Writers weigh in on ’13 Reasons Why’ and the glamorization of suicide

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By Gianluca Russo
Campus News

Not nearly enough television shows nowadays are brave, or prepared, enough to discuss real and raw topics such as depression, anxiety, rape and suicide. While some programs have begun to take steps in the right direction when it comes to content that affects and impacts today’s youth, most end up depicting these serious topics in unrealistic ways, downplaying how serious bullying truly is.

If you have a Netflix account, you’ve probably binge watched the new series “13 Reasons Why” just like me and the rest of the country. Based on a novel of the same name by Jay Asher, “13 Reasons Why” tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who has committed suicide before the start of the show, and thirteen cassette cases she has left behind, each pointing a finger at someone who led her to take her own life.

I wanted to like “13 Reasons Why.” Actually, I wanted to love it. I couldn’t have been more excited to watch a show that discussed so many topics that affected me directly. Granted, I didn’t hate the show; in fact, I still haven’t made up my mind about it. While there were many standout moments, there were often many times when it was too unbearable to watch. With a quick Google search, you may easily find hundreds of articles outlining what “13 Reasons Why” did wrong and what it did right. To save you time, and to try to make up my own thoughts on the series, I went ahead and talked with some writers who have spoken out about the show, both positively and negatively.

Alexa Curtis, Rolling Stone:
“As a teen blogger watching the show, I immediately thought ’13 Reasons Why’ glamorized teen suicide. After doing some research and talking to some teens, I realized that the show doesn’t properly portray suicide. When someone commits suicide, their memory lives, but their voice doesn’t. I’m concerned teens will think that by committing suicide, they will still (in a sense) be ‘living’ when that’s not the case.”

Follow Curtis on Twitter @Alexa_Curtis and read her piece for Rolling Stone here.

Chantal Da Silva, The Independent:
“I can understand why critics have accused ’13 Reasons Why’ of glamorizing suicide. It sets itself apart from other portrayals of suicide in the media by telling a story that seems to justify the act, without making any attempt to highlight the consequences of it.

“It’s easy to see how this can be dangerous – especially by showing that extremely graphic scene where Hannah, the protagonist, takes her own life. It would be easy to argue that the show is essentially laying out a road map for those contemplating suicide.

“That said, I think the controversy around ’13 Reasons Why’ itself highlights an important issue in our society: its inability to adequately and openly talk about mental health issues and yes, suicide. According to the World Health Organization, as many as 800,000 people die by suicide each year. We cannot erase the reality of that number by refusing to include it in our television scripts, novels and other portrayals of everyday life. I think the question asking ourselves about ’13 Reasons Why’ is whether it’s harmful because suicide is too dangerous a topic to touch in media representations – or because [we] simply have not been willing to talk about it enough.”

Follow Da Silva on Twitter @ChantalADaSilva and read her piece for The Independent here.

Stacey Leasca, Good Magazine:
“I felt compelled to write about the show because I found it visually stunning and the writing superb. However, as a former middle and high school educator, and current adjunct professor, I also found the glamorization of suicide and mental illness disturbing.

“All too often in schools around America, teachers, counselors, and administrators are overworked and underpaid. They can barely keep track of the day’s attendance, let alone the mental well-being of sometimes hundreds of students a day. That’s [why] I think this show is a great reminder of warning signs you’re taught to look out for; a good trigger for administrators to talk about mental illness and care for students, as well as an excellent resource for parents to get even a hyper-stylized view of what teenagers in America are faced with.

“As an, albeit older, millennial, I cannot fathom internet bullying or the presence of social media pervading my every day in the way teens do today, and this show provided me with that.

“But all that said, parents and teachers need to guide people on how to consume this show as it shows suicide in an alternate reality. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. There are no tapes, no Netflix show, and zero glory. On the flip side, for young people, this show is an excellent reminder to have strong relationships with adults (teachers, parents, older friends, your after school boss, coaches, whatever) that you feel comfortable having constant communication with so they can help you on your life’s journey.”

Follow Leasca on Twitter @SLeasca and read her piece for Good Magazine here.

John Paul Brammer, Teen Vogue:
“I have my qualms with the show’s handling of mental illness and suicide. There are times where I feel the show betrays its good intentions in favor of spectacle, which is to be expected from mainstream entertainment, but can be dangerous considering the target demographic of teenagers and the very serious subject matter of self-harm and suicide. However, I find a lot to commend in the series as well. The cast is very diverse, and its characters of color and LGBTQ characters are handled well and fleshed out in ways I really enjoyed. Tony, who at first I thought might end up as a mule for Hannah’s wishes, ended up being one of my favorites and a good representation for other gay Latinxs in my opinion. There’s a lot to criticize, and a lot to like as well, but I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for finding it too flawed to watch.”

Follow Brammer on Twitter @JPBrammer and read his piece for Teen Vogue here.

Serena Smith, The Tab:
“I really wanted to like ’13 Reasons Why,’ but I thought the mental health narrative was as pushed under the rug as ever. Hannah Baker isn’t a real person – it’s a show at the end of the day – and the depiction and portrayal of mental illness fell far short of my expectations.”

Follow Smith on Twitter @serenasaysrelax and read her piece for The Tab here.

Whitney Friedlander, Paste Magazine:
“Like the audience to which they cater, teen dramas have a history of being ignored or ridiculed by the press or the voting members of the TV Academy. Few examples do break through — Claire Danes got a nomination for ‘My So-Called Life’ for example — but mostly people forget what teen (shows) can teach us about the problems right in front of us. ’13 Reasons’ is not perfect, but it has teachable lessons about signs of depression, bullying and even sexual assault.”

Follow Friedlander on Twitter @loislane79 and read her piece for Paste Magazine here.

Erik Kain, Forbes:
“Watch ’13 Reasons Why.’ There will be many things you love about it, and a few that you will probably hate. That’s okay. Not every show can be as great as Stranger Things. For all its flaws, ’13 Reasons Why’ is a lovingly produced, well-written and beautifully acted teen drama for all ages. Whether it always handles its subject matter perfectly will remain a point of contention for everyone, but it’s a worthy effort.”

Follow Kain on Twitter @ErikKain and read his full piece for Forbes here.

In all, the controversy and debate behind whether or not “13 Reasons Why” glamorizes suicide has made it the most tweeted about show of 2017. While there may be many downsides to the series, I am personally thankful that it is starting conversations about these serious topics and showing teens, and adults, that thoughts and actions may have a much larger impact on someone else than they may believe.

Gianluca Russo is a New York based freelance writer whose words have appeared in the Albany Times Union, 518Life Magazine, BroadwayWorld and more. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @G_Russo1.