13 Reasons Why and The Resurrected Popularity of Teen Suicide
In this article, I will discuss some very heavy content and cinematic themes. If you are easily offended or do not wish to read about those kinds of things, I would urge you to proceed with caution while reading this article. Also, spoiler alert for the show; you have been warned.
13 Reasons Why, a novel written by Jay Asher, is a bestseller that has been adapted into a TV show by Netflix. As we all know at this point, 13 Reasons Why it is about a teenage girl named Hannah Baker who commits suicide and explains, through a series of audio tapes, why she decided to take her own life. But that’s not all, Hannah, either cleverly or antagonistically in my opinion, decided to send her series of tapes to all of the people she felt wronged her and aided in her suicide, just before she committed the act. Her plan was to have each of these people listen to all of the tapes and pass them on to others, which she mentions in each tape, all the way down the line so all of those individuals could understand why she did what she did.
I will say, I have not read the novel and have no desire to read it either. So, the remainder of this article will clearly be based on the TV show so bare with me.
I’d like to start the analysis off with stating that teen suicide is not a trend that this novel/show invented. There is a long standing tradition in literature and film that showcases teen suicide as a noble option, hell even romantic.
Let’s take a look at Romeo and Juliet. This Shakespearean tragedy is about two teenage lovers who come from two warring families who absolutely hate each other. Due to the star-crossed lovers situation as well as a grave case of miscommunication, they believed that the only way they could truly be together and love each other freely was in the afterlife. So, “Sealed with a righteous kiss”, they took their own lives. For many years, this popular play was thought of as one of the most romantic love stories of all time. Yes, it is a love story but, the end result, is framed as a necessary act of love. I understand that, in Shakespeare’s day, Romeo and Juliet’s tragic end was considered one of the highest forms of romance. I mean think about it; loving someone so much but knowing you’ll never be able to be with them the way you want and deciding the afterlife is the only option is pretty romantic. But, Shakespearean era genre conventions aside, this classic tale of two young lovers romanticized teen suicide.
Jumping forward in time, let’s examine the 1988 Michael Lehmann film Heathers. This film, a downright masterpiece in my opinion, tells the story of a teenage girl named Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, who lives a seemingly mundane existence playing 4th wheel to a group of the three most popular girls in school. After meeting the handsome new kid J.D., Christian Slater, and commiserating with him about how empty she feels hanging with the phony clique, they come up with a plan to kill the main leader of the clique, Heather Chandler, and make it look like she committed suicide. At first, Veronica thinks they’re just talking and it’s pretty cathartic for her. But, when J.D. ends up poisoning Heather without Veronica knowing, she’s in too deep. This incident sparks a blood lust in J.D. who ends up deceiving Veronica into thinking that all of the Heather's are the same and that they’ll end up taking Heather Chandler’s place in no time. He’s able to talk Veronica into using Heather’s death as a scare tactic for the other Heathers to back down from taking the top spot while simultaneously making her his partner in murder. Of course, Veronica ends up catching on and aims to stop J.D. from killing off the rest of the Heather's and the jocks.
The whole film culminates into a bloody race against time as Veronica tries to stop J.D. from setting off a bomb he planted in the boiler room of the school that was supposed to blow up all of the students in the gym during a prep rally. Veronica ends up killing J.D. and saves the day in the end. I will admit that this film is a little silly but, it was supposed to be. Instead of romanticizing teen suicide, it gives it a sardonic sense of oddball humor. The writer of the film, Daniel Waters, created a film where a seriously devastating subject is turned into a dark comedy. He highlights the complete misunderstanding adults have on the subject, as we see with Veronica’s parents having no emotions about hearing of her daughter’s friends supposed suicide. He also shows how the public in general wouldn’t question why a teen would commit suicide as the subject is too “uncomfortable” to discuss; this is seen with everyone in the school, both teachers and students, treating Heather Chandler’s death as more of a fashion statement than an act of depression.
Moving slightly further into the future, Let’s take a look at the 1999 Sofia Coppola film The Virgin Suicides. This film focuses on the seemingly perfect lives of the beautiful 5 Lisbon sisters and the teenage boys in the neighborhood who are in love with them. One night, the girls throw a party in their basement and they invite the boys over. Little did the boys know, this was the night all 5 of the girls decided to commit suicide. Horrified, the boys explore the basement and find all 5 sisters dead in a shocking ways. There is no definitive answer as to why the girls committed suicide but there are speculations; one is that the Lisbon girls decided to take their own lives because of their sister Cecilia’s successful suicide. Another explanation could be because they were all highly depressed; their parents were very religious and strict. With those two qualities combined, it’s safe to say that their parents did not believe in a kind of depression that could not be solved by God and the Bible.
Another popular reason could be due to teenage angst; when you’re a teen in high school you honestly believe that’s all life is and, if life seems unbearable for you, all you can think about is ending it. When you’re that young, you don’t always think about the future and how those 4 silly years in high school mean nothing when you get to college and enter true adulthood. You don’t think about how you can re-invent yourself in that mode of higher education and, if you go to school out of state, escape the tyrannical reign of your overbearing parents. I could literally go on and on about this film but, what I am trying to say is, suicide is somewhat glamorized as a mystery that can never be fully explained or helped. At the end of this film, which is narrated by a character in the future, what the Lisbon girls did is treated like an epic enigma that is somehow shaped the lives of the boys who never even actually knew them at all.
With all of this being said, my main point is this: 13 Reasons Why did not invent the glamorization of teen suicide or even put a unique spin on it. Rather, this novel/TV show simply pieced together all of the elements from much better stories of what would drive a teen to suicide and, through a rather contrived method, attempted to create a sense of empathy for the characters. Now, I will contest that the show is very well shot and directed but, I found its content and execution of the subject matter way too pompous and preachy. I do understand that the things Hannah Baker goes through are quite serious and would lead to severe depression that could ebb into suicide, but I couldn’t help seeing that all of her problems could have been solved had she told someone something about what happened to her or even confided in her secret crush. I know I might sound like a serious wet blanket here, but allow me to explain.
One of the first and major reasons she cites for committing suicide is being slut shamed by a popular basketball player in her school named Justin Foley. This came about when he asked her out and, being the new girl in school, she agrees. They have an innocent little date at the local park and they kiss. The next day at school, Justin and his buddies spread a rumor that they had sex. This rumor pretty much stains her reputation and sets off the chain of events that eventually lead to her tragic suicide. I will say slut shaming is a very good reason for a teenage girl to be depressed. Unfortunately, it is a trend that I see happening more and more in high schools now a days. Given this, I feel for Hannah in this situation, I really do, but I can’t help feeling like she decided to only play the victim. Yes, she was a victim and even tried to subvert the rumors but she let it get to her. Instead of getting some help from an authority figure, she bares her rumored shame in a sorrowful silence. Seriously? I understand that this is a contrived teenage drama and teenagers never want to ask for help but come on.
Another major reason Hannah mentions in her tapes is the fact that she witnessed her friend, at least her former friend, being raped by the captain of the basketball team. Contrived teen drama or not, this has always been an extremely frustrating troupe in television. Hannah Baker witnessed a crime. Initial shock may have delayed her reaction for a few hours, even days, but she should have reported it. I understand that reporting what she saw would include her admitting that she, and several others, were drinking underage. Along with this, her friend that was raped was also intoxicated and did not even know what was happening. To make the situation even more contrived, the rapist, Bryce, is a rich kid with parents that have very powerful connections; this means that if charges were pressed, there would be a very good chance that he could walk free. I do understand that this is a serious reality that occurs in our society today, it seems as though justice is only for those who can pay and if you have the money you can get away with anything. I understand all of this, but Hannah didn’t even try to tell someone. I guess she just thought that trying to make Jessica remember what actually happened to her and guilt tripping Justin through these tapes was good enough.
The final major reason Hannah mentions in her list is actually, surprise surprise, another rape; not witnessing one this time but her own… by Bryce. When I watched this episode, I literally screamed out loud. All of the events that lead up to her sexual assault had to have been the worst piece of writing in television, and I’m assuming, literary history! The day she is assaulted, she accidentally loses her parent’s rent money for their pharmacy, gets partially rejected by her very nervous crush and feels as if she doesn’t have a friend in the world. That night, after being yelled at by her parents about what her losing the money meant and hearing them argue, she decides to go on a long walk to lose herself. She ends up in the rich neighborhood where Bryce lives and, surprise surprise, ends up in front of his house. She hears a party going on inside and decides to crash. When she arrives, everyone is in the hot tub drinking.
The group invites her in and she hangs with them for a bit. Losing herself again in her own thoughts, she kind of zones out in the hot tub for a while during the party. When she wakes up, an unspecified amount of time later, she sees Bryce in sitting in the tub with her. He begins to give her a creepy rape vibe and, when she tries to get away, he overpowers and rapes her. There are many things wrong about this whole situation but, what I find most baffling, is that Hannah Baker WILLINGLY put herself in harm’s way! If you think I’m reaching here, consider this; she happened to be near the house of a boy she saw rape a girl and decided to go into his house. Now, do not mistake my words here, she did NOT deserve what happened to her; not at all. But, here’s my piece, if I witnessed someone rape another person, the last place I would ever want to be would be anywhere around them. I understand her wanting to be around other people that night was important, seeing that she really let her parents down, but I could not understand why she thought she’d be safe there. That house party was full of people who slut shamed her and hurt her in many other ways, when she saw that they were all there, she should have left. But, hey, the drama needs to come from somewhere right?
To wrap this all up, I’ll say that 13 Reasons why is a very well paced, shot and acted show but that’s about all it is. The subject matter, although heavy, is glorified in a way that leaves the viewer feeling sympathy for horrible characters and despair that the poor, put upon heroine had no choice but to take her life. Are you kidding me with this? I understand that for a drama to be effective, you either create likeable characters who end up suffering but ultimately come out on top or horrible characters who get away with whatever they do, but this show includes both troupes and turns it up to eleven. We’re meant to feel sympathy for this poor girl but she almost never helps herself. She’s a teenage girl with angst, understandable, but there’s a difference between teenage naivete and stupidity. At any time in this show, Hannah could have stuck up for herself or spoken to an authority figure. Help, although painted in a rather bad light in this show, was always available to her but she decided to ignore it. Almost everything that happened to Hannah in this show took place within her own design; she was either too scared, too naive or too disaffected to do anything about what was happening to her. Friends come and go, boys can be jerks, slut shaming happens and Hannah decided to bare all of that in silence instead of fighting. High school is 4 years of complete hell, we all know that. A class system is put in place that either makes you feel like the most popular person in the world or the biggest loser. I understand that high school teens feel like that world is all there is, but I cannot stand the teen dramas about someone committing suicide or an extreme act of violence against another person all because high school is hard for them.
For this reasons, and so many others, I cannot get behind the growing popularity of this show. Not only this, but I’m surprised the “teen suicide” genre is coming back in style at all. As I’ve stated earlier in this article, this trend has been popular for quite some time and it had its day but should it be making this kind of comeback?