Please Press Pause: Some things to think about before watching “Thirteen Reasons Why”

By Alexa Young

Writer’s note: I have tried to keep spoilers at bay in the following piece. While I do discuss some major themes I have kept most major characters and plot points unnamed.

Many of you may have noticed a new series on your Netflix home pages—“Thirteen Reasons Why,” contained in its little box, begging you to click. Perhaps, some of you have heard about this new Netflix original series through friends—“You have to watch it!”—or you may have seen advertisements via social media. Why not join the craze?

This series, based on a 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher, details the aftermath of Hannah Baker’s suicide, along with the chilling events leading up to the teenager’s death. The protagonist Clay Jensen comes home to find a box of cassette tapes, along with a map, awaiting him. Soon after he realizes that these are more than just your run-of-the-mill package of sweet tunes dropped at the mat of an inviting doorstep. Rather, these tapes contain the biting words of Hannah Baker, detailing thirteen reasons—or rather, thirteen people—that pushed her to take her own life. Each side of the seven tapes recounts the ways in which a particular person’s actions (or lack thereof) contributed to Hannah’s suicide, and the collection of tapes is delivered to those mentioned in Hannah’s narration.

Now, I think it’s imperative that suicide be talked about with the gravity it deserves, and the series does not address the matter lightly. However, the indie aesthetic of the series has a romanticizing effect as the story itself constructs Hannah’s suicide and narration as an act of spite, as though she could satisfy a desire for vengeance by leaving a trail of cassettes to burden the tapes’ recipients with an indelible guilt—a load I feel is far too heavy for any person (with the exception of one character), let alone teenagers. Of course, the show empathizes with Hannah, rendering most watchers sympathetic to her strife, and I would hope that the series’ followers would understand the profound repercussions of seemingly inconsequential actions. But I think the show fails to portray mental illness effectively—particularly through its depiction of suicidal thoughts. While I understand that Asher’s (and subsequently, the show’s) characterization of Hannah attempts to give voice to those struggling with suicidal thoughts, there is a lot left unsaid about mental illness.

Perhaps someone struggling with mental illness reads the book or watches the series may find comfort in a character to whom they can relate. However, this person may also feel invalidated if they cannot compose a list of concrete reasons to which they can attribute their feelings. Mental illness can be silent and sudden. It can come without warning, apparent cause or external strife, and in a way, Hannah Baker’s story fails to authenticate those people’s struggles.

We must be aware of our actions and the ways our words affect people, and it is essential that suicide be addressed—the 1,100 white flags lining the paths stand as a testament to this. However, a story that highlights the vindictive nature of a teenager’s post mortem plans fails to speak realistically to those who may need to hear their own quiet voices in others—those who may need their stories told the most.
Alexa is a junior English and Women’s and Gender Studies double major with a minor in writing.

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