Why '13 Reasons Why' Has Been Both Praised and Criticized

Netflix’s newest show Thirteen Reasons Why is gaining massive popularity, but also attracting heated controversy. The show, based off of Jay Asher’s novel of the same name, follows the story of high schooler Clay Jensen, who receives audio tapes from his recently passed classmate, Hannah Baker, detailing her thirteen reasons for taking her own life. Each tape represents a different classmate and how their actions ultimately led to Hannah’s death.

Since its release, the show has exploded. Refinery 29 explains that a study by Fizziology found that the show had the most social media impressions following its premiere than any other Netflix show. Fizziology, which is a social media research firm, measured Twitter activity within the first week of Netflix shows, such as 13 Reasons Why and Stranger Things being released, to see how often people were talking about them. According to their findings, 13 Reasons Why came in at 3,585,110 social media impressions, as detailed in their chart below:

Meanwhile, the show has been praised for its unflinching depiction of dark themes such as bullying, suicide, and sexual violence. Forbes.com called it an "authentic" and "uncensored" look at high school life, including all of the dark parts. Vanity Fair called it a "visual genius" while Variety.com called the show “important” and suggested that it would be beneficial in promoting dialogue about these things that affect students every day. And it is promoting dialogue; The New York Times reported that the show is causing widespread conversation, both in the form of parody videos to serious conversations between parents and their children on suicide. 

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States with 44,193 Americans dying by suicide a year. In 2015, the AFSP reported that of that number 12.5% are young adults ages 15-24. The New York Times writes about one mother who is using the show to discuss these realities with her daughter, particularly after she lost a family member to suicide.

However, the show has also been met with criticism for its graphic depictions of both suicide and sexual assault. Both themes are shown in graphic detail, following a content warning given before the episode. A content warning operates like a rating—it warns the viewer what exactly they are about to witness. Despite these markers, the show has been accused of glorifying suicide, and experts say that these graphic depictions, particularly of the suicide which isn’t explicitly discussed in the novel, is dangerous. According to the Hollywood Reporter, mental illness advocacy group "Headspace" criticized the decision, arguing that studies have shown that depicting suicide in such a way, such as by showing it on-screen or describing it, can trigger individuals to consider it themselves.

Other health professionals told NBC that they want teens to know that “the media can romanticize suicide.” They point to parts in the show that show Hannah’s inability to get help from those around her, including her school counselor, is “irresponsible,” as it appears that teens who are suffering cannot get help, when this is not necessarily true. Furthermore, it is noted that the tapes read as a suicide note meant to gain revenge upon those who harmed Hannah during her life. To that, the JED Foundation, a non-profit devoted to preventing suicide in teens and young adults by partnering with schools and univerisites, has expressed in talking points that parents can use to discuss the show with their children, that death is final and you do not get to go back and see how people have reacted. The talking points remind viewers that the show is a dramatization and that suicide is never the answer; it also asks them to seek help from others, reminding them that the reaction of Hannah’s school counselor is not typical. They also tell viewers that suicide is not the answer and that many individuals who experience what Hannah and her classmates do during the course of the show and go on to lead healthy lives.

Other portions of the show have also been criticized, such as its failure to discuss mental illness, which is often a factor in suicide, its simplification of the complicated issue of suicide to the actions of 13 individuals, and its depictions of rape which have been seen as gratuitous to some. 

Both Jay Asher and the series writer Nic Sheff have defended their choice. Sheff wrote in an open letter to Vanity Fair that they depicted the suicide to show reality. Having attempted suicide himself, Sheff argues that it would have been irresponsible to not show the suicide, knowing himself that suicide is not a relieving option; it’s violent and painful. Asher also confessed that his novel initially had a different ending in which Hannah survives her suicide attempt, but he ultimately decided to that would take away from the seriousness and finality of suicide. 

Viewers of the show, or those interested in viewing the show, should thus proceed with caution. The show should not be taken lightly nor should it be turned into a meme that trivializes suicide and sexual violence—a lesson Netflix themselves could learn after Tweeting at Hulu in an attempt to make a joke about the show, but instead making suicide look like a joke. In the Tweet, they tell Hulu, “welcome to your tape,” a reference to Hannah’s opening line to each person who contributed to her suicide.

Stranger Things star Shannon Purser urged viewers on Twitter to take care of themselves and be aware of the triggering nature of the show. Parents can use JED’s talking points to approach the show with their children, and schools and universities can remind students that counselors exist to help students and point them in the direction of further resources.

Above all, viewers should know that they’re never alone and reach out if they need help.

If you are thinking about suicide or know someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.


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