Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Following the first season’s release on Netflix in 2017, 13 Reasons Why faced a critical amount of backlash for the implicit messages about suicide that the show conveyed to its young and impressionable audience.
The backlash only increased when teen suicide rates reportedly increased after the show's debut.
Parents, like Joyce Deithorn, whose teen had watched 13 Reasons Why and later committed suicide, felt as though the show was a contributing factor that led up to or influenced the death of their child.
For this reason, the show has been condemned for misinterpreting suicide as an act of revenge rather than an act of mental illness or emotional pain.
Scenes like, the initial main character, Hannah Baker’s suicide also received criticism for depicting self-harm to a vulnerable audience.
As a result, the scene has since been edited out of the series.
Creator of the show, Brian Yorkey, details that the intent behind the scene was not to potentially glorify the act of suicide.
“Our creative intent in portraying the ugly, painful reality of suicide in such graphic detail in Season 1 was to tell the truth about the horror of such an act, and make sure no one would ever wish to emulate it.”
However, critics still feel as though adolescent trauma is exploited throughout the series, with themes like drug abuse, violence and sex being amplified to the point of extremity.
Though there are clearly negative aspects of the show that should not go unnoticed, such as dramatizing and romanticizing the act of suicide, there are also some important lessons that are emphasized in the show that can have a positive impact on an audience.
In season 3, in particular, the show focuses heavily on recovery.
Amidst unfolding secrets and a murder mystery, audiences are exposed to the aftermath of sexual assault, specifically focusing more on characters Jessica Davis and Tyler Down, who both handle their experiences differently.
Jessica is outspoken and angry while Tyler is more reserved and takes time to open up about his incident.
It’s important to show the different sides of emotionally healing from sexual assault. The idea of overcoming something as traumatic as rape is complex; the process isn’t black and white.
The show asserts that boys are victims of sexual assault as well, and that their pain from that is just as valid. Arguably, these scenes from season 3 encourage males who may be victims themselves, to speak up about their experiences even if it’s just to a trusted friend.
Furthermore, the series spends time focusing on activism, allowing the characters to stand up against the abuse they faced that was blatantly ignored by school faculty, something that is, unfortunately, a reality in real-world sexual assault cases.
Jessica not only uses her voice to raise awareness to the hidden survivors around her, but also rediscovers who she is, outside of being a victim, and reclaims her body.
Both Jessica and Tyler eventually find solace in reaching out, sharing their experience once they were ready and seeking help in moving forward.
It is easy to cast criticism towards the writers and producers of 13 Reasons Why, but looking past the controversy, one can see how a show like this is a catalyst that incites people to open up about taboo topics, that unfortunately take place in schools all around the world.
What many critics also seem to forget is that shows, like Degrassi, that aired on television in America for a period of time in the early 2000s, also focused on some of the same ideas of suicide, violence, sexual abuse and drugs.
Time’s have changed, but the issues some teenagers face are still present and prevalent today, especially now that technology and social media plays more of a role in the daily lives of teens and young adults.
There is no denying that 13 Reason Why’s themes and elements are not suitable for everyone, which is why warnings are given before starting each episode and hotlines are listed afterward. The show also provides a link to their website, 13reasonswhy.info, that directs those who are struggling with any of the show’s topics to helpful resources.
Notably, characters in the show don’t take their own advice in this aspect, but it’s also important to note that 13 Reasons Why is a show, which needs a plot and drama to provide conflict and move the story along.
Like with any television series, 13 Reasons Why has its flaws.
Though the criticism of this show should not be forgotten and future seasons and episodes should take note of what audiences find controversial, there still needs to be exposure of these types of issues.
No exposure means fewer people are willing to talk openly about these difficult topics.
No matter your feelings towards 13 Reasons Why, the show did exactly what it intended to do: start a conversation.
It is important for each and every one of us to start the conversation; not only in months like September, which is suicide prevention month, or April, which is the month for sexual assault awareness and prevention, but every day of every month.
Reach out. Hotlines are available 24-hours a day.
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255