Like most Netflix account holders, my past week was taken over by Clay and those addictive tapes. Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you must know I’m talking about the phenomenon that is; 13 Reasons Why.
For those who don’t know (firstly, where have you been?!), the series is made up of 13 episodes, with each episode playing one of thirteen tapes that collectively tell the story of all the people that led Hannah Baker to commit suicide. Hannah, played by Australian actress Katherine Langford, is the new girl at high school and, in the space of a year, becomes the brunt of bullying, name-calling and slut-shaming. What sounds like a horrific-to-witness storyline, makes for an addictive watch. (Confession: I watched 8 hours in a day).
As well as creating an encapsulating storyline that entices every viewer to watch all 13 episodes as quickly as possible (goodbye responsibilities…), the show has also been celebrated for highlighting ‘real’ issues teens face today. The Jason Foundation reports that in the US ‘more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. Each day, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.’ Yes you read that right, EVERY DAY.
Whilst Hannah deals with multiple issues throughout the series, the first and foremost revolves around social media. Cyberbullying is notorious for being a motive behind suicide and, with the rise in social media, this is only becoming more of a worry. Cyberbullyhotline.com reports that 20% of those cyberbullied think about suicide, and 1 in 10 attempt it. Hannah’s story is a reflection of what real life high school pupils experience on a daily basis.
A shared photo of Hannah leads to endless slut-shaming and name-calling, which develops into unwanted attention from male classmates to betrayal from those she considered friends. Hannah’s issues snowball out of control until she feels like there is no way out besides taking her own life.
Earlier this week, Zara Larsson, like the rest of the world, took to social media to share her opinion on the show. In a rather diplomatic tweet, the singer stated ‘I do understand the message, the show is just not my cup of tea. Too unrealistic for me. But that’s just me’. In an ironic turn of events (remember the show is about cyberbullying after all), 13 Reasons Why fans went ballistic. Despite the show’s attempt in teaching its viewers what mean comments online can do to a person, the singer received angry, hurtful replies to her tweet, to such an extent that she cleared her whole twitter and started a fresh account.
Larsson isn’t the only one that deems the show as too ‘unrealistic’, others have gone so far as to say it glamourises suicide and may give other young adults ideas on how to commit suicide themselves. Hattie Gladwell wrote a response to the series for the Metro, questioning whether its storyline only gives teenagers more ideas, “they may be watching to simply find something to relate to while dealing with mental illness”, she goes on to say; “the series doesn’t tell that person that they need to get help, it tells them that people will realise what they’ve done if they’re not around anymore – and that’s one very dangerous message to send out, and one that’s untrue.”
What makes matters even more worrying is that the last episode shows the entire suicide process – . The Independent reacted to this saying, “young people who may have experienced suicidal thoughts, but viewed the act itself as unimaginable, have now been exposed to a graphic portrayal of suicide that does render it imaginable after all.”
In light of this, Headspace – a mental health group – stated “Headspace … is urging school communities, parents, and mental health services to be aware of the dangers and risks associated for children and young people who have been exposed to this content.” The head of the group, Dr Steven Leicester, said; “there is a responsibility for broadcasters to know what they are showing and the impact that certain content can have on an audience – and on a young audience in particular.”
Despite facing major criticism, the show has contributed to many positive changes to the way suicide is being tackled. One news station in Kansas City reported how 13 Reasons Why got parents and kids in the area talking together about suicide. One girl who has previously had suicidal thoughts herself, Claire, told the station how “13 Reasons Why shows the story of if you did kill yourself, how all the people around you would feel.”
Either way, viewers should be cautious of the intense storylines portrayed throughout the 13-part series and be aware that things do get quite graphic. This show certainly does not sugar coat suicide. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is still undecided, and continues to be debated.
Words by Emma Gibbons
The UK's first Career & Lifestyle Magazine for women in the Creative and Media industries.