13 Reasons Why: for Better or for Worse?

Illustration by Esther Vdb.

Content warning: this article contains talks of suicide and sexual assault, as well as spoilers for the show.

On March 31st, streaming service and production company Netflix released a new original series titled 13 Reasons Why. The story follows teenager Clay Jensen as he discovers a box of tapes that ultimately unveil the thirteen reasons why his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, decided to end her life. As it probably sounds, it is a pretty intense show.

The series was adapted from the work of the same name by author Jay Asher, and has received a divided response from teens and adults alike. Through its brutally authentic narrative, 13 Reasons Why refuses to shy away (and pan the camera away) from issues including sexual harassment, bullying, and many more that young people face today. It is not hard to see where the TV-MA rating comes from, nor is it hard to understand both sides of the controversy surrounding the decision to show r*pe and suicide on screen.

In order to better understand the divisive reaction to the show, I reached out to the show’s target demographic of viewers around the world.

Wen Hsiao, 17, speaks of the decision to keep the realities on camera. “This is very important. These are very real moments that are happening in the communities we are a part of; these things happen, [and] there is no way to sugarcoat it.”

Valentina C., 21, said, “I think it was good. I haven’t read the book so I don't know if the r*pe(s) were part of the plot but the episodes had trigger warnings (very important). I think series and movies should show this kind of content. [Simply] suggesting this kind of stuff sometimes isn't enough. I’ve seen so many people online rejecting [these] decisions and I don’t know if this is because I'm from Colombia--a very violent country where kidnappings and shootings have been shown every day since I was a little girl--but I think it’s important to show the pain in movies and [television].”

Danielle Leard, 15, said, “I will be the first to admit this show is not for everyone. Especially for people who have had personal experiences with r*pe and/or suicide. However, if the scenes were not shown on screen, the audience would have easily been let off the hook. Without having personally witnessing the horror, one is able to go about this issue passively, not seeing it for what it truly is for the people involved. [Y]ou can't forget about what you saw happen to the characters of Hannah Baker and Jessica Davis. I think it is the closest form of empathy you can get in these scenarios.”

However, not all the people I spoke with were as praiseworthy of the creators’ decision to keep such graphic elements on screen.

Laura Oyuela, 17, said, “To have the sexual assault and suicide moments on camera is something that, in my opinion, is not completely necessary because it may be triggering to a watcher that has gone through [these] kinds of issues.”

Kylie Erin Robison, 18, published an essay on the website Medium stating how 13 Reasons Why negatively affected her, in which she bravely opened up about some past experiences. When asked what she thought of the decision, she said, “I think the decision to make the r*pe and suicide scenes so graphic was completely unnecessary and not at all integral to the story. It would have been so easy to just allude to the fact that she was r*ped, or have her talk about it. I guess that's not dramatic, right? As a victim, it triggered me so bad [that] I had to take a break from watching and skip the episode entirely. Not to mention the graphic suicide scene, which brought up thoughts of suicide in my own mind as well as in those of people I know who also suffer from depression. Showing scenes like that could be very dangerous for those suffering with suicidal thoughts, and it would be great if shows like these stopped using our tragedies for their drama.”

Shelbie Nguyen, 14, said, “I think the decision of the creators to include Hannah’s suicide and sexual assault scene on camera was simply not smart. I felt as if they included the scene not to raise awareness, but for the sole purpose of shock value and to draw attention to the show . . . Trigger warnings aren’t enough when it comes to certain widespread media. Most of my peers who struggle with mental health issues have viewed the scenes despite the warnings, with the belief that they could handle it. Sometimes trigger warnings aren’t everything—it can be hard to stop yourself and sometimes curiosity does kill the cat. Suicide experts [have stated] that explicit descriptions of suicide should be avoided, yet the creators chose to ignore this. Although after watching the scene [one] may not immediately react and harm themselves, planting the idea is extremely toxic and triggering.”

Shelbie has a point. A collaborative study by the World Health Organization and International Association for Suicide Prevention tells media professionals that they ought to “avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide.” The reasoning behind this statement? A “step-by-step description may prompt vulnerable people to copy the act.”

Likewise, a similar study conducted by the Health Service Executive further supports these assertions, more specifically in the realm of visual entertainment. It states, “[i]n retrospective reporting or reconstructions, actual depiction of means should be avoided; use of a long shot or a cutaway would be better.”

Despite the opposition to 13 Reasons Why, teens across the board found themselves identifying with characters in the show due to the vast portrayal of household life amongst different cultures and personalities.

Ruby McVicar, 15, said, “I think Hannah mostly. I understand and can empathise [sic] with her, knowing that I am a lot like her personality-wise, and that we are both teenage girls who experience the same kind of things.”

Marissa, 15, said, “I don’t think I specifically felt connected to any certain character. I just feel like all of them were so real, and definitely connect with tons of people.”

Valentina C. said, “Maybe with Alex Standall. He’s immature and influenceable. He reminds me of my very young teenage self, so lost but weird and authentic at the same time.”

Kylie said, “If I had to identify with a character in the show it would probably have to be Justin Foley. As much as I hate him for not doing more about the Bryce/Jessica situation at the party, his upbringing was rough and I respect that he’s trying to overcome that. I came from a similar, rough upbringing so I can really relate to trying to blend into a crowd that doesn’t necessarily have the same problems as you do.”

Laura said, “I relate with Sheri a bit, because I try to be the best I can in every situation. If I fail or do something wrong, I tend to get scared and try to hide whatever happened on my own.”

From California to Taipei, Australia to Colombia, millennials everywhere help us discover ultimately, whether 13 Reasons Why was created for better or for worse.

Shelbie said, “As a person who struggles with mental illness and has survived multiple suicide attempts, I can not say 13 Reasons Why has impacted me positively. There was just something missing about the show that I failed to connect with, although I can’t place my finger on it. If anything, it frustrated me that so many of my peers romanticized this show so much, while when I was struggling all along with suicidal thoughts and attempts, they did not care, and even went as far as to joke about it. These same people who claim [the series] has impacted them so much and raised so much awareness for mental illness, continue to make ‘welcome to your tape’ and ‘triggered’ jokes. It is unsettling and I feel as if the show brought nothing more than entertainment. It was not helpful to me at all as a mentally ill person, but just added onto the romanticization of suicide.”

Alternatively, Marissa said, “At the end of the day, the show has really just like opened my eyes. It made me take more notice of these things, and how it’s so important to be aware of so we can stop them.”

Valentina said, “It made me cry for sure. It’s been almost five years since I finished [high school] so it was nostalgic. If I had seen this in my teenage years, it would have been really important.”

Wen said, “For the better. It definitely opened my eyes a lot more on how words and rumors can impact people.”

Kylie said, “13 Reasons Why impacted me greatly, and honestly, I have to thank the creators at the end of the day. Not because their show was any sort of good or did any sort of good for us victims, but because it pushed me to write my piece on why it was a [bad] show and admit to the world that I am a r*pe victim. I’ve had floods of messages about this from victims who have yet to come forward to their friends and family about their ordeal and it truly changed me forever to know that I helped victims with my own story. I wouldn’t have been able to come forward if it weren’t for 13 Reasons Why being such a [bad] show.”

Laura said, “I was not shocked by this show, but I ended up realizing that [these] problems may destroy and completely damage anyone that is being affected by them. . . This show may help . . . a person that has gone through [such] troubles [and help them] understand they need help, but I think it can also give a lot of negative ideas to people.”

13 Reasons Why has impacted teenage and young adult audiences all around the world in a lot of different ways. Overall, the show has prompted people everywhere to speak up about what matters to them--and that is something to be grateful for.

By Danielle Leard

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