Now that I’ve finished this post I realise that it clocks in at about sixteen thousand words. That’s, um, quite long. And it’s certainly more than it’s really comfortable to read in a blog post. However, well, I’ve written it now and I thought breaking it up would actually be even more awkward so … here it is.
In an effort to help it be more manageable here’s a content list of the various sections:
- Tape 1 Side A: Trigger Warnings
- Tape 1 Side B: Taking a Step Back
- Tape 2 Side A: The Werther Effect
- Tape 2 Side B: The Worst Counsellor In The World
- Tape 3 Side A: The Curate’s Egg
- Tape 3 Side B: An Inspector Calls
- Tape 4 Side A: Other Possible Positives
- Tape 4 Side B: Nice Men and Rapists
- Tape 5 Side A: This Device Is Getting Hard To Sustain
- Tape 5 Side B: Actual Data
- Tape 6 Side A: No Right Way, Many Wrong Ways
- Tape 6 Side B: Out of Context Problem
- Tape 7 Side A: Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story
- Tape 7 Side B: Conclusions
I have this tendency to look at controversial things and then feel like a sucker because most controversial things are only controversial because they want to get you to look at them. And so once I’ve spent the requisite three weeks saying “No, I’m not going to look at this because I’m pretty sure I know exactly what it’s going to be like and what it’s going to be like is something that profoundly annoys me” and having people come back with “no, you can’t say that, you’ve got to watch/read/listen to/play/eat it or else you won’t understand” I feel I have to watch/read/listen to/play/eat the damn thing. At which point I almost inevitably conclude that it is, in fact, precisely what I thought it was going to be at the outset. And then I come back to the people who said I had to watch/read/listen to/play/eat it and say “okay, I watched/read/listened to/played/ate this and I still think what I thought before” and they reply “ahhhh, but you watched/read/listened to/played/ate it, didn’t you”. And then I say “well, yes, I did, because you wouldn’t let me talk about the issues it raised until I had done” and then they say “ahhhh, so it’s made you think about those issues.” And then I just want to stab myself in the face for being stupid enough to engage with the whole thing in the first place. Because, seriously, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me every. single. fucking. time, shame on me.
Which is to say, I’ve just finished watching 13 Reasons Why. As you might gather from my opening rant, I didn’t especially rate it. I’m now going to discuss my thoughts about it in slightly unstructured, slightly rambly way (like I always do). I’ll be using subheadings (like I always do). There will be thirteen of them because, honestly, did you expect me to pass that one up?
I should quickly mention that 13 Reasons Why is based on a novel which I haven’t read and that my comments here relate only to the TV show. There’s a bit later on where I talk about how I feel about the fact that some school districts are taking the book off their shelves and my comments on that are based not on the contents of the book (about which I know nothing) but on my more general (and very non expert) feelings about how these issues should be approached.
Before I get into this there are a whole massive bunch of warnings I want to add to the start of this post. Firstly, as I mentioned in the header, this is really fucking long. Secondly, this is really fucking full of spoilers. Thirdly, this goes into quite a lot of detail about some very complicated issues about which I am in no way an expert. If at any point I give the impression I’m speaking from a position of authority, please remember that I’m not. I have some personal experience of the issues that this post is about and have done a genuinely cursory amount of research and reading. Despite being sixteen thousand words long it is very likely that this post oversimplifies its profoundly difficult subject matter in a number of ways.
As you are probably already aware the show this post is about deals with teenage suicide and I’m going to be talking about that in some details. I do want to make a quick point about the vocabulary I’ve tried to use and the ways in which I am conscious I might not be using it completely correctly. Generally speaking, I’ve tried to avoid using the phrase “to commit suicide” because the literature I’ve read suggests that the term “commit” has problematic implications and has its roots in the era when suicide was actually treated as a crime. I also try to avoid using the word “successful” when talking about suicide attempts that result in death because, again, the literature suggests that it’s not a good idea to suggest that death is a desirable outcome. Because I’ve been quite careful with this language, I’ve sometimes been less careful than I should have been in distinguishing between failed suicide attempts and completed suicide attempts, especially in the bit about halfway down when I go on a long digression about data. Again, I’m aware that this is an oversimplification.
In short: trigger warnings for quite detailed discussion of suicide, rape and sexual assault.
And, in fact, let’s start there.
The version of 13 Reasons Why I watched was on Netflix UK. It has specific trigger warnings on episodes 9, 11 and 13. It’s probably worth my pointing out that, because these episodes are late in the series, I was already very, very angry with 13 Reasons Why by the time they came up. One of the things that made me most angry about it is that I honestly felt its portrayal of its core issues (those issues being suicide and rape and, incidentally, the fact that it arguably conflates those things is something else that bothers me about it) was profoundly exploitative to the point that at times I almost found it pornographic.
And, again, this is a point where some people will say “oh, d’you see, you were supposed to experience that discomfort because this is a serious issue, you should take it seriously” but, again, I wasn’t uncomfortable because the show was presenting rape and suicide in an unflinching or hard hitting way. I was uncomfortable because I felt it was presenting rape and suicide in a tantalising, occasionally even titillating way. And, again, I’m sure some people think the show had enough self-awareness that even that was part of its wider social commentary. I really don’t. I should probably take this opportunity to say (and I will be saying this a lot) that I am very aware that these are my personal and quite emotional responses, and that I know that other people feel very differently.
Pretty much every episode of 13 Reasons Why has the same structure. Hannah starts off in a seemingly hopeful or optimistic place, she darkly hints that something terrible is about to happen, you spend the whole episode excitedly waiting to see what it is and who it involves, it comes out, she hints that something worse is going to happen in the next episode, and you queue it up immediately because this is a show made for binge watching.
Now, I am not saying that there is only one way to write about serious issues. But I am given serious pause by a show about the abuse, rape and suicide of a teenage girl being so unashamedly and unabashedly watchable. And, yes, you can argue that it’s making a point about our complicity in exploitation. But … well … it isn’t, is it? It’s trying to sell us Netflix subscriptions.
When I started watching the show, I assumed that I would have to take breaks between episodes because I honestly expected that it would be traumatic to watch. I’ve recently watched Please Like Me which is another show that has a strong suicide theme and which I would occasionally have to just stop watching for a while because it had given me so many feels or so much to think about that I really needed time to process. But I never got that with13 Reasons Why. It was like playing a Sid Meier videogame or watching Lost or Heroes: a steady drip feed of pleasurable revelations, with the constant promise of something even better if you just click the ‘next’ button. And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of storytelling but I don’t feel that it’s compatible with (and I’m sorry if I’m overusing this word) an unflinching look at a terrible social evil. I’d argue that it’s not even compatible with a compassionate look. 13 Reasons Why feels to me like popcorn television about a sensationalist topic and that pushed a lot of my buttons.
Long-time blog readers won’t be surprised at how off-topic I’ve got here but it is coming back to something I promise. In the context of those feelings that I had about the show and that were firmly entrenched in me by the time I reached episode 9, the trigger warnings just felt cynical. Because while I’m sure, on one level, they did genuinely want to warn potentially vulnerable viewers that the episode contained something they would find triggering I can’t quite shake the notion that the warnings doubled as foreshadowing. It just feels like the showrunner is leading over to you conspiratorially and saying, “hey guys, someone totally gets raped in this episode!” Which is not something I want to feel that the showrunner is doing.
And obviously I haven’t looked in great depth at best practice in this kind of situation but I sort of feel that if I was going to put trigger warnings on a TV show, especially one with such linear over-arching narrative, I’d put them at the beginning. I mean, if you put trigger warnings on a book, you put them on the cover, you don’t just stick them randomly at the start of the chapter with the distressing scene. Because of its structure, the show is quite compelling so by the time you’ve got to that episode, you really want to see what happens next. And by putting the trigger warning where it is, you’re forcing people to choose between watching something that might trigger them or bailing on something they’ve already invested eight hours in. Trigger warnings are there to allow people to make informed choices. Surely the informed choice you should be making in this case is “do you want to watch the show?” not “do you want to watch episode 9?”
And I’ve just realised I’ve committed to doing thirteen of these so this is going to get long.
But, hey, I’m really quite angry.
I’ve had a few conversations about this show and because we naturally gravitate towards those who share our opinions I’ve mostly spoken to folks who agree with me. But I have met a couple of people who found the show profoundly moving, profoundly meaningful and either reflective of their own experience or offering them something they feel is an insight into the experience of others who they care about.
I absolutely do not want to erase, elide, dismiss or devalue this. We all respond to things in different ways and just because this show offends the crap out of me that won’t stop it being something truly important to somebody else. I think, in general, conversations on the interwebs, especially about issues relating to social justice or issues that are otherwise sensitive, naturally get very factional because it’s very hard to recognise that somebody like you could feel empowered by something by which you feel damaged. It’s difficult to accept that something you feel insults the memory of your dead friend makes someone else feel closer to theirs.
I’m not going to make much of an effort to be balanced in this post. I do think there were some positive things about the show. For me, the negative things outweighed them so massively that it isn’t even funny. I do want to stress that everything I’ve saying here is my own personal experience and I’m saying it primarily for the benefit of people who may either feel similarly and be glad to know that they aren’t alone or those who are interested and might not have considered the position I’m expressing.
A big part of the reason that the TV show, and the book that it’s based on, have been so controversial is that a lot of people feel they glamorise suicide. I am not really sure I know how to parse this criticism. I mean ‘glamorise’ is a really loaded term and what seems glamorising to one person is starting an important dialogue to another. What I do want to talk about at the start (and when I say start I actually mean in about the first 1600 words) of this article is the actual evidence for imitative suicide. (Insert ‘I am not an expert’ disclaimer here.)
Basically a lot of people are saying that the show is dangerous is because a vulnerable young person could watch it, emphasise with Hannah and decide that, like her, their only solution is to kill themselves. On one level, this feels like a moral panic. On another, it’s actually quite a well-documented phenomenon in suicide research. And I will say that I’ve not read that many papers on this but essentially it is a real thing. It’s called The Werther Effect after Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was associated with an alleged rash of imitative suicides in the 1770s. It isn’t completely uncontroversial because nothing is uncontroversial in social science research. Because it’s not like you can do a double blind randomised controlled trial for things like the impact of popular fiction on suicide rates.
From what I understand, given my very cursory research, there do tend to be upticks in the suicide rate within about one-to-three months of widely publicised suicides. The strongest effects have been seen with real celebrities who are prestigious and whose deaths are widely reported. There are smaller, or zero, effects reported from works of fiction. The research I’ve looked at is hard to draw concrete conclusions from because there are always alternative explanations for things. For example, some researchers suggest that all the Werther Effect does is cause the suicides of people who would probably kill themselves anyway to cluster around the deaths of celebrities. Others say that this isn’t compatible with the data since, if this was the case, you’d expect a concomitant drop in the suicide rate a few months after the triggering event, and you don’t (or don’t seem to).
I can sort of see both sides of this one and part of it depends on how much you value additional years of life. If the suicide rate goes up 10% for three months after a high profile celebrity death that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go down by 10% for the next three months, even if those additional suicides came from people who would probably have killed themselves anyway. Some of them may have gone on for many months or years before their deaths and you then have to ask unanswerable questions about the value or otherwise of three months, ten months or five years of extra life for a person highly at risk of suicide.
The other thing I’ve noticed in the research is that it doesn’t seem to compare the effect of celebrity suicides on suicide rates with the effect of similarly high profile non-suicide celebrity deaths. Anecdotally I seem to recall that there were a fair number of suicides associated with, say, the Kennedy assassination as well. So if you’re trying to find evidence for actual imitation as a factor in a suicide it’s not immediately clear how you compensate for the effect of other forms of emotional shock that might come as a result of the high profile death of a famous individual.
One of the top news stories if you Google for 13 Reasons Why talks about some school districts taking the book the show is based on off shelves because they’re concerned about it triggering suicidal behaviour in adolescents. This is one of those things where I think people are taking something that might be factual but misapplying it quite strongly. My personal reading of the data is that the Werther Effect is a real thing (although primarily associated with factual rather than fictional stories) but that doesn’t mean that I think it should part of the suicide prevention policies of schools or school districts. And I admit this is partly because I’m a whiny liberal and I’m always against banning books. But it’s also because I quite strongly feel that there is a different between (and I will stress that this not technical language, this is language I am using off my own back because I can’t think of a better way to put it) macroscopic and microscopic dangers.
The Werther Effect is a macroscopic effect: that is to say, it’s large scale. Assuming—and I think it’s fair to assume this—that the effect is real it is appropriate for publishers, news outlets and media personnel in general to consider the possibility that their reporting on suicide-related stories could trigger imitative suicides in vulnerable people if a sufficiently large number of people are exposed and the story is sufficiently irresponsible. Several organisations, including The Samaritans and the World Health Organisation, publish media guides for exactly this purpose. I would say that a lot about 13 Reasons Why contravenes the advice in the WHO and Samaritan media guides and I do think this is low-key irresponsible of both the author and Netflix.
But that isn’t the same as believing that the Werther Effect is a significant factor in suicides at a microscopic level. That is to say, if I am a school governor or a headmaster and I am concerned about my students engaging in suicidal behaviour taking 13 Reasons Why off the shelves (or warning students against watching it on Netflix) should not be a high priority for me. This is because, while on a macro-level the question you should ask is “what effect will this story I’m writing have on people at risk of suicide” on a micro-level the question you should be asking is “how do I best work to prevent suicides amongst the people in my care.” Those are very different questions.
To take a hopefully not offensively spurious analogy, smoke detectors contain an alpha-emitting radioactive source (I believe it’s Americium 241). If I was a company that made smoke detectors I would want to be very sure that the radioactive source in the devices I sold was well-sealed so that it didn’t leak out into the air where people could inhale bits of radioactive dust and get cancer. That would be an important part of my duty to my customers if I was selling them something that contained a radioisotope. But if I was running a school, it would be absurd for me to spend any of my time or resources worrying about the risk of students getting cancer from the smoke detectors in my building. Not only would my cancer-prevention efforts be far better directed getting my students to stop smoking or eat more green vegetables, but if I were to remove all the smoke detectors out of a misguided attempt to minimise my students’ exposure to carcinogens I would (and this is where the analogy gets almost embarrassingly bang on) be getting rid of something that could provide a valuable warning of impending catastrophe.
Which is to say, the way to stop schoolkids reading or watching 13 Reasons Why and then killing themselves is to have suicide prevention strategies that aren’t shit. This is, I admit, easier said than done. But literally anything you could do would be more effective than just taking a book off the shelves. Indeed (and this is where that bang on analogy comes into play) if you tell your students that you’ve taken away all the copies of 13 Reasons Why because you don’t think it’s appropriate for them to be reading a book about suicide, you are sending the message that suicide is not something you are comfortable for them to talk about. This is the exact opposite of an effective suicide prevention strategy.
I’m doing this fourth (it’s actually quite hard for me to keep track of the numbers because I’ve been even more glib than I normally am and have labelled all of these bullet points the same way they label the episodes in the TV show. Sorry, I really am a dick) when, in the series, it’s the thirteenth episode. I’m doing it now because I’ve just been talking about suicide prevention in schools and I want to talk a bit about Tape 13 and how it, on the one hand, possibly highlights some ways in which support structures in schools can be flawed but, on the other, does so in ways that I feel are massively unhelpful.
So, the premise of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah Baker makes thirteen tapes, each dedicated to one of the people who she feels are responsible for her death. The last tape is for the last person who (and this is itself a problematic way to look at it) had the opportunity to save her: her school counsellor. Her last tape is actually a recording of her meeting with him and the episode cuts between the events of that meeting and the events of the confrontation between Clay The White Knight (of whom more later) and The Worst Counsellor In The World. Basically, everything about Hannah’s meeting with The Worst Counsellor In The World is wrong. And I think, on some level, you’re supposed to realise that it’s wrong, but I think the wrongness I see in it isn’t the wrongness the show sees in it.
The criticism levelled against 13 Reasons Why is that it glamorises suicide, and the defence that’s made of it is that it promotes discussion about suicide. I tend to feel that neither the criticism nor the defence are entirely correct. And I suppose it’s a bit hypocritical of me to say that the show doesn’t promote discussion when I’m here discussing it but, again, upsetting somebody so much that they loudly tell you you’re wrong isn’t a helpful way to advance the debate. If it anything, it derails it.
The issue I have with the way that 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide is not that it portrays it as glamorous (although there obviously glamorous things about Hannah and I’ll get into those later) it’s that for a show that seems to want us to confront a complex issue it feels curiously unwilling to demystify its subject matter. Again, I should stress that this is very much a question of interpretation but I feel like 13 Reasons Why much tries to have its cake and eat it on the, well, the “reasons why” front. On the one hand, its entire premise is that Hannah is telling us why she killed herself. On the other hand, all of the factors that contribute to her suicide (and, let’s be clear, this is the way suicide researchers and people whose job it is support suicidal people think about these issues: it’s about risk factors, not reasons) get presented as things which either nobody could have foreseen or of which nobody could have foreseen the impact. It’s a bit like Donald Trump standing up and saying, “who’d have thought healthcare could have been so complicated?” The show seems, to me, to genuinely think that suicide is so vast and mysterious that you can’t distinguish good suicide prevention from bad.
One of the overarching plot arcs in the show is Hannah’s parents’ suing the school for negligence and the school fighting back against it. During one scene towards the end of the series, the school offers a settlement which includes some financial compensation and a commitment to have a better suicide prevention policy. Hannah’s parents are actively scornful of this idea. They ask why such a policy wasn’t in place and the lawyer representing the school (who is also, randomly, the mother of Clay The White Knight because getting one of your kid’s mothers to represent you in no way represents a conflict of interest) says there was but that the new policy will be better. Nothing in the text invites us to believe us that this is true (which is fine, the school is clearly evil) but what’s worrying is that nothing in the text invites us to believe it would be possible for it to be true.
And this feels, to me, genuinely dangerous because it seems to take as read that schools can’t do anything to prevent teen suicide. And that any policy will simply be a meaningless piece of paper.
Let’s come back to The Worst Counsellor In The World. In the last episode, Clay The White Knight confronts The Worst Counsellor In The World with how badly he failed in his duty to protect Hannah. On one level, this is fine because The Worst Counsellor In The World is the worst counsellor in the world. But what frustrates me about the episode is the nature of Clay’s accusations and the way in which The Worst Counsellor In The World defends himself. Clay’s accusations are that The Worst Counsellor In The World should have “seen” what Hannah was going through. He should have “known” that there was more wrong with her than she was letting on. That he should have “done something”. The Worst Counsellor In The World replies by repeating that same old lines about how vast and incomprehensible suicide is. And maybe he’s self-justifying and I suppose it isn’t really fair for me to expect Clay to have a clear insight into the quite specific craft required to have effective support conversations with vulnerable people (although, given how much heavy-handed mansplaining the guy does I wouldn’t have been surprised). But the show seems to be saying “yes he let Hannah down, but so did everybody else” whereas , from my perspective, it should have been saying “yes, he let Hannah down because he did these specific, technical things wrong and they are all things he should have been trained to do right and you can train people to do those things right and doing those things right will actually save lives.”
Let’s be more specific. And I’m not just going to talk about The Worst Counsellor In The World here, I’m going to talk about suicide prevention at Liberty High in general. Every time a teacher at Liberty High catches a whiff of the notion that a student might be suicidal they handle it really badly. And at the start of the show I thought this quite interesting because I thought it was deliberately highlighting the way in which small carelessnesses can be harmful. Towards the end, I felt that it was more like the show didn’t realise or care that some ways are dealing with these issues are more effective than others. To give some edited highlights (I started doing the full list but there was just too much crap):
- In the first episode, the teacher in the communications studies class (is this a real thing, do they do this in America, is it like what we call PSHE?) gives a very perfunctory ‘if anyone has been affected by these issues, there are people you can talk to’ speech to her class. Clearly none of them give a shit. To be fair, this one’s hard to do better because it’s a statuary requirement but she could have spoken about it in a way that didn’t give the impression she was bored out of her wick. She could have also indicated they could to talk, say, her. One of the really difficult things about providing support to vulnerable people is that telling somebody they have options and making them feel they have options are two very different things. Rambling off a rote memorised list of websites tells your students that you want them to take their problems to somebody else.
- In a later communication studies class, the teacher is reading out questions from an anonymous topics bag. Presumably the whole point of this bag is to allow people to ask things that they don’t feel comfortable asking about publicly but which they would, nevertheless, like to get an answer on. Firstly, the teacher reads out questions from the bag in a way that shows she clearly hasn’t looked at them in advance. This is terrible practice, especially when the whole point of this exercise is to allow people to ask you about dark shit. She’s also incredibly bad at not sounding shocked when she reads Hannah’s note about believing that the only way to stop feeling awful is to feel nothing forever. She then throws the question open to debate in a way that very quickly degenerates into speculations about the person who wrote the note, rather than discussion of the actual question being asked. I appreciate that it’s hard to improv a lesson on suicidal ideation because it’s a sensitive topic. That’s why you read the fucking questions before the last eight minutes of your class. Although if you do have to improv something like that what you want to improv is the clear signal that whoever wrote that note is supported, and cared for, and not judged. And, again, I know teenagers are dicks but you are the adult in the room. You are in a position of authority. When somebody responds to another student’s note about feeling suicidal by saying that they think suicide is cowardly you immediately say “that is a harmful myth” and brook no response. There are some things you do not debate and things that get people killed are one of them.
- Fast forwarding to the The Worst Counsellor In The World. His phone keeps going off in his meeting with Hannah. If she’d just dropped in, it would be fine for that to happen once. He should then have put it on silent or set it to do not answer in order to clearly signal to her that he has no other priorities. Since she had an actually made an appointment to see him, he should have turned the fucking thing off in advance.
- When she tells him she doesn’t have any friends he names people he thinks are her friends instead of trying to asking her why she feels he doesn’t have any friends. This is listening skills 1-0-fucking-1.
- This is minor but the box of tissue is in the wrong goddamn place. If you’re a professional counsellor you don’t keep your tissues somewhere that you have to pointedly offer them to someone if they’re crying. They should already be in easy reach so the person you are counselling can take one if they want one and it’s not big thing.
- When she tells him something bad happened to her at a party, his first reaction is to name a bunch of emotions he thinks she should be feeling. Do not fucking do that. You are here to find out what this girl feels, not get her to confirm that she feels what you think she feels.
- When it comes become clear that she might have been raped, the first thing he asks is “did you have sex with a boy and then regret it?” What the actual fuck? Only when he’s ruled that out does he ask her if she’s been raped and when she says yes, his response boils down “are you sure? really? like raped raped or just a bit raped?” For fuck’s sake, he actually asks her if she said no. He doesn’t quite ask what she was wearing but I suspect only because she manages to leave before he gets the opportunity. Again, maybe it’s different in America but if you are working in support surely when somebody tells you they’ve been raped your job shouldn’t be to try and convince them that they’re wrong.
And I get that some of this is probably a disgustingly real reflection of how things are in some schools. But the show at no point acknowledges that things could be different or done better. It presents the mistakes that the entire teaching staff makes in failing to support Hannah as endemic rather than systematic. That is to say, as an unavoidable feature of the society and culture in which Hannah lives, rather than a specific failure of policy, which could be corrected by some fairly basic teacher training.
Again, I don’t think that 13 Reasons Why is dangerous on a micro-level if schools handle it correctly. But if there is one dangerous thing about it (and, as we’ll see later, I actually think there are two or three dangerous things about it) it’s that it accepts unquestioningly the notion that a suicidal person will not be able to find support from within the formal structures of an educational establishment.
And, taking another step back, I should probably admit that I’m not applying the principle of charity here. You could argue that all of the many, many, many things The Worst Counsellor In The World and the incompetent communications teacher do wrong are well-observed criticisms of structural flaws in the suicide prevention policies of large institutions. Except these flaws are never called out. I mean, okay, Clay The White Knight talks about how the school failed Hannah and how nobody did anything to help her but it’s all these vague exhortations to do better and to be better. Not a specific criticism of people who have failed to do basic aspects of their job. Again, my issue with the way 13 Reasons Why portrays suicide isn’t that the show glamorises it; it’s that the show mystifies it. Because, yes, you can never know what another person is feeling and, yes, you can never know what drives a human being to take their own life. But you can adopt strategies that recognise that you don’t know what another person is feeling and allow you, therefore, to minimise the harm you do in the event that you misread their emotions.
This is probably a British idiom so I’ll explain that first. The curate’s egg is an allusion to an imagined encounter over tea between a curate (a low ranking member of the Church of England for people who aren’t up on this kind of thing) and one of their parishioners. “How is your egg,” asks the parishioner. Presumably he or she has cooked the curate an egg. Look, we do weird things in Britain. And the curate diplomatically replies, “good in parts.” The joke, if you can call it that, being that an egg is such a simple and ultimately homogenous dish that even if there are good things in it, probably it is not very competently cooked. So, yes, I am more than happy to say that 13 Reasons Why is good in parts.
This is tricky because the small number of things I liked about the show are very subtle things that mostly happen off camera. My overall feeling (and, as always, this is just my feeling) is that the show is crass, vulgar and exploitative. So I suspect (though, again, I may be being uncharitable here) that the parts I felt were subtle and nuanced are as much my projections as the showrunners’ creation.
In particular, I liked the relationships that Hannah clearly had that we never see because they aren’t on the tapes. And I liked the way in which we sometimes see things in the tapes that contradict the way in which Hannah characterised the events described in previous tapes.
An example of the first type of element is her relationship with Tony The Magic Latino who, we soon learn, is the guy responsible for executing Hannah’s final wishes and for guarding the second copy of the tapes which is being held as blackmail in order to force the people to whom the tapes are sent to listen to the tapes that are sent to them. And to continue the damning with the faint praise theme of this section I’d say that there’s as much that’s problematic about this as there is that’s interesting. I like the fact that we learn from Tony that he had quite a close relationship with Hannah, but that we never especially see him interacting with her because we only get her story from the tapes, and the tapes are her talking about events in her life that she found harmful, and her relationship with Tony The Magic Latino was unambiguously supportive. Although, apparently, not so unambiguously supportive that it helped her with her suicidal feelings, which is obviously fine in one sense—it’s not like you can’t have a friend and still kill yourself—but is problematic in others because it feels like Tony The Magic Latino is very much erased from the narrative, which makes him feel like more a plot device than a person. Which is why I tend to refer to him as Tony The Magic Latino (and we’ll come back to him later).
In a similarly ambivalent vein, in many ways I really liked that Hannah’s relationship with her parents, and especially her parents’ on-going financial worries, were clearly a contributing factor in her suicidal ideation. But that, despite this, there isn’t a tape directed at her parents. At its best, it feels like the show is acknowledging that Hannah herself is not able to fully understand or articulate the reasons for her own feelings or decisions, and that is genuinely subtle and interesting and nuanced. I also think it says something quite profound and sad about Hannah’s relationship with her parents in that she clearly can’t bring herself to directly blame them for her situation, even though you can make a strong case that they are at least as responsible for her feelings as, say, Jessica.
Unfortunately because it’s the way I respond to texts (and we’ll get to more of this later as well) I also can’t quite shake the awareness that Hannah’s circulating the tapes to everybody except her parents is also just a literary conceit designed to support a problematic framing device. It feels particularly difficult in the show because you see how distraught her parents are and how desperate they are for answers, yet the structure of the series requires that neither Hannah nor anyone else involved makes the decision to share the tapes with her parents until the very final episode.
The other relationship I found worked weirdly well in the series was the one between Hannah and Jessica, the girl who she is quite close friends with at the start of the year/series but drifts away from for a variety of perfectly understandable, slightly teenage reasons. What I found interesting about this relationship is that every time the two of them interact after the tape in which Hannah describes her reasons for feeling Jessica is responsible for her suicide, they behave towards one another as if they are genuinely friends. Perhaps not friends who are as close as they once were, but Hannah clearly still looks out for Jessica and feels a need to protect her.
Perhaps the most subtle thing in the show, and again I feel the show mostly has the subtlety of Miley Cyrus riding a wrecking ball, is that when you get to the end and you get the full context of how the tapes were created it seems pretty clear that they were all put together in quite a short space of time after Hannah is raped by Bryce The Rapist . Which means that everything she describes in the tapes, she’s describing from her perspective after that experience. Again, this is frustrating to me because it feels like something that could be a real strength of the show but which I don’t think the show really brings out properly. The image of Hannah we get through the tapes is of someone who was on a clear downward spiral into suicide but the reality is that those tapes are her descriptions of events that she is now seeing in the immediate aftermath of an extremely traumatic experience.
And, obviously, I am not intending to minimise the impact of the experiences she goes through prior to Tape 12 and, again, one of the things I think is good about the show (again, more later) is that it has a fairly sensitive understanding of pressures affecting girls in high schools, and the ways in which even nice well-meaning guys can be oblivious to those pressures. But if you view the whole series as Hannah re-defining her previous experiences in light of a set of very dark feelings that are actually quite short-lived, the rest of the story becomes at once more tragic and more understandable. It’s more tragic because it demonstrates that what happens to Hannah in Tape 12 affects her so much that it actually makes her life worse retroactively. It’s more understandable because it implies a reality in which Hannah was actually fine most of the time (or, at least, as fine as anyone can be if they’re at high school and have been through some quite horrible shit).
One of the reasons we don’t understand why people didn’t see how much Hannah was suffering is that we see a very condensed version of a story that was actually spread out over a whole year, perhaps slightly more. Whenever we see her engage socially with her classmates outside of the specific tape addressed at a specific person, they’re actually quite welcoming and even kind to her. Obviously that doesn’t mean she’s wrong to feel lonely, and alienated, and gossiped about but it does highlight quite an important truth about, well, life at that age but also about life in general, which is that how you feel about anything (well, not anything, Hannah experiences a lot of things you could never feel good about) varies intensely depending on context.
And just to undo my brief moment of saying something positive about 13 Reasons Why (and I should probably acknowledge that when I say something positive, I mean something that suggests it’s more like the thing I think it should have been, which is not necessarily the best way to judge a text) I should add that I’m not totally certain the “Hannah is re-interpreting events in the light of trauma” reading is all that well supported when you get right down to it. The experiences she goes through have a smooth and undeniable escalation to them and by the time she’s witnessing rapes and getting her friends killed in car accidents it’s a bit hard to claim unreliable narration.
When I first heard about the controversies around 13 Reasons Why and especially the slightly odd responses people were having to it (like taking the book out of high school libraries and suggesting it should be banned from Netflix) my immediate reaction was “hang on, isn’t it just An Inspector Calls?” And having watched it: yeah, it’s pretty much just An Inspector Calls.
I should stress that this is very much not a criticism. There is value is re-telling stories, there is value in re-using structures. And the thing that 13 Reasons Why does that I think is most useful is function as broad social commentary about the importance of understanding the impact that seemingly small cruelties or neglects can have on other human beings. It’s primarily the show’s (arguably secondary) function as a commentary on the causes and consequences of adolescent suicide that I find problematic.
The reason I am ultimately fine with An Inspector Calls and am ultimately so un-fine with 13 Reasons Why is, well, I admit part of it is status quo bias. An Inspector Calls has existed for more than a hundred years now and so I judge it by the standards of the early 20th century, not the 21st. Because when you get right down it, it is exactly as problematic to exploit the rape and suicide of a young factory girl to make a slightly trite point about the evils of capitalism as it is to exploit the rape and suicide of a teenage girl to make a slightly trite point about whatever it is that 13 Reasons Why is making a point about (and, again, I have some thoughts about that, and again, I find some of those thoughts troubling, and, again, notice how I’m essentially copying the narrative structure of the show by darkly hinting at things I’m going to say in future instalments).
I think if I had to pick a single concrete thing about the two texts that makes me more okay with AIC than 13RW it would be that AIC is very squarely situated in the space of metaphor. The inspector literally isn’t real. There’s even an implication that the girl might be a composite of many people rather than one person. To put it another way, the target audience of AIC is very clearly people like the Birlings and it is very explicitly aimed at convincing members of the bourgeoisie to feel bad about the impact their actions have on the lower classes. 13RW is more ambiguous in both its presentation and intent. Hannah exists in this really difficult space between real person and plot device. And, again, I should stress I’ve spoken to people who very much see her as a real person and find her story authentic, compelling and sensitively told. But, for me, if she’s a real person, then, I want to know why we’re spending so much time focusing on Clay The White Knight when Hannah’s the one who’s supposed to really matter. If she’s an archetype or a metaphor, then you’ve got a situation whereby, in a story about how society objectifies and de-humanises young women, a young woman man is objectified and de-humanised by the very story she is supposed to be telling herself.
And, again, I’m sure for some people even that interpretation is poignant and affecting. But I personally have no time for it.
Sticking with the An Inspector Calls theme, I do think that 13RW could (and I’m going to do the teasing future darkness thing here, because I say “could” when I actually mean, “could but not given the other things I’m going to talk about in the next section”) be valuable as a narrative about, well, pretty much what I said it was about at the end of the last bit: the objectification and dehumanisation of young women in American high schools. I personally found a lot of the show’s dialogue and plot points to be very heavy-handed. I mean, yes, I’m very much aware that a disquieting number of young women get date raped at parties, but in the vast majority of situations there is nobody hiding in a cupboard while it happens. Equally, knocking over a stop sign is dangerous and I can see why if you’d just witnessed a rape you’d react especially strongly to someone refusing to face the consequences of their actions but, again, it seems wildly improbable that if you knocked over a stop sign there would be a fatal car accident in involving one of your friends in the ten minute window between your deciding to call it in and your finding a phone. Oh wait, sorry, this was meant to be a positive section.
Having said all that, while I think the show could have been subtler, it is at least pretty much politically on point. I don’t like the fact that there’s basically one designated rapist in it, but I do (and please don’t take this out of context) like the way the character carries himself. There’s a particularly chilling and effective bit in one of the later episodes where Justin The Jock confronts Bryce The Rapist and finally admits to Jessica that Bryce The Rapist raped her at a party, partially with his (Justin’s) consent. That’s not the chilling bit. The chilling bit is that later in the same episode, when Jessica is crying in bed and Bryce The Rapist texts her to ask if she’s okay. I thought it was a well-observed and genuinely devastating depiction of the way in which a man could be so entitled and empowered by rape culture that he thinks nothing of sending a sincerely supportive text message to a girl he actually raped.
Similarly Justin’s belief that by initially refusing to admit to Jessica that she was raped he was protecting her is frighteningly plausible in its abusiveness. And even in the early episodes the show is very good at demonstrating how the boys can exploit, objectify and shame the girls around them while genuinely not believing that they’re doing any harm. I actually felt quite positive about the show in the first three or four episodes because I’d hoped that the nuance which accompanied those interactions would be followed through in the rest of it, and it really wasn’t.
And, actually, to give credit where it’s due, I think the depiction of the jocks in general is really strong. They come across as believable, realistic and sympathetic human beings (even, to some extent, Bryce The Rapist, at least until the end when he comes up against Clay The White Knight and devolves into caricature) while also clearly behaving in a way that damages not only Hannah but pretty much every girl they come into contact with. And, again, I think it’s important to recognise the value in depicting that kind of character, especially for people who might recognise themselves in that depiction. Anything that encourages young men to look in the mirror and say “wait a minute, am I rapist?” is worthwhile. I’d almost resist the temptation to make a glib point about the fact that the most interesting and nuanced and successful characters in this story about the death of a teenage girl are bunch of men who treat women badly if it wasn’t for one thing: please turn your cassette over.
This is the thing that made me go from feeling ambivalent about this show to actively, vehemently hating it.
Although 13 Reasons Why is ostensibly (and, let me be fair, according to several people I’ve spoken to, authentically and legitimately) the story of Hannah Baker, its central viewpoint is that of Clay The White Knight. Clay is the shy, nerdy boy who works with Hannah at her job at the cinema and who has what he thinks is an unrequited crush on her, although it later becomes clear through the tapes that she was also in love with him.
I know “I just threw up a little bit in my mouth” is a cliché but I actually did just throw up a little bit in my mouth.
Clay is, to use a loaded term, a nice guy. He is quiet and geeky and bad at sports and not good with girls and blah blah blah. From the first episode, he is terrified by the thought that he might have accidentally hurt Hannah—not unreasonably considering the whole point of the tapes is that everybody who receives them somehow hurt Hannah. His distress over this escalates throughout the first eleven episodes until he reaches his tape and discovers why he’s on the list.
I’ll explain why he’s on the list in a second. But first I’m going to explain quite how wrong I was about this show and perhaps why I responded quite so negatively to it.
Three things are very clear from the beginning. It’s very clear that the show is dealing in some depth with difficult gender issues and especially with rape culture. It is pretty darn obvious right from the first episode that Hannah is going to get raped at some point. It is also pretty darn obvious right from the get go that Clay has no idea what he’s doing on the tapes, has no idea what he’s done to hurt Hannah and is terrified by the thought that he could have.
You remember how impressed I was by the way Bryce The Rapist sent Jessica a text in this way that suggested he had no idea he’d done anything wrong?
For the first three episodes I really, honestly thought that it was going to turn out that Clay, the nice shy boy, who is bad with girls and would never hurt anyone or ever say anything sexist ever, was going to have raped Hannah. And I don’t like playing the “it would have been better if” game and I don’t like judging something harshly just because it didn’t match my expectations for where it was going to go but I really, really, really hoped that 13 Reasons Why, as part of its exploration of the many ways in which a misogynistic society normalises the abuse of women, would have recognised that it’s possible for a skinny guy who is bad at sports and not especially confident with girls to be a rapist. I think that would have been incredibly powerful. I think, not to put too fine a point on it, that it could actually have prevented rapes by making nerdy guys think about the way they treat women.
So, anyway, I was pretty disappointed when it became clear around about Episode 9 that this wasn’t what the show was doing. I was incandescently furious when I got to Tape 6 Side A (Episode 11) and I found out what Clay had actually done.
Spoiler: the answer was nothing. Or, worse, the answer was specifically “be too nice.” Or, even worse, the answer was specifically “respected Hannah’s non-consent.”
Oh boy. This takes some unpacking.
Obviously, I am very conscious of getting all mansplainy here. And I really don’t want to lecture my (primarily female) audience on rape culture because, well, that’s hella offensive. But if there’s one thing I do feel have standing to talk about it’s how rape culture manifests from the perspective of guys like Clay. Because let’s be very clear here: I am nerdy and neurotic and was very under-confident growing up and still am to some extent, and my social circle is composed almost entirely of people who are the same way.
So in episode 11, we learn what happened between Clay and Hannah at Jessica’s party, the same party where later in the evening Hannah hides in closet and watches Jessica getting raped, right before running into stop sign and causing a fatal car accident. What happens is this:
Hannah realises she’s into Clay and has probably always been into Clay. Incidentally, pretty much every girl in the show is into Clay which I find a bit weird. Again, I was a lot like Clay in secondary school and there are many adjectives I would use to describe myself at that time in my life but none of them are compound nouns ending in the word “magnet.” They both find out independently about Jessica’s party and Clay says he’s going and Hannah says she isn’t, but decides to go anyway because she hopes to run into Clay because Clay is wonderful, y’all. There are some hijinks in which Clay is comically under-confident and is persuaded to go for it with Hannah by his friend/mentor, Dead Jeff (who will shortly earn his moniker by expiring in a car accident). They start, as I believe you Americans call it, making out in one of the bedrooms but then Hannah freaks out because she reminded of all the terrible ways in which boys have treated her. She explicitly tells us, and Clay, in her narration that:
- Even though she was telling him to stop, she wanted him to carry on doing what he was doing (which, let’s be clear, was touching her sexually)
- Even though she told him to go away because she needed some space, she really wanted him to stay with her
- That the real reason he was on the tape was that she had been so badly damaged by other guys that she couldn’t be with someone as wonderful as Clay and she needed him to hear that he wasn’t like other guys and that he was the only person who didn’t deserve to be on the tapes (which, by the way, is pretty fucking harsh to Tony The Magic Latino to whom Hannah was apparently so close that she entrusted him with the success of this whole endeavour).
Clay proceeds to make this even more all about him than Hannah just has by declaring to Tony The Magic Latino that he is responsible for Hannah’s death because he should have stayed with her when she explicitly told him not to stay with her. Tony The Magic Latino agrees.
There are so many things wrong with this that I would need a half dozen cassette tapes to record all of them.
I hope we can all agree that it is a bad idea for TV shows, especially TV shows ostensibly from the point of view of young women, to reinforce the idea that “no means yes”. 13 Reasons Why seems to be completely okay with the idea it’s wrong to think no means yes if you’re Bryce The Rapist while also explicitly telling Clay The White Knight that no really does mean yes if you’re him. Where everybody else learns that they contributed to Hannah’s death because they were cruel or thoughtless or literally raped her, Clay learns that he contributed to Hannah’s death because, and I am directly quoting the way he articulates this in a later episode, he was “afraid to love her.”
There are not enough palms in the world for my face right now.
Suppose for a moment that, in An Inspector Calls, the Birlings had an additional son who, uniquely among the family, had not had any role in the death of Eva Smith. Or whose role in the death of Eva Smith was that he stopped groping her when she told him to stop groping her. And the Inspector (and/or God, depending on your interpretation) patted him on the shoulder and told him he was great because he was “not like other Edwardians.”
This was the point at which the only adjective I became able to associate with 13 Reasons Why was “crass.” I had just seen a girl driven to such depths of despair that she took her own life dedicate one thirteenth of her actual suicide note to telling a guy how great he is.
And, once again, stepping back, taking some distance I should recognise that other people react to this very differently from me. But, speaking very, very personally, this was the point at which I could no longer think of this as Hannah’s story. I could no longer find any space of empathy or emotional plausibility in the idea that she, in her final desperation to be heard, used her last few breaths to—in wrestling parlance—put Clay over.
Other people parse it differently but, to me, in that moment the message of the show went from “society is harmful to women because it creates and normalises conditions in which men believe they have the right to sexually abuse them” to “society is harmful for women because it creates and normalises conditions in which guys who are good at sport are more popular then guys who like Star Wars.”
It is literally and (as much as anything can be undeniable in a work of fiction) undeniably the case that if Hannah had just got with Clay earlier on she would still be alive. She even essentially says this in her first fucking tape. She says that everything started because she had terrible taste in men, and the show repeatedly validates her self-blame.
I’m going a bit off track here, and one of the things I just said I was keen to avoid doing was lecturing a bunch of women on rape culture, and one of the ways I said I’d avoid doing that was by grounding it in my personal experience of being a skinny, nerdy, under-confident guy who hangs out with other, skinny, nerdy under-confident guys. I haven’t really framed it that way so far and I’m sorry if that’s made this last bit kind of mansplainy.
The thing is, this isn’t just a political or an aesthetic problem. This is genuinely dangerous and genuinely part of the culture that the show seems to think it’s critiquing. Basically, and there’s no nice or easy way to express this, the thing about guys like Clay or the guys I’ve known who are like Clay is that they are way less different from Bryce The Rapist than they think they are. Perhaps the best way to describe my experience of being and hanging out with guys like Clay is that we would be very, very upset if one of our friends described a girl as bangable or said she was DTF. We would also, quite often, put our hand on a girl’s thigh at a party even after she’d already taken it off three times. The scene in which Hannah praises Clay (effusively and, and I know I’ve said this before, with her actual fucking dying breaths) tells men like Clay that they are special and different in exactly the same way that the high school culture 13RW criticises tells Bryce The Rapist he is special and different. And it has exactly the same consequences.
A bald solid fact of life is that a guy like Clay is just as likely to rape a girl as a guy like Bryce. And he’s just as likely afterwards to send her a supportive text message completely failing to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with what he did. Bryce feels entitled to rape women because he believes that everyone must want to be with the Captain of the football team (and that they’re only saying no because that’s how girls are). A guy like Clay feels entitled to rape women because he’s not like guys like Bryce. He really does believe the thing that Hannah explicitly tells Clay in the show: that girls only says no to him because they’ve been too damaged by the Justins and Bryces of this world to realise that he’s “not like other guys”. Again, I’m very conscious that it’s not my place to hold forth on this but while there is value in the way the show challenges some aspects of rape culture, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that the character of Clay, the way Hannah talks about Clay, and the way the show repeatedly affirms the things Hannah says about Clay, actively reinforce another, more insidious aspect of rape culture.
And I should stress that I know people who really like the series. I know people who don’t read it the same way I do. And, obviously, it’s not that I actively wanted Clay to be a rapist. But, towards the end, the show makes him out to be a saint, despite the fact that its entire premise is about the ways we all harm each other by our thoughtlessness or casual misogyny.
Afraid to love her, my arse. Sorry. I’m still really upset about this.
So I’ve reached a point in the article where I’ve written 9,950 words. Fuck me, I am verbose. And, obviously, I sort of nailed my colours to the “doing 13 things for a cheap structural gimmick” mast at the beginning and am now starting to realise that it might have been a mistake.
Which, ironically, brings me to my next point about the show.
Hi, my name’s Alexis. I’m really fucking meta.
When I started watching the first episode, I Googled the book it was originally based on because I sort of assumed that it was written in the 90s. Because, y’know, tapes. In fact, it was written in 2007 (although I admit I didn’t look at a detailed enough summary to know if that’s when it was set) which left me with no real explanation for why it was framed around this manifestly implausible device of seven magnetic cassette tapes in 2017. And I know Hannah gives you a whole bunch of explanations as to why it’s on cassette. Explanations about not wanting it to be easy and having given up on writing things down after Gay Ryan non-consensually published her poem. But it requires a lot of lamp-shading and suspension of disbelief for what appears to be quite dubious benefit.
One of the things that really shakes me out of a story is when I start to feel that characters’ actions only make sense if you assume that they were motivated by the conscious desire to create the kind of story that they are in. And, obviously, there’s tropes and there’s black moments and big misunderstandings, and there are plenty of unrealistic events in all kinds of fiction (including my own). But everything about Hannah’s death apart from, well, the actual death bit (although even that’s a bit odd) feels like it’s contrived around the desire to create a thirteen episode TV show.
One of the criticisms that the more official suicide research and prevention bodies have made of 13 Reasons Why is that it perpetuates the myth that suicide is about anything apart from, well, wanting to be dead. And, obviously, people can want to be dead for lots of different reasons but, genuinely, for most people it isn’t about sending a message or being heard. My understanding from the literature I’ve read (and, at the risk of this getting too personal, from the friends I’ve had who’ve actually killed themselves) people who attempt suicide have generally gone beyond feeling that they can say anything meaningful to anyone. It’s really fucking sad but it’s never a moral lesson or a social commentary. And I understand why 13 Reasons Why presents itself the way it does because, when someone does kill themselves, people want to know why it happened and usually aren’t satisfied with “well, for a lot of complicated reasons, many of which they probably couldn’t even have articulated to themselves.” And it’s not like people haven’t killed themselves and left behind artistic works (4.48 Psychosis is a classic example) but they’ve rarely taken the form of tautly plotted, binge-watchable television.
And I should stress that I don’t begrudge the show its framing device, although, again, I am concerned that it feels exploitative and I am concerned that it erases Hannah from her own story, making her a convenient vessel for whatever lesson about whatever teen issue a particular episode centres around. And, again, I do think the show has value (although its valorisation of Clay The White Knight massively undercuts a lot of that value) but I feel that it’s very important to recognise that its value does not lie in the way it deals with the specific issue of teenage suicide.
As ever, I am not an expert. I don’t even play one on TV. And I do understand the choices that the showrunners made in writing and casting 13 Reasons Why. I think if you ask most people to imagine the kind of person who would attempt suicide in high school they would imagine somebody very much like Hannah Baker. If you asked them to imagine somebody about whose suicide you could construct a TV show that people would tune in to watch they would imagine somebody exactly like Hannah Baker. She is young, female, pretty, strangely non-specific in a lot of ways, lacking any particular interests or beliefs that might make it harder for an audience member to, well, I was going to say empathise with her but, actually, I think a better phrase might be “want to find out what horrible thing happened to her next and ultimately why she killed herself.”
What’s interesting is, if you look at the numbers, the sort of person who attempts suicide isn’t really like Hannah Baker at all. Obviously, I say look at the numbers, but my evidence base here is minimal (although non-zero). I’ve looked at a variety of data sources here because I happened to read a news article about global adolescent mortality rates and I thought it highlighted some interesting things. And I should stress, and I know I say “I should stress” a lot but that’s because there’s a lot of things I should stress, that I don’t specifically mind that the death of Hannah Baker in 13 Reasons Why is, as far as I can tell, statistically aberrant by the standards of suicide. But since one of the things that people think is important about the show (and which I think is actually important about the show, and I hope that people feel I’m doing my part to contribute to that important thing) is that it opens up a wider debate about suicide, I think it’s necessary to recognise that our cultural ideas about suicide and what people at risk of suicide look like are very unreflective of reality.
So the report I saw recently was on Leading Causes Of Death for males and females aged 10-19 globally. It’s worth pointing out that global statistics are not great for talking about individual people (it’s that macroscopic / microscopic thing again) but I think there are some interesting things to draw out of the data that challenge the way we think about suicide.
Let’s start off with gender. And, obviously, part of the reason Hannah is a girl is that the show is making some quite important points about sexual violence in high schools and the suicide is really a framing device allowing that story to be told. I do think it behoves us to ask ourselves why we find that story more compelling if it is told about a girl who is pretty, who was a virgin prior to the assault, and who is dead, but I’ll come back to that later. The thing is, I suspect another part of the reason that the (and I would say protagonist, but Clay is kind of the protagonist) focal figure of 13 Reasons Why is a girl is that we do tend to think of girls as being more at risk of suicide. And, at first glance, the numbers seem to bear that out.
The top two causes of death for males aged 10-19 globally are road traffic injury and personal violence, while the two top causes of death for females aged 10-19 globally are lower respiratory infections and self-harm. But what’s interesting is when you look at the numbers more closely you get a very different picture. Road traffic accidents are the number 1 cause of death for males aged 10-19 because 88,590 males in that age group died in road traffic accidents in 2015. The number of females in that age group who died from their highest cause of death (lower respiratory infections) is only 36, 637. Going down to number 2, deaths from self-harm amongst girls numbered 32,499 whereas deaths from self-harm among boys (the 5th highest cause of death) were 34,650. Essentially it turns out that there’s three things that kill boys and not girls that kill loads of boys globally, but the actual number of young people who die from lower respiratory infections and self-harm worldwide are about the same for both sexes.
What’s interesting, however, is that the gender-divide in death by self-harm is quite culturally specific. So going by the WHO’s 2012 data, although it seems like deaths by self-harm are about equally common in both sexes, the effects are actually strongly skewed by regional differences. The only regions in which females are more likely to die by self-harm than males are SE Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Americas, males within the age group were about 58% more likely to die by self-harm than females. In the UK, the difference is even more jarring with males of all ages about three times more likely to die by suicide than females.
And, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with writing a story or making a TV show in which a teenage girl kills herself but I can think of quite a lot of texts where teenage girls kill themselves (going right the way back to Ophelia), and very few where teenage boys do. And, again, this isn’t wrong. It isn’t evil. And if you view Hannah’s death as being primarily a form of social commentary (like Eva Smith’s) it’s completely fine. But if you see the show as trying to start a meaningful conversation about how suicide among teenagers works and who is at risk from it, then maybe a show that encourages people to watch out for the mental health of pretty, quirky, seventeen-year-old girls while completely ignoring their male (or, for that matter, less attractive) classmates could be potentially harmful.
Again, this very much isn’t 13 Reasons Why’s problem. There’s a lot of really weird gendered stuff about the way we discuss, report and think about suicide. I remember reading an article by (I think) Polly Toynbee about a decade ago in which she highlighted the weird disparity in the ways we talk about male and female celebrities who kill themselves. When somebody like Robin Williams or Heath Ledger dies, we say “oh my God, it was such a tragedy because he was such a great genius but he was so tormented and now the world will be denied the wonderful things he would have done had he lived longer”. When we talk about someone like (to take a classic example) Marilyn Monroe, what we say is “oh it’s such a tragedy, she was somebody’s little girl and look what fame did to her.” (When you think about it, it’s kind of fucked up that Candle In the Wind, the song Elton John wrote about Marilyn Monroe, and later re-purposed for Princess Diana makes basically no mention of the fact that she was a talented actress with a successful career.)
I guess what I’m basically saying here is that if you see this show as trying to start a meaningful dialogue about suicide, it feels a bit like the dialogue it’s trying to start comes from about 1983. And this isn’t really me bashing the series. Well, okay, maybe it’s me bashing the series a bit. But mostly it’s me trying to, in more or less good faith, do what the series purports to be doing which is to have a conversation about suicide and our attitudes to it. The picture gets even more interesting if you move on from gender and, for example, put age into the equation. I’m mostly going by UK statistics here because they’re easier for me to get hold of than US statistics but, in my country at least, not only are men much more likely to kill themselves than women, but adults are significantly more likely to kill themselves than teenagers. Where I come from, people between the ages of 10 and 29 are the age group with the lowest suicide risk while the most at risk are males between 49 and 59. Not only that but since (again, from various bits of data I’ve been doing research on recently) one of the most common precipitating factors in suicide is unemployment or financial difficulty it is, I think, interesting to realise that the person in 13 Reasons Why who is most statistically at risk of suicide is probably Hannah’s dad.
I should probably add that I’m really not trying to be all “what about the menz” here. I absolutely don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling the story of a girl who kills herself. But I do think there is something worrying (for both men and women) about our tendency to automatically cast those kinds of vulnerable roles as female.
I know I’ve quoted a lot of statistics here and I’m conscious that I’m probably talking like more of an authority than I am (it’s a personality flaw, and one I’m aware of). I think the problem with portraying something difficult like, well suicide is that different people have very different experiences of it and what reads as identifiable to one person may be deeply implausible to another. Part of the reason I tend to go to statistics is that I think it is useful to have a relatively objective idea of what things broadly look like on average. Although (and this comes back to the macro versus micro thing again) “on average” isn’t particularly useful for an individual story.
There is obviously no right way to write about suicide. But, and this is a bit of a cliché, I feel like there are a number of wrong ways. Or, at least, there are number of ways that might be wrong, depending on what you are trying to achieve.
I think one of the things that troubles me so much about 13 Reasons Why is that I’m basically bothered by pretty much all reactions to it. Again, this comes back to the news stories about school districts taking the book out of libraries. I do feel that the way in which suicide is portrayed in 13 Reasons Why is problematically unrepresentative of what you might call the median suicide attempter. Or more precisely I feel that its unrepresentativeness is problematic if you assume that addressing the issue of teenage suicide is a significant goal of the show. Which, given that it is attached to an actual documentary about real teenage suicides, I feel it kind of is.
Again, this comes back to personal preference and personal approach. I do honestly see the value in starting a dialogue. And I do even see that the most effective way to start a dialogue might be to do something attention-grabbing, like putting together a deliberately controversial TV show that ends with a fantastically graphic suicide scene in order to encourage people to talk about something they wouldn’t otherwise talk about. And, again, that’s part of what I’m trying to engage with here.
I do personally feel that the show might have been more productive in generating debate had it presented as its central figure somebody who did not so perfectly fit our idea of what a teenage suicide looks like. Because, again, when you think of a teenage suicide you think of a pretty young girl slitting her wrists in the bath, even though (and I’m on the statistics again) cutting the wrists is actually a very rare form of suicide. (Americans, and I suspect this will come as a surprise to no-one, tend to just shoot themselves. Slightly more surprisingly, we British tend to hang ourselves). And, again, I find it hard to reconcile the desire to have an authentic conversation about a real world issue with a narrative choice that so profoundly centralises an iconic but misleading image.
When I think about the choices that the showrunners of 13 Reasons Why made with Hannah I think what I find most upsetting isn’t really anything to do with them, it’s to do with their audience, and by their audience I include me. Because I think I do have to ask myself whether I would still have watched the show if they’d changed anything.
Would I have watched it if Hannah had been a guy on the football team?
Would I have watched it if she’d been, not to put too fine a point on it, unattractive?
Would I have watched it if it had told exactly the same story about her life and her experiences but she hadn’t killed herself? If I hadn’t, on some level, known that it was all building up to a pretty young innocent lying in a bath full of blood.
I mean, maybe I would. But, honestly, I only really watched the show because everyone was talking about it. And, say what you like, but pretty dead girls do get people talking.
And, again, I’m not sure how intentional it is but that’s the social value I do find in the show’s existence (if not it’s actual content). Although what I find tricky is that because Hannah so strongly reinforces all of our cultural preconceptions about what suicides, especially teenage suicides, look like, I don’t know how much these questions will play into the discussion the show clearly seeks to engender.
The media guidelines from the WHO and the Samaritans tend to warn against presenting suicide as an effective means of communicating a message. And I can see why they say this because if you tell people that killing yourself gets you heard they’re more likely to kill themselves. But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that a more socially responsible story about a girl who experiences traumatic events, attempts suicide, develops functional coping mechanisms and ultimately survives would get a lot less attention.
Which sort of implies that we’re only interested in girls who die.
Which is sort of fucked up.
Oh look, I’m being meta again. Because this kind of a segue and I wasn’t entirely certain where I was going to put it. Throughout the show, Hannah is sort of weirdly represented by this gay Hispanic boy who I’ve been referring to throughout this piece as Tony the Magic Latino. I think I mentioned earlier on that I liked the way in which the viewer was required to infer that Tony and Hannah had a quite meaningful relationship but that because their relationship was not destructive to her it was not included in the tapes and, therefore, the viewer does not have access to it. This is really quite significantly undermined by the fact that Hannah’s relationship with Clay is also (from her perspective) non-destructive but she gives him a tape anyway, suggesting that Tony wasn’t so much a supportive presence in her life whose very absence from the narrative indicates that he meant more to Hannah than any of the people whose stories we are told explicitly as that he was, well, a magic Latino.
Basically Tony’s role is to show up, say wise shit, magically know what Hannah was thinking, validate Clay The White Knight, then disappear the moment he’s no longer needed. He gets one scene where he talks to his boyfriend and is sad, and questions his role in the whole process which, really, he should have done a long time ago. But, like Hannah herself, Tony falls into this awkward space between person and plot device, a dichotomy that becomes more problematic as Clay takes a more active role in pursuit of, well, whatever it is he’s pursuing.
Again, I should stress that I reacted quite strongly to 13 Reasons Why (though I fundamentally reject the notion that anything that provokes a strong reaction must be good –this is what the WWE says about Roman Reigns, and it’s nonsense there too). I don’t want to disrespect the responses of people who found the show powerful and affecting, but I will say that it did not strongly affect me because it confronted me with difficult truths I found hard to bear. It strongly affected me because it made a number of narrative choices that I perceived to be, at best, crass and, at worst, dangerous.
By the end of the show I really, really did feel like it was all about Clay. And that feeling made me very, very uncomfortable. It seems like everything in the series is distorting itself to make Clay’s failure to bone Hannah the ultimate tragedy and his role in her life the most significant. This is really problematic when Hannah’s entire narrative arc is that she feels that everything has either been taken away from her or is unobtainable, and Tony’s entire role is to be the person that Hannah trusted so much that she knew without a doubt, despite being in the kind of mental state where you are doubting everything, that he would carry through on her desire to have the tapes distributed in the way she wanted them to be distributed.
And, actually, in retrospect the fact you barely see Tony and Hannah interact isn’t subtle, it’s craven. It means that they never have to show Hannah interacting with the one person whose existence contradicts the entire premise of the show’s narrative. And, obviously, it is important to recognise that suicidal people do not always characterise their lives as other people would characterise them. But in Tony’s place I would be as mad as hell. Not because Hannah chose to die but because she seems to have completely cut him out of the story of her life. The story, let’s be clear, that she was relying on him to tell. She trusted him enough to give him the tapes to distribute after she killed herself, but not enough to tell him she was considering killing herself. And, yes, there’s that bit where he says that he saw her come to the house on the day she dropped the tapes off but didn’t go outside because he didn’t want to deal with her drama that day and he feels bad. But, again, that isn’t an explanation or a justification. It’s just the show lamp-shading its flaws. And it makes it abundantly clear that neither Tony or Hannah are real people, they’re just entities that exist to serve this (and I’m sorry I’m going to be using extreme language here) vulgar story about what an awesome dude Clay is.
On which subject…
For possibly the last time I’m going to re-iterate that I know people who felt profoundly moved by 13 Reasons Why. I know people who strongly feel that it is Hannah’s story that Hannah told about Hannah’s life in Hannah’s voice. I know people who strongly and specifically believe that Hannah is the protagonist of the show. And I in no way want to diminish the value those people find in the series because these are complex issues and we all work through them in our own way.
That is very much not how I read it. And, weirdly, this is one of those difficult “no right way, many wrong ways” things because both readings are problematic for different reasons. If you do read 13 Reasons Why as Hannah’s authentic story told in Hannah’s voice and in no way subverted to feed the ego of a skinny nerdboy then that, unfortunately, really does glamorise suicide in exactly the way that some organisations are criticising it for. The show makes it abundantly clear that there is no other way Hannah’s story could have been told except for her to make some tapes, dump them on Tony’s porch and then slit her wrists in the bath. And, again, I don’t think stopping people watching a TV show is an effective means of suicide prevention but I do think that, all else being equal, somebody who feels lost and alone and isolated and unable to make themselves heard is more likely to attempt suicide if they have watched and identified with a show in which somebody who feels lost and alone and isolated and unable to make themselves heard finally achieves the voice they have been denied by ending their life. And that is a real, if statistically small, problem.
Again, let me just make that clear: by statistically small, what I mean to say is that I would be far, far more concerned about the suicide risk posed by, for example, attending a school where The Worst Counsellor In The World was actually a counsellor than about the suicide risk posed by identifying with Hannah Baker. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the risk is there.
And looking at it from the other perspective, if you don’t think that 13 Reasons Why meaningfully tells Hannah’s story it could be seen as the final tragedy, as not only did everyone in her life fail her utterly but, at the final hurdle, somehow her dying message got garbled and appropriated by this narcissistic beta male cock into a parable how men who like Star Wars are better than men who like football.
And there are some elements of the text that almost support the “final tragedy” reading. Throughout the series, you’ll get these moments where Hannah is super despairing and then she’ll suddenly express an optimistic thought and you’ll see her looking at Clay—she explicitly refers to him as a ray of light at one point—and I would love to think that this is unreliable narration. That what’s happening here is Clay literally imagining that when Hannah talks about things that make her feel better she’s talking about him. Because, after all, it isn’t very clear in the TV show what we’re actually seeing.
This has been a problem with epistolary fiction since it’s existed and it’s even worse in a visual medium. When there’s actors on screen doing acting, are we supposed to interpret that as Hannah verbally describing those scenes? Are we supposed to interpret it as Clay imagining those scenes? Obviously sometimes Clay is literally remembering them. And sometimes we actually hear Hannah’s narration. But there’s never a consistent point of view. There’s never any real indication of whether we’re seeing what really happened, or what Hannah said happened, or what Clay thinks Hannah said happened, or what Clay wants to think Hannah said happened. And it gets especially confusing because there are sometimes (but very rarely) deliberate inconsistencies, like when Hannah is describing her encounter in the park with Justin The Jock, or when Hannah thinks Zack The Other Jock threw away her note when he really didn’t, or when Clay has wild flights of fancy about staying behind with Hannah at the party instead of respecting her explicitly stated wishes. And spelling it all out like this it seems complicated and multi-layered but …I just don’t think it is.
One of my many personality flaws is that I think too much in dichotomies and I have tendency to say things like “well, it’s got to be either x or y and they’re both shit”. Within this framework, 13RW is either a genuinely harmful but quite straightforward story about a girl who achieves by killing herself what she can’t achieve while alive or an unbelievably subtle and sophisticated work of over-lapping narratives and embedded uncertainties that leads us to an ironic and tragic conclusion in which Hannah’s life is finally defined for her after her death by a douchebag who had a crush on her.
The thing is, both of these are probably wrong. Because I’m afraid the showrunners are, as the CEO of Coka-Cola said about the whole new coke fiasco, “not that dumb and not that smart.” Although I have repeatedly used words like crass and vulgar (which to an Englishman are the ultimate insults) to describe the series I don’t think the people behind it are quite crass or vulgar enough to uncomplicatedly make a show which so explicitly advocates suicide as means to achieve your goals. On the other hand, I also don’t believe that they have the delicacy of touch and self-awareness required to write the second story in which Hannah’s erasure is finally completed by the very boy who thinks he loves and could have saved her. I mean this is, after all, a show where we watch a date rape from a cupboard. A show where, while they clearly acknowledge that it is wrong for The Worst Counsellor In The World to ask Hannah if she said no in response to her disclosing that she had been raped, they also make really certain to include at least one shot of the girl explicitly saying no in both their rape scenes, so that you know it was definitely a rape scene.
Unfortunately I think Occam’s razor suggests that they’re telling the story it seems like they’re telling. That Hannah Baker’s death is ultimately a framing device for a story that isn’t really about suicide as much as it’s about the challenges facing girls in American high schools. And, even more unfortunately, the show seems to have uncritically accepted the idea that the primary challenge facing girls in American high schools is they are encouraged to date the wrong sorts of boys. Hannah establishes this herself in her narration on the first tape where she suggests that her downfall was a terrible taste in men and reinforces it in Clay’s episode when she tells him, half weeping, how sorry she was that her life experiences had ruined her for him. And it is finally re-affirmed by her friend, Kat, who places the blame squarely at the foot of jock culture.
And, to be fair, you can make a reasonable case that what Kat’s summary at the end is saying is that if you create a culture in which a particular class of person can do whatever they want to whoever they want that is going to lead to some fucked up places. But, in the context of the skeevy valorisation of Clay, it’s hard to escape the implication that the problem with jock culture isn’t that it gives unlimited power to a small group of men but that gives unlimited power to a small group of the wrong men.
And it doesn’t help that Clay so thoroughly takes over Hannah’s story in the last half of the show. There’s a transition point actually fairly early on where he goes from listening to the tapes, and to Hannah, to actively taking revenge against, or righting the wrongs of, the other people the tapes are about. And what bothers me about this is that nothing in the show remotely indicates that it might not be his place to do that. And so suddenly the story stops being about Hannah’s choice to end her life and starts being about Clay’s response to Hannah’s choice to end her life. Which becomes utterly validated when Clay finally listens to tape 11 and learns that it was all about him anyway.
And it is completely fine to write a story about a teenage boy who is sad because the girl he fancied committed suicide. Although, while I say “it’s completely fine” there is also a level of skeeviness to that fantasy because, well. Again I’m talking very much as someone who knows what it was like to be a nerdy, insecure teenager and has spent most of his life surrounded by other people who were once nerdy, insecure teenagers, there is something weirdly appealing about the narrative arc of “I liked this girl and she died and now I’m telling her story.” Mainly because you don’t have to deal with the reality of the girl. It’s basically the JM Barrie’s brother of girlfriends. You’re never going to have a better relationship than the one you have with the girl who killed herself after you kissed once. She’s never going to get pissed off at the way you leave your toenail clippings in the living room. She’s never going to fart in bed. She’s never going to call you on your bullshit. Because she’s, y’know, a corpse.
It really does go back to Ophelia.
What seems to me to be the final insult in 13 Reasons Why ties into one of my really petty niggling problems with the structure of the framing device and its method of delivery. Again, I’m okay with suspending my disbelief and I didn’t entirely mind that Hannah picked exactly thirteen recordings in which to tell her story because, yes, it’s a cheap sensationalist number to use but then sometimes teenagers are cheap and sensationalist. But it did bug me that she chose to make an odd number of recordings given that she’d also chosen to make them on magnetic cassette tape, a famously double-sided medium. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works but the moment I read about the premise of the show, literally my first question was “why the fuck would you leave one side blank.”
Of course, in the final episode we discover the answer. She had to leave the B-side of the seventh tape blank so that Clay The White Knight could use the blank side of that cassette tape to record Bryce The Rapist ambiguously confessing to raping Hannah.
The boy who she sort of worked with, who had crush on her that he never had the guts to act on, who she basically kissed once at a party literally got to write the final chapter of her story. And he got to do this by literally fighting another man for her virtue. I honestly do not think I could sit down and invent a more regressive ending for that narrative. I appreciate that this is loaded language but the way in which Clay The White Knight takes the tape that was Hannah’s last created thing in her life and forces Bryce The Rapist’s confession onto it as a coda, actually writing the number 14 on the tape in the same shade of nail varnish that Hannah used for her tapes is, well, super rapey.
At the Roman Baths in Bath there are some ruins dating back at least two thousand years to the time of the Roman occupation and on top of those ruins there are statues of famous figures from Roman history. Those statues go back about 150 years because the Victorians put them in. And I’ve always felt that those statutes typified the attitude of the Victorian imperialist. You see something ancient and wonderful and inaccessible and your first thought is to change it to make more like you think it’s supposed to be. Bryce’s confession on the end of Hannah’s seventh tape is the statue in the Roman Baths. It’s the hand of the empire reaching out and saying what you left behind isn’t good enough and I’m going to fix it.
Again, if I thought it was deliberate it would be haunting. But I don’t. So it just pisses me off.
D’you see the way I said there were going to be thirteen of these but now there’s fourteen to reflect the way Clay added a fourteenth side to Hannah’s tapes.
So, yeah, the problem with stuff that’s really controversial is that you basically can’t have any kind of opinion of it without validating its existence, even if you think that existence shouldn’t really be validated. Nor can you really do it without de-legitimising or erasing people who find value in the controversial thing that you don’t personally find.
I will say that I, personally, don’t think you should watch 13 Reasons Why. I don’t think it should be banned. I don’t think we need to be particularly worried about vulnerable schoolchildren watching it on Netflix. I think we need to be worried about vulnerable schoolchildren getting systematically bullied for five years or sexually assaulted by their classmates. And, y’know, we need to worry about that whether they kill themselves or not. I will say that there are ways of watching and engaging with the show that are probably less horrible than the way I watched and engaged with it. I just think if you’ve given even ten seconds thought to suicide as an issue you already have had every thought that this show could provoke in you.
If you’re not as explicitly triggered by the Nice Guy versus Rapist stuff as I am it’s actually pretty decent, watchable TV. And, in a way, that’s the most damning thing I can say about a show that’s supposed to be dealing with a subject that should be borderline unthinkable to engage with.