‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ isn’t really about suicide

Blue-Nails-Hannah-Baker-13-Reasons-WhyIn case the title isn’t obvious, this post contains spoilers.

I stayed up until 3am last night finishing Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix. Knowing how different the show was from the book, I was prepared to be annoyed by it (which I was, more than once). Knowing what psychologists and counselors were saying about its treatment of teen suicide, I was prepared to hate it. I started writing commentary in my head, ready to tick off all the popular boxes: doesn’t mention anything about mental illness, glamorizes suicide, doesn’t offer any help for vulnerable teens who might be watching.

Only that last thing proved true: the least that the producers could have done was display the number of a suicide hotline at the end of each episode. But what I saw wasn’t a show about suicide, per se. The suicide was a driving plot point, sure, but it wasn’t the primary focus. What I saw instead was a cautionary tale about the influence of rape culture among high schoolers – particularly how it affects teenage girls.

That’s probably the biggest way that the Netflix series deviates from the novel: the book makes Hannah out to be vengeful and, for lack of a better word, petty. Her suicide is treated like a “fuck you” to every person who slighted her; her experience didn’t ring true for me as someone who has experienced clinical depression and suicidal thoughts. Even the scene with Bryce in the hot tub at a party is treated differently: Hannah’s consent with Bryce is very, very sketchy in the book. But in the show, it’s clear to anyone with eyes that he’s raping her.

Having experienced varying forms of sexual harassment from beginning to end of the series, the rape is clearly the last straw for Hannah. Her suicide seemed like a natural consequence of untreated PTSD – especially given the cringe-worthy meeting with her school guidance counselor, in which he basically tells her to just “move on.”

We know that the same guy also raped Hannah’s friend Jessica, which Hannah witnessed. Jessica was very, very drunk. Would she have come forward to corroborate Hannah’s story? Her drunkenness was used as the justification for assault: it’s not like she’ll remember. It’s easy to understand why she wouldn’t tell anyone: rape culture taught her to blame herself.

We also know that Hannah was harassed by classmates after being voted “Best Ass in Class,” and had an undeserved reputation as the school slut. She was groped by more than one male student in more than one episode, each one believing they were entitled somehow. You can start to understand, even a little, how hard it would have been for her to come forward, to be believed, and for Bryce – a popular, good-looking, all-American “nice guy” – to face the consequences he deserved.

Reporting rape is hard enough for adult women, let alone teenage girls who aren’t fully matured mentally or emotionally. The message I internalized wasn’t Your life is ruined if you’re raped, but rather, No wonder she felt so desperate.

Toward the end of the series, Clay talks with a classmate, Skye, about the way that Hannah was treated in the final weeks of her life. Skye’s response is flippant: “So? What happened to Hannah isn’t anything that doesn’t happen to the rest of us.” There’s the real message. There’s what parents need to start paying better attention to. Stop peddling “boys will be boys” and victim-blaming; it teaches your daughters to hate themselves, and teaches your sons to be criminals.

Taken together, Thirteen Reasons Why is worth watching because many of us believe the lies that Hannah’s guidance counselor told her. When she told him “something happened” that night, he immediately assumed it was a consensual encounter she later regretted. When Bryce is confronted by Clay, Hannah’s friend, about the rape, he quips without remorse, “She was in my hot tub, in her underwear. What did she expect?”

Even “good kids” and otherwise good parents believe these lies about rape, further traumatizing survivors. This doesn’t need to happen. If there’s any lesson to be learned from this show, it’s to teach your kids what consent looks like, as soon as they are old enough to understand. Teach kids not to be afraid of the word “no”: to say it and to listen to it. Never tell a survivor to just “get over it” or “move on.” Women rarely have anything to gain by making false accusations, yet too many people believe this happens all the time – that more rape accusations are false than true.

The show is graphic and disturbing on many levels, but I don’t think it was gratuitous. There are too many shows (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones) that try to add elements of sex appeal to rape scenes, and this show doesn’t: you see it happening from the victims’ perspective, which makes all the difference. That makes the scenes triggering as hell to people who have lived through it, but to everyone else, the ugliness is starkly real. The women who held up signs saying “Trump can grab my pussy at any time” at rallies really have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. A lot of people don’t if they think rape jokes are funny.

I know what it’s like to feel suicidal after experiencing assault. By the last episode, tears streamed down my face as I imagined what could have happened to my life if I hadn’t sought counseling; if I didn’t start taking anti-depressants again for the first time in years; if I didn’t stop drinking away my pain and force myself to go to AA. My heart truly breaks for Hannah. I wish things could have turned out differently for her. But I understand why they didn’t. I understand why she saw no way out.

End note for those who think this show glamorizes suicide: how? In the book, Hannah overdoses on pills. The producers could have chosen to show her falling asleep in a bathtub filled with bubbles, surrounded by candles, with soft music playing. Watching Hannah gasp in pain after slitting her wrists was anything but glamorous. If you want to see a movie that glamorizes suicide, look no further than Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Somehow, Juliet manages to shoot herself with a handgun and fall perfectly aligned next to Romeo’s body, her face gently grazing his, their hands interlocked, and without a single of drop of blood to be seen.


Like this post? Check out A Stunning Accusation,  available on Amazon.

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8 thoughts on “‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ isn’t really about suicide

  1. A very intersting article.. had a lot of points_to_be_noted. I totally agree with all what you said! Specially…Stop peddling “boys will be boys” and victim-blaming; it teaches your daughters to hate themselves, and teaches your sons to be criminals.


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  3. I love thirteen reasons why its a great movie I could watch it 100 times and I wouldn’t get Boers but its so sad how a kind pretty girl would not have any friends ,is this an a real
    l life thing or something going to get the book soon


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  5. Interesting. I read the book when I was in high school (about 9 years ago) so I don’t remember everything very well but I do remember the hot tub rape scene, which I definitely did read as non-consensual sex/sexual assault. It was haunting.

    To your point about how the show glamorizes suicide: I can see where some critics are coming from on that. As a teenager struggling with depression and being a teenager, I came away from the book feeling like suicide was a reasonable solution. It was a way of getting the last say in your life, of making sure you were finally understood. It was a way of getting love and support, even if that happened after death. (And see, I didn’t read Hannah as vengeful or petty. I read her as desperate and made to feel powerless too many times.) My thoughts on this weren’t entirely due to the book; of course it was because of other messages in society as well. But I wouldn’t write off the idea that a show like this could glamorize suicide for teens. It’s not the actual suicide scene that would glamorize it – it’s the treatment of suicide itself and how it provides the framework for the whole show.

    I haven’t watched the show because I don’t want to put myself through that, knowing how I reacted to the book. I have enough other challenging things in my life right now (and if I watch any emotionally difficult show it will be The Handmaid’s Tale). From the reviews I’ve read it sounds like the show is quite true to the book. Everyone is always going to come away from a book/show with a different interpretation or find different aspects meaningful, but the range of interpretations to the show matches up with the interpretations of the book well, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have not watched “13 Reasons” (or, actually, any other TV for years, but that’s another story) and I’m glad I didn’t*, but that you did, even though it was painful. From what else I’ve heard of it, I wish many others were seeing it with your eyes. And, yes, they should have had a hot line number at the end, maybe at the end of every episode.

    * I’ve often said that working in mental health, especially crisis services, that I never lost a suicidal client who gave me a fighting chance. Too many (whatever their number greater than zero) did not give that chance.

    Liked by 1 person

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