The powerful, new Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” deserves praise for its important subject matter, its gripping narrative, and its unflinching look at historically taboo topics such as suicide, sexual assault, and bullying. Although the show’s ability to provoke discussions on these topics is a great virtue, the treatment of these topics veers into the dangerous. The show’s heavy-handed, cause-oriented approach saps the complexity from difficult issues. Worse, the show’s internal logic of blaming all involved for one person’s emotional responses collapses upon itself.
If taken seriously and extrapolated beyond Hannah and her experience, the philosophical approach of the show would lead to problems, from a First Amendment perspective and from a social ordering perspective. Here are thirteen reasons why.
- The show’s message appears to be that we, as a society, must cater to the most emotionally vulnerable among us. Hannah’s suicide tapes blame everyone she’s encountered – from the most culpable rapist to the least culpable friend. The way that the show builds, every emotional upset is a trigger, and everyone who has interacted with Hannah shares responsibility for her death. This is an irresponsible approach to suicide, and will, if taken seriously, lead to constant second guessing and guilt for both action and inaction. Those who wield the power of emotional upset also engage in a form of emotional bullying over others, stifling their behavior, so we need to grapple with when that emotional upset is justified.
- Of course, those who spread false rumors about Hannah, or exploited her, should understand their culpability. But those who simply decided not to be her friend, or who made a few hostile remarks to her, should not feel responsible for her death. Although the message of treating each other better is laudable, the show’s approach is a recipe for social repression and a blow to personal autonomy.
- Viewing events leading up to a disaster as a cascading, butterfly-effect-like trigger to Hannah’s death also has serious free speech implications. Schools should surely be a place where students feel safe to learn without violence or constant fear, but students should not feel entitled to be safe from any behavior that may add to the distress of the student with the worst coping skills. School is also a place where students should be challenged, intellectually and emotionally, and where they learn to exhibit not just emotional empathy, but emotional fortitude.
- The internal logic of the show collapses upon itself, because no one can temper his or her behavior to ensure that the most emotionally troubled student is unaffected. We see this collapse because Hannah, herself, did not spend much time worrying about the emotional effects of her behavior in seeking retribution for her suicide. Alex’s attempted suicide at the end of the show is directly traceable to Hannah’s suicide tapes. The show’s own message would seemingly apply to Hannah’s somewhat vindictive behavior in making the suicide tapes, yet the tapes themselves – which brought important truths to light – cannot and should not be judged solely on their emotional impact on others. Even emotionally upsetting behavior and speech is often laudable, or at least acceptable.
- Indeed, the show’s own message doesn’t appear to apply to Hannah, who is granted permission by the show to engage in cowardly, weak, dishonest behavior while blaming everyone else for her distress. From the start, Hannah plays a funny prank on Justin, leaving him stranded on a bus. I can only imagine how this scene would have been perceived if the roles in this scenario were reversed.
- Much worse, Hannah wrongs Jessica – by standing still in a closet refusing to stop Bryce from raping the unconscious Jessica – and yet feels entitled to make a tape blaming Jessica for Jessica’s paltry contribution to Hannah’s suicide. So little is asked of Hannah, in terms of courage, fortitude, or thinking of others, because she is the show’s victim. We are not supposed to wonder why Hannah didn’t attempt to dispel the false rumors spread about her, or step outside of her own misery to stop the rape of another human being, because Hannah is the most vulnerable.
- The show’s attitude dishonors personal responsibility and fairness, but allows bad behavior only by some members of society. The show seems to especially excuse women for their behavior, because they are generally victims. Historically, we expected too much from women – we expected them to essentially struggle to the death if they were being sexually assaulted, otherwise the crime would be excused. We are moving into an era of affirmative consent, which is fine, if those who are accused of a serious crime like rape are aware that they may be violating others without their victims even expressing any resistance. But I fear that we are now overcompensating, refusing to ask women to stand up for themselves in any way – refusing to demand that they protect themselves, or protect their friends.
- The show’s approach to women has serious consequences for the way we think about female empowerment and autonomy. Hannah had the capacity to act bravely and save Jessica. She did not do so. Hannah also deserves blame for allowing Sheri (one of the most complex, compelling characters) to lie about a car accident that killed another person. Hannah should have come forward immediately and informed authorities about the stop sign. Her weaknesses are excused, because we do not expect more from her.
- Worse, Clay’s contribution to Hannah’s suicide was simply listening to Hannah when she yelled at him to leave the room after they began kissing. The show leaves audiences believing that men need to cater to women’s emotional upset even if it means ignoring their expressly stated wishes – because women can’t be responsible for what they’re saying anyway. Hannah’s indictment of Clay perpetuates the view that women are irrational and must be indulged no matter how badly they’re behaving (and that women can’t be taken at their word). Men often believe that women don’t mean what they say, even if they ask for truth or proclaim that they will behave rationally, because men are taught that they need to look out for women’s emotional well being even when it contrasts with women’s stated wishes.
- The overcompensation from this country’s long history of mishandling and ignoring rape is wreaking havoc on college campuses, under a regime of Title IX. Students now file sexual assault charges even when they gave consent, claiming they were “coerced” because they did not want to be mean to someone pressuring them to engage in sexual activity. Although this may not be the median allegation, we need to teach women that they must stand up for themselves, and we must expect this of women. Diluting the definition of coercion (to include more and more subtle forms of manipulation that we should be able to resist) undermines our respect for women’s autonomy and leads to unfair punishments for those whom they accuse of wrongdoing.
- This may be nitpicky, but in Episode Seven an elementary spelling/grammar mistake appears on the screen, confusing “affects” with “effects.” A show designed to educate teens should include writers and editors sharp enough to notice that distinction.
- This spelling error is representative of one of the major problems with the show – a focus on emotional well-being over development of critical thinking skills. Students spend the entire show immersed in their emotional states, and teachers devote countless class hours to teaching students self-esteem and positive communication skills. If students learned how to write and think in a more sophisticated way, and developed the reading and math skills that schools are primarily tasked with teaching, their communication with others and their abilities to engage with the world would improve.
- We need television that addresses the complexities of rape, suicide, and bullying, not impact pieces with such an obvious bias towards a particular view of justice. This type of show, with such an un-nuanced social justice motive, cannot help but set up straw men and fail to account for the difficulties presented by an issue. Questions involving how to assign blame, how much to cater to emotional upset, and when to require more of students in terms of emotional fortitude are complex and deserve better treatment.
I found “13 Reasons Why” highly watchable, largely beautiful, often maddening, and quite moving, especially at the end. The most successful scene, in my opinion, is the suicide scene, which hopefully will deter many troubled teens from taking their own lives and devastating their families. I will ruminate on the show’s characters, plot, and themes for a long time to come. However, I hope we don’t take the show at its word, because its own internal logical cannibalizes itself. We must demand more from everyone – women and men – to not only be empathetic, but to be brave, strong, and autonomous agents who shoulder responsibility for their decisions. Otherwise, at every moment, we are both the perpetrators and victims of a potential breakdown.