13 Reasons Why... not

I don’t usually use this column for TV or movie reviews, but over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a fair few people ask if I intended to write anything about the recently-released Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

For those unfamiliar with the program, and the book upon which it is based, the series begins in the aftermath of the suicide of high school student, Hannah Baker.  Before she died, Hannah used seven double-sided cassette tapes to record 13 audio files, with each side addressed to a person who was one of the “13 reasons why” she killed herself.  Each of these 13 reasons was instructed to listen to the tapes in full before passing them on to the next person.  The series shifts between two perspectives.  Through the tapes, Hannah tells the story from through her own eyes, and flashback scenes have her as the main protagonist.  Scenes set in the present day are shown through the perspective of her best friend – and one of the tape recipients – Clay Jensen.

The series has received praise for its very direct and explicit approach to the horror – and prevalence – of teen suicide, and has also received criticism for its ‘glorification’ of the same.  Many people I have spoken to think it is very well done, but also are a little unsure of what we, as Catholics, might say about a program like this.  I don’t know if there is a sole, ‘Catholic’ response to this, but I thought I would offer some of my own thoughts.

From a pro-life perspective, I think that it is critical and indeed urgent that we address, front on, the scourge of youth suicide.  It is the leading cause of death for young Australians and, despite recent attempts to have a more public conversation about it, it is still a subject which we remain still very afraid to discuss.  Imagining that young people will not commit suicide if we somehow just don’t utter the word is naïve and even dangerous.  Using popular culture to focus attention on otherwise taboo topics is a really good idea, because it has a way of cutting through tension to provoke an open discussion.

It also serves as a reminder to us that our actions do affect other people.  We might not realise how deeply our cruelty, violence or even indifference can harm a person, and we need to at all times uphold and affirm the dignity of those around us.

But even so, I think this program’s treatment of suicide is inappropriate for a number of reasons, maybe not thirteen of them, but a few at least.

One reason is that there is so much teen angst in the story.  I didn’t count, but I think that of the thirteen reasons, around eleven of them had to do with some type of wanted or unwanted romantic or sexual encounter.  The result was that the show seems to suggest that these matters are of particular importance, and are more serious and life-altering than anything else.

Another reason which has been mentioned by a number of people is that in some ways, it glorifies suicide.  The show’s treatment of Hannah’s death is not beautiful.  It is ugly and tragic and we see the widespread effects of her death on the community, but it does glorify it in another way because Hannah, a girl who felt that no one really saw or understood her, now has their full attention and – over a period of thirteen hours – makes sure they fully understand her pain.  The show basically says that suicide is a really effective way of making sure people take notice and in that way, I think, it glorifies it. 

I am not sure whether the glorification is powerful enough to prompt anyone to mimic it, but it is possible.  Greater than the risk of someone copying Hannah’s fictional story, what is possible is that someone already contemplating suicide might seek to imitate her final actions: identifying people to publicly blame for her death.  If this ended up being a trend after the popularity of 13 Reasons Why, it would be an absolute tragedy.

But the main reason I think the program treats suicide inappropriately is that it makes it a rational choice, an acceptable and even expected decision.  In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah Baker does not appear to be suffering from any mental health issues.  She planned her death carefully.  Her presentation of her thirteen reasons was logical, methodical and considered.  And after she tells her story, viewers are left thinking: “I can see why she did that; it makes sense.”

This message – that suicide can be rational – is incredibly dangerous.  It is the message we are hearing from people like Philip Nitschke, who began as a euthanasia activist and is now an advocate for “rational suicide,” the ability of any sane, adult person to be given medical assistance to take their own life.

As we face a renewed push for euthanasia in NSW (I will write more about that in the coming weeks), we need to resist any ideology – even if it is presented in artistic works – which tells us that suicide is ever a reasonable decision to make.  We need to push back firmly, reasserting that all life has worth and that there is never a circumstance in which we expect people to end their lives. 

Monica Doumit, catholicTalk contributor

Thursday, 25 May 2017 06:18 Written by 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

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