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13 reasons why not

Netflix original falls short of authenticity in portrayal of mental illness

Samantha Mineroff, Staff Writer

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It’s no secret that people have been raving about the new Netflix original series, “13 Reasons Why.” There are countless listicles and articles on social media that both put this show on a pedestal and tear it apart. I’m going to do neither, and simply give my own personal critique of this show.

A few years ago, I was close to doing what Hannah Baker, the main character who commits suicide, does at the end of the season. However, there weren’t reasons for it. There was no one I had to blame—I was surrounded by loved ones; I was in a good home; I was privileged, and I still have all of those things today. Depression is more than just having bad things happen to you, and sometimes it has nothing to do with those things at all. Depression is, in fact, like any other sickness. It’s something you cannot control, and something that you can get treatment for. There are ways to heal, and you don’t have to be raped, hurt or bullied to feel bad and seek help. If this show is meant to bring depression to light, then the story line and character choices do an awful job doing so.

“13 Reasons Why” should instead be centered around bullying (and it is) and the effects of bullying (in some way it does). But this show should not be highly regarded for its “ability” to discuss “hard topics” about suicide and depression. True, there aren’t many shows out there that are both entertaining and mind-opening. But that’s the thing—the show fantasizes high school just like every other television show out there. The actors are at least 20 years or older and some of the relationships and events that happen are simply unrealistic. The amount of adversities Hannah Baker faces in just one year is incredibly hard to believe. I’m not saying what she faces shouldn’t  be discussed, and that what she faces in the story aren’t real problems, or problems that don’t happen all the time. The show simply fails to execute these well, or in a manner that helps us understand depression.

Before I delve into some of the issues with the show, there are some positives I want to make clear. One is that it does normalize healthy, bisexual, gay and lesbian relationships in a high school setting. It does show that people are struggling, and that it’s okay to not be okay. It does highlight the difficulties of being a parent, and it does bring to light issues in regards to bullying and social media. But these, I don’t think, make up for what the show does not do well.

One of the worst things about this show is that it paints a bad picture of counselors and people who are meant to be used as resources. Sure, the guidance counselor at the high school in this show could have done more. But it only makes people watching the show feel that much more helpless. If you can’t go to the one resource that promises help, what can you do? And the way the interaction occurs in the show, it almost sets itself up for failure.

Again, it would be unrealistic of a counselor (especially this particular one in the show, who had worked previously in a school where students were getting shot) to not notice the signs. Hannah Baker chooses to walk out on him so that she can see if he follows her. This is a manipulative act that we are all very capable (and possibly guilty) of doing. We want people to chase after us, to save us. But that isn’t going to help.

I’m not victim blaming Hannah Baker—I just think that the combination of the amount of horrible things that happen to her with the reactions of helpful resources (including her father, who owns a drug store, with access to helpful, life-saving drugs) is not only unrealistic, but unhelpful.

We should be highlighting ways to receive help, not shaming those who are trying to give it.

Finally, I’d like to say that, despite the disclaimer, the show is not helping depressed viewers by placing the actual suicide—gruesome, horrific—into the show. If anything, it might give people the wrong ideas, and it’s a traumatic thing to watch if you have been in that position before, only to see what “could have happened.” Additionally, friends of mine who’ve read the book claim that Hannah Baker kills herself by overdosing on pills. While this, too, is traumatic, it isn’t as horrifying and triggering to watch.

So, yeah, “13 Reasons Why” is entertaining, but for the wrong reasons—glamorous-looking students, which, we all know are impossible to find in high school; situations/adversities that are layered in an unrealistic manner; characters who are impossible to find in real life (is there anyone as smart, kind or good-looking as Clay? And if so, why is he considered to be such an anti-social nerd?); and the occasionally cool “indie” music that plays in the background.

But are we really going to sacrifice sending the right message by giving people something “entertaining” to watch? Are we really going to sit and enjoy a show that makes depression seem cool, that makes high school seem anything but good? Are we really going to watch a show that makes money off of unrealistic high school expectations within relationships and deprive people of actual helping, giving people the wrong picture?

There’s certainly more than “13 Reasons Why” we shouldn’t be praising this show as much as we are.

Samantha Mineroff is a third-year student majoring in English writings track with a dual minor in linguistics and creative writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

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13 reasons why not