Of Bullying, Mental Health And Suicide — How 13 Reasons Why Missed Its Mark!
If you haven’t heard of 13 Reasons Why you are surely living under some rock. A Netflix original, it is an American-teen drama based on a book with the same name. When the series came out, it focused primarily on its female protagonist Hannah Baker and how she ended her life.
Most of us have binge-watched this show. In fact, it was the first television show I had ever watched. When Netflix released its trailer, its premise was new. Suicide and mental health have often been considered a taboo, and millennials believed this show will finally turn things around. The show was supposed to show us the dark gritty side of the world.
But did it really?
When its first season was aired, we were instantly taken by Hannah Baker’s world. The teenager who kills herself and before that, she records detailed notes about why she ends her life. This is where the whole storyline falls apart. Isn’t the show supposed to talk of depression? Then what is this revenge bandwagon that our lead character goes on with? How does a girl so vulnerable, can pull off a polished revenge plan while she is losing her sanity? This is where the show crumbles to draw a contrast between idealism and realism.
The show so strongly wants us to believe in the revenge saga, that it kind of loses the whole point of mental health? When you first hear Hannah’s tapes, there is a hardcore strategy in her mind. Her voice is powerful and she demands everyone listen to her. When you think of her, or how she has been portrayed in the show, you think of a sarcastic, witty, fun and a girl with a head on her shoulders. But as the show progresses, you don’t see any of these traits in her. When a photograph of hers gets circulated in the entire school, where she is slut-shammed, and all of a sudden left with no allies, Hannah doesn’t even fight back. Let alone fight back, she doesn’t say anything at all in her defence. Nothing at all.
Hannah is not your regular television drama teen. Her portrayal is that of a strong girl, who has the ambition to graduate from a college in New York. But her big dreams don’t make her coy, awkward and antisocial. Hannah is a breath of fresh air and she is definitely an easy person to be with. Her aura and fun personality makes her stand out in a crowd. Her character though well-written has only transgressed. Moments where her smile or wit brightens up the screen, scenes where she teases Clay or Justin Foley make her a very relatable character. The girl never leaves a chance to make friends, and who wouldn’t want to be friends with someone so lively like Hannah Baker? Even as we see her mental health deteriorating, we see her giving a chance to herself as she attends a party to fix her life. But, then, how does a girl so bright kill herself? What changed or what triggered her to take this drastic step?
Here are my two cents about the problems I had with the show or what I believed that the show failed to deliver.
The story as it progresses starts to show various problems Hannah had to deal with — slut-shaming, teasing, body defamation and even rape. While Hannah had several chances to set her life or redeem herself, we are barely privy to these details. Instead, she surrenders to victimhood and blames everyone around her and sadly, pushes away people who really wanted to do good. She never tries to talk to any of her school counsellors or parents and allows all the troubles to pile on her until the very end. And, in the end, she finally makes a visit to the school counsellor, and when he constantly asks her to talk to him about her rape, she doesn’t and insists on leaving. The counsellor several times asks her to stop, but reluctantly lets her go as she gets adamant. But in the tape, Hannah says this, ‘he’s not coming, nobody is coming forward to stop me.’ I mean what does she expect? He drops off all his duties and runs behind her when she clearly says no? Not once, but multiple times?
She does something very similar to another character, Clay Jensen, who we see from the first episode is genuinely into Hannah. When he tries to have sex with her in a party, Hannah screams, cries and pushes Clay away. Under normal circumstances, a decent person would leave the room, not wanting to hurt the other person’s dignity and modesty. And this is what Clay does, he leaves after Hannah asks him to leave multiple times. But, again in the tape, Hannah questions him about why he left. This is where I lose any sympathy I have for this girl. She turns around, pushes people away and then makes a tape and goes on a rant, which makes no sense whatsoever.
Mental health is a serious issue and it is about time we discuss it. But, the discussion should be constructive and not destructive. The show doesn’t talk about mental health, the way the book deals. We as an audience constantly try to keep up with the lead’s mental state but falter to understand how and where her downfall started. The show builds up the revenge drama to a level that it pushes mental health far far away. It has everything, Hannah, her problems, her joy, people that bullied her, friends that left, her trust issues with her family, failed relationships, her brief but sweet romance with Clay, but just not mental health.
The show tries to show you an idealistic approach to see mental health, wherein everyone is nice to everyone, where one watches their words and actions. In an ideal world, in a parallel universe, this does seem to be possible. But, when it comes to reality, things are far different. You cannot control everyone’s actions or dictates how one speaks. However, you can still take charge of what’s in your control and perhaps even talk to your parents, teachers, friends or someone you really trust.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not here for any victim-blaming. What happened to Hannah is terrible, and in an alternate universe, it is not supposed to happen. How do you find a character that does all of this relevant anymore? It started out as portraying her as a girl-next-door, and whatever happened to her triggered her even much later to have a conversation, and understandably so. The glorification of suicide in the season makes Hannah — a hero and not the victim. While the book delivers this rightly, the writer-director team of the Netflix series, tarnish her struggles to a mere revenge drama.
As I said I am not here to blame Hannah, students like Tyler Clementi, or Amanda Todd, were filmed during their private moments and their pictures were released on the web. Despite changing schools and crying out for help, on various social media platforms, these kids were bullied so much that they had to commit suicide. These stories bare struggle, depression, but also strength.
Whereas, the show focuses more on miscommunication and delivers no wisdom about bullying, depression, suicide and mental health is a far cry. The show in some parts is commendable, but its one-line storyline, about how terrible things have horrifying consequences and this just made me uneasy. Uneasy but not right. Throughout the show we see two different personalities of Hannah, in a few montages, she is a happy-going, headstrong girl and in most, she is just someone who succumbed to self-pity. Her self-wallowing extends so much so that her tapes also seem like a cry for attention in the end. So, what is my take from this? Submit to the wrong and give away my life? Or maybe plan for my very own retribution? And, how does this look to the audience? Do teens and young adults learn anything at all from this?
Movies, tv shows and books are supposed to transport us to a world, where we see things in a different light, complex things are supposed to be made simpler and parallels must be always drawn between what is done and what could have been done. While most of them succeed in delivering this, 13 Reasons Why just doesn’t.