The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, the streaming service’s first foray into the kind of young-adult content you might normally see on a network like Freeform or The CW, is, nearly two weeks after its release, very popular.
Like, extremely popular, especially with—and no surprise here—the high school, social-media-driven set the series is about.
According to numerous press releases flooding my inbox, the series has had more social-media traffic in its first week of release than any streaming show in history.
The global audience insights firm Fizziology estimates that it has received three times as many mentions as its closest streaming competition—fellow younger-skewing Netflix series Chasing Cameron and Fuller House—and more than 20 times the volume of award-winning fare like Orange Is the New Black and Master of None.
Even Twitter itself sent a note alerting me to the record number of tweets it was receiving for a streaming series.
This is all noteworthy not just because it’s news that the show is this popular, but because of what the series is about—and how graphically it shows it.
(Warning: There are spoilers ahead, as well as a graphic description of a suicide scene.)
Based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, the series begins with the revelation that its central character Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has committed suicide. She has left behind a series of 13 cassette tapes explaining how different classmates who bullied, betrayed, and even sexually assaulted her left her feeling so empty she decided to end her life.
Those interactions play out in flashbacks as Clay (Dylan Minnette), Hannah’s former crush, makes his way—excruciatingly slowly—through listening to the tapes.
After he finishes them, he goes to his school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), whose failure to respond to Hannah’s final cry for help is the “13th reason why,” and explains how Hannah killed herself in graphic detail.
As he does, every action that he describes plays out on screen: Hannah turns on the bathtub faucet. She looks at herself in the mirror and resolves to do it. She gets into the tub, still with her clothes on, starts crying, and with her right hand slits her left wrist. She gasps in pain and starts writhing as the blood pours out. She switches hands and does the same to her right wrist.
Both times you see everything: the razor puncturing the skin, the artery opening, and the blood pouring out the wounds. As the tub fills with blood, she loses consciousness.
It’s horrifying—nauseating, even. You can’t look away, but also you instinctively look away. Her mother (Kate Walsh) discovers the body, and in a devastating single take, calls for her husband (Brian D’Arcy James) as she clings to her daughter.
To call the scene graphic is an understatement. It’s all the more gutting to witness after having watched, at that point, over 12 hours of Hannah’s story, getting to know her and her pain and what led to that moment.
But is it too graphic? Too realistic? And, according to some mental-health experts, possibly harmful?
That’s the controversy now that the series has, as mentioned before, debuted to such a blockbuster young audience.
There’s been no shortage of praise of 13 Reasons Why as essential viewing, especially for the young audience that has lapped it up.
While there’s a case to be made that the series sort of spins its wheels in its middle stretch of episodes (I’d make a case for maybe only 6 Reasons Why), the show—which is produced by Selena Gomez—is groundbreaking in the bluntness with which it confronts the ways acts of bullying and latent sexism in high school read as micro-aggressions but compound to grave effect.
As The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager wrote in his review, “It doesn’t take long to understand that everyone is culpable in 13 Reasons Why, which depicts a pervasive culture of sexism that’ll be recognizable to all girls, and should be repulsive (and eye-opening) to any well-adjusted guy.”
And as for its handling of Hannah’s suicide: “As it proceeds into darker, uglier territory, the show reveals how suicide doesn’t just materialize out of the ether; rather, it’s often the byproduct of accumulated hurt from diverse sources (including backstabbing girls).”
In the week since the series premiered, however, it’s that notion that has proved polarizing.
For all the championing of what some consider a necessary realism and frankness about the nature of suicide, there is an equally loud criticism of the depiction as emotional torture porn—irresponsible, misunderstood, and even dangerous.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is clear in its stance that the explicit description—or, in 13 Reasons Why’s case, dramatization—can have the effect of sensationalizing or glamorizing a suicide death, particularly if the viewer is someone already experiencing risk factors.
A graphic scene like the one in the series can lead to suicide contagion, or “copycat suicide,” in which someone who watches the scene might learn from it or be inspired by it.
In a piece for the New Statesman, writer Neha Shah details that concern, writing: “The realism of the scene feels uncomfortably close to a how-to guide to suicide… The show is right to be trying to provide teenagers with a lesson in compassion and sensitivity, but watching Hannah Baker cut her wrists in High Definition isn’t doing anything for youth suicide prevention.”
And on the Australian women’s website Mamamia, writer Jessie Stephens blasts the show for ignoring guidelines for safe and responsible reporting on suicide, but also reports finding, after scouring chat forums and message boards dedicated to 13 Reasons Why, numerous anecdotes of individuals who said they’d been left in “a really bad place” after watching the show.
The piece then takes the big leap: “Are we about to see a sudden spike in people dying by suicide?”
But a chorus that’s emerged in the wave of glowing 13 Reasons Why coverage is the problematic nature of reducing the act of suicide to “reasons why” in the first place.
Placing blame on others perpetuates the notion that friends and family of those who take their lives could have and should have done more, which is a misunderstanding of mental illness, depression, suicide, and, in this case, grief.
In the U.K. publication The Tab, Serena Smith argues that the show “is an insult to anyone with mental-health issues.” The show, Smith argues, does an inadequate job of examining Hannah’s psyche, the result of which is that there’s no nuanced exploration of her mental health. “Suicide isn’t caused by other people,” Smith writes. “It’s not murder.”
There’s an argument in that vein that, as portrayed on the show, Hannah is a teen on a revenge mission, not an empathetic protagonist.
The 13 Reasons Why creative team addressed some of these concerns in Beyond the Reasons, an after-show-esque Netflix special that includes interview with mental-health professionals.
“We worked very hard not to be gratuitous,” the show’s screenwriter and creator Brian Yorkey said in the special. “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.”
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, author Jay Asher said, “They felt for a TV series, if you’re going to watch it, you want to show it as horrifically as it actually is.”
This isn’t a pile-on. Just as there are concerns that the suicide scene was dangerous, there are testimonials to how watching it has also helped people. “13 Reasons Why stopped me from hurting myself,” writes Pihu Yadav in Thought Catalog.
More, the series finally bucks the trend in television of using the horrific deaths of women, particularly young women, as exploitative plot devices.
“Too many programs shy away from showing the consequences of the devastating things that are done to women, but 13 Reasons made us look—and it made us care about who we were looking at,” writes Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan. “The series gave Hannah a complexity and a voice that those in her world seemed determined to deny her. It was hard to witness Hannah’s death, but it felt of a piece with what had gone before, which was a close study of the growth of one young woman’s physical and mental distress.”
What is happening, and in ways I can’t remember happening before, is a popular show is providing an education and sparking a dialogue about suicide—particularly teen suicide. The nuances of it and the means of it might be problematic, and perhaps never should have happened. And there’s an argument to be made that a scene like this should never be seen again.
But there is an overwhelming glut of television vying for the attention of America’s youth. (To wit, MTV, the former ruler of that demo, just announced a revival of Fear Factor that will do such horrifying things as waterlog competitors’ cellphones.) That it’s 13 Reasons Why and this issue that is making noise—especially with young people—well, there shouldn’t be any debate over whether that’s a positive thing.