I heard a lot about 13 Reasons Why before I actually sat down to watch it, both positive and negative. I read the book when it was published in 2007, and I remember liking it and feeling impacted by it. Ten years later, though, I couldn’t remember enough of the details to decide whether the story glorified suicide or not. Now that I’ve binged all thirteen episodes, I feel sure that, despite those few people who will misunderstand its message, this show is incredibly necessary.
13 Reasons Why is the story of a young woman who commits suicide after years of objectification, bullying, and rape. She leaves behind cassette tapes that are passed among thirteen people who she blames for her action. Sensationalistic? A little. But the series refuses to take a simplistic viewpoint, allowing characters to argue about whether or not it was their responsibility to help Hannah Baker. Some think she wouldn’t have killed herself if they could have done more, and others believe it was simply her bad decision.
What complicates matters is that we get to see below the surface of every person that Hannah blames for her suicide. The series does a phenomenal job of finding the deeper motivations for each character. With one possible exception, we see that the bullies were also bullied, that home lives encouraged or tolerated violent behavior, that each teenager is doing their best to survive the hell that is high school in the technological age. With this perspective, this Netflix series reveals the true villain of the story: not Hannah or the people she blames, but the culture in which she lives.
In the end, there’s no use arguing about whether she should have been stronger or if her friends and family should have done something more to reach her. What’s worth talking about is the cruel hierarchy of high school and how violence, assault, and looking the other way create a climate that some young women and men find impossible to endure.
This is not an easy show to watch, which, according to the “Beyond the Reasons” episode by showrunners at the end of the series, was very much intentional. Viewers are asked to endure scenes of rape and suicide, scenes that are not gratuitous but are also almost unbearable to watch. But by doing so, issues that are normally glossed over demand our attention, and hopefully, will inspire preventative actions so that similar scenes will never occur again.