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13 reasons why: helpful or harmful?

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, 13 Reasons Why is a new teen drama series on Netflix that focuses on the life of high school student Hannah Baker and what led her to take her own life. In each episode, the audience hears one of 13 tapes she recorded in the days leading up to her death, which narrate the different events that catalyzed her decision to commit suicide.

The show has gained much attention and controversy, with two main arguments being touted: some applaud the show for its bravery in discussing the often hush-hush topics of suicide and rape, while others liken it to a harmful “how to” tutorial that risks encouraging young ones to take their own lives.

Today, I decided to give my take on the show as a therapist-in-training who commonly works with young adults and teens. Is 13 Reasons Why doing more harm than good? And are there places where it missed the mark? 

Helpful Themes Embedded in the Show (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

  1. Male entitlement over women’s bodies. 

  • To my male readers: I am not saying that all of you are entitled a-holes who take advantage of women; let’s be clear on that. What I am saying, though, is that if you have not lived your life as a woman, you’re likely unaware of how often this happens. Things in the show like man-made lists about women’s assets, inappropriate ass-grabbing and groping, and calling women hurtful names that are completely unwarranted happens all the time. This is just a fact. Again, my male readers, you may not have partaken in these actions and you can’t control the skin you’re in, but it’s important for us all to realize how often these harmful acts happen.

  • 13 Reasons Why also does a great job of touching upon the ludicrous idea many cisgender males have about women “owing” them something intimately or sexually. Bryce’s character represents this well, often making statements along the lines of, “Because she was in my hot tub, she owed me sex.” In the real world, men often think buying a woman a drink or dinner entitles them to getting her number, having sex with her, etc. Just the other day, a masseuse told me that their company has to kick men out because they expect the female massage therapists to “give them a little extra.” This needs to stop. 

    • Where do we go from here? For all of my male readers, all I ask is that you become aware of the gender inequalities that exist in society and the power you have over women (even if its unintentional and unknown to you). This stems from years of history and is a whole other can of worms, but we need to acknowledge it anyway. Become very explicit about what is okay and not okay when you are with a woman (or man) and make consent as explicit as possible. And please for the love of God realize that you are not owed anything. No one is ever, and that’s something we all need to understand regardless of our gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. 

2. Our dislike for talking about “touchy subjects.” 

  • In our Western, we-always-need-to-be-happy society, many people feel as though if they tell others they’re going through a hard time, they’ll be a burden to them, appear weak, or scare the crap out of them. This needs to change or we risk continuing to go through hardships alone during a time where we need connection the most.

    • Where do we go from here? I’d encourage those of you going through a difficult time to tell someone about it—someone who you wholeheartedly trust and know they won’t judge you. If you talk to them, they’ll feel more comfortable talking to you, and suddenly we’re doing something we don’t do enough of: talking

3. The female “blame game.” 

  • When Hannah was raped by Bryce, he points out that she was in her bra and underwear so she was “asking for it.” When the same happens to Jessica, it’s because she drank too much and can’t control her liquor. Women are expected to be both sexual and pure, which truly sets them up for failure no matter how you slice it. I’ve had young, female clients explain this very struggle: they wear makeup to school and get called a slut, so they take it off and they get called ugly. Instead of focusing on these harmful interactions, we tend to focus on what women are doing to attract them, which is extremely problematic.

    • Where do we go from here? We mustn’t ask, “What did she do to deserve that?” but rather, “Why did those people think it was okay to do that in the first place?” This is HUGE, in my opinion.

Where 13 Reasons Why Misses the Mark 

  1. Blaming people for suicide.

  • I have a problem with the fact that this entire show is dedicated to Hannah blaming others for her suicide. To say “you were responsible for killing me” to a group of young teens is extremely harmful and a horrible weight for them to bear. We mustn’t forget that there are many reasons why someone commits suicide, including biochemical components that could require medication. Plus, this narrative glosses over the positive elements of Hannah’s life, such as her hardworking parents who were working tirelessly to support her and her future or the access she had to a mental health counsellor (but more on that later).

2. Privileging one story only.

  • If there’s one thing you quickly learn as a therapist, it’s that there are often two sides to every story. It makes sense that Hannah is the focus of the series given that she’s the protagonist, but it also cuts off compassion for characters that could have been deserving of it, such as the Justin—a 17-year-old living with a drug-addicted mother and her boyfriends who physically and emotionally abuse him. I mean, no wonder this kid comes to school tired, cranky, and unable to be nice to people 24/7. I get that he shouldn’t have taken it out on Hannah, but let’s show some compassion for multiple stories here.

3. Picking Bryce to be the rapist.

  • If I were the writer of this show, I would have had Justin be the one who took advantage of Jessica while she was unconscious. Why? Because there are plenty of times where individuals unfortunately feel like sex is not consensual with their significant others, yet they convince themselves everything is okay because they’re already romantically involved. As I said earlier, consent needs to be made more explicit always, regardless of one’s gender, sexual orientation, race and relationship status—and this is especially important when alcohol is involved.

4. Releasing the entire series all at once.

  • After finishing this series, I found myself in a horrible funk. I am among many people who found the show extremely triggering, which is why it would have been much smarter for the series to take a Riverdale-style approach of releasing one episode every week or two, in my opinion. This is not the type of show that is good to binge watch.

A Point That Needs to Be Made

I realize that one show cannot cover every single topic, but there was one point that was entirely missed: how race and class affect the ways in which suicide and death are handled. 

For example, in suburban ghettos filled with minorities living in poverty, death happens frequently—so frequently, in fact, that they garner practically zero attention. As such, the “shock value” of death wears off and members of said group can come to devalue themselves and feel as though “losing one of their kind” does not matter. However, when it’s a young person from a well-to-do neighbourhood, posters are put up, counsellors are met with, and countless conversations are had about the impact this had on the student body. This is extremely important and I’m in no way saying this shouldn’t be done. What I am saying, though, is that I think we need to acknowledge that this is a fortunate reality preserved for some, not all. So, while all of these students were getting pissed at their counsellor, I couldn’t help but think, “At least y’all have access to one, people.”

The Bottom Line 

I can’t say that I’d recommend the show to many people considering how triggering it was for me, but it has led to important discussions about rape, suicide, bullying, and more, which is very important. Absolutely do not binge watch this show, and if you’re afraid it could trigger you, make sure you watch it with the right person and have a safe space to talk about your feelings afterwards. I also want to add that while I’m aware that this was a heavy blog post, it’s very important to me to use this show as an opportunity to speak to these important issues, and I certainly welcome your thoughts in the comments below. 


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