SERIES TACKLES HEAVY TOPICS, RECEIVES CRITICISM AND PRAISE UPON RELEASE
Isabel Marotta | Staff Writer
Asia Porter | Online Editor
“Welcome to your tape.”
These four words recur throughout the new Netflix Original Series “13 Reasons Why” and have since become viral. Airing on March 31, the show has become a source of controversy among parents, students and schools. Adapted from Jay Asher’s novel of the same name, the series centers around sophomore Hannah Baker. After dealing with bullying and depression, Hannah commits suicide to escape from the hardship. She leaves behind 13 tapes addressed to the classmates to whom she attributes her death. The series addresses sensitive topics, including suicide, rape, and mental illness. While some viewers are grateful for the honesty, others find it alarming, making the blockbuster series contentious for the following 13 reasons.
Dr. Madelyn Gould of the New York State Psychiatric Institute started a study on copycat suicide, the idea that detailed reportings of suicides can result in individuals taking their own lives in the exact manner depicted on TV. Gould examined suicide “clusters” — groups of individuals (ages 13 to 20) who committed suicide in the same town within three months of each other.
She found that in cluster suicides, the original suicide was reported in more detail beforehand, supporting the copycat suicide phenomenon.
After noticing the traffic the show was getting, Mason City Schools notified families, warning parents of its possible dangers. Within the email, Public Information Officer Tracy Carson said the show could provoke students to harm themselves.
“The overriding concern is that it could be triggering for those who are already struggling, as well as for those who are supporting their friend(s),” Carson said. “According to some behavioral health experts, this series could do more harm than good – especially for youth who may be isolated, struggling, or vulnerable to suggestive images and storylines.”
The show portrays two rape scenes and a suicide, all of which are graphic, resulting in criticism.
Actress Alisha Boe plays Jessica Davis and, within the show, her character is raped by Bryce Walker. Boe appeared alongside former Vice President Joe Biden and “13 Reasons Why” executive producer Joy Gorman to speak out as a part of the “It’s On Us” campaign in a push to end sexual assault. Boe addressed the controversy surrounding the graphic depictions and said the scenes were necessary to convey the reality of rape and suicide.
“It shouldn’t be censored at all,” Boe said. “If you just brush over the suicide scene, the audience will think that it was easy. If you brush over the two rape scenes then the audience will think, ‘Why are these girls freaking out so much?’ Because that’s already the stigma behind it. We really have to show how ugly it is and how much it can affect a person’s life. It’s not easy and it shouldn’t be easy to watch.”
Two of three rape incidents will go unreported, said Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). This theme is represented in “13 Reasons Why” when despite Jessica being raped and multiple characters knowing, nobody stopped it nor did they report it.
Academic advisor Anne Toohey speaks with students through her involvement in Comet Connections and said showing a group of people keeping a rape a secret on TV can be dangerous.
“Some kids will emulate,” Toohey said. “Whether it was another friend who did it or whether it was portrayed in the media, I think that’s extremely harmful.”
Holding true to its TV-MA Netflix rating, parents and school districts nationwide are deeming the show inappropriate for young viewers. A number of schools have alerted parents, some even going as far as banning discussions about the show.
Carson attached talking points to her district-wide email for parents to use to discuss the show with their children and said she was concerned with the number of students who were potentially watching the series alone.
Mental illnesses can cause an individual to have suicidal thoughts. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention outlines behavioral changes common among individuals contemplating suicide as anxiety, depression, isolation from others and irritability to name a few. Viewers of “13 Reasons Why” can watch as Hannah undergoes these changes until she decides to end her own life.
depression, isolation from others and irritability to name a few. Viewers of “13 Reasons Why” can watch as Hannah undergoes these changes until she decides to end her own life.
School psychologist Jeff Schlaeger said it is important to bring up mental illness, something he felt the show failed to do.
“If people are already watching the show for the plot and the reasons, it’s something that can be discussed in part of what they’re showing,” Schlaeger said. “To me, it’s an opportunity lost if they’re not discussing more of the mental illness side of it.”
Senior Kit Kresky, however, saw signs of depression, despite them not being outwardly mentioned.
“Depression can show itself in different ways,” Kresky said. “To her, some things were a big deal, and to a lot of people that have depression, that would be a big deal because the brain of someone with depression makes you blow different things out of proportion. It’s not her fault that she killed herself because of those reasons. It’s because of the depression.”
Faced with the recent tragedy of Hannah’s death, the San Luis community on the show began having discussions about suicide and student’s mental health in the midst of mourning.
Carson said following a suicide at Mason, the district has to find a delicate balance between reaching out to the victim’s family and getting information out to the community, something the school in the series struggled with as well.
Executive producer Selena Gomez has struggled with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. In the 30-minute special “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons,” which aired following the show, Gomez said the intent of the show was to share a message against suicide in a way that was “honest.” Kresky, however, said the show does not portray depression accurately, adding it belittles the illness rather than bringing awareness to it.
Much debate surrounding the show centers on if it glamorizes suicide. Toohey said the show sends a dangerous message that suicide can be committed for revenge.
“This girl commits suicide and leaves tapes telling how everyone has wronged her, sucking people in together,” Toohey said. “I think that that glamorizes that you get the ultimate revenge. That you got to do it and then you get to go back and ruin these people’s lives.”
Senior Spencer Walsh said the show’s portrayal of the aftermath of Hannah’s death could lead viewers to falsely draw conclusions that suicide is way to get recognized.
“It’s not realistic, and it’s cathartic,” Walsh said. “It’s so frustrating that implicitly it has this idea that if you kill yourself, people will start paying attention to you, and that’s a little dangerous. It makes it look appealing.”
Despite its negative stigma, junior Sophie Foy said the show can have positive effects in inspiring people to treat others kindly.
“If you’re treating someone badly, it shows what can happen,” Foy said. “It really shows that your actions can have a big impact on how someone feels about themself and their life.”
After Hannah’s death, her former classmates reflected on their actions. Sophomore Michelle Crispin said while people may be quick to dwell on the past, it is important to move forward, learning from previous mistakes.
“They shouldn’t get mad at each other for something they could have changed in the past,” Crispin said. “I feel like they should look towards the future as an opportunity to redo something you may have done wrong: be nice to someone that you maybe have been mean to in the past, try and renew relationships that may have fallen apart.”
Following the suicide of a fellow classmate, Crispin and her friends placed post-it notes on lockers and doors, which Crispin hoped would lighten the mood and inspire positive change.
“I hope people will start to, one, open up their feelings if they’re feeling down, and two, spread happiness,” Crispin said. “Even if you don’t know someone, give them a compliment, make them feel happy and welcome because you never know how much it can impact them and their day.”
Senior Hannah Geiger said the show leaves those struggling with the wrong impression.
“It depicts suicide as the only way to get out of your situation, when there are so many other things she could’ve lived for,” Geiger said. “You see her (Hannah Baker’s) parents are devastated afterwards, and they did a good job showing the repercussions. But it shows there’s just one way to get out of a hard situation, which is not true. I think that’s really harmful.”
In episode 13 Hannah expresses her sense of feeling loss and thoughts of committing suicide to her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter; however, he did not pass this along.
Toohey said this representation of a guidance counselor is inaccurate and in Mason, action would be taken immediately.
“We as a group and the administrative team in any of those situations: reports of rape, wanting to kill yourself, self harm, all of those things, that’s not something we just sit on,” Toohey said. “That’s always a phone call to a parent; that’s always alerting an administrator if we need to.”
Throughout the featurette, a red box flashes at the bottom of the screen with a link to a help site for those in need. This information, however, does not appear in the 13 episodes.