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’13 Reasons Why’ is a Great Show — And One That Romanticizes Suicide

Netflix's teen drama is a well crafted and highly addictive teen suicide drama without a suicide hotline. If you've known suicidal youth, it's hard to watch.

Katherine Langford, "13 Reasons Why"

Katherine Langford, “13 Reasons Why”

Netflix

There is a quote, often attributed to François Truffaut, that there can be no such thing as an anti-war film. Here’s his exact words, from this 1973 interview with Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune: “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be antiwar, but I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” It’s a line of thinking that could apply to rape and suicide, images of which proliferate onscreen so often it can be difficult to keep track.

READ MORE: ’13 Reasons Why’ Stars On How Tom McCarthy and Gregg Araki Set the Tone for Netflix’s Gripping Teen Suicide Drama

That brings us to Netflix’s highly addictive new series, “13 Reasons Why,” based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher. Created by Tony-winning playwright Brian Yorkey with executive producer Tom McCarthy, it is a melodramatic thriller about a young girl named Hannah Baker (played by charming newcomer Katherine Langford) who takes her own life. Rather than a note, Hannah leaves tapes detailing the 13 reasons why she did it, with each side labeled for a different person in her life. As shy boy-next-door Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), who had a crush on Hannah, slowly makes his way through the tapes, we learn about the bullying and slut-shaming Hannah endured.

Though there is a graphic content warning before each episode, there is no hotline listed for someone to call if they are having suicidal thoughts; most teen-targeted shows that tackle heavy subjects, like “Glee” and “Pretty Little Liars,” are careful to do that at the end of their episodes. However, Netflix said they chose not to because “there is not a singular crisis hotline that encompasses the reach our all our viewers globally.”

Here’s the full statement:

Given Netflix’s global platform, there is not a singular crisis hotline that encompasses the reach our all our viewers globally. Instead, we opted to create a global resource website (13ReasonsWhy.info) where viewers can source regional specific crisis help information should they need. This site appears prominently in our 30 minute After Show, has been pushed extensively on all social media platforms for the series (where this audience lives) and we know through partners both in the US and abroad that viewers are using the site as a way to connect with local health experts.

Netflix also said that  “Beyond The Reasons,” which appears immediately after the 13th episode, includes medical experts who were consulted in the show’s creation.

With an auteur-heavy roster of directors like Gregg Araki, Carl Franklin, and McCarthy, the series takes an artistic approach to its rather lurid storytelling. The mystery draws viewers in, and the drama is anchored by strong performances from Minnette and Langford, as well as more familiar faces like Kate Walsh, Brian d’Arcy James, and Josh Hamilton. It’s one of those Netflix shows you can watch in a few days, keeping you on the edge of your seat. However, anyone who has ever worked with suicidal youth will find it difficult to enjoy. (Full disclosure: I volunteered with the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth, for two years).

READ MORE: ’13 Reasons Why’ Soundtrack: Listen to This Haunting Playlist From Netflix’s Heartbreaking Series

Therapists have long been aware of the connection between media depiction of suicide and a spike in suicide rates. An Australian survey of over 20 relevant studies from 2010 concludes: “There is good reason to expect that entertainment media depictions of suicide could lead to imitation acts: Such portrayals are widespread, often send a message reinforcing suicide as a course of action, often include graphic footage of the method of suicide, and often appeal to young audiences.”

13 Reasons Why Poster

With a cast chock full of dreamy teens, the high-school setting, and melodramatic content, “13 Reasons Why” is definitely aimed at young audiences. Whether it reinforces suicide as a course of action is debatable, but Hannah is memorialized and even martyrized by the tapes — not to mention getting a whole TV show about her life. As the tapes reveal more about her struggles, the people she blames not only feel guilty, but also fear legal ramifications for her death. The entire school mourns her, and Clay becomes obsessed with finding out the truth.

READ MORE: ’13 Reasons Why’ Review: Netflix Brings a Brutally Adult Edge to A Tale of Teen Suicide

“I can almost guarantee that within the next year there will be a student we hear about on the news that actually does this exact process with the tapes,” said Kathleen Sutherland, a family therapist in Manhattan. She works with at-risk youth in the child welfare system, who have high rates of suicidal ideation.

Though Sutherland watched the entire series, she said she felt “mortified … it made it seem like that option was easy and painless. For someone who is in pain and wants to get revenge it almost shows, ‘This would be a good idea.'” When a co-worker told her of a client who expressed interest in watching the show, she advised them to discourage it. “It really did not sit well with me, but it was also something that I could not stop watching.”

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Comments

Shaquille

Fuck you. As someone who has struggled with suicide his entire life, looking at it as something that you shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling is maybe the most comforting thing that’s out there. Is suicide the answer? Of course not. But the fact of the matter is that it exists as a way out that always sort of hangs there, and it really, really sucks, and it really, really doesn’t help when you get bombarded in twenty different directions by people telling you how horrible it would be to kill yourself. I know it cause I lived it. I have a lot of issues with 13 Reasons Why, and every single one of them is artistic. I don’t think it’s a very good show. But what I have to give it a lot of credit for is depicting suicide as something that happens. Hannah isn’t a martyr. The show builds sympathy, but there’s such a clear difference between sympathy and martyrdom. If every piece of media depicted suicide as something to be ashamed of, rather than just something that you need help to get through, then all of a sudden you aren’t dealing with an accurate depiction of something very real that a lot of people go through, you’re dealing with something that’s functionally propaganda. It seems just a wee little bit like you’re just trying to politicize this, and I’m not really sure to what end. Violence and sex aren’t taboo anymore in art, it seems. The new taboo is telling a story without making sure that you can’t possibly offend anyone ever.

    Tim

    The show is horribly acted and Im finding it tough to listen to the romanticized teen drama. Im only watching it because Im a childrens counsellor and its been triggering for my clients. Ive also written a research report following the contagion effect of suicide. This show has all the elements that lead to a contagion effect. This show will 100% lead to children killing themselves.

      Ana

      Wash your dirty clothes at home

    Jerry

    “Fuck You”. Classy way to begin a comment. The author may have differed from your opinion but nothing they wrote deserved such a pointed response. You are exactly what is wrong with most of the Internet and why it’s hard to find people who present differing opinions.

Tommy Marx

While I understand the point of this article, my biggest problem with the series was that we spent 13 hours learning why this girl chose to kill herself, then we get to the end, only to find out that her suicide ends up being reduced to nothing more than a plot device to introduce the season two mystery. Why they didn’t choose to let the focus stay on Hannah and then introduce a new mystery if and when the series gets a second season – or better yet, just film it as a standalone miniseries – is beyond me. The boy getting shot at the end (off screen, to further the mystery) felt like it trivialized what ostensibly the entire point of the series was: her suicide.

I had other problems with the series, although by and large it was much better than the rather mediocre book it was based on, but that was why I ended up feeling very disappointed with the series as a whole.

    Winston

    I agree with you totally

Freepa

BS, its excruciatingly boring and twee, and precious and just WRONG

Amari Sali

I have to completely disagree and question what show was the author watching? The whole thing was a well crafted PSA in terms of suicide and how we all play a part. Plus, I figure the whole point of switching from pills to slitting her wrist was to prevent it from being romanticized. By showing that suicide isn’t an easy choice nor an easy thing to do. Mentally, it takes time to truly become committed and only when every option, from friends, an outlet, and family leave you feeling disappointed, or like a disappointment, that is when suicide becomes a real option.

Pedro Mendes

Just remembering what I watched in the show makes me want to commit suicide. But, according (loosely) to WHO, we need to talk more about suicide. This coin have two sides.

I deposit my hope in a second season, where happiness and joy will take place!

Alex

I really want to talk to one of these mental health experts who are deriding this show so much as “Glorifying” and “Romanticizing” suicide. So many of the characters spend so much of the story in absolute *anguish* and turmoil over what’s happened, especially the mother and the main character himself. Every single episode is heavy with remorse and grief, and nobody *ever* suggests that this was a good idea or a good solution to a problem. We watch as every single time a young woman trusts someone, it’s thrown back in her face and she’s betrayed, and the way it slowly erodes her well being. Just how much more does pain and heartache have to drip from the screen before it’s not considered “glorifying”?

Ryru

Zootopia can have a different animated news anchor based on the country you’re watching the movie in. But 13 reasons why can’t put up a 20 second flash card with suicide hotlines or websites to find them base on your country?

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