It doesn’t take much digging to find responses to 13 Reasons Why (13RW) citing it as being “controversial” or that it is “glamorising suicide”. New Zealand has even created a new category of censorship to prevent those under 18 from watching it alone and some schools are warning parents of the dangers of allowing their children to watch it at all.
The series depicts the tragic fictional story of teenager Hannah Baker, a tale of teenage suicide. While a fictional story is presented, it is unfortunately so many people’s truth. Some reports claim that Ireland has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the EU. Living in Cork City I am all too aware of how rampant suicide is in our community. Another news story breaks, another life lost, we raise the issue of caring for our mental health for a while and then the cycle repeats itself. We ask ourselves why is this happening? Is the care required to help prevent this available? Do we have the resources, the funding? Are we helping each other? Is this subject being discussed in the home and at school? Or are teens just killing themselves because they saw how “glamorous” it was for a girl who was raped, objectified, bullied, friendless, stalked and hopeless slit her wrists and bleed to death in a bath tub on their TV screens or their laptops, or like Hannah said, whatever device they watch/listen to it on. Of course not, because there is nothing glamorous about suicide.
The creators, actors, and all those involved in 13RW should be applauded for confronting the issue in the first place. They must have known it was going to be controversial, that they would be criticised for presenting it in the graphic way they did, but thankfully they decided to because somebody had to. Was it necessary to include the graphic bath tub scene? Did we need to see the blood escape from the veins of the young girl? Yes, we did, because it needed to be real. We can all say it’s sad when we hear that a young person has died by suicide, we can all send our condolences to the family or take selfies at memorials and label them with hashtags like we see in the first episode, but the bath tub scene forces you to experience the pain, it forces you to sit through and watch the realities of suicide. In my opinion, 13RW can only have a positive impact on its viewers, yes, it’s often uncomfortable to watch but I think it achieves its aim. I think the aim of the series is to cause discussions regarding mental health, bullying, suicide and rape and consent.
Why so are there warnings to children not to watch it? Perhaps because when Hannah sought help from the school counsellor she did not receive it. Is this sending the wrong message? I can see how it could be considered so. We always advise children to ask an adult for help when they need it because the adult is supposed to have the answers, but in this series many adults fail in providing the sufficient support we expect from them. Why then would a show send out such a message? I don’t think the series is saying if you ask for help you won’t receive it, alternatively it’s pointing out to adults how important the issue of teen suicide is and how important it is for all of us to provide that support for those around us, especially when it’s asked of us. It’s simply pointing out how as a society we continue to fail in tackling these issues. It depicts a world full of pressures and expectations (school, college, work, relationships, families, sexuality etc.), it depicts the 21st century with all its complexities and priorities and points out how we need to realise what’s really important. 13RW forces the viewer to take a long look at themselves and to ask themselves the question: how am I helping those around me? Did those people I joked with take the jokes seriously? Hannah can be heard saying herself that most of the people on the tapes had no idea what they were truly doing. We’re all mean sometimes, we’ve all said hurtful things, 13RW shows us that we often may not realise the hurt we’re causing, maybe we thought we were only joking but this programme shows us the consequences of our jokes. It’s a series that promotes accountability and highlights the overdue need for change in our society.
We can watch 13RW and dislike those mentioned on the tapes for their actions or we can delve deeper and recognise that as a society we have created this environment. An environment where we foster bullying, objectifying, and rape, where little consequence and accountability exists. In 2012, a 15-year-old Amanda Todd, after enduring cyber bullying, blackmail, and physical assault, took her own life. Amanda Todd’s YouTube video relays her story through flashcards, while Hannah relays her story on tapes. The main reason Hannah commits suicide is because Bryce raped her. Bryce is rich and he’s very good at sports, in 2015 I heard that Brock Turner was a really good swimmer. Amanda Todd’s video was a cry for help. How many cries have been since? How far have we advanced in laws/school policies in confronting cyber-bullying/sexual exploitation since? In 2015, I couldn’t care less if Brock Turner could swim or not and I still don’t. I do care about the ridiculous sentencing he received and about the message that sends to people. 13RW is mirroring our society, these terrible things are occurring, so let everyone watch it and let us all see some of the reasons we’re to blame.
X marks the spot or in this case several circles mark it. Bryce is the main villain of the series. He is popular and rich, a celebrated jock in the school, a boy who is used to getting what he wants and an all round self-absorbed arrogant individual. Unlike many of the other characters his actions are not a product of his circumstances. We hear him on the phone to his parents telling them to stay in Aspen but as viewers we don’t feel sorry for him being alone at home because he appears to be quite happy like that. Following Hannah’s death, he accepts no blame, shows no remorse, and basically says she wanted him to carry out the rape. When Justin admits to Jessica that Bryce also raped her he again assumes it will blow over, they’ll talk again and it wasn’t a big deal. How could a person be so ignorant? How does he get away with his actions for so long? Is Brock, I mean Bryce, representing the privileged male, the apparent untouchable in our society who seem to get away with what could be described as violent misogyny, then again one of the most powerful males in the world right now says you can “grab them by the pussy”. It’s apparent, as a society, that we haven’t progressed as much as we might think.
Bryce is puppet master of his followers, particularly Justin Foley. Justin has two tapes dedicated to him. He’s the quintessential poor kid living with an addict mother and her abusive boyfriend. While the picture he takes causes Hannah pain I still don’t hate him. Once again it was Bryce who sent the picture to everyone, but Justin did not deny the rumours and so helped cause the ruining of Hannah’s reputation. He was trying to look “cool” in front of the guys and like Hannah said, probably didn’t really realise the pain he was causing. I don’t hate Justin Foley because he epitomises a flaw in our society. The fact that Justin is still in the care of his mother shows how he has been let down by society his entire life. Later Justin, in what is a very hard scene to watch, fails to prevent Bryce from attacking Jessica. He then thinks he is protecting her by keeping the rape from her but really, he just delays losing the only person he really had in his life to love and who loved him. I think I cried the most during the scene where he finally tells her, even though I think she may have known from her flashbacks which we see. I think Jessica just didn’t want to accept the truth, why would she? In this scene, she turns on Justin more than she turns on Bryce probably because she is let down by someone she needed to care for her, just like Hannah needed anyone to care for her. But how could Justin adequately support someone, when he’s experienced so little of it in his own life?
Like Justin, we see the flaws of Alex, Jessica, Zach, and Courtney perpetrated by those around them. Does this justify their actions? No, not at all, but it does show that just like Hannah, these characters are also let down primarily by their families and the school. As the series progressed I learned that several of the characters mentioned on the tapes were in vulnerable situations that also could have led to them committing suicide, therefore I wasn’t surprised when Alex was found shot at the end. Hannah wasn’t the only one needing help in this series.
Throughout the thirteen episodes, it’s clear that Alex needs just as much help as Hannah. Yes, he makes a stupid list but thankfully realises that in his attempts to impress Bryce he caused others pain. Alex comes from a family where he addresses his father as sir, a father who lets him off with dangerous driving and gets him out of the depositions. A father who appears to never teach the significance of accountability and so no wonder Alex would make a list, because he probably wasn’t expecting to take responsibility for his actions. The truth is that in the end Alex acts more of an adult than his father does, he wants to tell the truth, but is once again an example of how an adult, in this series, has failed to provide a supportive network to a child.
Jessica, Zach and Courtney have expectations to meet, parents to impress and obey. Jessica’s parents don’t even notice that she’s drinking, but instead seemed more concerned about how her cheerleading is going. Even Hannah acknowledges that Zach maybe somewhat like her in also feeling alone, no wonder he would, he’s surrounded by the likes of Bryce and a mother who doesn’t seem very approachable. Courtney hasn’t accepted her sexuality yet, and doesn’t want to cause any pain to her fathers. Before Courtney’s deposition we see her telling her father that she must tell him something about her and Hannah, does she tell him the truth? Does he tell her to lie in deposition? Is she another character let down by an adult in this series? None of these characters are blameless but sometimes we must look to people’s surroundings in an effort to change things and prevent such things from reoccurring.
So, what is 13RW really about? It’s about families who don’t know how to act around their children when a teen dies by suicide. It’s about parents who cannot comfortably speak with their own children. Clay’s father checks in with him by saying “keep in touch”, that’s a strange thing to say to your child. Clay’s mother says, “you know I hate being the kind of parent to ask do you want to talk?” Why? Parents should be talking to their children and not just when someone has died but before it to hopefully prevent such things happening in the first place. Hannah is envious of how involved Courtney’s parents are in her life, saying how she wished she could be able to speak with her parents like that. We see Hannah’s parents fight for her when she has died, but Hannah’s “memory box” reveals to us that they too are at fault, if they had just taken the time to speak to her more maybe Hannah would have seen that someone did care enough for her.
13RW is about a school failing to support its students. As I have previously said, Mr. Porter didn’t help Hannah when she asked for it. We see the microphone in her bag recording their conversation, this could suggest that maybe she had already made up her mind or else that she wasn’t expecting to receive any help. Or maybe she wanted to record the words from an adult who would save her, but she didn’t get that recording. Again, I hope that this doesn’t send the wrong message. Mr. Porter was one adult she sought help from, just like the teacher in communications class and both let her down.
13RW is about mental health issues and the controversy following it just affirms that it is still a taboo subject that we don’t know how to approach. It’s about rape and consent and the existence of a culture with blurred lines. Let there be no uncertainty or grey areas here, Bryce did rape Jessica and he did rape Hannah.
Finally, the show is about a boy, Clay, who represents all of us at some stage in our lives, when we love someone or when we have a crush and we’re too scared to tell them how we feel. He represents our “shoulda, woulda, coulda’s” and maybe he has taught us all to stop being scared and just go for it, because sometimes when trying to protect ourselves we may not realise that we could be someone else’s saviour in their journey.
When you google “suicide epidemic” a brief Wikipedia page appears. This page reads “It has been suggested that the teaching of stories such as Romeo and Juliet may encourage suicide among young people”. Maybe we should stop teaching Romeo and Juliet. Maybe we shouldn’t watch 13RW. Maybe we should say it’s sad when we hear of another teen suicide, maybe we should send our condolences to the family, or maybe we should post hashtags on social media.
When I read Romeo and Juliet I didn’t want to kill myself nor did I think a lot of teens were going to after reading it. I saw a presentation of fierce passions, passionate love, and passionate hate. When I watched 13RW, I didn’t think I should go out and buy some tapes and record all the bad things that have happened to me to let those who caused the pain to know my feelings. I didn’t want to commit suicide after watching it. But I did cry through most episodes because of what happened to the characters, because of the pain explored in the series which is real pain that people around us have felt and will feel. I felt sorry for times when I may have been mean to someone without truly meaning to cause hurt. I realised that my actions, my words, my “jokes” could be someone else’s pain and for that I thank 13RW for forcing viewers to consider our actions, our words, and our “jokes” more. I empathised with some characters and got flashbacks of pain I felt just like the pain discussed and I got angry that the characters were being terrible to each other. I got angry that we are all terrible to each other. I got angry that people I know have had terrible pain inflicted on them. I felt frustration at not being able to do much about that.
Mostly I felt relieved and happy that something forced me and everyone else to discuss many important issues, particularly mental health, rape and consent, and suicide. Maybe we should continue to teach the passionate love and passionate hate of Romeo and Juliet, but maybe we should teach 13RW as well.