13 Reasons Why: The Good and the Bad
About the Show
13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix on Friday March 31, 2017 with thirteen hour-long episodes in the first season. The show is based off of the 2007 young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. The series chronicles the aftermath of 17-year-old Hannah Baker’s suicide, played by Australian actress Katherine Langford, and follows Clay Jensen, played by Dylan Minnette, as he makes his way through seven cassette tapes that Hannah left behind as her reasons for her actions. The tapes arrive on Clay’s doorstep with the instructions of listen and pass them on, or else. Every side of the tape (thirteen sides) is dedicated to one person, and each person’s actions influenced her in her decision to end her life. Because Clay received the tapes means that he is somewhere on them and has to listen to figure out his place in the story and deal with his actions. Each episode of the show is based around the side of the tape that Clay is listening to, so the audience hears the tapes as Clay does, and the story flashes in between past and present to have a better understanding of the effects that each person had on Hannah’s life and ultimate decision. The show tackles the issues of sexual orientation, bullying, sexual assault, and suicide, highlighting it from a high-schoolers perspective to demonstrate that these are serious issues that are prevalent in any age, and we must create a dialogue about them in order to better prevent and address it in the future.
13 Reasons Why was adapted for television by Brian Yorkey and is co-produced by Anonymous Content and Paramount Television for Netflix. With 40 critics reviewed, the show has a 85% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 7.28/10 stars. Even further, with 2177 user ratings the show has received a 84% approval rating from the audience with an average of 4.2/5 stars. Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe stated “13 Reasons Why” never feels like a whodunit, which is a plus. The show feels more like a why-dunit, a deep dive into all the factors that can coalesce and lead to tragedy” in his review of the new Netflix show.
Response on Social Media
13 Reasons Why has also garnered a huge amount of buzz on social media. Netflix does not release viewer count numbers but the magnitude of the amount of people that watched the show can be measured through Twitter. Since its release on March 31st, the show has been tweeted about 11 million times (as of May 8th), making it the most tweeted about show of 2017, according to a Variety article. When I first published this article on April 4th I tracked the show’s popularity through Google trends for searches of “Thirteen Reasons Why” from March 28- April 4. The results indicated that every day after the release of the show to Netflix there was a spike in searches. The first major spike in searches came at 11pm on March 31st, almost 24 hours after the show had premiered. The highest level of searches then occurred on April 2nd, with continued spikes on the 3rd and 4th of April. With revising this article I decided to compose another Google trend analysis to see what the searches were like after that first initial week. The results indicate that searches for the show continued to increase after the first week before reducing by the beginning of May. The highest volume of searches was measured on April 14th, more than two weeks after the show premiered.
The response to the show and its popularity is not surprising, as the novel has sold over 2 million copies since its release in 2007 and is a #1 New York Times and international bestseller. I first came in contact with the novel in 2010 in high school when my freshman level English class read it and used it as a medium to speak on the seriousness of bullying and suicide. I was excited to hear that it was being made into a show, as it is a topic that needs to be publicized and spoken openly about. The show is very serious, as it should be, and it makes the viewer question their own actions and reevaluate how they treat people. It is the type of show that is hard to watch because Hannah’s narration speaks directly to the audience, forcing them to take her place and feel the intense and deep hurt that she was feeling because of the way that she was being treated. But this is the point, it is not something that should be easy to watch, as suicide, sexual assault, and bullying are not light issues.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, on average there are 121 suicides in the United States per day, with a total of 44,193 suicides annually, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. The highest suicide rate is for white males between the ages of 45–64, 85 years and older the second highest rate.
While the suicide rate for those under the age of 20 is the lowest suicide rate, this does not mean that it is not an incredibly important issue for this age group. According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the second highest cause of death in 2014 for both age groups of 10–14 and 15–24 is suicide, only behind unintentional injury. These statistics are startling as we consider that these are people who for the most part have not graduated high school or college yet.
Not to say that suicide is always the result of bullying, or that bullying causes suicide, 13 Reasons Why does draw a connection between the two. According to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) 2015 survey of high school students, 21.7% of female students and 9.7% of students indicated that they had been electronically bullied within the last 12 months. To add to that, 24.8% of female students and 15.8% of male students indicated that they had been bullied on school property within the last 12 months. For females, that is a 1 in 4 chance of being bullied on school property, and a 1 in 5 chance they will be bullied online. Females are also over 2 times more likely to be bullied online than males.
Sexual Assault Statistics
Another important issue that is depicted in the program is sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime, 91% of victims of sexual assault are female and 9% are male, and in 8 out of 10 rape cases the victim knew the person assaulting them. To add to this, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are assaulted before the age of 18 and 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted or raped in college. It is estimated that 63% of incidents are not reported to the police and only 12% of child sex assault cases are reported. Because of these startling statistics, it is very important that signs of abuse are understood and what to do if something happens to ourselves or a friend.
The Praise and the Backlash
I have to first rebut myself. When I first wrote this article I was only halfway through the show and I had not come across the depictions of the very serious issues that I have just discussed, I had only seen the depictions of the bullying. I went into the show with knowledge of what was going to happen, but I could not remember all of the details or events that would lead up to the suicide. I was certainly not expecting to see graphic depictions of suicide and rape. I have to be honest and say that I have not and will not watch the last two episodes of the series. I have read online and heard from many friends that Hannah’s suicide is shown in full, an act both very personal and very triggering. These depictions are where much of the backlash has come from. Two camps of opinions have arose as millions of people have watched the show- those who praise it for its ability to shed light on the issue and those who oppose it because of its glamorization and dramatization of suicide, instead of focusing on the mental health issues surrounding what Hannah was going through.
When I was first watching the show I was in the first camp, I was excited about its ability to bring these very serious issues to the forefront, but as I kept watching and saw images of Hannah’s cut wrists and rape I grew more and more opposed to the show. In communications studies we talk a lot about social learning theory, the idea that people learn behavior from the programs that they watch and the people around them. This is just the base of my worries. I already had an idea about what was going to happen in the show, but when I saw that my brother, who I knew had not read the book, started watching the show I reached out to him to warn him about the content, as these serious issues are not something that one should just stumble upon. The graphic content of the show is a huge trigger to those who have struggled with any of the issues that are discussed. School administrations across the country have reportedly been sending out notices to parents about the content of the show in an attempt to stop any copycat behavior (social learning), and to warn parents about the graphic and serious nature as it could trigger activities. While the show has the ability to be seen by anyone, the base audience is high schoolers or younger, both because of the age of those depicted but also because of the genre of the novel. While there were warnings on screen before the episodes involving the rapes and suicide, stating that there was to be graphic material, no warning is put on the show in general. The show is rated TV-MA, meaning that it may be unsuitable for children under 17, yet because it is Netflix there is nothing policing this. The main concern is that young people will see the show and the popularity of it and be driven to do something that is irreversible, instead of understanding the main point about the severity of the issues and the need to seek help.
While the show is graphic in nature and therefore not suited for the key audience it is geared to, elements of the show glamorize the act of suicide. Since the show is based around a present-past juxtaposition we are seeing Hannah’s reasons and the effects of her choice on the rest of the characters in a way that leaves the viewer in a helpless state. The viewer knows what is going to happen to her but they can do nothing to alleviate that pressure, and at the same time the viewer knows the effects of Hannah’s actions and can do nothing to reverse the decision or help the students cope. This format makes the show into a drama focused on the act of revenge instead of a depiction of the mental illness and severity of the situation that someone goes through to come to the place where they make the decision that Hannah did. If we consider the purpose of 13 Reasons Why to be that of demonstrating the effects that such an act can have on the ones who love you, then there is merit in the portrayal, but the is not the case and therefore the format of the show lessens the severity of the issue of mental illness as the show is produced with the intent of producing the most emotional arousal and sense of drama, in order to engage viewers. The show has created a huge platform for people to speak about these issues- which we can see through the 11 million tweets, bringing the issue to the forefront regardless of if it is in praise or opposition to the message and portrayal of the show. The creators, producers, actors, and all advocates for the show have been adamant that the purpose is to create a discussion so that no more young people have to go through what Hannah went through, there is even a talk-back after the last episode in which Selena Gomez explains that it is okay to ask for help and gives resources for them to do so. Therefore the show does make an attempt to redirect the message from revenge to serving as an important messenger for help, but that is only half the problem. It does not matter what the intention of the show was, all that matters are the effects that it had on the individuals who watched it.
It was recently announced that the show will be receiving a second season, so it is even more important that those involved with the production will be conscious of the effects that their content can have, as young people will once again be inundated with the depiction and story of Hannah Baker within the next year.
Resources to Help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1–800–273–8255 https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
National Sexual Assault Hotline 1–800–656–4673 https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline