Originally published here
I’ve often stated that I’ll never fully be taken seriously as a film writer because of my inability to separate my personal feelings from my critical eye. I’ll be the first to tweet gifs and all-caps love letters to shows and movies that resonate with me on a personal level, regardless of how imperfect (or at times, problematic) the material can be. Much like Meredith, I too am a massive fan of young adult material despite no longer being the genre’s target audience. Unlike Meredith, 13 Reasons Why is one of those shows that rocked me to my core and has refused to leave my psyche. This is something that has gotten the “all-caps + gif” tweets of approval, and I’m here to tell you why.
Before I really dive into my love for the series, personal backstory is absolutely necessary because I am admittedly a biased party. I was born in 1990, which ages me out of the target audience for 13 Reasons Why but makes me young enough to have endured high school in the budding age of social media. I have a love/hate relationship with “Facebook Memories.” An app meant to help us relive memories of yesteryear will frequently bring up statuses from my senior year of high school, littered with lyrics from emo bands and vague updates resembling a cry for help. In 2008, I was painfully close to being another Hannah Baker. Like Hannah, I endured a pretty traumatic high school experience often left for plotlines in Lifetime movies or after-school specials. What is often written off as a dramatization of the “high school experience” is an unfortunate reality for many.
One of the major criticisms 13 Reasons Why has faced is its seemingly flippant approach to the serious subjects like teen suicide and rape. As someone who has both survived violent sexual assault from a classmate and a very fucking close to successful suicide attempt at the age of 17, I haven’t been this moved by a show’s unflinching approach to the subject matter since I was introduced to the rape-revenge subgenre shortly after my own assault. 13 Reasons Why tackles these topics without allowing the viewer the luxury of looking away. It doesn’t hold your hand and make the situation palatable, it presents it as cruel and unforgiving as those that experience it in real life. As irresponsible as this may seem, it’s necessary. The weight and severity of these topics never seem to hit home with people until it happens to them or someone they know, which is the entire point of 13 Reasons Why. And unfortunately for the show’s intended audience, it’s going to speak to a lot of people on the same personal level it spoke to me.
The other major criticism seems to be regarding the show’s premise itself. Hannah Baker killed herself, but not before recording cassette tapes that listed the thirteen reasons why she felt driven to suicide. Meredith argued “The trouble is in the way these tapes glamorize Hannah’s death and validate her decision. The thing about suicide is that after you’re gone, you no longer get to be heard. That’s an important deterrent for depressed teens, who feel invisible and unheard in school.” I would argue that while I related so innately with Hannah Baker, I found the message to her “reasons why” the one that spoke the loudest. Yes, Hannah Baker (as does every suicide victim) made the final decision to end her life, but to dismiss her actions as unprovoked or unmotivated is incredibly disrespectful to her character, and those that have ever felt the same way. This isn’t to say they are fully to blame, but the “suicide is a selfish decision of the mentally ill and it’s on them if they kill themselves” is just as dangerous of a narrative to promote. It removes the accountability of those who are sincerely unkind under the guise of “I didn’t slit her wrists for her, therefore, I’m innocent.” The same week the show premiered on Netflix, a young girl was charged with involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her ex-boyfriend to kill himself via text message when he expressed suicidal thoughts, and then followed through with her suggestions. 13 Reasons Why doesn’t feel like it glorifies suicide. The show feels like a warning to teens that the butterfly effect of cruelty has consequences and serves as a reminder that we really don’t have any idea what battles people are fighting at any given moment. Meredith also argued, “The problem isn’t the existence of the storyline, but the execution of it. Who is this for, I wanted to ask 13 Reasons Why again and again. Who are you trying to speak to?”
This show hit me hard because I identified with the narrator, but 13 Reasons Why isn’t only speaking to the fellow Hannah Bakers of the world. It’s speaking to the Justins, the star athletes who secretly live in a broken home. It’s for the Jessicas, the sexual assault survivors still struggling to deal with their trauma and numbing the pain with substance abuse. It’s for the Alexes, misunderstood intellectuals raised in a home that praises brawn over brains. It’s for the Zachs, young men with a heart of gold but struggling with the patriarchal ideas of how they’re supposed to act. It’s for the Courtneys, the perpetual overachievers that fear all will be undone if they come out of the closet. It’s for the Tylers, the kids that are bullied relentlessly to the point of thinking a massive act of violence, like a school shooting, is the only way they’ll be heard. It’s for the Bryces, the praised athlete that commit heinous acts because they still feel like they’re invincible. It’s for the Mr. Porters, the adults that think they understand the younger generation but in reality, have no idea what it’s like to be a teen in the new millennium. It’s for the Ryans, the kids that see no harm in unethical decision making because it doesn’t hurt them personally. It’s for the Sheris, the people trying so, so hard to atone for their previous mistakes without allowing those mistakes to be their defining moments. It’s for the Clays, the kids just trying to figure themselves out. And it’s for the Skyes, the kids dealing with just as much hurt as the Hannah Bakers, and openly fighting the battle for survival every single day.
I understand the fear that the show romanticizes suicide and offers Hannah Baker “power” after her death, which is admittedly a pretty dangerous message to suicidal teens. But I’d be more concerned if I felt this is the message audiences are actually hearing. As Clay points out time and time again, Hannah is an unreliable narrator. Her story is her perception, and her perception isn’t shared by all of those involved. This is an important reminder that her classmates and the audience understands, but unfortunately, something Hannah never will. There’s also the criticism that Hannah’s well-spoken tapes are unrealistic to those that deal with suicidal thoughts, and many have questioned why Hannah is portrayed as such. Serena Smith has gone to call her an insult to anyone with mental illness stating, “Everyone’s experience is different, but are there any symptoms of depression here? Where’s the numbing lethargy? Where’s her losing interest in her appearance? Where’s the self-harm?” The same year I attempted to take my own life I was captain of a world champion baton twirling team. I had gone to nationals for speech team. I was a beauty queen. I was the president of my high school’s thespian society. For all intents and purposes, I was at what many would consider “peaking in high school.” My signs of mental illness were very well disguised as were Hannah’s. This is a game changer in the discussion of teenage suicide, considering we’re living in a world where casting Chloe Moretz as the titular Carrie came under fire because “she’s too pretty,” leading us to perpetuate a Heathers-esque narrative where the only people who can believably be struggling need to be the Martha Dunnstocks of the world.
For everything 13 Reasons Why gets wrong, it gets a hell of a lot right. Considering teenage rape and suicide are often handled with kid-gloves or presented with such drama it’s impossible to relate, the show is an outstanding effort in bringing these very serious and very real subjects to light. Sure, the subject matter isn’t handled perfectly, but imperfection does not undermine its importance. Showcasing the aftermath of grief, fear, heartbreak and pain experienced by those that knew Hannah will serve as a reminder to suicidal teens that just as we are unable to know the battles everyone around us are fighting, we’re also unable to know the importance we serve in the lives of others. That we are not alone. That we matter. That we CAN get through it. That suicide is not the answer, it’s the question.
About the Contributor:
BJ Colangelo is a recovering toddler and tiara easing the pain of her glamorous childhood with horror movies, drag queens, musical theatre, professional wrestling and vintage smut. She writes about cinema for numerous publications and considers herself to be the lovechild of Christopher Sarandon in Fright Night and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger.