Film makers need to rethink the way they shape shows that deal with sensitive content
One thing is certain about Netflix’s teen drama 13 Reasons Why: it’s stirred up a lot of controversy. Let’s just say the reviews have been mixed. There was a huge plot twist, change in tone, and a sudden introduction of a new character. The show has basically been turned into your typical teen murder mystery. It has moved far from the original premise which was based on Jay Asher’s 2007 debut model. The episodes followed seventeen-year-old Clay Jensen, who receives a box of cassette tapes from his friend Hannah Baker. The tapes contain Hannah’s recorded confessions that list the thirteen reasons why she chose to end her own life.
To be fair it is a highly popular show, but I have to wonder whether the portrayal and dramatization of certain content might be unintentionally romanticizing the dark reality of self harm. With sensitive topics like sexual abuse, violence, self harm, and mental illness, it becomes crucial to ask ourselves whether this show might have a destructive impact on the wellbeing of some adolescent viewers. Despite the relatively favourable reviews for the first and second season, the third season was panned.
In case you’re wondering, I only made it about part way through. But can you blame me? The show boldly takes on highly sensitive and important topics, and uses them to capitalize on their dramatic opportunities instead of contributing to positive change. It’s hard to deny the negative impact that this has had on some viewers, and we only need to go back to the first season to understand why. Beginning a show with a revenge narrative implies that suicide is a means to get back at the people who hurt you. Not exactly the greatest message to be imprinted in young minds.
Mental illness is becoming more prevalent in youth than ever before. I think we take for granted the content we view daily, and the effect it has on our psyche and overall attitude to life. I remember when I was thirteen and I was looking in the dark corners of Tumblr. Maybe some of you remember the sad, grungy, depression blogs that were super popular then. At that time, I didn’t have the awareness to make a connection between my mood and the content of those blogs. Later on I realized that it was really only creating a space to perpetuate a rumination of anxiety and self hate. Barely anyone on there encouraged us to talk to our parents, teachers, and friends, or assured us we wouldn’t be considered “weak” if we asked for help.
13 Reasons Why is a like a videographic version of those blogs, except it’s even more accessible since Netflix is an inconceivably massive form of media. While Netflix has taken steps to prevent some viewers from watching, we all know that censorship is more of an ideal than a reality. Due to the repercussions of Hannah’s powerfully glamorized suicide scene, Netflix decided to take it down two years after it was aired. I think this was a smart move, but to be honest the damage had already been done.
I don’t think 13 Reasons Why had any ill intentions. Their goal, in part, was to raise awareness about issues that a staggering number of adolescents face. But after three seasons (and another on the way), I can barely come up with more than two reasons why this show keeps going, let alone thirteen. There has been little attempt to improve on the accurate representation of mental illness, and results would suggest that the show is negatively impacting viewers.
After 13 Reasons Why came out in 2017, there were 900,000-1,500,000 more suicide and self harm related searches on Google. While it’s difficult to directly connect which searches were linked with particular cases of self harm and suicide, it is still disturbing that more people are thinking about hurting themselves, rather than searching for help. Among the most disturbing cases are the “copycat suicides.” In June of 2018, a 23-year-old Peruvian man, Franco Alonso Lazo Medrano, took his life, and left tapes for the people who he said drove him to his death. It is reported that “it is not clear if Medrano was inspired by the television show,” but given the specificity of the case it seems very likely. There was also a mother in Florida, whose son took his own life just days after watching the show on a teacher’s recommendation. He too created a list of reasons why he wanted to end his life, strikingly similar to Hannah’s justifications. In response, the National Association of School Psychologists said in a statement: “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series.”
Why not create a show about someone who is struggling, who looks for help and eventually receives it? A story of survival, about a person who learned to live with their mental illness, and goes on to live a messy but beautiful life anyway? Do we need to be constantly bombarded by high stakes drama for entertainment? Perhaps a story like that might not be as dramatic as 13 Reasons Why, but after seeing the unsettling effects that this show has had, I sure would watch it.