13 Reasons Why – Our problem with suicide.
Written by Ashton Brown
“Sir have you seen 13 Reasons Why?”
“No, I haven’t even heard of it. Is it good?”
“Yes. Really, really good. You must watch it so we can talk about it.”
This is the conversation I had with one of my students which first made me aware of the show 13 Reasons Why – a Netflix Original which has been the source of much controversy, especially in the education sector. As it happened, I was on the look out for a new show to binge watch, and since it offered an opportunity to discuss some important themes with a passionate student of mine, I sat down and watched it with my wife over the course of about a week.
During the week I had avoided most online correspondence regarding the show as I didn’t want to ruin the experience but I knew a few things (which aren’t really spoilers).
The TV show was going to depict a rape scene and a suicide scene. My opinions when it comes to art and its limitations have always been that art has no limitations – it’s job is to show what the creators think it should show. Censorship is a bad thing and shouldn’t have a place in the artistic world. However, as anyone who has read my thoughts on the Jim Jeffries gig I walked out of will know – that just because you have a right to say and show what you want as an artist, I don’t believe this means you don’t have a social responsibility to be aware of, consider, and understand the implications of the decisions you make as an artist. For example, if you are the aforementioned comedian and decide to make rape jokes for the sake of making rape jokes you shouldn’t be above the scrutiny and public reaction to your jokes. After all, I think it’s hugely important that we remember that freedom of speech works both ways. Just because you are an artist doesn’t mean that you are above social responsibility.
So it was with this (not necessarily agreed with) mindset that I settled down to watch this show. I was hooked pretty quickly. An interesting premise, excellent young actors, exceptional older actors and a topic that is considered so taboo that people are quite frankly terrified of it being the subject in which any artistic medium brings to light.
Since this isn’t a review I don’t want to spend time discussing the show itself in terms of quality but more discuss the criticism in which it received. Needless to say, I overall enjoyed the show and found it engrossing throughout.
The main controversy that 13 Reasons Why has received is the fact that it shows, in reasonably graphic detail, both rape and suicide. This is done very bluntly and visually, and has caused the show to be deemed as irresponsible and some people have even gone as far to suggest it glorifies suicide. I had seen Facebook posts that colleagues of mine had shared demonising the show’s portrayal of suicide and many articles simply saying “don’t let anyone watch this show.”
To make something super clear – as a teenager and someone in my early 20s, I was someone who suffered from severe depression, was victim to self-harm and had personally dealt with the thought processes and actions around suicide. So I’ll admit I had a vested interest in the show but also an understanding of its content. I also work at a high school so my opinion on working with young people is rooted in reality.
There are very few moments when I have watched a show (especially because I am a massive fan of horror) where I have looked away from the screen. When Hannah cuts her wrists I looked away. I felt physically ill. I broke down when her parents entered and found her body. I hurt for days afterward. All I wanted to do was talk about it. I wanted to go back in time and stop Hannah from killing herself. I wanted to go back to high school and be nicer to people. I hurt. Big time. Not once did I feel that Hannah was justified in her abhorrent decision. Not once did I think “that’ll show the bullies.” Not once did I feel anything other than utter horror and desperation at what I had just seen before me. It left a lasting effect – a need for conversation.
As I said, a lot of the criticism the show has received is that it glamorises suicide. As it shows Hannah getting her revenge on those who wrong her and blames them for her suicide. I understand this criticism and see how that can be perceived but it is not what I took away from the show. The most dangerous thing about 13 Reasons Why is the fact that schools are not only banning students from watching it but they are banning students from talking about it on the school campus. Now, THIS is dangerous. Firstly, when you ban students from watching something – all you are doing is making it more likely that they watch it. Secondly, by banning conversation around the controversial you are ensuring that the stigma around said controversy just becomes an even bigger thing, even more of a problem.
We are so quick to ban things that make us uncomfortable. We are so quick to be scared of things that expose us to the frightening realities of issues like depression, self-harm, and bullying. Why do we protect ourselves from talking about things that we are surrounded by on a day to day basis? Our fear of talking about depression, suicide, and mental health is the reason that shows like 13 Reasons Why are important. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to like it. You certainly don’t have to approve of the way the story is told or whether or not you approve of the graphic nature of the show. But we as a society need to reflect on why we are so scared to talk about the themes and issues that 13 Reasons Why dealt with. Which is why, for me, 13 Reasons Why is a success.
So instead of telling your kids, or students, or friends off for watching the show, why not have a chat to them about what they thought about it? How it made them feel? You never know – it might be a conversation they really need to have.