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13 Reasons Why says it’s confronting tough truths about suicide and bullying. It’s not.

Alisha Boe in 13 Reasons Why Netflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When Netflix dropped the first season of 13 Reasons Why last summer, it had a genuine hit on its hands. It also had a major controversy. The second season attempts to move away from the controversy, and fails. Nevertheless, Netflix announced on Wednesday that the show will be returning for a third season.

Based on a 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of a 17-year-old girl named Hannah who dies by suicide, leaving behind 13 audio cassette tapes for 13 of her classmates on which she explains exactly why she blames them for her death. And while the first season was critically lauded for its addictively propulsive storytelling and the smart way it thought about the by turns intimate and vicious friendships of adolescence, it was also accused of dangerous storytelling for its decision to show Hannah’s rape and her subsequent suicide in graphic detail.

13 Reasons Why is trauma porn parading as woke media & I’d advise anyone considering suicide, ESPECIALLY teen girls, to stay far away from it,” writer Laura Zak tweeted.

There are numbers to back up that criticism. Research suggests that after graphic depictions of suicide, suicide rates go up because of the phenomenon of suicide contagion.

One suicide expert says Netflix hired him to review the series before it came out to guide its release. He told them that it shouldn’t come out at all, he says, “but that wasn’t an option. That was made very clear to me.”

A study published last fall found that Google searches about suicide — including “how to commit suicide” — spiked after the show’s release. At least one school district reported a rise in self-harm after the series aired, and there appears to have been at least one copycat death.

All of which means that shortly after the release of its first season, 13 Reasons Why was officially a critically acclaimed hit that experts suggested could also lead to the deaths of children.

So Netflix had some damage control to do going into the show’s second season, which premiered on May 19. And it seems to have developed a three-pronged approach in response.

First, Netflix commissioned and published a study from the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University, which focused on the good the show did by sparking a conversation among teens about rape and suicide. Second, it added a spoken trigger warning to the season premiere, added content warnings to the episodes that include graphic violence and sexual assault, and advertised resources for viewers who might be struggling with suicidal ideation at the end of each episode. And finally, the show made an effort in its second season to discuss all the reasons suicide is not the answer for troubled teens.

But that strategy couldn’t quite make up for what the second season revealed, which is that 13 Reasons Why is not fundamentally interested in starting a conversation. It’s interested in shocking, and it does not care how cheaply it might go about creating that shock. In its second season, 13 Reasons Why abandons one harmful myth only to embrace another.

Please be advised that this piece contains graphic discussion of rape and suicide. Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why season two follow.

Netflix commissioned a study on all the ways 13 Reasons Why started a conversation. It didn’t look at the bigger questions.

Kate Walsh, Wilson Cruz, and Andrea Roth in 13 Reasons Why Netflix

Northwestern’s study of 13 Reasons Why, written by three professors with backgrounds in communications and psychology, seems to show that it was by and large beneficial. “13 Reasons Why resonated with teens and young adults, and they felt it was beneficial for them and people their age to watch,” concludes the study, which draws on surveys of more than 5,000 teens, young adults, and parents in four regions of the world. Moreover, the study adds, viewers “reported helping others and engaging in other empathetic behaviors after watching.”

Most importantly, the study argues, 13 Reasons Why created a conversation. “Adolescents reported that the show helped them feel more comfortable talking about these difficult topics [bullying and mental health] with friends, parents, counselors, and teachers,” the study said.

That’s also the stance that the show takes internally, in a meta-conversation in the ninth episode of the second season. The tapes Hannah made in the first season have just been made public by our hero, the aggrieved and righteous 17-year-old Clay, and the school principal is scolding him for it.

“Suicide contagion is a real thing,” the principal says, “and we need to take steps to protect you kids.”

“I don’t understand,” says Clay. “How does silence protect us?”

The idea is that it’s important for us to confront the problem of teen suicide and teen sexual assault head on and to not turn away from it. Silence, 13 Reasons Why argues, is the real killer.

But few of the experts who criticized 13 Reasons Why’s first season have suggested that silence is the answer. Rather, they’ve suggested that the show is framing an important conversation irresponsibly.

“None of the criticism of 13 Reasons Why means that we shouldn’t talk about suicide; we should. In fact, it’s critical that we do,” wrote mental health advocate Mark Henick in an impassioned editorial for CNN last year. “But we need to do it right. We know that contact-based education — when people share their personal stories of struggle and recovery — is by far the most effective way of breaking down stigma surrounding suicide, which is the primary reason people don’t speak up or get help.”

In contrast, Henick argued, shows like 13 Reasons Why — in which a girl who dies by suicide is celebrated as a heroine and her death is shown in explicit detail, and none of the people to whom she reaches out, including her school counselor, are equipped to help her — can do more harm than good. It can create the idea that suicide will lead to a kind of popular immortality, and that sometimes it’s the best solution to a problem.

Anecdotally, the teenagers in my life certainly seem to have taken the lessons Henick feared from the show. When the first season came out, a good friend of mine was a school counselor for eighth-graders, and she frequently seethed over the show’s popularity among her students. “All my kids took away from that show is that sometimes suicide is the only answer, and that if you have a problem, you shouldn’t talk to a male counselor about it,” she said. For her, the show did prompt a conversation, but it was one of damage control: She had to undo the lessons that her students were coming away with.

“I don’t think we can conclude, based on this study, that watching 13 Reasons Why is more beneficial than harmful,” said Regina Miranda, a professor of psychology at Hunter CUNY who specializes in suicidal ideation, in an email to Vox.

The issue, she said, is that the study does not appear to examine the show’s effects on viewers who are struggling with suicidal ideation.

“The question, ‘Who might be harmed by watching this show?’ goes unanswered,” said Miranda. “The show might be beneficial to people who are not vulnerable to suicidal behavior or who can be proactive about seeking help, but either not beneficial or harmful for teenagers and young adults who are thinking about suicide but unlikely to disclose their suicidal thoughts or seek help.”

That is not to say, she added, that 13 Reasons Why is definitely harmful. Most of the research on suicide contagion focuses on the results of media coverage of actual suicides. There’s much less conclusive data on the effects of graphic depictions of fictional suicide.

“We don’t know from empirical research whether watching 13 Reasons Why makes young people more suicidal,” Miranda said. But, she added, “contemporary theories of suicide suggest that people who are thinking about suicide are more likely to act on their thoughts when they can no longer tolerate their distress, when they can’t disengage from their suicidal thoughts, and when they have acquired the capacity to kill themselves.”

The theory among experts is that shows like 13 Reasons Why teach people with suicidal ideation to keep returning to the idea of suicide, and to continually engage with it and become comfortable with it.

“To the degree that watching fictional depictions about suicide prevents vulnerable youth from disengaging from their suicidal thoughts, keeps them thinking about how they would kill themselves, and gets them used to the idea of suicide as an option,” Miranda said, “it potentially makes them vulnerable to acting on their suicidal thoughts when they can no longer tolerate or think of other ways to escape their distress.”

The Northwestern study works to reframe the show as a dialogue starter, but it doesn’t successfully rebut the arguments made against the first season.

In season two, 13 Reasons Why tries to offer the “reasons why not.” It doesn’t quite land.

Christian Navarro and RJ Brown in 13 Reasons Why Netflix

That said, 13 Reasons Why’s second season offers another chance for the show to take some of the advice offered after it first aired.

“The show should avoid the suggestion that suicide is the only option and encourage disclosure and help-seeking — maybe by showing instances in which help-seeking works,” Miranda suggested, quipping, as one of her colleagues said, that it could show viewers “13 Reasons Why NOT.”

She specifically criticized the scene in the first season in which Hannah goes to her guidance counselor for help and is rebuffed. “While the intention was to create a dialogue around accountability, which is important, it also potentially sends the message to suicidal youth that help-seeking won’t work and that suicide is the only option,” Miranda says. “Suicide is not the only option.”

And in its second season, 13 Reasons Why does work to show its suicidal characters reaching out for help and receiving it. It shows the guidance counselor who failed Hannah in season one working proactively to help unstable students in season two. And it does, very literally, offer its viewers reasons why not.

In the season finale, Hannah’s mother offers Clay a list that she found after Hannah’s death. It’s titled “Reasons Why Not,” and there are 11 of them.

“She came up just short,” says Hannah’s mother. “But she left so many out. You know that, don’t you? You know that no matter how many reasons there might be why, there are always more why not.”

It’s a scene that was clearly added to the show in an attempt to appease critics of the first season, one designed to remind viewers that they have things to live for. It’s also a remarkably clumsy scene that rings false in the moment and feels unlikely to convince anyone, including those struggling with suicidal ideation, that there are lots of things for them to live for.

That’s because this show isn’t really interested in providing its viewers with things to live for. It’s interested in being shocking and provoking, and what happens two minutes after the “reasons why not scene” provides a jarring reminder of that fact.

After abandoning the suicide myths of the first season, season two embraces another harmful cultural myth

Devin Druid on 13 Reasons Why, season 1, episode 1 Beth Dubber/Netflix

The second season of 13 Reasons Why is plotless and unfocused, with very little happening from episode to episode until the season finale, about two minutes after Clay’s tearful conversation with Hannah’s mother.

That’s when Tyler, the creepy school nerd who is trying to redeem himself from his practice of stalking and photographing girls without their consent, is attacked by one of the school bullies in the bathroom. The bully brutally sodomizes Tyler with a broom handle, in a scene that’s much more graphic than the rape scenes of the first season; you see the bloody broom handle at the end.

Then Tyler goes home and collects an arsenal of guns, and goes to the school with the intention of slaughtering his classmates and then himself at the school dance. It’s only when Clay is able to talk him down with a tear-filled speech about the power of friendship that Tyler relents.

In an interview with Vulture, showrunner Brian Yorkey defended the graphic rape scene, citing the show’s ability to start a dialogue. “We’re committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can,” he said. “We fully understand that that means some of the scenes in the show will be difficult to watch. I think Netflix has helped provide viewers with lots of resources for understanding that this may not be the show for everybody, and also resources for people who do watch it and are troubled and need help.”

Yorkey is right that there are few TV shows on right now that deal with the problem of the sexual abuse of boys and men, and a careful, sensitive investigation of that problem — like, for instance, American Crime Storys second season — could do important artistic and social work.

But the fact is, 13 Reasons Why’s sequence is not “a truthful story.” The rape is played for shock, not for empathy, and it pushes Tyler into destructive acts that alienate him from the audience’s sympathy.

Moreover, it reinforces the myth that school shooters are the victims of bullying pushed to the breaking point and lashing out against their tormentors, and that if their peers had just reached out to them, they might have prevented the shootings. And it reinforces that myth just months after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, inspired a national conversation about how that’s not the case.

The myth seems to have emerged in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, when the narrative was that the shooters were ostracized by their peers and fighting back against their bullies. But, as Stephanie Chen wrote for CNN, that’s not the case. In fact, there’s little evidence that the shooters were ever bullied. They had their own circle of friends, never discussed having been bullied in their diaries, and did not target their school’s popular jocks. They were looking for fame. “They wanted to bomb their school in an attack they hoped would make them more infamous than Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh,” Chen writes.

After Parkland, some commenters suggested that that shooter, too, lashed out because he was bullied. The students of Parkland, the American Spectator wrote, “bullied a kid, taunted him. Because, like, you know, he deserved it. He was so weird.”

It was an argument that Parkland student Isabelle Robinson refuted strongly in a New York Times op-ed titled, “I Tried to Befriend Nikolas Cruz. He Still Killed My Friends.”

“No amount of kindness or compassion alone would have changed the person that Nikolas Cruz is and was, or the horrendous actions he perpetrated,” Robinson wrote. “That is a weak excuse for the failures of our school system, our government and our gun laws.”

It’s an excuse that 13 Reasons Why embraces wholeheartedly with Tyler’s plot, all the while claiming that it’s a show that dares to confront hard truths when no one else will.

The rape and school shooting plot is not about confronting hard truths. It’s about the titillating spectacle of Tyler’s pain and humiliation, the thrilling shock of seeing him threaten the school, and the catharsis of his subsequent surrender to the heroic Clay. It’s a cheap plot line that relies entirely on shocking the audience to do its work, and in the process, it reinforces harmful and dangerous myths that are actively being used right now to harass children who survived a school shooting. There is nothing true about it.

13 Reasons Why continually stumbles onto such pernicious myths whenever it tries to discuss hard truths: the myth that suicide will set you free from your pain, that school shooters are traumatized victims of bullying. And that it can’t seem to avoid leaning into those myths with extravagantly brutal and graphic imagery seems to suggest that whatever the Northwestern study might say, this show is not actually interested in guiding its young viewers into a thoughtful and careful dialogue. If anything, it seems to find the idea of such thoughtful and careful dialogue to be boring and trite, which is why the “reasons why not” scene falls so flat.

This is a show that wants only to shock, and then to congratulate itself on shocking. It is fundamentally cheap and aesthetically empty.

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