Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the latest Netflix sensation ‘13 Reasons Why’, a story centred around teenager Hannah Baker who reveals the reasons she committed suicide through a series of tapes sent to her peers from school following her death.
The show has been widely criticised for its graphic depictions of suicide in the final episode, and Australian mental health charity headspace has been quick to raise concerns about young audiences watching the show.
The show’s writer Nic Sheef has explained the rationale behind their decision to depict these scenes to Vanity Fair, but the debate has been flung wide open: do the scenes glamorise suicide? Does it exploit vulnerable people? Is the message too negative?
After watching the show, I think ’13 Reasons Why’ wanted to show not merely the reasons why Hannah commits suicide, but why suicide is not the definitive option.
Although Hannah’s suicide is painful to watch and disturbing, warnings are given about the graphic nature of the content beforehand, and the episodes prior to this scene (there are 12 before her death is shown) slowly and inevitably build to her suicide. Anyone that decides to watch the show knows what they’ll be in for – would a show really talk at so much length about its protagonist’s suicide only to skirt around her last moments? I wouldn’t think so.
Hannah’s suicide scene offers a very gutsy insight into the fragile mindset of someone who wants to end their life. For me, the key word is ‘fragile’ – Hannah, and others who might be contemplating suicide, are exactly that. I think this is exactly the point of the show – to highlight that suicide can often become an option to someone when they’re very fragile and feel there are no other avenues left. Personally, I feel the show is explicitly telling audiences to prevent someone from reaching such a state. Let’s think about the moments where Hannah shows resilience, has hope and where her peers and family reach out to her. The issue is, it’s just not enough – they don’t ask Hannah if she’s really okay, they don’t listen and they certainty don’t pay enough attention. The suicide scene in ’13 Reasons Why’ is therefore the warning sign that we as friends, family members and peers need – it’s telling us to ask, listen and be more for someone who might need us so that they avoid becoming so fragile and begin to think that ending their life is a solution. Rather than an encouragement, this scene and the entire show is waving a big red flag in our face. Help is around – we must seek and give it.
Suicide is a word so often feared and discarded in our world. Now that a show like ’13 Reasons Why’ has decided to openly tackle it, we’re quick to shut it down – we’re hurriedly tweeting that they’ve taken it too far, that it should be removed from our screens, that its been done all wrong. But what about the other content that is waiting to be enjoyed on our to-watch list? A lot of us seem all too happy watching graphic scenes of murder, sex and war in TV shows and movies. We hurriedly buy tickets and rush to the cinema to watch grisly horrors spewing blood and guts. We hand children tablets and phones giving them access to content and information that is far more distressing than ’13 Reasons Why,’ and yet we hide from the reality that is suicide – a reality that is so, so prevalent in our world.
It seems that as a society, we’re constantly talking about reducing stigma, having more open and transparent discussions about showing something real and authentic, but are perhaps not ready to open our eyes to it just yet. I understand the concerns and worries about that ’13 Reasons Why’ may encourage ‘copy cats,’ but to focus on Hannah’s suicide scene alone when the entire show portrays instances of horror, (rape, violence and bullying) seems somehow unfair. And what Hannah goes through when she ends her life is goddamn frightening. Hannah doesn’t look like she’s enjoying it. There’s no glamour to it. And certainly not when her parents find her body in a blood bath.
Suicide is a truth which is graphic, and the world we live in is not all unicorns and rainbows. We need something honest like ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ in a world that sugar-coats and manipulates our reality.