In Defense of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why

This article contains spoilers

I, like everyone else, was consumed by Thirteen Reasons Why. I watched it in a little over 48 hours, bleary-eyed, exhausted, heartbroken and horrified. And then I read the book. And then I read the articles. And for a little over two weeks, now, I’ve been down a Thirteen Reasons Why rabbit hole that I can’t seem to climb out of.

Which, I think, was the point.

I know what you’re going to say: Thirteen Reasons Why glorifies suicide. And you’re right. It does. The idea of extracting justice from the beyond is as fantastic as a boy who learns he’s a wizard or a love story about a human and a vampire. But it’s also just as captivating.  Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t present itself as a kind of “how to avoid suicide” after-school special, but that’s how critics are treating it.

Even the adults in the show act questionably. Before the suicide, Hannah admits to a counselor that she is feeling lost and empty – clear signals of depression. As she talks about her sadness and anger, instead of being admitted to a clinic, the distracted employee simply gives her a box of tissues to heal her wounds. Had 13 Reasons Why showcased other forms of outreach, like therapy, teens watching it might realize that there is always an option that doesn’t include self-harm. – Alexa Curtis, Rolling Stone

Curtis is right. Thirteen Reasons Why could have showcased other forms of outreach. But that’s not this story. Netflix’s series, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 bestseller by the same title, is the story of Hannah who doesn’t get the help she needs and kills herself.  I’m sure a version of Curtis’ story will be made in which someone intervenes, and tells our protagonist that she is loved, that things will get better, that suicide isn’t the answer.

But that wasn’t this story.

I’ve read a lot of responses to Hannah, herself. That she’s selfish and unlikeable.

Now, first things first… Hannah. I feel no compassion or sympathy for her. Nada. Hannah is set up as a revenge-seeking teen, rather than a struggling young woman who deserves your compassion. – ASHNEEL PRASAD, Stuff

People often describe suicide as “selfish.” As someone who suffers with, sometimes debilitating, depression, attitudes like Prasad’s can be just as triggering as that final scenes in Thirteen Reasons. Hannah isn’t outwardly struggling, according to Prassad’s essay and doesn’t deserve your compassion. It’s not unlike Hannah’s peers who described her as annoying, dramatic and crazy.

Research shows that suicide can have what’s known as a “contagion effect.” Both news reports and dramatizations of suicide have been linked to a temporary spike in suicides. – Rebecca Ruiz, Mashable

This is a big one: people are afraid that seeing Hannah seek vengeance from beyond after slitting her wrists is going to prompt other teens to make their own list of Thirteen Reasons.  As a parent, it’s important to know this because your teen is probably going to watch Thirteen Reasons, and it’s best if you watch it with them.  They may not have questions, but I promise you will.

In Jay Asher’s book, Thirteen Reasons Why, the second side of the last tape is blank.  In the series, Clay uses it to trap Bryce, but in the book, he stops to listen to the static. After finishing the book, I kept thinking  that Hannah was wrong. There were  fourteen reasons why.

The last was silence.

This is the first time in my life that I can remember people so openly, and honestly, discussing suicide. Thirteen Reasons did that. It made us angry and scared and uncomfortable and created a dialog for parents and their children to discuss suicide and bullying and sex and rape. It filled the silence. And if Hannah had had that, maybe there would have never been thirteen tapes at all.

A friend of mine asked me why I’m so defensive about Thirteen Reasons Why. And I think it’s because the critics  suggesting that a television show could ultimately be responsible for a teen’s suicide isn’t all that different than Hannah blaming her peers for her own. Unlike the characters of Thirteen Reasons, we have more information. We know the signs. And now we’ve watched the movie.

What we do with that determines how the story ends.



9 thoughts on “In Defense of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why

  1. Jess

    Thank you for this. This expressed everything I have been feeling reading all those articles written after the show. This is perfect.

  2. Allie Gerds

    Please tell me you have found Sheri’s iconic color block coat somewhere.

  3. Amy Coda

    So well said. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Dena

    I couldn’t agree with you more… well said and exactly how I feel.

  5. Anonymous

    I was in middle school when my friend committed suicide. Do you know what makes you grow up fast ? Attending your 13 year old friend’s funeral. I haven’t seen or even heard of this until I saw it here on your blog, but I will be watching it for sure. And then possibly with my “tween” kids . Because this topic just can’t be avoided or dumbed down as an after-school special. It is f*cking real and you can’t undo it .

  6. Sandy

    I’m a clinical psychologist, and when the book came out, I was working on an inpatient psychiatric unit with lots of teen girls who were reading it. A lot of the staff didn’t want them to read it, but I bought the book and read it just to see what it was about, so I could have a conversation with them about it. It was an interesting read, and while I had a lot of my own feelings about the characters as I was reading, it led to some really great discussions with the girls. And it’s true, just because you ask someone about suicide or self-harm, doesn’t mean they’re going to suddenly do it. Asking is important and so is talking about it. Thanks for writing this article!

    1. NZ

      You can’t possibly be well versed in community based needs or else your stance would be vastly different. The influenced people don’t make it to your inpatient unit, they die. Your opinion is your own but facts are facts suicide has a contagion effect. Teen years are filled with doubts about life, bodies, and the idea of “why bother”. Having a show that treats the termination of that as a mystery episode is a detriment to many, not just teens.

  7. Sheila

    Dana, I truly value your insight here. However, I am skeptical of this…..we’ve had a series of suicides in my community and my child’s school since this surfaced. Parents were alerted to the book and show by our school district, as the kids were talking about it at school and the staff became concerned. Then, it started…..we started losing kids….one as young as 13 years old….a 7th grader. I am not saying it has anything to do with this book/show, but the timing is odd. I’ve lost friends and family to suicide and it scares the hell out of me. I am not sure I can get on board. My daughter’s name is Hannah and I don’t need her relating, in any way, to this character because of her name. Kids are very impressionable and the glorification of suicide with a pre-teen or teen seems recipe for disaster.

    1. Dana Weiss

      I’m so sorry to hear your community is going through this. I don’t doubt that shows like 13 Reasons has a contagion affect, but the missing piece is the conversation around it. Pre-teens and teens will always seek out these kinds of shows, because they touch on what teens are feeling and experiencing. It’s our job, as the parents and educators, to be aware of that, and talking to our kids; not just pretending they don’t exist.

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