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All I Needed Was The Love You Gave: “13 Reasons Why” is Brutal and Necessary Storytelling on Bullying, Sexual Violence, & Suicide

From the Editor by

Author’s Note: This editorial is rooted in my personal experience, and my interpretation of the television series, 13 Reasons Why. I am not a professional/expert on suicide or depression, nor am I a clinical psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. As a certified Advocate for victim/survivors of sexual violence, I have training and experience in trauma counseling. I have my own mental health struggles, and I have been a partner to, friend of, and family member with people who have their own. Take this editorial with a healthy pinch of salt, and read with a critical eye. These are opinions, not facts. Make up your own mind on whether this show is for you, your family, your friends, and especially your children.

When I discuss this show with friends and colleagues I give them this same warning: Take care of yourself before you watch this show. Take care of yourself while you watch. 13 Reasons Why is heavy, and at times overwhelming. It may be triggering or upsetting. The show does not hide the fact that sexual violence and suicide are at the heart of the narrative. This editorial will discuss why I think the show is important, but by no means am I saying you must watch it. It will not be for everyone, and that is OK. I found value in it, but I understand why many people don’t. I’ll discuss some of that too.

As with the show, content warning for this editorial: suicide, sexual violence, depression, and rape.

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This post will contain significant spoilers.

The last section, headlined All I Needed Was the Love You Gave, does not contain spoilers, and could be read to gain general impressions on why believe 13 Reasons Why is valuable and worthwhile.

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Attention Must Be Paid

As the final episode of 13 Reasons Why nears its conclusion, the song “Only You” begins to play. The song, a cover of Yazoo’s 1982 track, is one that [older] audiences may recognize from the final Christmas special of the original BBC’s The Office. It is the song that plays when Dawn returns to the party to kiss Tim. It was a moment years in the making that packed an emotional punch of delightful catharsis. As executive producer Selena Gomez’s cover plays, the audience of 13 Reasons Why, having undergone an emotional experience polar opposite from the audience of The Office, will not be rewarded with a similar moment of delight. Hannah will not walk back into school to kiss Clay. As often in life, this show offers no grand happy endings.

In early March of 2001 I was three weeks shy of my 18th birthday and a senior in high school. It was the first time that someone I knew––Dave, a friend––died from suicide. That was four or five years after I wrote a note to my mom telling her that I was having suicidal thoughts. I don’t remember much about that earlier time, but I am fairly confident it was mostly a cry for help and attention. I received both, and I am here today to talk about it. I needed love, and my mom was there to give it. But I asked for it, which a lot of people are not able to. I don’t fault them for that.

Sometimes these “cries for help” are just for attention, but more often than not, the people doing them need the attention. It could truly be a matter of life or death, so it’s important we never ignore these cries or belittle them. (Venzke, 2017, para. 6)

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original series adapted from the 2007 YA novel of the same name by Jay Asher. The story is narrated by 13 audiotapes recorded by Hannah Baker detailing her experiences after moving to a new town and starting high school, and through Clay Jensen’s perspective as he listens to them, and seeks to understand Hannah. Hannah’s experiences include sexual harassment, bullying, sexual assault, depression, isolation, and rape. Her experiences culminate in her death by suicide. The 13 tapes––each spoken to a specific person, and intended to be listened to in order before being passed on to the next person in the chain––act as Hannah’s suicide note.

13 Reasons Why is an important and necessary piece of storytelling because it does not allow for a superficial or surface-level analysis of why it can be so hard to ask for help or to say what is on our minds and in our hearts. Even, and especially, when what we want to say is, “I love you,” or “I am not OK.” This may be especially so for teens. 13 Reasons Why highlights the horrors our children go through, and in part, the horrors that we collectively put them through: the horrors that they are subjected to by their peers, the media, and their schools.

It is important to remember that 13 Reasons Why is telling one person’s story. There are lessons that we can learn from it, but to assume that this story represents, intentionally or presumably, a universal experience of sexual assault, mental illness, or what it is like to be in high school in 2017 would be both erroneous and unnecessary. An experience doesn’t have to be universal to be meaningful, and to expect as much makes an impossible demand of storytellers.

In the final episode, Clay talks the school counselor through Hannah’s last day, which happened to begin with him in that very office. It ended in her bathroom, violently and alone in a tub full of water and blood. We are with Hannah in this moment, sitting opposite her in the tub. We see her fear and sadness, but also her resolution. Then we see her pain as she drags a razorblade twice down each of her forearms. It is graphic in its violence. It is arguably necessary. It is as incredibly painful for her to bear as it was heartbreaking for me to witness. She dies alone, with us as her invisible company, and is later discovered by her mom. We are with them in this moment too.

Audiences and critics are debating whether these scenes were too graphic, too unnecessary, too glorifying of suicide. In addition to the depiction of suicide, the show features two brutally honest depictions of rape and multiple instances of non-penetrative sexual assault. I have yet to read concerns over whether these scenes glorify sexual violence. I would wager that at any given time of the day or night, if you flipped the channels on TV for even a few minutes, you could find a show or movie in which rape or sexual violence is a plot point. On network television some of the most popular shows (some having run for over 20 seasons) regularly feature plotlines about rape and murder, and I bet we do not blink twice when we see those acts of violence or when characters walk through the crime scenes.

A December 2016 story by Variety detailed the industry’s history with using rape as a plot point, or as a go-to way to describe why a character featured certain traits. Rarely did it advance the storyline in a meaningful way, producers explained, or focus on a female character. A number of scenes, like one in Game of Thrones, focus instead on the point of view of a male character, or serve as a way to propel a male character forward to find justice. 13 Reasons Why leans toward the same gender breakdown in one respect: it is Clay who really tries to get justice for both Hannah and Jessica. But what is different here is the fact that, because of its structure, the show at least allows Hannah to tell her own story. (Ceron, 2017, para. 8)

Sexual violence is a reality in our culture. And for all its use as a plot device, we are collectively pretty terrible at actually addressing it in our own lives and relationships. Rates of teen suicide are shockingly and shamefully high, yet we are so afraid of glorifying it and encouraging so-called copycats, that as a society we would rather ignore it, shame it, and hush it, than actually discuss what might be behind it.

A 2015 study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 years and that 17% of students in ninth through 12th grade “seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.” (Friedlander, 2017, para. 15)

Ignoring this reality, choosing not to speak about it, or silencing discussion about recent deaths by suicide within one’s school or community does not reduce the statistics.  13 Reasons Why begins to force the discussion. As an audience to a fictional character, I felt a responsibility to sit in the tub with Hannah, to keep her company as she died, because there are so many Hannahs and Daves out there. Their deaths are symbolic of the loneliness and isolation they felt in life, and we owe them far more than just a few moments of our attention.

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We All Killed Hannah Baker

I don’t believe that other people are responsible for our decisions, or for anyone else’s mental health. Nor do I believe that we have the ability to save anyone else. However, what we do to people matters. How we treat people matters. What happens to us matters. We have an impact on other people whether it was how we intended or not. Therefore we have a responsibility to be kind and caring; to be empathetic and work to be understanding; to seek to do no harm, and be willing to be held accountable and to make amends when we do.

13 Reasons Why is effective television and storytelling because it is brutally realistic of what it is like to be in high school. This may even turn off some viewers who find the characters annoying or tedious. I work in high schools and I found them believable. I remember what I felt like as an emotional and romantically shy teenage boy, and I found them frustratingly truthful. About halfway through the 13-episode season, as Clay has digested half of Hannah’s tapes, he comes to the understanding that no single person caused Hannah’s death. Rather, everyone––including those who are not prominent enough to earn a tape of their own––contributed to the deplorable conditions to which Hannah was subjected day in and day out. Teasing, taunting, bullying, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and sexual violence were regular experiences in Hannah’s life. By 17, Hannah had experienced far more than any person should ever have to. And before you try to comfort yourself with platitudes that, “well, it’s only a TV show,” I can promise you, with both national statistics and my own experiences as an advocate for victim/survivors of sexual violence as backing, fictional Hannah’s experiences are far from a work of fiction.

Bullying rarely looks like bullying to the people who enact it or enable it. Often and easily characterized as teasing, having fun, or just playing around, in another context they may not be wrong. But what 13 Reasons Why gets so right is its depiction of how experiences compound for the person who is being targeted. A simple comment or action may be harmlessly intended, and in a vacuum might be harmlessly received. But we don’t live in vacuums. In the timeline of a person’s life, or their day, or even a specific series of moments, that same comment or action might be harmless or triggering; might be devastating; might be experienced as a violation of safety; might be the thing that makes the thought click, “I can’t be here anymore” because their sense of self is so fragile, or tenuously constructed, and they are in so much pain that they are not able to see their worth and their value.

13 Reasons Why understands that violence looks different to different people, and under different circumstances. Our ability to interpret violence differently does not lessen its potency or its validity. Rather it emphasizes the need to foster empathy, so that we can care for one another rather than create more harm by working so hard to defend ourselves and maintain that we “didn’t intend it that way.”

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Because People Are Complicated

What this show also gets right is that there is no single lens through which a person can be understood. Everyone has a story to tell, and people, in narrative terms, can be a hero and villain, a victim and a perpetrator. Although 13 Reasons Why is Hannah’s story seen partly through Clay’s perspective and experience of listening to the tapes, we also get glimpses of other stories, gleaning nuance that neither Hannah nor Clay were able to see. Justin, for example, a star athlete, cocky and squint eyed, who could easily pass for a young Franco brother, is ostensibly the person who kicks off the series of events outlined by Hannah. While on a date, Justin takes an up-skirt photo of Hannah in a park and shows it to his friends the next day. One of them sends it en masse around the school. Justin also refrains from correcting his friends on just how “far” he and Hannah went sexually that night, allowing rumors to spread that result in the “slut” and “easy” label to be affixed permanently upon Hannah.

It is easy to hate Justin, and we are supposed to for several episodes. But then we are offered a glimpse into his home life. His appearance, reputation, attitude, and jock status imply that he is middle or upper class; that he inherited gender and white-skin privilege. But his situation is complicated. Justin lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with his mom, who is a junky, and a revolving door of her deadbeat boyfriends/dealers. Justin’s mom, who he cries out to for love and attention, rejects him in favor of her dealer. Justin often stays with his lavishly affluent friend, Bryce––who does meet all of the above jock-related assumptions, and more––when it is not safe for Justin at home.

Justin and others, including Jessica, one of Hannah’s closest friends until Jessica abandons her for a series of boyfriends, go to great lengths to convince themselves and each other that Hannah is lying throughout her storytelling. We learn, along with Clay, late into the series of tapes that Jessica was raped by Bryce at a party when she was passed out. The commitment to asserting that Hannah is lying is in part an act of assumed mercy on Justin’s part to save Jessica from the reality of her rape, which Justin didn’t do enough to prevent or stop. Even as he sees Jessica descending into addiction and depression, Justin digs in deeper to the lie in an attempt to protect her.

As someone who likely experienced various types of abuse growing up, Justin internalized it, and now repeats certain patterns. I am not forgiving Justin, far from it, but I understand how violence begets violence, and cycles perpetuate when they go unchecked, unpacked, and under a veil of silence. In order to undo rape culture, we must understand how it perpetuates itself through cycles of abuse, and recognize that no story is as clear-cut or linear as we often want to believe. This doesn’t absolve Justin’s behavior, but it complicates it.

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On Critiques

People who commit suicide are deeply and severely suffering to the point where they feel that no longer existing is the best solution. Mentally healthy people do not seriously feel this way, at least not to the point where they would seriously consider taking their own life. Again, this is not a healthy mindset, so people with it are suffering from mental illness and they need help. I was extremely disappointed in “13 Reasons Why” and their lack of discussing mental illness because it is utterly impossible to separate suicide from it. (Venzke, 2017, para. 2)

I appreciate this critique of 13 Reasons Why; it is a valid critique, but I also find it conflicting. Narratively, I am not sure exactly how the show could have explored mental illness in a way that still allows for the outcome––suicide––that it had chosen for Hannah. It is possible that in various characters’ reflections on what they could have been done differently to prevent Hannah’s death, they could expressly recognize that Hannah was likely struggling with mental illness and depression. Perhaps some of the school’s suicide awareness campaigns could have specifically addressed depression and mental illness as well. In my own work in high schools, which to be fair has been limited and focused within a few schools throughout Minneapolis, I do not see much emphasis on being aware of the warning signs of mental illnesses and depression in teens. So the lack of this awareness seems to me to be culturally consistent and realistic.

My biggest concern with the critiques that I have read about 13 Reasons Why all tend to align along the same misconception and erasure. To only look at this show through a lens of mental illness and depression without utilizing an intersectional analysis of sexual violence and the experience of those who are victim/survivors of sexual violence results in an incomplete view. In my reading of the show, sexual violence is as much or more of a factor in Hannah’s ultimate decision as mental illness. And many of the critiques erase Hannah’s experiences of sexual violence.

Sexual violence is about power and control. Sexual acts are used as weapons to remove someone’s agency and autonomy. Sexual acts are used to degrade and humiliate someone. Rape and sexual assault are not about uncontrollable desire or libidos run wild, as it is often framed. It is not merely boys being boys. As an advocate for victim/survivors of sexual violence, we focus on working with individuals to shape a self-directed healing path. This often centers on identifying strategies and goals in which the victim/survivor is able to regain a sense of control over their life and their body that the assault they experienced violated. Hannah experienced an escalating series of sexual violences and public humiliations. When she tried to regain control of her body and identity, trying to date, she found her trust broken time and time again. Her lack of control compounded into severe emotional isolation and lack of trust. As such, it should not be surprising that she chose not to disclose the violences she experienced.

I understand the critique that 13 Reasons Why did not do enough to clearly identify Hannah as living with mental illness. I understand the critique that Hannah had agency, and ultimately the decision to die by suicide was hers and hers alone. And I understand the critique that the form of her suicide letter––the tapes directed at specific individuals––casts blame and responsibility for her death on them. But utilizing an understanding of the dynamics of sexual violence as being fundamentally about power and control, what if the tapes are not revenge, as I have read it characterized, but an attempt to regain some control over her story and therefore her life? And then, having felt like she has control over her story and her life, Hannah makes the decision to not be here anymore. That she can’t be here anymore. Maybe the distinction is irrelevant, but with her history of sexual violence, I have been troubled by its erasure in critiques of the show’s handling of mental illness.

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All I Needed Was The Love You Gave

To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients––care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication. (hooks, 2000, p. 5)

I was in a relationship with someone for six years throughout my early and mid-20s. It was my first significant relationship, and until its last year, I expected it to be my only significant relationship. Throughout that final year I came to a realization that bell hooks would help me put into words many years later. Love, as songwriters and storytellers often frame it, is not all you need. Love cannot be fallen into or out of. I believe, as I learned to articulate from hooks, that love is work. Sometimes we decide that someone is worth the work, and sometimes we stop feeling that way. I don’t believe love can save us, nor do I believe lack of love can kill us. But I do feel, and do believe, that love in our lives makes things a little bit better. And the way we often treat each other––unkindly, thoughtlessly, abusively––and the pressures we put on ourselves and each other does make things a lot harder.

We live in a world of increasing connectedness that somehow often leaves me feeling incredibly alone. I yearn for connection and community but I am slow to trust having been hurt before, I temper my willingness to allow someone the potential to hurt me again. I put up walls and defenses. I have perfected the shtick of aloofness. As we act in self-defense or to ensure self-preservation, we hurt others in the process; confuse them with our silence in hopes they may read the longing in our eyes and make the first move. We are socialized to treat each other’s bodies as a field upon which love is played like a game. We are not taught how to do the work that cultivates and builds true connection in which love can thrive.

I understand why parents, educators, and some professionals have concerns over 13 Reasons Why. However, the extent to which some are going to silence the show is excessive and counterproductive. Such efforts are likely to increase intrigue and lend even more legitimacy to the series. I wonder if people are so afraid of 13 Reasons Why not because it may encourage copycats, but because it begins conversations they are ill prepared to engage in. The parents, teachers, and administrators in the show, even after Hannah’s death, were much more inclined to hold tightly to their illusions, othering the problem, and distancing themselves, their children, and their school from any cracks in the fantasy of suburban perfection. I think the reaction to this show says more about the shortcomings of our adults than the vulnerabilities of our children.

This show now exists in the world, and being on Netflix, it is incredibly accessible to kids and teens. So what do we do with it? The articles, reviews, and critiques are important and valid, but if we aren’t having conversations with our friends and colleagues, and especially our loved ones and our children, then we are failing to learn the greatest lessons that 13 Reasons Why is working to convey. I don’t think that 13 Reasons Why needs a second season, but it is fairly inevitable it will have one. Perhaps season two could delve into mental illness in a way that is as realistic and effective as its handling of bullying and sexual violence.

The lesson to take away from 13 Reasons Why is that often the greatest service we can provide to one another, one that––and this is not hyperbole––can save a life, is to check in with someone: to genuinely ask how they are doing, not as a means to talk about ourselves but to remind them that what happens to them matters, and that we are there to listen to them. But that also requires that we listen actively and with compassion. If instead we make it clear that bullying is just a part of being in high school, that mental illness is to be ignored, that to be the victim/survivor of sexual violence is something to be ashamed of, then we are individually and collectively far more responsible for the shockingly high rates of considered, attempted, or completed suicide than a television show ever could be.

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Works Cited & Referenced

Ceron, E. (2017, April 3). How 13 reasons why depicts rape differently from other tv shows. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from Teen Vogue: http://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-13-reasons-why-depicts-rape

Friedlander, W. (2017, April 4). Why Netflix’s 13 reasons why is one of the most important TV shows of the season. Retrieved April 15, 2017, from Paste Magazine: https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/04/why-netflixs-13-reasons-why-is-one-of-the-most-imp.html

hooks, b. (2000). All about love. New York: HarperCollins.

Madriga, E. (2017, April 12). Other people aren’t responsible for your mental health: Why ’13 reasons why’ is pretty much bullshit . Retrieved April 15, 2017, from Thought Catalog: http://thoughtcatalog.com/emily-madriga/2017/04/other-people-arent-responsible-for-your-mental-health-why-13-reasons-why-is-pretty-much-bullshit/

Miller, K. (2017, April 13). ’13 reasons why’ is not the force for mental health awareness people say it is. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from Self: http://www.self.com/story/13-reasons-why-suicide-and-mental-health

Venzke, M. (2017, April 17). 13 things to remember after watching “13 reasons why”. Retrieved April 18, 2017, from The Odyssey Online: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/13-remember-watching-13-reasons

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Edited by Carrie Morrisroe

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