baker. Her suicide is talked about every episode as Hannah narrates via cassette tapes, what lead to her decision to end her own life. Throughout the beginning, Hannah almost seems to make a joke out of her death when she wrongfully uses a grammatical tense to address herself and back pedals reminding herself and the listener she is no longer alive. Since the show is set two weeks after her suicide, the high school is still processing the loss of a fellow classmate. Flowers are set in the hall, students memorialize her image, and provide condolences when Hannah’s parents come in to gather her things – but there is this sickening sense of normality that rings a little louder than the sound of a lost life.
In the very beginning, the viewer is aware of Hannah’s death, but the high school continues about business as usual – except for a group of people in which Hannah has incorporated their interactions with her into the reasons she committed suicide. The idea of these pre-recorded tapes begins to weigh heavier on the viewer when you realize that she has given them to people who have inevitably pushed her so far, that she felt death was the only option – inevitably blaming them for her death. The viewer watches each of these individual story’s unfold via Hannah’s interpretation as the episodes roll on. The people Hannah has involved in the tapes begin to unravel as they realize that the next person to hear them, Clay, was not going to let her death go undiscussed any longer.
The hardest part to watch is how hard Hannah was struggling daily with everything and how unaware her parents were to her heartache. Hannah’s parents loved her, which was clear throughout the entire season, but they kept missing the signs. Their idea of their happy, bubbly daughter was so set, that they refused see the unhappy, heartbroken girl struggling just below the surface. Since she was the new girl in town and her parents had just started a business, there were missed opportunities for her parents to check in with her and how she was doing at her new school. What could have been a great opportunity for Hannah to start over, quickly became a beginning to an end that no one should resort to. After her suicide, classmates seem to rave about what a wonderful person she was and how many friends she had, when the truth of it all pulls back to reveal a nasty mess of bullying, rape, sexual abuse and other serious forms of torment that Hannah’s peers put her and many others through.
Hannah, throughout the tapes, makes it obvious that she had tried several times to get help. She went to fellow classmates she believe she could trust, who turned around and capitalized on her emotional vulnerability to them. She even saw the school counselor after one of the most disturbing events happened and the school counselor lead her to believe it was her fault and that the only way to move past it was to ignore it. This disturbing trend of Hannah reaching out and people dismissing her cries for “trivial”, “drama centered” or “selfish” resonates deeply with the viewer. It pulls you, the viewer in, by getting you to question how many times someone may have been crying out for help, but you chose not to listen. Or if you have ever dismissed someone’s traumatic events off as something that should not be as traumatic as they were. The movie does this throughout the extent of it’s plot, causing the viewer to question what they might have missed in people’s lives and how that might have affected them.
One of the very last episodes shows Hannah’s suicide very explicitly, where she sits in a bathtub and slits her wrists until she bleeds out. The filming of this scene creates a hard-hitting image of Hannah’s final struggle with what life has thrown at her, and how ending her life seems less painful then continuing on. Besides the fact that this episode stirred up a very strong and very emotional response from myself, it does employ the viewer to challenge every interaction they may have ever had with someone – whether that was a good or bad experience.
The show ends with the announcement that another student has shot himself in the head and is in critical condition for his attempted suicide. This student had been in Hannah’s tape and the viewer is left questioning if Hannah’s tapes ended up doing more harm then good for the student body and if making the student’s aware of their impact on her death was worth the attempted suicide at the end. Regardless if this was some sort of cliff hanger for a season 2, I think it brings a pivotal discussion that the things we do when interacting with people has a potentially lasting effect on their lives, emotions, and how they are treated by others.
This part of the show is excruciatingly graphic and several scenes of unwanted groping and two intense rape scenes laid the groundwork for Hannah’s “reputation” at the school. What began in the very first episode as an embarrassing picture of her underwear became an assumption of her sexuality and how easy she was. Justin (an individual addressed in the tapes) inevitably lets his friend send the picture around the school and the rumors of Hannah’s “easiness” begin. Hannah addresses the rumors of her first kiss with Justin right off the bat, when she challenges her listeners “if they heard that she had done more with Justin then just kissing”.
After this incident, things slide quickly down hill and a list is started by one of her “friends” who labels Hannah as having the best sophomore a**. After this list goes public, guys walk up behind Hannah and follow her in groups making derogatory hand gestures and aggressive comments about her regarding the list. Hannah puts on a strong face, ignoring the commentary, but the viewer watches her confidence slowly wane and flicker out. The more Hannah goes throughout the school year, the more rumors that are started, and the more incidences occur in which guys try to take advantage of her. She goes out with guys trusting that they have good intentions, but when they make physical passes at her, she realizes their intentions were only to see how far she would let them go. This constant abuse cycle breaks Hannah down, especially after she witnesses a dear friend getting raped. After watching her friend get brutally assaulted, Hannah could not process it. She tried to tell someone multiple times, but found herself unable to share something so personal with people she did not know if she could trust.
Ultimately, the final straw to Hannah’s sexual abuse ends with her rape from a fellow classmate. The classmate made comments regarding how she did not say “no” and how her sitting in the hot tub was her acceptance of his sexual advances. After this scene is shown, she decides to give life one more try. But when she tries to discuss her rape with her counselor, he dismisses it because of her cautionary attitude towards providing him with detail. Later that day, she takes her life.
All of these incidences tied together form a picture of brutal and unrelenting bullying inflicted on a girl, solely based on rumors and assumptions based on her character. The sickening situations people put Hannah in, occur again and again and everyone refuses to take her seriously and assumes that she is just looking for drama. No one tries to look past the surface of the lies and rumors except for Clay, but even he misses Hannah’s cries for help.
I think there are a multitude of reasons, why this TV show could initiate a turning point in how our society approaches bullying, sexual assault, and suicide. The show is heavy. It’s dark. It’s gritty. There is excessive language. But I do believe it strongly plays out the reality of high school and how easy it is to overlook someone’s cries for help. I think the reality of this weighs heavy on the viewers, and walking away from this show I can confirm that it doesn’t settle well. It’s not easy to digest and it most definitely challenges your behaviors towards others. I strongly believe that everyone should watch this but ESPECIALLY parents of high schoolers. Not so far away from high school myself, I remember feeling as if adults never took me seriously, and that my feelings were not validated. My own struggles with depression and anxiety in high school did lead me to suicidal thoughts. I wish someone would have told me that the emotional rollercoaster was valid and I had every right to feel what I was feeling. I learned to store away those feelings because I had been told I was dramatic or was wearing my heart on my sleeve too much. And this was not from one person, this was over a period of years by a multitude of people.
This show is needed by society. Our culture craves change and this show can bring that. This show brings a visual aspect to what people go through in high school, so I employ you with this: watch this show, allow it to challenge you, and be ready to emotionally carry weight away from it. The emotional weight is necessary, I believe, to make an impact in how you are able to apply this moving forward. Validate people’s feelings. Whether it is because someone failed a test and looks at their life as a failure, or if someone gets sexually assaulted and can’t fully process the emotions. Allow someone to feel what they feel and don’t dismiss it. Just because it is not a reality for you, does not mean that it is not a very real emotion for someone else. I encourage you, if you are a parent, to watch this with your kids and to talk through it, because you never know if they may be the victims of bullying or they very well could be the bullies themselves. The conversation about these topics need to change. And it starts with you.
“You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life.” – Thirteen Reasons Why
“Soul Alone” by Hannah Baker
I meet your eyes
you don’t even see me
You hardly respond
when I whisper
Could be my soul mate
two kindred spirits
Maybe we’re not
I guess we’ll never
My own mother
you carried me in you
Now you see nothing
but what I wear
People ask you
how I’m doing
You smile and nod
don’t let it end
underneath God’s sky and
don’t just see me with your eyes
this mask of flesh and bone and
for my soul
– Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher