13 Reasons Why (stylised as TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY) is an American television series based on the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and adapted by Brian Yorkey for Netflix.
The plot revolves around Hannah Baker, a high school student, who dies by suicide. Two weeks later, Clay Jensen, one of her closest friends, finds a package on his doorstep containing 13 audio cassettes made by Hannah explaining the 13 reasons why she killed herself, and Clay is one of them. In order to find out how he fits in, Clay must listen to the tapes.
But doing so may reveal a disturbing secret about Hannah, as well as some of his classmates, that Clay isn’t ready for. Meanwhile, his classmates featured on these tapes set out to keep their secrets hidden, by any means necessary.
This series revolves around the lead female, Hannah Baker, being bullied and humiliated into suicide. Speaking about such things on a television series as big as this one would be unthinkable. But this series captures a lot of what I think should be relevant in today’s world.
As I attempt to review this series, I will, of course, speak about bullying, suicide, the accompanying implications on mental health and the actions that we should/must/will/could be taking. Consider this a warning. Spoilers too, maybe.
Getting the technical stuff out of the way: I think the series is a little too draggy (13 episodes of 1 hour each). Storytelling is nice, a contrast between the warm times of when Hannah was alive and the cold times after her passing. Some scenes were purposely made too uncomfortable to watch which I think drives home the point of how uncomfortable we are speaking about such issues. Alright, technical talk over.
Hannah was bullied into taking her own life. The build up of false sexual claims, backstabbing, sexual assault on her, plagiarism, and more “high school nonsense”, led her to take her life by a razor blade. My first point: bullying. I would say that bullying can have a large, if not the largest, impact on one’s mental health. Especially at a time such as high school, when one is still discovering oneself and trying to establish a sense of individualism and identity. We see this in Episode 5, where the writers touched on the issue of homosexuality. It is not a new concept that people can get bullied for their sexuality (which makes no sense to me). This ostracizing of sexuality has, I think, a large impact on that identity that we are so desperately trying to find. The rejection of one’s identity, by their peers, can lead to harsh and unplanned actions – backstabbing, falsification of rumors, verbal bullying – and it is sad. It is sad that we let others dictate our identity if they don’t agree with it.
Second point: sexual assault. An iffy topic at best for me to speak about. Throughout the series, we witness (yes, witness) various characters being sexually assaulted, or have had rumours about sexual encounters made about them. Although this had no direct impact on sexuality or gender identification in the series, I can see how this can ruin one’s self-image. Being labelled a slut or being easy would, I think, have a large impact on how we see ourselves. What makes it worse is, it could be false. The whole victim-shaming attitude is also evident in the show. “She wanted me, I didn’t force myself on her.” Just because we get something (sometimes false) pinned on us, doesn’t mean it is our fault. But the type of bullying witnessed in the series can make it seem like it. The butterfly effect – where if a butterfly flaps its wings at the right place at the right time, it can cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet – of over-analysing such a phrase can lead one to a very poor self-image, as if the light has been switched off and the life leaves someone. In this case, Hannah.
Third point: ‘a lot of you cared, but no one cared enough.’ Perhaps the largest point. This, and taking responsibility. The main character we follow in the series, Clay, did not bully Hannah or make everyone think something that was not true. Instead, his reason was not caring enough. He often saw Hannah being bullied but was too anxious to speak up about it. Perhaps he had doubts about himself, and it is not his fault too.
I’ve never thought Hannah’s suicide was one party’s fault. It’s because she didn’t have enough courage to speak up about bullying and sexual assault. It’s because Clay was too anxious to speak up. It’s because the bullies did not want to take responsibility for what they did. It’s because the bullies thought that Hannah was delusional and exaggerating the effects of their actions. It’s because no one wants to be wrong. It’s because no one wants to face facts. That was the attitude I took as soon I started the series, always doubting the dialogue on whether Hannah was lying or someone denied claims of sexual assault. There is always another reason why, and everyone has them.
One of the points that was most impactful to me was the lack of proactive action against suicide. It was only after Hannah’s death where student started shedding (albeit some were crocodile) tears, they started having tributes, the school started speaking to students and parents and asking about their well-being. I believe this is the most prevalent trait of mental health (and illness) in our world. We don’t want to talk about issues like depression and suicide because they are, well, depressing. We often wait until it is too late, after someone has already left, to take action. Often this doesn’t last for long too. There is a certain courage in asking people, truthfully, how they have been doing and there is a different kind of courage in owning up to being lost, depressed or lacking vitality. Not everyone has this. But I think if we all trusted everyone a little more, paid just a little bit more attention, we can help someone in need. While we might not prevent someone taking their own life, I think being the one who did too little can also be quite impactful.
“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”
― Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why