Clarissa contributor Lucía Carillo muses on the various disappointments of 13 Reasons Why, and how the show failed the very audience it was supposedly reaching out to…
13 Reasons Why has been the center of some divisive, but excellent, discussion recently. From Selena Gomez’s fans who support and love the show to mental health organizations who criticized 13 Reasons Why for showing a dangerous portrayal of suicide. To me, it means that mental illness and bullying are hopefully starting to be taken seriously. And it makes me believe our culture is at least becoming more and more aware of these problems. However, not everything is rainbows and butterflies; I do believe there’s no point in watching the show without reading different opinions from different points of view. And as a person who has dealt with mental illness for most of her life I think there are some things I would like to talk about.
When I finished watching the show there was one thing that was in my mind all the time: if I would have watched 13 Reasons Why a few years earlier, when I was actually considering suicide, this show wouldn’t have helped me at all. In fact, quite the opposite.
This is the first thing I don’t like about 13 Reasons Why: It makes it seem like nobody can help you, and that it is useless to ask for help. It has been said that the show defends suicide or that, somehow, it romanticizes it. The show, instead of showing different alternatives, portrays suicide as the only alternative. The last tape of Hannah is really important, because it’s the moment where she asks for help. However, the school’s counselor ignores her, so it seems there’s no other way to be helped, it also seems asking for help is useless.
But it is not, and I want this to be known: asking for help is not useless. Of course, it’s hard to ask for help and it is hard to be helped, but at least you need to know there is help for mental health problems. I just wish that 13 Reasons Why would have shown there are more possibilities than school orientation or just a cute boy (Clay).
Let me talk about Clay now; the prototypical “nice boy”. He doesn’t do anything to hurt Hannah (apparently), and he respects her, and that’s why he’s the male protagonist. But he totally hogs Hannah’s purpose and monopolizes the story, just like men do with women in history. And sorry, but that’s not fair. Hannah doesn’t owe anything to Clay, not even a tape, nothing at all. She doesn’t need to justify anything to Clay, and young women shouldn’t be taught to think they owe anything to men just because they are nice.
Furthermore, this story arc purports the idea that love can save us. And that isn’t just stupid, it’s also dangerous. Love isn’t a cure-all, just like being “nice” isn’t a golden ticket of entitlement to someone. Nice is what people should be with you because you are a person, not because they like you. You don’t need to be liked to be respected. You don’t have to explain your feelings to anyone just because that person is good to you. If he is good, they will understand eventually (but of course, it is your choice and you are the one who decides over your actions).
Hannah includes Clay in the tapes because she wanted him to know that he is different and she wants him to know what she was going through. Which is crucial, because our feelings matter, our experiences are important, and we naturally want to reach out and share them when we’re struggling. Hannah has been abused and that’s the reason she pushed Clay away, but she doesn’t need to explain to Clay why she did that. We need to end this idea that women owe things to men just because they treat us as human beings.
Because, I also found it was impossible for me to identify with Hannah, even though I’ve experienced many of the things she experiences. I needed to know more about her, more than her experiences, and Clay’s role in the show took away from that. What did she enjoy doing? How was her childhood? How was her life in the other school? These details are important when you develop a character in order to make them approachable, and relatable, which she wasn’t. Clay, on the other hand, is a character that we got to know far more in depth. In fact, it felt as though we only really got to know Hannah through his perspective, which removed much of her agency from the story. And that felt unnerving to me.
Clay’s role in the show made me wonder: Who is this show for? It doesn’t seem to be for people who need help. It’s far too triggering and it lacks any constructive solutions to be that, which is even more evident when you realise that Hannah isn’t the main character. The main characters are the bullies; the whole show is about them. Clearly, 13 Reasons Why is a message to bullies, and abusers, rather than a message to people who are struggling with severe mental health problems, or their own abuse.
I’m sorry, but if you make a show to raise awareness about bullying and mental illness the main point should be to focus on how to help those people, and not about the bullies. I keep watching posts of people who feel sorry for Zach, Justin and the others. This can easily go to the argument where we say “hey, we are all human, we all make mistakes” and that argument is, first, bullshit, and second, dangerous because it is a way of justifying abuse.
Instead of offering a comprehensive perspective of bullies’ life, the show should talk, for example, about self-care. Sometimes the show seems to be more about creating awareness between the bullies than to actually help people understand how mental illness work and how to help people who need it. I don’t care about how sad Justin’s life is; I don’t care how smart and awesome Zach is. When you care about how a bully feels, you are humanizing the bully and you are making them a victim.
Actions have consequences, and your shitty life shouldn’t be an excuse to abuse someone else. I don’t even care about the future of those kids, I don’t care they had to deal difficult situations. That is not an excuse. It can’t be. And 13 Reasons Why definitely failed in making it feel as though this was the case.
A few weeks ago Netflix announced a second season, and it hasn’t been written yet. I just hope the makers of the show take criticisms seriously, and change the perspective. A lot of teens consider suicide, and so far, 13 Reasons Why has failed to cater to their needs.
Lucía Carrillo is writer and blogger, originally from Granada in Spain, who has written for sites and magazines like MOGUL and Cultura Colectiva. Lucía writes in English and Spanish about TV, feminism, and philosophy, and is also interested in space, time, and Artificial Intelligence. Her blog, You can find her blog, Thinking About Causation, here. Lucía’s a feminist ukulele player who truly loves pizza, sweet potatoes, and chestnuts. Follow her on Instagram.