Note: This post contains spoilers for the Thirteen Reasons Why show and the novel that inspired it. This post contains descriptions of graphic sexual, emotional, and traumatic material. This post may contain cursing. I haven’t decided yet. Proceed at your own risk.
I am a huge fan of Jay Asher’s book Thirteen Reasons Why. I gave the book a very rare five star rating (although this was an earlier review of mine so the review itself is useless), and have read it at least twice since then – including most recently the book with the alternate ending. I feel like it touches on so many important subject in one book, and makes them real for the reader in a way that lets the reader empathize with the characters.
When I learned that Netflix picked up the rights to the book and planned to make a TV series, I was torn. On one hand, I was like YES AN ADAPTATION OF SOMETHING I LOVE but on the other hand, I was worried about how they would 1) do the book justice, 2) present the content in a tasteful manner, and 3) make the very real subject matter as realistic as possible without going over the top.
I think that they did a great job presenting the story, even with all of the deviations. However, they went way over the top with how they told the story and presented the material.
Now, before I get into this list, I want to say a few things:
- Gore doesn’t bother me. Graphic things almost never get to me. But this show has a way of putting pretty people in ugly situations, calling it “realistic”, and somehow romanticizing things that are actually really horrible and disturbing as fuck.
- I am a rape survivor. I was in an abusive relationship and was coerced into things dozens of times over the course of a two-year relationship with a boy who was powerful and rich and constantly threatened to kill himself whenever I thought I was getting over him. I get it.
- I am a suicide survivor, a former self-harmer, and a recovered anorexic. I was surrounded by the best adults, but never knew how to turn to them for help until it was almost too late. Again, I. Get. It.
- I write gritty YA. My first novel included self-harm and a suicide attempt. My current work in progress graphically shows child abuse. My back-burner book is about a nanny who gets in the middle of a child trafficking operation. The things that I write about are real, heavy, and happen every day. So for me to actually sit here and judge something of this caliber instead of passing it off as “not sugarcoating” is a Big Deal™.
- None of what I’m about to say is intended to be victim blaming. There is a distinct line between reality and TV, and I’m going to try to concisely point out what is problematic about the show and use examples of reality. If you read into this as me blaming the victim in any way, please know that it is not intended unless I come out and say “yeah this person should have done something different”.
- I refuse to watch Season 2. But I saw that rape scene in Episode 13 and that’s what prompted this post.
- When I say “kids”, I mean “teenagers”. I’m just old.
Alright. Now that we’re done with all of that, here is my list of thirteen reasons why 13 Reasons Why as an adaptation is a problem.
- On screen rape. Rape happens. I’ve been there, remember? However, showing rape on screen the way that the creators of this show did, rather than having them explain in it their own words, sexualized the situation. We don’t need to see a child being raped to know that it happened. There are sick people who get off on that. And while I understand that there are trigger warnings for a reason, I don’t think that this is something that rape survivors need to relive. In the book, Hannah’s rape isn’t explicit, but it still leaves the reader with that “oh shit…” gut punch. Less is more.
- No one asks for help. When you have a platform as far-reaching as Netflix, it’s important to set an example. They changed some aspects of the story, why not this one? Why does no one in this show ask an adult for help? I get that in real life, this isn’t always an option. And I get that sometimes adults do brush stuff off, as Hannah’s situation was brushed off the one time she asked for help. But that’s when you go to another adult. I know what it feels like to be helpless and I’m not saying that everyone in a bad situation turns to an adult. What I’m saying is that a show like this should set some sort of example and let young viewers know that asking for help can save a life.
- The narrative suggests that bullying is the only thing that leads to suicide. There are many reasons why people commit suicide. And while bullying can be part of the equation, it is almost never the only thing going on. Furthermore, not everyone who experiences these things goes on to commit suicide. The lack of “it gets better” centralizes the issue, rather than showing it as part of a bigger picture, which in turn suggests suicide as the only way out of a shitty situation.
- Romanticizing suicide. Suicide isn’t a big “fuck you” to the people who wronged you. It’s not artsy or deep or even realistic in any way to leave behind a set of tapes to the people who wronged you. It made for an interesting plot in a book, but putting it on screen made it seem more tangible. Suicide should never be used as revenge. And aside from all that, putting suicide on a screen and then calling the show the “hottest/top/what the fuck ever show of 2017” encourages the copy-cat effect. In the book, Hannah took “a handful of pills”. It was sad. So sad. But it wasn’t nightmare-inducing.
- There is no discussions of mental illness and depression. Hannah Baker is clearly depressed. She isn’t the only one, but since the show is about her, I’m just going to focus on her for a sec. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is such a big focus that they fact that she is clearly mentally ill isn’t even addressed. She’s quirky and any moments of showing signs of illness are brushed off as part of her character. Again, Netflix had a chance to change this and discuss it. They didn’t. (After-episode segments and behind the scenes shit does not count as addressing the situation).
- No one, especially children, need to have something this graphic (and poorly executed) out in front of them for 13+ hours. The recommended target age for this show is 15-17+ (with parental discretion, but we know kids are given freedom to do whatever the hell they want on their smartphones). Being a teenager is hard. Emotions are hard. Watching something this heavy as an adult (albeit a mentally ill one) was so hard. I can’t imagine why a show based on a book written by teens would be marketed to teens when it is so clearly adult content. And while I don’t think that life should be sugar-coated, I also don’t think that graphic rape and suicide scenes are the way to bring up that conversation either. There are so many kids who watch this without their parents’ knowledge because they don’t talk to their parents. It’s dangerous and terrifying to know that they’re viewing something like this without having important conversations with an adult before, during, and after. There are ways to have important conversations without triggering emotional distress. I’ve seen so many people argue “well if you don’t like it, don’t watch it”. But when a teenager’s friends have all seen the show and talk about it, that teenager will find a way. And I think that’s extremely dangerous.
- The parents in this show are shitty and feed into the “there’s no one to talk to and you’re alone” lie that teenagers tell themselves. There is already a stereotype that suggests that teens and their parents don’t speak, don’t understand each other, and don’t get along. Rather than USING THEIR PLATFORM (are you sensing a pattern here?), Netflix feeds into that by giving us clueless parents who don’t know a damn thing about their kids’ lives. This show doesn’t even necessarily open a dialogue about depression if a teen is already depressed, because no one goes about anything in a way that’s even remotely helpful for their child.
- It only tells us what not to do. While suicide isn’t preventable, there are so many things that teenagers can do to help their fellow students who are clearly having a hard time. I know this blurs the line between victim/survivor blaming. But the show doesn’t even suggest being kind, support groups, counseling, or even being like, “Hey bro, you okay?” I know that high school is a mess and that teenagers are selfish and often don’t know what to do about themselves, let alone other teenagers. But the complete lack of any type of support – from students or from adults – is harmful, and feeds back into number 7.
- Hannah’s suicide and the tapes she leaves behind are portrayed as a force for good in her school community. This show handles death in all the wrong ways. They completely ignore Jeff’s death – not even bothering to bring in grief counselors or speakers to talk to the students about the tragedy. But Hannah’s tapes – the tapes from her revenge suicide – are seen as a good thing. Jessica opens up about her sexual assault and Bryce is punished for being a serial rapist. While suicide can open up an opportunity for conversation, outing people like this from the grave is a level of fucked up that I can’t even begin to comprehend. TALK. TO. AN. ADULT.
- No one fucking says anything about the tapes. This is a book thing too, but whatever. The tapes passed through the hands of twelve people, and no one thought to speak the fuck up? Who cares about ruining reputations. There is evidence on these tapes. Evidence of actual crimes that eventually led to a suicide. Go to the cops. Keeping secrets isn’t cool. Life ends after high school and no one will remember that time you fucked up if something you hear turns out to be false. TALK TO AN ADULT. Look at that, another pattern.
- The relatable characters are played by completely unrelatable actors. Has no one at Netflix ever stepped into a high school? It is so clear that all of these teenagers are actually at least 20 years old. The severe lack of acne, the ridiculous number of tattoos, and the Hollywood-perfect beauty of nearly every single character in this show adds to the disconnection and makes this very real series seem that much more unrealistic. I get that it’s Hollywood and that it’s a show and that’s just how it goes. But come on.
- Brushing self-harm off as no big deal. When Clay sees the cuts on Skye’s arm, Skye brushes it off and says, “Suicide is for cowards. This is what you do to not commit suicide.” No, no, no, no. NO. Self-harm is a symptom of depression, not a solution to your problems. Self-harm is a sign that you’re sick and not seeking help. It is not brave. It is not pretty. It should not be an alternate option to suicide.
- Netflix fucked up. They had a chance here. They blew it. The book, while still romanticizing suicide in some ways, left a lot to the imagination and didn’t go into graphic detail very often. Netflix, on the other hand, draws out the plot using gimmicky cliffhangers and Hollywood tropes. Instead of addressing issues in a way that is viewer-friendly, they rely on shock-value. Viewers spend 13 hours marathoning a show – where they already know the main character has died – because the story focuses more on side plot and problematic narrative and cliffhangers than on the actual message that the show could be portraying.
Okay this is all over the place and there’s a chance I’ll go back and edit it a little once my rage had settled. But there it is. There are my thirteen reasons why.
I’m not saying that this show isn’t important. Well, okay. Yes. I am. The message is important. The shock factor, the graphic scenes, and the cliffhangers are not. Have we really gotten to the point where the only way to talk to our kids is by showing them this shit and being like “okay, so what did we learn?” I refuse to accept that.
I believe that talking about stuff like this is important. I never talked to the adults in my life about my problems, and things were harder because of that. I know that’s just how it is. But we should be giving teenagers positive ways to deal with their problems and encourage them to come to us.
Netflix took an emotional story about a teenage girl’s suicide and turned it into a binge-watching money mill. It feeds into so many negative stereotypes and cliches while not even attempting to make a statement about what can be done. Showing this stuff on a screen causes emotional distress, but it also desensitizes viewers. If someone watches a teenage girl get raped or slit her wrists in the bathtub on screen, eventually things like this won’t cause that shock.
There are so many better ways Netflix could have gone about this show, and the only thing they got right was having the brains to add trigger warnings before episodes. But – SPOILER ALERT – there’s no trigger warning in the world that can prepare you for what this show throws in your face.
If you or someone you know is going through a tough situation, no matter what it is, do not be afraid to reach out. There are so many resources, anonymous chat lines, etc., and they are all there to help you! You are bigger than your problems, you are bigger than now, and it does get better. Below are some resources, but if you ever feel the need to talk to someone, I am here. Even if you are a random reader stumbling across this post. There are people in your life who care about you. There is always someone to talk to, even if you don’t think anyone wants to hear what you have to say. It. Gets. Better. ❤
You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line.
Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.