#TBT 13 REASONS WHY: A SPOTLIGHT ON MENTAL HEALTH, SUICIDE AND BULLYING (WARNING: SPOILERS)

THIS ARTICLE WAS FEATURED IN ISSUE 5 WHICH YOU CAN READ HERE

(Trigger warning: this article contains the discussion of rape, suicide, self harm, bullying and depression.)

“Hello boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo. No return engagements, no encores and this time, absolutely no requests. I hope you’re ready because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why it ended. And if you’re listening to the tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.” Hannah Baker’s opening monologue on Tape 1 is enough to send chills down the spine as we hear a dead girl’s blood run cold. The lack of empathy, expression and warmth. All we are subject to is the icy tone of what was once a living being. Hannah Baker was dead before her heart stopped.  Brian Yorkey’s 13 Reasons Why is shaping up to be one of the most controversial series’ of the decade, shedding a harsh light on the reality of mental illness unlike any other show before it. The plot revolves around a young high school student named Clay Jensen (portrayed by Dylan Minette) who receives a mysterious set of tapes on his front doorstep. He discovers that the tapes are audio recordings of his recently deceased classmate, Hannah Baker (portrayed by fellow Australian Katherine Langford). The recordings go on to explain that they contain the reasons why she decided to kill herself and if the person listening has been given the tapes, they’re an accessory to her suicide. We follow Clay on his journey in which he uncovers, challenges and exposes the people who contributed to Hannah’s death, including himself. Clay Jensen exposes the truth in his life and the show itself also encourages it’s viewers to do the same.

13 Reasons Why’s crux is the truth about contemporary society. It unmasks the dark sides of our civilization, the sides in which we have blindsides to and would rather not burden ourselves with. This show reveals and displays the grim reality of how people and communities fail those with mental illnesses, being unable to provide them with proper care and taking proper precautions until it’s too late. In the series, we also are introduced to and follow the mourning parents of Hannah Baker, Olivia (Kate Walsh) and Andy (Brian d’Arcy James). In Episode 2 “Tape 1 Side B”, Olivia and Andy begin to speculate that Hannah had been bullied when they find the “hot list”, a list of students who had been objectified by male classmates with Hannah having been dubbed “Best Ass”. The Bakers decide to sue Liberty High, Hannah’s school, that claims they didn’t know their late daughter was being bullied. In Episode 3 “Tape 2 Side A”, Olivia uses the girls restroom at the school only to discover tonnes of harmful and abusive graffiti sprawled across the stall. She takes pictures and uses it to fight her case, confronting the principal about his ignorance. The principal responds to this by covering up the graffiti, almost as if it’s an apology or any solace to the mourning parent. This is an important point in the series for me as I believe it does show the inadequacy and the ineffectiveness of the anti bullying policies education departments have in place globally. The gesture practically acknowledges the presence of bullying but just cleans up the aftermath rather than attacking the issue at its core, the students. Mrs. Baker takes it upon herself to also confront the parents of Liberty High’s student body about her daughter’s death, showing the photos of the graffiti to the parents and blaming their children for not only Hannah’s suicide but also for the bullying of other students at the school. Clay also takes a stab at the school system failing depressed and suicidal students in Episode 7 “Tape 4 Side A”. Clay and Courtney Crimsen (another one of Hannah’s reasons, portrayed by Michelle Selene Ang) are touring the new exchange students around the school in attempts for them to become familiar with their new environment. Clay takes the students to Hannah Baker’s now vacant locker to which he says:

“Look at these lockers. They all look alike right? Not this one. This one’s special. It belonged to a girl who killed herself. You see all these “DON’T KILL YOURSELF” posters up on the wall? They weren’t up before. They put them up because she killed herself. And why did she do it? Because the kids here treated her like shit! But no one here wants to admit it so they painted over the bathrooms and put up a memorial because that’s the kind of school this is. Everyone is just so nice until they drive you to kill yourself and sooner or later, the truth will come out!”

Next I’d like talk about the character of Tony Padilla (portrayed by Christian Navarro). Tony has been praised for his depth as a minority character. Tony is written as a guardian angel-esque character for Clay Jensen and has been received openly by the audience due to his genuine, well written and overall likable character which is a contrast to the false and familiar faces from Hannah’s tapes. Tony identifies as a homosexual, latinx, catholic male which not only represents two minority groups but also makes him a more three dimensional personality, making him more than the candid gay character that you see copy and pasted all over streaming services and Hollywood films (looking at you Beauty and the Beast and Power Rangers). Tony is more than just a plot device or a generic character wearing a minority badge but a realist portrayal that isn’t a caricature of a sexual orientation. In Episode 8 “Tape 4 Side B”, Clay speculates that Tony may have been in love with the late Baker to which Tony nonchalantly responds “Clay…you know I’m gay, right?”

The news shocks Clay to which he inquires further. According to Tony, he seems to believe that everybody knows and that it was never a big deal. The two share this short and brief heart to heart before getting back to talking about the tapes and resuming Clays journey. Prior to this scene, Tony was seen frequently getting coffee with another male named Brad. The two would often share soft spoken conversations and lukewarm interactions at the local coffee shop Monet’s. Clay goes on to piece the puzzle together and realises that Brad is actually Tony’s boyfriend to which he confirms. This interaction shows the unimportance of Tony’s homosexuality whilst also maintaining realistic results of coming out, even when casually done. This scene is important because it doesn’t shy away from the characters queerness or delivers it in a single line of unimportance that is quickly forgotten in hundreds of pages of script. It’s a brief interaction that encapsulates coming out in an earthed manner which has been attempted in mainstream media yet fails to do as such, coming across as a cop out or an unnecessary line shoved in to potentially gay bait. In the metaphor of describing single lines as rocks and gay/coming out story arcs as mountains, I think we need more of these smaller mountains that 13 Reasons Why has painted for us. Tony’s coming out is important because it is unimportant yet it is justified and resolved, unlike other characters in Hollywood limelight such as LeFou from Beauty and the Beast.

13 Reasons Why has divided a generation when it comes to its sensitive content and its message. In Episodes 10-13, there are highly graphic, explicit as well as triggering scenes depicting the rape of Jessica Davis (Hannah’s former best friend, portrayed by Alisha Boe), the rape of Hannah Baker and also the suicide of Hannah Baker. This content has created a large controversy, leaving viewers divided regarding their opinion of the series. Some believe that the content was necessary in order to provide the truth to the scenarios displayed throughout the season. One of these people is Kate Walsh, also known as Hannah’s mum, Olivia Baker. In a recent interview with Huffington Post, Walsh defended the directorial decision to incorporate and film these scenes;

“People have been reacting differently to showing Hannah in the act of suicide and all the other sexual assault scenes, rape scenes. But Brian was intent on making sure there was nothing romantic or mysterious that anybody could project on to this to make it some dreamy, gothy or some romantic Ophelia moment. I think there’s a lot of this idea in the mystery and the shame and the secrecy of suicide that no one talks about, that you can project this idea that it’s all going to be peaceful and blissed-out … (but) to really deal with depression and mental illness and these huge issues and show what it really looks like if someone tries to take their life ― it’s ugly and it’s really hard and it should be seen.”

The scene of Hannah’s suicide depicts her in a bathtub, slitting her wrists and bleeding out with her parents finding her after an amount of time has passed. Whilst this scene has been dubbed horrifying, tragic and saddening by a large portion of viewers, an almost equal amount have condemned the scene as well as the entire series for glamorising, romanticising and dangerously oversimplifying suicide and depression, portraying it in a way that isn’t deemed “realistic.” Several mental health organisations, including headspace Australia, saying that the content may be found distressing for a younger audience.

“”There is a responsibility for broadcasters to know what they are showing and the impact that certain content can have on an audience and on a young audience in particular,” Dr Steven Leicester, head of eheadspace.

The organisation reported a dramatic increase of calls and emails to the centre after the premiere of 13 Reasons Why’s debut on Netflix on the 31st of March. It has also condemned the series for not only showing distressful content, but showing method. School service development manager of headspace Kristen Douglas has put out a statement about the shows depictions of sexual assault and suicide, saying that it’s existence does more harm than good;

“There are concerns about the graphic depiction of suicide and sexual assault, but also the message the storyline promotes in terms of suggesting suicide can be a common sense solution. Suicide is something that is very complex that can’t be simplified, and there’s never a linear lists of reasons why… having her look back on her last moments gives young people the unrealistic idea she’s getting her revenge or having the last laugh.”

“If young people die by suicide it’s very final. You don’t get to see the reaction of people, you don’t get to see the reaction of bullies, you don’t get to be involved in your own funeral.”

The controversy around the show seems to grow everyday, even to the point where our sister country New Zealand has created a new rating of television for the show known as RP18, meaning that no one under the age of 18 can view the series unless a responsible parent or guardian is accompanying them in their viewing. The Office of Film and Literature put out a statement saying that whilst the show does address and shed light on the reality of rape and suicide in the spur of the confronting moments the series offers, it does not show any appropriate examples of healing, only pain.

The most immediate concern for the Classification Office is how teen suicide is discussed and shown in 13 Reasons Why. Hannah’s suicide is presented fatalistically. Her death is represented at times as not only a logical, but an unavoidable outcome of the events that follow. Suicide should not be presented to anyone as being the result of clear headed thinking. Suicide is preventable, and most people who experience suicidal thoughts are not thinking rationally and therefore cannot make logical decisions. Which gets us to the next big issue. The show ignores the relationship between suicide and the mental illness that often accompanies it. People often commit suicide because they are unwell, not simply because people have been cruel to them. It is also extremely damaging to present rape as a ‘good enough’ reason for someone to commit suicide. This sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual violence about their futures and their worth.”

Executive producer of the series, popular actress and singer Selena Gomez has even stated her opinion on the backlash, stating that she is proud of what she did and that the split views people have on the show was expected. Writer on 13 Reasons Why, Nic Sheff, has also broken his silence in defence of the show by reflecting his own experiences. Struggling with both a long crystal meth addiction as well as a suicide attempt, Sheff responded to audiences and criticism through a passionate letter published by Vanity Fair;

“When it comes to suicide, I believe the message should be exactly the same. Facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life. I’m proud to be a part of a television series that is forcing us to have these conversations, because silence really does equal death. We need to keep talking, keep sharing, and keep showing the realities of what teens in our society are dealing with every day. To do anything else would be not only irresponsible, but dangerous.”

As the writer of this article, I bring myself to wonder if my opinion matters. Whether my bias has influenced the information on this highly controversial and sensitive topic. Whether my opinion truly matters. I do not believe it does for one reason; art is subjective.

Good art divides people. At the end of the day, this series and the book that it was based off of are in fact fiction and works of art. I believe this show does have a purpose in our contemporary society and an important message but it is unfortunately, easily misconstrued and interpreted wrong by some viewers which can be extremely dangerous. Mental health and suicide are topics that have been veiled and distorted by stigma for generations and for a series to suddenly emerge and integrate itself into a society that isn’t consistently educated or exposed to these issues, it’s naturally going to tear us apart and leave us undecided. I personally view this show as an art piece and a political statement for the proper and necessary recognition of depression, sexual assault and suicide that is lacking in our society but I also believe that this message can be misinterpreted and can be harmful, even lethal to the viewers who take the Netflix series at face value. If you have not viewed the series yet, I highly recommend that you do so with a family member or a friend as you’ll both be able to debrief with each other after watching, giving you a sense of clarity and levelness rather than diving into your own mindscape about the themes you were subjected to which could be potentially damaging.

The most important thing about this show is the talking that it has started. Whether you are for it or whether you are against it, we as a civilisation are talking about mental health like never before, which I believe is a success to the creative team behind 13 Reasons Why. We have started talking about the ethics behind suicide depiction in the media, the reality of life after a suicide, the existence of depression, the existence of rape, the effects of bullying and the victims of all of the above. These are all topics that have come to the surface since the shows premiere and I believe that this conversation will continue and grow in the future as people have become really passionate about their opinions on these topics. This show has made people think and have open conversations and heated debates about a matter that is so relevant and so important to our everyday lives. Despite our divide, there is also unity here and that unity is a beautiful thing and that’s why it needs to be encouraged. For the victims, for our society, for dispelling stigma and for ourselves, we need to talk. We’ve brought voices to the voiceless. That’s why 13 Reasons Why is important.

Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 – Crisis and Suicide Prevention

BEN MONGER IS A FREELANCE WRITER FOR POPCORN MAGAZINE

Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix