13 Reasons Why was meant to address rape culture and suicide – but did it?

Like many others, I’ve just finished binge-watching Netflix’s new show, 13 Reasons Why, and yes I might be a bit slow on the ball to be writing something up about it, I wasn’t really expecting to. But after getting through all 13 episodes (naturally) I couldn’t help but pen down a few thoughts. In truth, I found it quite hard to watch, and it wasn’t just because of the overdramatic, teenage crime detective vibe that should have been left back in 2009 with veronica Mars, it was mainly to do with the abhorrent sexism, dismissive nature of mental health and half-hearted attitude to exposing rape culture. 

If you haven’t already heard, mental health is a big issue. 1 in 3 people are likely to suffer from a mental health illness at some point in their lives, and suicide is the second largest killer of 10-24-year-olds in the US. In fact, it kills more young people than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. How’s that for a stat. The premise of this show, at least according to executive producer Selena Gomez and the cast, was to bring the topic of mental health and rape culture to the fore. They all speak about the importance of discussing this topic through cinematic art, but the whole time I was watching it I couldn’t help but cringe at the way they addressed it.  Don’t get me wrong, the show, on the whole, is good, but it’s not good enough at addressing the things that really matter. So I penned a few down.

Not enough guilt, too Hollywood, and the characters are largely unrealistic. 

The show is cinematically powerful, there are some beautiful scenes as Clay retraces Hannah’s last steps throughout their ‘shitty’ town, and the warm/cool palette changes to differentiate between Hannah breathing and deceased is noticeably chilling. In the grand scheme of television, it’s very well made. But this is part of the problem. The glossiness of the story almost masks its seriously dark undertones. You tend to forget that the ‘crime’ Clay is trying to ‘solve’ is based on a very elaborate audio suicide note by a girl he’s in love with (in fact, the storyline as a whole is painfully unrealistic, which is maybe why I have such a problem with the way they depict mental health, but more on that later). Hannah is often seen as an ‘attention seeker’ and although you see the characters of Justin and Jess really start to fall to their inner demons, most of the others still seem a bit too ‘acted’ to believe that this is affecting them.

Hannah is depicted as a sad, functioning Veronica Mars, not a girl with a bug burrowed so deep in her brain it drove her to suicide. 

Of course, we see Hannah mostly through Clay’s eyes, but I can’t help but think she seems too calm and collected through her tapes to believe that she was on the verge of taking her own life. To be honest, I don’t think the show really shows mental health in the right way at all. Suicide is not glamorous, and with how well thought out her ‘vengeance’ seems to be, there is too much of a focus on the mystery of the situation instead of helping to spot the real signs of depression.

Depression, anxiety and a whole array of mental health issues are increasingly common in a society where we seem to only be able to concentrate in 5-minute stints and share on a screen. Maybe instead of portraying suicide as ‘attention-seeking’ and like a mystery to be solved, 13RW could have had more of a hero’s journey where the characters realise just how much of a serious issue suicide is, and aside from Alex’s descension into depression which manifested itself in the final episode, I don’t think anyone aside from Clay really takes it that seriously – at least not on screen.

Imposes the idea that rape culture is only a problem when there’s violent rape

there is rape, but there’s also a lot of sexual objectification, and the school perpetuates a culture where girls are called sluts, victimised for writing poetry about their sexuality, and generally in the power paths of big burly men. Why is it that a lot of the characters, Clay included, seem only to take rape culture seriously when there is actual rape? He needs an act of sexual violence to awaken him to just how dangerous slutshaming and objectification really is, and only then is he willing to really do something about it. What if Hannah had gotten away? Would Clay still have felt the need to expose Bryce? Or would it just have been swept under the rug? He didn’t feel the need to help Hannah when a list was floating around about her. It also seems to be mainly Hannah that feels the affects of sexual assault so fiercefully, and ends up being the one who gets raped, whereas the other girls (leaving Jessica out for now) don’t seem to be too affected.

Rape culture is a big problem, especially, so it would seem in American High Schools, but 13 Reasons Why just showed people showing no guilt, a lot of problems, and teachers (not just Mr Porter) not really doing much about that. We see the lawsuit, but they focus on ‘bullying’ oppossed to sexual harrasment; maybe that’s the way a school committee would approach it, but I feel they missed a beat and could have let those issues hit a lot harder if they didn’t gloss over it in such a Hollywood way. What message does this give to young girls and women who might feel at risk in their schools or communities? That they’re only justified in feeling that way if something were to happen to them? And then if it does, will it be taken seriously?

It’s well filmed, fairly well written and cinematically thrilling. But it’s just not what I thought it could be. It was penned as a series to help remove the stigma of suicide and expose rape culture, but I can’t help but think it just enforced the idea that there is a stigma behind it. Again and again, Hannah is referred to as attention seeking, and the underlying message is that ‘you should be nice because it could save a life’ but the idea of mental health is a lot more nuanced than that. In the series the only time I felt they really took the idea of suicide seriously was the gut-wrenching, shiver-inducing scene of Hannah taking a razor blade to her wrists in the bath.

In order for a teenage girl to go through that much pain and suffering, she would have been going through a lot more than bullying, there would be voices in her brain that were egging her on and making her feel so inadequate she would rather not live anymore. Her friends could have done their part to help her and perhaps they didn’t, but it’s the problem of a society that stigmatises mental health and blames rape victims, and they focused too strongly on the crime-noir detective aspect than really breaking that down.


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