Disclaimer: This blog has major spoilers.
In spring 2017, using the lore of executive producer Selena Gomez, Netflix released Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why, a beautiful dead girl teen drama that told the story of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who died by suicide and left behind a series of cassette tapes. The tapes, addressed to family, friends, flings, and her rapist, detailed Baker’s decision to end her life and their direct/indirect influence on her death. Immediately, the show evoked criticism (something tells me people wound up discussing it much more than watching it), with the loudest cries coming from adult critics who viewed its graphic depictions of death by suicide as exploitative and shortsighted. Sitting through 13 episodes (of both its first and second season), in fact, serves as little more than a vessel in which to grow furious.
This was an observation shared by teen outlets, too: Affinity Magazine, a digital publication for and written by adolescents, ran a series of articles warning its readers about the content of the show. The site published a fan-created master list of trigger warnings for the season’s most explicit episodes; it also quoted school officials who issued warnings to its student population about the program and reported on a 23-year-old who died by suicide in Peru following the release of 13 Reasons Why, a young man who left loved ones digital recordings explaining how the people in his life drove him to end his life.
While acts of suicide can never be fully the fault of outside media, some viewers wondered if such outcomes reinforced the fears that 13 Reasons Why glamorized suicide and mental illness.
Still, Netflix produced a second season of the series, this time focusing on a particular fascination with rape and sexual trauma. Instead of dedicating each episode to a tape, Season 2 follows the journeys of those who Baker left behind, in court and out of it, as her parents sue her high school for negligence. This season is as concerning as the first, if not more so. (The handful of teen friends I spoke to about the show said they were so turned off by Season 1 that they opted out of watching it again. A few mentioned that Baker’s suicide was presented as an act of vengeance, which they felt sent a harmful and inaccurate message.)
Season 2 begins with a lengthy disclaimer that features the main cast reciting a visual trigger warning of sorts, informing the potential audience of what’s to come, and even going as far to suggest that those who suffer from depression, suicidal ideation, or trauma related to acts of sexual violence consider not watch the program. Each episode ends with a message suggesting viewers visit 13reasonswhy.info, a site that offers a variety of crisis resources. Netflix has also launched a 13 Reasons Why video discussion series where actors on the show address some of the aforementioned topics in what felt like an obvious effort to get ahead and curb criticism of the program.
All of this makes for a wonderful initiative—it’s crucial to have conversations around topics still largely viewed as taboo, and to give young people the resources and vocabulary to express and work through mental illness. What it doesn’t do, however, is make up for its own shortcomings. 13 Reasons Why demands that viewers take an additional step to educate themselves and provide awareness for issues the programming itself fails to tackle meaningfully and, instead, paints sexual assault and acts of suicide in a gratuitous light. There’s being sensitive to horrifying depictions of real-life atrocities, and there’s being sensitive to the damages those images can cause on an impressionable audience. 13 Reasons Why lacks the nuance essential to navigating this terrain.
In what is easily the most memorable and disturbing scene of the show (biggest plot spoiler here), a male student is sexually assaulted by another male student—violently penetrated in the rectum with a broom stick, left bleeding and mostly nude in a high school bathroom. While 82 percent of all child rape cases and 90 percent of adult rape victims are women, men experience sexual assault, too—and it could be that 13 Reasons Why aimed to showcase that fact. Instead, the scene registers as unnecessary, cringe-y and senseless (the bully slams the victim’s head into a porcelain sink before the rape, which somehow doesn’t kill him). It is in that moment that the series becomes easy to write off—it feels like a hyperbolic amalgamation of the worst teen-centric headlines of the past few years instead of an insightful observation on trauma and illness.
13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey, a man who appears to spend most of his free time explaining why he did what he did instead of creating work that speaks truth to message, offered the following statement to Vulture not long after the Season 2 release:
“As intense as that scene is, and as strong as our reactions to it may be, it doesn’t even come close to the pain experienced by the people who actually go through these things. When we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it. We would rather it stay out of our consciousness. This is why these kinds of assaults are underreported. This is why victims have a hard time seeking help. We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”
I don’t disagree with him, but when the means of creating “awareness” is exploitative towards those it seeks to support—in this case, victims of sexual trauma—it’s time to take another trip to the drawing board.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.