13 Reasons Why: A double-edged sword?

Eliza Dickinson 2 May 2017

Note: This review contains both potentially triggering content, and spoilers.

13 Reasons Why, the Netflix high school drama which is inescapably plastered across social media, has raised a good deal of controversy. The plot is fairly straightforward – Hannah, a high school student, has committed suicide, and has left behind 13 tapes which each explain one event which led up to her death. However, the issues with which it engages, including rape and discussions of mental health, are decidedly not.

The show is an adaptation of a novel by Jay Asher, which, when published in 2007, swiftly became a New York Times best-seller and was touted as a book that would encourage even reluctant readers to give it a try. However, the on-screen adaptation, which removes the element of imagination necessary in reading the book and replaces it with vivid, graphic pixels, may not be the best medium through which to discuss undeniably difficult subjects.

Some critics have demanded that it should be removed from Netflix, and a quick Google search pulls up numerous articles which warn parents about the difficult content. So why, exactly, has it received so much attention? And is the controversy surrounding the content of the show overshadowing its intended purpose, which is, presumably, to raise awareness of the struggles which Hannah faced?

The popularity and accessibility of the show, which is readily available to binge-watch on Netflix, is a vicious double-edged sword. In our increasingly digital world, the show will probably be watched by more people than ever read the book, and this magnifies its impact in two different directions.

Firstly, there is the discussion which dominates reviews, claiming that the show is harmful and damaging in its portrayal of mental illness. It is hard to watch, as anything which sparks a conversation about mental health and bullying should be. However, the way in which this is presented is, at times, gratuitously graphic and violent in a way that is simply unnecessary. We know that Hannah has killed herself, since her voice haunts both the audience and the characters throughout each episode. As a result, the explicit scene in which she commits suicide is needlessly harrowing and upsetting, and has raised concerns among psychologists that it could provoke ‘copy-cat’ suicides.

Furthermore, the two rape scenes – as if one wasn’t horrendous enough – mean that 13 Reasons Why seems to be treading a very fine line between demonstrating the horrors of rape, and using it as a plot device to dramatise the series whenever it appears to lag in intensity. For a programme which is intended to raise awareness of traumatic events which can destroy someone’s life, it is not at all sensitive to the impact that such graphic detail can have upon the viewer.

Secondly, the show has sparked a conversation relating to rape culture, mental illness, and the impact of bullying, which are important, if difficult, subjects to raise. However, the fact that characters who are guilty of rape, slut-shaming, and dangerous driving are juxtaposed alongside a character who is featured on the tapes merely for being too shy to be romantically involved with Hannah trivialises the other issues by comparison. Hannah and Clay’s relationship dominates the more significant themes in the same way that an emphasis on the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale in The Hunger Games casts the issues of their dystopian society aside as if it were not worthy of consideration. The conversation about mental health should not come at the expense of sensitivity to real issues, nor should it be trivialised by romanticising the uneventful relationship between Clay and Hannah.

The purpose of ‘provocative’ programmes like 13 Reasons Why is, ultimately, to start a conversation, and regardless of the direction of that conversation, the show has certainly succeeded in attracting attention to itself. However, we cannot ignore the fact that directors and producers have a responsibility to their audience, particularly when that audience is already a vulnerable demographic, to present material in a sensitive way which is not overly gratuitous or lurid. For that reason, 13 Reasons Why has failed Hannah: it has made her story, though fictional, an object of sensationalist attention.