Netflix’ new hit show has received both praise and critique, but some of its dangers might be extremely relevant.
When Tabula Rasa approached me this week I was supposed to write an article on something related to my major – maybe something on bees making a ‘whoop’ sound when they bump into each other. While this is very interesting (and mildly entertaining), I had something else on my mind this week, because I just watched Netflix’s new show, “13 Reasons Why”. I am in no way an expert on TV-shows or even on psychology, but I do think there’s a few things to unpack when it comes to some controversies surrounding this TV show. So, without further ado, here’s two cents from a science major.
The show focusses on a high school girl named Hannah… who kills herself. Oh, did I just spoil the ending for you? Not really, as this is the premise of the show. Throughout the show, we follow main character Clay Jensen, a goody-goody student at Liberty High, who comes home one day to discover a box of tapes on his front porch from an anonymous sender. These tapes contain the 13 reasons why Hannah decided to end her own life. Not only do we get to know Clay while he listening to the tapes, we also get to know the different people that are mentioned on the tapes. Through flashbacks and Hannah’s narration, we find out Hannah was the victim of cyberbullying and social isolation.
“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”
As much praise as the show has received already within this short time, it is also highly criticized by many psychologists and counsellors who deal with suicidal teens on a daily basis. Most of the critique is centred around the final two episodes of the thirteen episode series. Before the start of the episodes Netflix warns the audience for ‘shocking’ images, which ‘might not be appropriate for younger viewers’. We see how Hannah ends her life. It’s shocking, graphic, violent, hard, and extremely uncomfortable to look at. In the making-of special we get some insights into the producer’s decisions. As producer Brian Yorkey explains: “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide”.
Some psychologists argue that showing suicide in such a violent manner might lead to something known as the Werther-effect (also referred to as social contagion), which means that people have a tendency to copy the behaviour they see. Especially young people who are already dealing with suicidal tendencies and depression can be vulnerable to this effect. Others have argued that because Hannah is a beautiful and sometimes mysterious girl, the show actually romanticizes suicide.
I agree that to some extent there are risks in showing these images. However, just because Hannah is a beautiful girl does not make her suicide in any way more appealing. The reality of the much-debated scene is what’s most important. It’s a violent and unnecessary end to a young life. And with suicide now being the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds, I think we might need a wakeup call.
What I think is most important to take away from this show is that people aren’t perfect, even Hannah, who sometimes makes decisions that aren’t necessarily good for her. People, especially young people, can be extremely cruel, and like Hannah often says: ‘Everything affects everything’. What seems small in the eye of others, might have a huge impact on someone’s life. And we can never truly know what goes on behind closed doors. This is something the show communicates extremely well and therefore, I sincerely recommend everyone to watch it.
Charlie Stuijt, Class of 2018, is a biology and life science major from Rotterdam, the Netherlands.