Sexual Assault, Suicide and Systems Failure: 13 Reasons Why is Not What it Seems

This post contains references to rape, sexual assault and suicide as well as a whole bunch of spoilers. This is also not the most eloquent piece I’ve ever produced. 

 

This was not the post I set out to write about this show. This was not the post I had imagined myself writing early on in the episodes, back when I thought 13 Reasons Why was a clever indictment of the flippancy with which young people say and do things. I thought it was a commentary on how, yeah, this stuff happens to people all the time – people get bullied. People get hurt. – but that you’ve no way of knowing what will push a kid over the edge. You have no way of knowing how many buttons you’re pushing. I thought they were pulling no punches, asking the audience to decide for themselves how morally corrupt the entire setup was.

 

This was what I’d planned to write. This was before I finished the series. This was before I cried for two hours, wondering how and why someone, anyone, thought this was okay to show teenagers – or anyone at all.

I gave 13 Reasons Why a lot of credit.

Too much credit.

For those of you reading this but unaware of the premise, 13 Reasons Why is the made-for-Netflix story of how and why Hannah Baker took her own life. She leaves behind tapes, passed from person to person, explaining why each of those 13 people were complicit in her decision to die by suicide. I read the book by Jay Asher some years ago and remembered raving about how good it was, but couldn’t quite remember the ending, or the middle… or anything at all, really, apart from a few arbitrary sentences and the overarching concept. Just last week, Netflix released the full series online starring Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker, and Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen. I was impressed with their obvious attempts to bring the story into a modern context, and an obvious effort to diversify the supporting cast and characters. I was impressed with their seemingly no-bullshit approach to telling Hannah’s story, and I was impressed by the way the creators fleshed out the supporting cast roles. It was dark, but it was compelling.

I guess when I got to episode 9, the content warning before the episode unnerved me a little – there had been violence beforehand, but the show on Netflix Ireland was rated Guidance, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. In episode 9, one of the characters is raped and it is witnessed by Hannah. It is graphically depicted, it is horrific – but it doesn’t warrant being classed as gratuitous. Not yet. It seems like the culmination of the whole plot – this is the secret being kept by the kids on the tapes, and the kids make attempts to justify their actions; they have their own secrets they don’t want to get out. It was really tough to watch. It would be tough for anyone, but as someone who has been…. well, as someone who has had non-consensual encounters (yes, plural) over the last few years, it was particularly horrifying to watch. I kept going though, because I thought it would be justified. I thought this show was going to do something to justify letting this play out, graphically, on screen.

Then comes episode 12. In episode 12, there’s another rape scene. More graphic. This one undeniably gratuitous. Anyone who has been raped, or sexually assaulted, knows what this is like, for fuck’s sake, and anyone who hasn’t doesn’t need to see it played out on screen. It’s one of the most violent things that can happen to a person, with physical and mental implications, and the only person that is served in seeing a rape played out on screen are damn rapists – and that’s assuming they know what Bryce is doing is wrong.

It was really, really hard to watch.

Then came episode 13.

This was the most gratuitous thing I have ever seen in my life. As the scene was happening I couldn’t quite comprehend it – I was sobbing and wondering when they were going to cut away. When they were going to stop. How far was too far. But hey, people who created 13 Reasons Why – congratulations. You’ve made a how-to manual for any kid watching that show who feels like Hannah feels, and who can’t see your bullshit message you tossed into your little justification documentary about people caring about Hannah. From where we were standing, as viewers – people cared far more about themselves than they did about Hannah Baker. She was let down by the system. She was let down by each of those 13 people. And for some reason, with clinical psychologists on board, you still thought it was okay to show exactly how a suicide happens.

This, by the way, is not an unfounded concern. I am not speculating what might happen, or what you could have done in doing this. There are media guidelines internationally to direct people on how to discuss the topic of suicide because anyone who is vulnerable, or impressionable, or impulsive, needs to be protected because if someone is given the option, they will act on it.

 

You need to protect people from this shit. 

There are kids killing themselves live on Facebook, or whatever other bloody medium there is for people to livestream themselves on. You can’t imagine how it feels to someone to have seen that, or witnessed that, and yet you got the go-ahead from the psychologists on board who seemed to also ignore media guidelines on dealing with suicide. You’re not kidgloving these topics because people are snowflakes or whatever the hell else assholes on the internet say when they can’t understand why someone might be upset by something. You’re being sensitive about these topics because you can talk about suicide without showing people how it’s done. 

The message the creators kept trying to hammer home in their little documentary where they patted themselves on the back was that they didn’t want to hide from the truth of suicide.

There is no truth worth broadcasting to the world that involves you showing people how it’s done, where it refers to the single most violent thing a person can inflict on themselves.

I am a person who has strongly considered suicide before.

I am a person who was deeply, deeply affected by what I saw in this show.

I am  also a person who cares about the way in which we talk to young people about suicide and I am a person who cares about how that was represented. You said yourselves, this was made for entertainment.

Is it entertainment if one kid copies Hannah?

Two? Three? Five?

Or is it entertainment if kids are completely desensitised to the concept of suicide? Or is it entertainment if someone who has lost a sibling or parent or friend or classmate to suicide now knows how that person did it? It is entertainment to know you’ve played out some people’s worst damn nightmare for the purpose of a show you’re expecting kids – those teens with their undeveloped frontal lobes, those impressionable teens you waxed lyrical about  – to take a positive message from, when you’ve gone and done that?

I know for a fact I’d have cried for Hannah if all we saw was her face, or if we could just hear her. I know for a fact it would have shocked people – you’d have managed your entertainment-value goal in the end because people would be shocked/horrified/aghast.

I know for a fact that what you did end up doing will haunt me probably night after night after night until I get out of this cycle because I cannot unsee what you put together in the name of entertainment. I cannot unsee what you thought was okay to put out there, when there is countless reams of evidence to suggest why no, nope, definitely do not do that, ever. Evidence – here taken to mean as ‘documents put together by people who understand vulnerable people, especially vulnerable young people’ – does not lie.

Jay Asher, the writer of 13 Reasons Why, commented within that documentary that ‘Hannah set [the school counsellor] up to fail… there’s more she could’ve done’.

I’m not sure which disturbed me most – creators thinking that scene in episode 13 was okay, or the writer of the book in the first place suggesting a 17 year old girl who went to someone to talk about how she had been raped was let down by that person who handled it really, really poorly. Hey, it’s not his fault – but he didn’t help. He is complicit. What was the message you wanted people to take from that, really? That you’re meant to take shitty advice and no help from someone in a position of care? How is saying that any better than the kids in the show condemning the posters that said ‘suicide is not the answer’? HOW have none of you seen the irony in all of this? Where was your sensitivity audience? Where were the organisations who should’ve been involved in this? Where were the screens with 13reasonswhy.info written on them at the end of every single episode instead of stated by Selena Gomez at the end of a 24 minute documentary, 46 minutes after that FUCKING scene aired?

I think the 13 Reasons Why creators have a lot to answer for. Organisations and individuals working in the mental health sector have done a lot of work to try bring discussions on bullying, mental illness and suicide to the table. This show does a very good job of ignoring all of that, and for what, I’m not sure. I just feel we need to start holding people accountable for doing things in the name of ‘entertainment’. There’s enough wrong in the world without exposing people to things they shouldn’t have to see. We can talk about it, and we should talk about it, without showing it. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

 

If you or someone you know needs help now, call Samaritans on 116 123 or visit Samaritans.org. I can assure you that the people who work here are wonderful and are brilliantly trained. For more long-term help, Pieta House are incredible. You can check contact details on pieta.ie

 

 

 

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