My Problem With 13 Reasons Why

This is a really different post for me and my blog, but the Netflix original 13 Reasons Why has really caused a stir lately (but you already know that, am I right?) and I just had to talk about it. This post does contain spoilers if you're someone who hasn't seen the show.

First of all, I want to preface this post before the social justices warriors come for me by saying my issue isn't with the difficult subject matter. I do applaud the show makers for the way that they actually handled Hannah's suicide itself, it was really raw and brutal and, whatever you think of the show by the time you get to it, it is genuinely emotional to watch. 

So, my first issue is that everybody who has watched this show (or read the book, which I haven't, FYI) seems to overlook something very important: Hannah Baker is not a reliable narrator. For the most part, we are literally seeing and hearing everything from Hannah's perspective. Worse yet, we're hearing her tell it retrospectively. How many people do you know, or how many times have you yourself, exaggerated or added on to a story the second time you've told it? Just because we the viewers know Hannah as the pitiful, bullied girl who sunk into such a deep depression she took her own life, doesn't mean she's exempt from being able to sensationalise the truth here and there. I think that's a fairly normal thing to do, actually.  Moreover, why is the version of herself we are presented with necessarily true? After all, it's what she's showing us. I'm not saying that she's lying, or that she's a bad person as a character, but I can't help but get the impression she's omitting some things that departs from the victim persona she's showing us. Even somebody who Hannah considered was "on her side", Tony, remarked (in episode 11, I believe): "she's telling her truth". What Hannah is relating to us doesn't necessarily reflect reality. 
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I know that it's just a TV show, and I'm talking about a fictional person. But even then, as an educated person I feel the need to widen my scope, step back and examine the bigger picture that is 13 Reasons Why. I want to think about who Hannah Baker is from the perspective of someone else, or from someone without a view tainted with posthumous sympathy. Before Hannah died, as far as Jess was concerned, Hannah was the bad friend, and had betrayed their friendship and 'stolen' her boyfriend. As a 17 year old girl, and given the information she knew at the time, can you blame her for that? 

My second issue with the show is an obvious one, and a problem that's been identified by several people. In a phrase: the blame game. I think the show is treading very dangerous ground by sending the message that there's people to blame for somebody committing suicide. I'm not sure of the stats but I'm sure bullying does play a part in some suicides, but I think mental illness is a more common 'cause', if you will. Neha Shah, in an article for New Statesman, summarised it more eloquently than I can: 
[The show is] Depicting Hannah's suicide as a means of exposing the actions of her peers and making them feel guilty rather than exploring the nuances of mental illness. Of course, bullying can be a contributing factor towards suicidal thoughts and behaviour, but it is wrong to portray it as a direct cause - a lazy and unforgivable simplification on the infinitely more complex nature of mental illness. 13 Reasons attempts to take on suicide without so much as a token mention of the word "depression". 
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Finally, a point that very little people seemed to have picked up on, is that - at least I think - this show is very sexist. The way teenage/young adult men are portrayed in this is very damning. Put rather crudely: why are they all so rapey?! Speaking as a 20 year old, being the age all the main characters are supposed to be (17) is not in the distant past for me. Perhaps I am coming from a fortunate, sheltered existence but very few, if any, of the boys I encountered when I was in school weren't all so obsessed with sex that they'd rape someone like Bryce does, be a stalker/pervert and take photographs while being a 'peeping tom' like Tyler does, or do a Marcus and get publicly verbally aggressive when someone rejects their sexual advances, or allow your friend to have sex with your girlfriend, which is essentially what Justin does, no matter how much he regrets it. I'm not denying these behaviours exist, but the show definitely gave (at least me) the impression that it's common and normal for 17 year old boys to act like this. I can't stress enough that I'm not denying these behaviours exist, or that they occur more often than they should but rape/sexual assault/harassment is an abhorrent abnormal behaviour. It's abnormal to sexually assault someone, and it's normal to just not do that. Alex's "hot list" is less far fetched, but for then apparently most guys in school subsequently making crude comments and effectively sexually harassing you is where I just don't buy it. Even Justin lying about 'how far' he went with Hannah I don't entirely disbelieve. I wouldn't hesitate to say that perverted teenage boys is just as much a theme of the show as suicide is, which I don't think reflects the real world. Like I said, I'm not saying this doesn't happen, but it seems all too convenient for the plot that Hannah Baker encounters all these sexual predators. For the average person, this doesn't seem usual, so I don't think it's believable, nor does it fairly reflect the behaviour of men.

Have you seen the show? What did you think?
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  1. I agree with your second point quite a lot, I love the show and I think it does provide some lessons a lot of people need to learn from but the way they portrayed it did seem to cross the 'blamey' line. I read the book a few years ago and I can't really remember how it compared but I'm pretty sure the book had quite a few less issues like that xx

  2. I completely agree with point two - I never really picked up on point three but after reading your views I was like 'oh yeaaaaaaah' I think we are conditioned to glance over that kind of viewiing now as on TV is very common and 'norm' to see women/men portrayed like that. I really feel like as the target audience is SO YOUNG that it's a dodgy subject to cover anyway, but def one that SHOULD be covered. I think when it comes to suicide though as a topic in general you are always going to have that.

    I had a few older women in work ask me what I thought of their 15/16 year olds watching it and was a bit like hmmmmmmm I'm not totally sure, plus I'm not sure I was totally into it because it was made for a younger audience. Bit of a weird one for me, not one I'd be itching to recommend like some of my other faves.

  3. I've been reading the book recently and I also have some issues with the show. Now that I think about it, I agree with you about Hannah being an unreliable narrator and the problems with blaming. My bigger issues are with the depiction of depression, which (at least at my point in the story) are very unrealistic. I think if suicide is going to be depicted in the media it should be prefaced by realistic depression, that way people could pick up on it in real life. Hannah seems very vengeful and energetic when making the tapes, not hopeless and exhausted. I'm glad it's bringing awareness to the effects of bullying but there are definitely some issues with it that I'm glad you pointed out!

    Beauty From Katie

  4. I agree with every point you have made this has been such a good read. I too can understand the angle the show tried to take with how peoples actions can affect others but I also whilst watching found it quite hard to relate to Hannah. I found the way she narrated it to be perhaps a little story telling like. Not that I didn't believe she was telling the truth but more like it was glossed up to sound more engaging on the tapes. I didn't feel like there were raw emotional stories on the tapes but more rather a sensationalised account of the truths. I understand that this is all part of how they made the show to make it more engaging for the audience but I do feel it could have been better in some ways. Great read! :)

    Tash |

  5. You've made some really interesting points there! I turned 30 this year (eek) so would probably have related more to the book when that came out 10 years ago - before social media was too much of a thing (especially in high school) and things could escalate much quicker than they do now. But I watched the show and felt really hollow afterwards - it was uncomfortable to watch but there are many things that I picked holes in afterwards! Maybe we should have seen more of other peoples perspectives. I can't say it was something I enjoyed watching but it had me hooked and it's certainly started debate since! What do you think about them announcing a second a series?