Giselle Bertino-Clarke: Troubled teens need our help, not shows which glorify suicide

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A still from Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why,” says the voice on the cassette.

Many of you may recognise these haunting lines from the latest Netflix mini-series sensation, 13 Reasons Why, which has been met with both equal acclaim and criticism, particularly on its approach to bullying, rape culture and suicide. For the “uninitiated”, 13 Reasons Why follows the story of Hannah Baker, a 17 year old girl who takes her own life after experiencing severe bullying. She leaves behind 13 tapes, each one addressed to a particular person who she blames for driving her to that choice. A gripping story, excellent acting and a “hip” soundtrack, all make it appealing to its target audience – teenagers.

To its merit, the show brings to light the ugliness of the hook-up culture and the vicious bullying that many teenagers endure at school. 13 Reasons Why warns us that because we can never truly know what goes on in another’s life, we must take care to treat others well, as our actions have the power to impact lives – for better or for worse. It also did well to discuss the concept of consent and dispel the myth, “If you didn’t explicitly say ‘no’, then it’s not rape.” To say the least, this latest hit is thought provoking and has certainly opened up the channels for dialogue on how we should address many of these sensitive issues.

That aside, 13 Reasons Why enters dangerous territory in its attempts to tackle suicide. Countless psychologists and health professionals have slammed the show, arguing that it fails to draw the link between mental health and suicide, that it violates important safety guidelines on how to present suicide in media, and most alarmingly, that the graphic scene where Hannah takes her own life serves as a “how-to manual” for suicide. They warned that the show, which also features two explicit rape scenes, can also be “triggering” to many who have suicidal tendencies or who have experienced sexual violence. Moreover, the concepts of “who should take the blame”, and that most of the adults (including the counsellor) were depicted as either incompetent or out of touch with the youth, are both potentially harmful.

However, the real trouble with 13 Reasons Why, is its very premise. Ultimately, it’s a story centred around a broken teenage girl who seeks her own justice, through her suicide and the tapes she makes. Hannah’s rape and mistreatment are used to justify her actions after she heartbreakingly resolves: “I decided that no one would ever hurt me again.” Her tapes torment all those that listen to them, becoming her source of empowerment and control over those that have hurt her.

Interestingly, this type of narrative is quite popular. Think films like The Accused (1988), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Kill Bill (2003); all plotlines that focus on women who have suffered through a traumatic event (in all these cases, rape) and embark on a journey of revenge.

Why are we so fascinated with stories that portray damaged women in such a manner? Do we risk glamorising these types of women, or stereotyping them as cold and emotionless? In Hannah’s case, a significant part of the audience found her “selfish”, whilst others sympathised with her plight. Both extremes can be detrimental to a fruitful discussion on suicide.

The explicitness of the show to raise public awareness is also questionable. Why is it necessary that we watch graphic, violent scenes to understand the horrors of suicide, abuse and rape? Are we so devoid of feeling empathy that we must watch it on our screens to elicit such emotions? The concern with explicit scenes depicting rape or suicide is that it can often sanitise the act and desensitise the audience. One only needs to look at the portrayal of violence throughout the history of film as evidence of this.

Do we watch these scenes because a tiny part of us is curious to know what abuse looks like? Furthermore, we are clearly comfortable enough to view these issues behind the safety of a screen, but where are we in reality when it counts? Do we stand up to bullies, or do we look the other way to avoid involvement? These questions may help us to assess whether viewing explicit scenes can actually have a positive impact.

But 13 Reasons Why is not just about raising awareness on bullying, rape and suicide. Everything – from its premise to Hannah’s rape and death – are all carefully constructed plot devices, used to increase suspense, viewership and make a profit. Hannah’s suicide becomes the catalyst for a 13 episode TV show, with another season to come, and the awful things that happen to her become shock-value. To put it simply, her downfall has become our entertainment.

To prove a point, take a look at Twitter. Under the #13reasonswhy hashtag, you can find thousands of tweets which say things like “Just finished binge watching #13reasonswhy”, “#13reasonswhy is so addictive” or “Can’t wait for season 2. What else can I watch next?” Therefore, do we really take these issues to heart and fight for change? Or once all the hype has died down, do we just move on to the next TV binge? Moreover, why do these issues become a hot topic of discussion only after these films and shows air? After Million Dollar Baby (2004) came out, euthanasia became a massive point of conversation. But we’ve since moved on to the next trending issue. It is forgotten just as quickly as it was hyped up.

Whilst 13 Reasons Why asks important questions, it offers little solutions. Especially since this is a show geared towards teenagers, there needs to be more than just simply a message of: “Suicide is never an option.” If we want to truly inspire change, we must offer real, tangible messages of hope.

Perhaps we need to come out from behind our screens and engage in real conversations with real victims. For all its problems, we must remember that this show is only a mere reflection of what society is grappling with. Why do we derive so much entertainment from these types of narratives? What does our obsession with 13 Reasons Why say about us as a society? And, most importantly, where are we headed? Rather, what we should be doing is asking ourselves 13 questions why.