Why Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” Missed the Mark

Disclaimer: This blog post will deal primarily with the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and contains spoilers.

Trigger Warning(s): Mentions of depression, suicide, sexual assault, and rape.

One of the most popular series online right now is Netflix’s adaption of the 2007 novel 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher. I must admit, when I first heard that the novel was being brought to life to the small screen, I was excited. It’s been years since I read the book (I was probably 12 or 13 years old, so at least 5 years ago now), but from what I remembered, it was a book that I held deeply important. Perhaps my opinion on the book might have changed from when I was younger, but I know one thing for sure: I do not like the TV adaptation of the series. There are so many reasons for this as well. Many that I’ve had to sit on, discuss with others, and read other’s opinions and articles online to fully understand what I truly felt about this series.

For some context, 13 Reasons Why is focused on two main characters, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), in which the latter has just died by suicide at the beginning of the series. Clay comes home from school to discover that a box of cassette tapes has been mailed to his front door, addressed to him. There are 7 tapes, with 13 sides recorded by the late Hannah Baker who informs Clay and the rest of us watching that each side of the tape features her encounter with different characters and how they contributed to her suicide. The series goes on to play these tapes for us and we watch both the past (as told by Hannah) and the present (as seen by Clay) unfold in front of us.

I’ll start with the issue that truly bothers me the most. 13 Reasons Why is a story about a girl who dies by suicide. Why then do we never talk about her mental health? Suicide is a huge topic in the world of mental health and wellbeing; so why does Hannah Baker’s mental state take the back burner through this whole series? Jessie Stephens says in her article for the MamaMia newsletter, “Bizarrely, throughout the entire series, 13 Reasons fails to even mention the words ‘mental illness’ or ‘depression’…It misses an enormous opportunity to open up a discussion about mental illness, which is a contributing factor in at least 90 per cent of suicides.” Somehow, we have a show that talks about suicide, but mental illness is never talked about, which as Stephens indicates is responsible for nearly all suicides. Isn’t that alarming?

13 Reasons Why misses a really important marker: it is not other people who cause someone to develop suicidal tendencies and ultimately die by suicide. In more cases than not, there is an internal, psychological problem. How can we address our teen suicide epidemic without once looking at the root of the issue? Yes, bullying is a contributor to suicide, but why? Because it influences the victim’s psyche, and there are so many more complicated issues in the human psyche that just weren’t addressed in the series. As Neha Shah articulates beautifully in her article for NewStatesman, “Hannah’s suicide as a means of exposing the actions of her peers and making them feel guilty rather than exploring the nuances of mental illness.  Of course, bullying can be a contributing factor towards suicidal thoughts and behaviour, but it is wrong to portray it as a direct cause – a lazy and unforgivable simplification of the infinitely more complex nature of mental illness.” That’s not to say that bullying and the sexual abuse that happened to Hannah Baker are irrelevant, but rather, that we’re focused too much on what other people did to her, and less about how Hannah Baker actually felt because of the things that happened to her. Serena Smith writes in her article for The Tab, “We never really tap into Hannah’s psyche: she’s just a narrator. The result is that she comes off as an over-dramatic snowflake.” This becomes apparent when you watch the show. Hannah presents as a victimizer as we never truly understand her psyche. It appears like she blames people for making her life a living hell and that everything happens to her and she plays no factor in how sad, empty, and alone she feels. It’s hard to say, but many of the things that she says in her tapes (like rejection, rumors, etc.) happen to a lot of people in high school. But the fact is she was mentally unfit to handle what was happening to her. That’s not her fault.

But it’s not up to her to blame other people either. Of course, that’s not to say that what people did to her wasn’t terrible, but what’s the point in her recording these tapes and sending them to people after she’s dead? What can they do now to try and fix what’s happened? They can’t. They can’t do anything except bear the burden that they’re a reason why someone is dead. Is that fair? That’s the danger in not opening up the conversation to Hannah’s psyche. Suicide is not an issue that can be pinned on 13 specific things. We can’t plot a time line of 13 tapes that will lead us directly to why someone took their own life. There’s so many more complexities that just get completely shut down for the sake of a story. A story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. People’s minds? Their mental wellbeing? Those things can never be mapped out in a linear procession. There are so many things that contribute to suicide it’s naïve to think that maybe if these 12 people on the tapes had just been nicer to Hannah she wouldn’t have killed herself. Stephens writes, “[13 Reasons Why] sends the message that anyone who has been touched by suicide could and should have done more. As though the onus lies on the friends and families of the deceased.” And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s so much more going on, especially within Hannah’s psyche, that was never spoken about. We can never be sure that if we had just been kinder to someone, they might not have taken their own life. It’s always good to think about treating each other better, but we can’t place guilt on people for the loss of others. What good does it do to blame any of the other characters for Hannah’s death? That doesn’t bring her back. That idea of feeling guilty for someone else’s suicide (as Clay does) is so problematic, and feeding into the idea that we should be doing more for others (not to be mistaken for actively trying to be kinder to each other) is extremely dangerous. As Kevin Fallon writes in his article for The Daily Beast, this blame game is a “misunderstanding of mental illness, depression, suicide, and…grief.”

Even more problematic than the silence on mental health in a show so deeply rooted in mental illness is the glorification of suicide. In the most obvious sense, Hannah’s suicide is incredibly, horrifically, graphic. We watch her slit her wrists and bleed out in a bathtub in the finale of the show. Quinn Keaney writes in her article In Praise of the Unflinching Honest Approach to Teen Suicide on 13 Reasons Why, “Anything less than showing Hannah’s death in all of its brutal, bloody reality would be a disservice to the character, the show, and its audience.” But I would disagree. There are so many ways that people die by suicide. Why did the directors decide on the most visually gruesome depiction at the climax of the entire series? In the original novel, Hannah is described to have “swallowed a handful of pills” (which Keaney herself acknowledges in her article 19 Big Differences Between the Book and TV Show Versions of 13 Reasons Why). Was that version not climatic or dramatic enough for the small screen? 13 Reasons Why takes the route I really wish it hadn’t. Hannah’s suicide, as much as they try to paint it as an ‘honest’ representation of what suicide looks like, is yet again dramatized and glamourized by Hollywood by making use of the flashiest, most visually stomach twisting way to present Hannah’s suicide out there at the most dramatic part of the series. Kayleigh Mcdonaldson writes for ScreenRant that the book is “an earnest attempt to tackle a very serious issue, but it’s plagued by the need to be dramatic in its storytelling, and thus sacrifices much of the nuance and compassion necessary to do the themes justice.” But I would say the same problem exists in the TV series, if not more for the visuals we get, and the differences seen from the book to the series in order to produce a longer story line that could potentially stretch into a second season. Because after all, this is a show produced by Hollywood that ultimately will generate revenue. Without the dramatics, it’s possible it won’t produce good results. But does that get in the way of telling the story properly? I would definitely say so.

Aside from that, I have to tell you, 13 Reasons Why is just too long. The book is less than 300 pages long, yet somehow, the series has been stretched into a mess that’s 13 hours long. Clay takes days to finish the tapes, but in the book he finishes them all in one night. Why? Because the series focuses on the characters left behind in present time, just as much, if not more, than they focus on the story Hannah is telling in the tapes. Personally, I found it unnecessary and at some points rather annoying. Lauren Chung writes for The Daily Cardinal, “…the audience [see] the duality and complexity hidden within Hannah’s stories. Viewers can now gain a more intimate understanding of the characters and their background stories beyond only what Hannah speaks of on her cassettes in the novel.” However, I don’t think that the stories behind all the other characters really matters. The whole premise of the series is that we should be nice to people because we don’t know what they’re going through, and the series attempts to show us what is going through the minds of Justin Foley, Jessica Davis, etc. etc. The problem I have is that I didn’t sympathize with the characters at all. When it all boils down to it, the show attempts to slather the characters with backstory to somehow ‘atone’ for their actions. Justin does terrible things by 1) taking non-consensual photos of Hannah and 2) letting Bryce take advantage of his girlfriend while she was drunk. But somehow, I’m supposed to feel bad for him and think “Oh it’s okay, I had no idea what he was going through!” when we find out he has a wrecked home life? I don’t think I’m heartless, and my heart truly broke for him in the exchange he has with his mother and her boyfriend, but does that really excuse him from the things he did to other people? No. Not really.

That’s not even my biggest issue. Let’s talk about who gets the tapes before Clay: Justin, Jessica, Alex, Tyler, Courtney, Marcus, Zach, Ryan and Sheri. That’s a total of nine people. That’s nine people that listened to these tapes, heard Hannah speak of not one, but two times that Bryce has sexually assaulted and raped two girls, one of which is Jessica, a majority of the teens’ friend, and Hannah, the dead girl they are literally listening to. And what do they do? They just pass the tapes on, keep their mouths shut, and do everything in their power to prevent Clay from breathing a word about the tapes to anybody. Why? To save their own asses and their own reputations? Because people will know the terrible things they did to Hannah Baker? They’re willing to sacrifice evidence on two rapes just for that? What kind of moral integrity is that? Am I supposed to just stand by and watch nine people cover for a rapist and then sympathize with them because of their backstory? I felt caught up in a soap opera every episode, where the characters whispering to each other about making sure Clay doesn’t leak the tapes for 45 minutes and then suddenly in the last 15 minutes we rush through what’s actually said on the cassette.

Alexa Curtis writes in her article for Rolling Stone, “We become captivated by the drama of the suicide rather than the actual suicide itself.” And that’s sad. 13 Reasons Why fails to really speak to the mental health/illness conversation in a healthy way. It glorifies the act of suicide in a frightening manner. Not only that, but it gets lost in the dramatics of what the teenagers do to try and prevent the tapes from being leaked to really speak to the real issue: Hannah Baker is dead. She died by suicide. And we will never get her back. Somewhere in her life she began to suffer. Her mental health took a nosedive, and none of the experiences she had in high school really helped with that at all. Not once did anyone offer any suggestion that maybe she get some help to get into a better place mentally. Her failed attempt at going to the counselor shows teens that that’s not where they can get any help, and doesn’t offer any alternatives for teens who need help. In fact, the glorified, graphic depiction of suicide basically gives teens the instructions on how to do it, should they feel like that’s their only option. And they should never feel like that’s the only option.

Most unsettling of all, when watching Beyond The Reasons, a half hour special episode where the cast and crew of 13 Reasons Why sit down for interviews to talk about the show. Executive producer, Brian Yorkey says something that I think is particularly problematic: “By the time we reach the last day of Hannah’s life she is completely depleted. It’s beyond simply being depressed; she thinks her life is worth nothing.” What does it mean to be “beyond simply being depressed”? Isn’t the most crucial, problematic part of depression that life feels meaningless? Suicidal thoughts are the byproduct of depression, how can we gloss over the ‘depression’ just to get to the suicide? How can I watch a show that is so heavily involved with suicide and mental illness when the executive producer doesn’t truly understand what it means at all?

I’m worried for youth that watch this show. I’m worried for youth that have been thinking about suicide and thinking that they too can get revenge and cause suffering for all those that hurt them by taking their own life. I’m worried for neuro-typical youth that watch this series and think that they could now tell you what it means to be depressed or suicidal. I’m worried for people that will now think they are responsible for other people’s suicides or that “being nicer” to people will cure the suicide epidemic (it will certainly help, but there’s so much more to it than that). I’m worried for how mainstream media will paint this show as a masterpiece for talking about difficult subjects like suicide, rape, and sexual assault just because they talked about it. Did they do it well? I don’t really think so.

Please please please, if you have been affected by this show, please get the proper help you need. I promise you that suicide will never ever be the answer to your suffering. And above all, remember, the story of 13 Reasons Why is fictional. As much as we analyze fiction and carry it into real life, stories can never truly capture the breadth that is the human experience. We can’t assume that the story we see is the only way that narrative can go.

Life may seem like a black hole you won’t get out of. But I promise you that you can. Never give up. I’m rooting for you. I always will be.

– Carole

 

 

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Why Musicians are Basically Engineers

I’m sorry for being gone for so long! I really didn’t mean to completely abandon this blog as school started, but everything has just gone by so fast, it’s almost impossible to believe the semester is almost over already.

For those of you who don’t know, I moved away at the beginning of September to study music at the University of Western Ontario (more commonly known as ‘Western University’). Throughout this entire semester, I can honestly say that I am so incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of work, me and all my fellow music students have to do.

And I’ve discovered in these 2 weeks, musicians are like engineers. How?

In university (or at least here at Western), we go by a credit system, 0.5 credits being a semester class, 1.0 credits being a full year class, for a total of 5.0 credits a year (approx. 2.5 credits a semester).

Well, for most. Music students are 1 of 2 programs that do not take 5.0 credits a year. We take 6.0 credits, plus ensemble: either choir or band for 4 hours a week (so basically, another credit without actually getting a credit).

Here, we have a grand total of 7.0 credits.

What is the only other program that has 7.0 credits? You guessed it, it’s the engineers!

Why am I telling you this?

I feel like in today’s society, the value of a music education is so drastically underrated. Let’s not mind all the benefits that comes with learning music (improved memory, time management and organization, etc.) but down to humanity’s simplest form, we’ve always had music.

I recently learned today about how music can change lives for people. Some people with Parkinson’s can regain part of their mobility when listening to music, those who can’t remember more than 7 seconds of their lives at a time due to brain damage still remember how to sing.

Music is a powerful thing.

Life as a music major is an interesting world to navigate. Somehow, the whole world has opened up to this beautiful wave of sound I never quite noticed before. With an understanding of music comes an understanding of sound. Of human connection to sound.

People always joke about how horror movies aren’t scary, funny even, without the sound. But have we ever noticed what a TV show or movie would sound like without background music?

Can we imagine a world where we live in silence?

Where we didn’t connect to one another through sound and the universal language of music?

Isn’t it fascinating that without any prior knowledge, we can tell a sad song from a happy song?

I find that now more than ever, art is under persecution. And this is so sad. We will always have science, and math, and law, and medicine… But what will we do if we lose music?

I felt burdened when helping with my university’s fall preview day by the lack of people that wanted to pursue music full time. I’m sad that my craft is under persecution for fear that a life of music is a life “unsuccessful” or “unfulfilling”.

Music was once the joy of the rich. Now we have so much music available to us.

To all you artists out there, never give up.

Music may be a demanding program. It may feel like there’s no point. Why do we continually push ourselves to keep going, if there are always improvements to be made? Why don’t we just crumple the sheet music up, toss it in the trash, and walk away?

Music people, we are engineers for humankind. We engineer emotional structure. We bring people together under a roof where they can feel safe. I remember reading once that doctors fix hearts, but musicians fix souls. A doctor can spend hours in surgery to save someone’s body, their livelihood. Musicians perform, we carry a message, for an hour, maybe two, and we help make that life worth living.

To all you artists out there, never let anyone tell you you’re insignificant.

Your voice, your song, is unique to you, and you only. Every note, every melody, every word adds to this beautiful music library of life.

Let’s never let it burn out.

– Carole

 

Youth is Wasted on Youth

Hello y’all! Did you miss me?

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote a blog post. I’ve just been so busy! I recently went on vacation last week, and I have lots to share. In fact, there’s so many things I want to blog about, I have no idea where to start.

I suppose I’ll share some of the stories from my vacation. I’ll do a general “vacation scrapbook” type blog soon, but there’s a particular story from my vacation that provoked some thought out of me.

Today’s generation they say, is increasingly addicting to cell phones and “me” culture. As a teenager in this society, I can say that it’s true. I’m guilty of it. My friends are guilty of it. Literally everyone living in the 21st century has been guilty of this at some point in their lives, some more than others, other’s subconsciously. But that’s not the issue here.

I don’t write this to be hypocritical, but rather in sadness over where our society has been headed on this train ride that chugs along at full speed, even though we have no idea where our final destination is.

I’m saddened by the amount of time we spend glued to phones, laptops, iPads, you name it.

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of working at a tutoring camp. Every day, the kids have 3 break times, similar to school: snack, lunch, snack.

Usually during lunch time, and occasionally during snacks, we have a “free/play time” for the kids to take a break from story reading and worksheets. The tutoring centre has lots of toys, like jump ropes, hoola hoops, you name it. (Though personally, the centre lacks a skip-it, which was my childhood). However, at least 40% of the kids AREN’T PLAYING WITH THE FREE TOYS.

Instead, they bring their iPads and play Minecraft with each other, even though they’re sitting right beside each other.

This left me flummoxed to say the least. These kids are young! Maybe 4-9 years old. They’re big balls of energy that could run and play and laugh and sweat and enjoy everything life has to offer without worry… Yet they sit inside playing on an iPad.

Now, I’m quite young too, and I can admit that in my middle school years and even now, I’m totally guilty of doing nothing but reading internet fiction all day lying in bed, but it disheartens me that this kind of behaviour is so incredibly normal now.

Flash forward to my vacation. I went to St. Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands. It took over 4 hours in a plane, but here I was. I went with my family for a late night swim. The sky was a dark navy, speckled with a battalion of stars.

St. Thomas is super hilly, and the little houses dotted the mountain top in a beautiful constellation of light. It’s a breathtaking view. I advise you all to see it in your life.

However, I know there are a few people who missed the view.

While I was swimming, I couldn’t help but notice two teenage girls sitting at the poolside. They were in their early-mid teens, I’d say maybe 14, 15, or 16? I was shocked to see that instead of soaking in the beautiful world around them, they had their heads down, staring at their phones.

I was totally tempted to swim up to them and tell them to look up! Because the world is so beautiful, and it’s not every day you’re somewhere so mesmerizing! Here I was, looking at the beauty of the world we live in, swimming in a warm, Caribbean sun heated pool, yet twitter and instagram were more important.

Later, I thought they were going to come in, after they finally shed their outer clothing to reveal pretty looking swimsuits. But instead, one of the girls got the other to take lots of pictures of her in her swimsuit, then sat down and began to edit a bunch of the pictures for instagram.

Suddenly, it felt like social media was so plastic and small. What good is an instagram moment beside a poolside if you never went in the pool? If you never even looked up to take in at the world around you? Social media was created to share the beauty of life and experiences. Yet here we are posting and posting with our insatiable hunger for likes and attention. We’re no longer experiencing what our pictures lead others to believe we are.

It’s none of my business as to what those two girls want to do with their time. It’s not up to me to tell them what should be a priority. I’m not them. I don’t know them. But it was a sad reminder that we live in such a ‘picture-perfect’ society. We get the pictures, and the likes, the attention, the followers… But what do we lose?

We lose life. We lose precious time we’ll never get back.

Youth today waste away posting on instagram, tweeting about breakfast, tumblr blogging pictures of cake, when we are in the prime time of our life to go out and do things that will seem impossible when we’re older.

They say that youth is wasted on youth, and it’s sad to see that the sentiment is true.

I want to start experiencing. I want to live without looking through a snapchat lens. 10 fleeting seconds mean nothing compared to a lifetime of memories stored in my brain. I want to look back on life and remember experiences, not the number of people who double tapped on my pictures.

But it’s not that easy. I know it isn’t. And despite saying all these things, I still check my likes, I still check my followers, I still snapchat. It’s a matter of moderation; and I want to learn how to balance.

How about you? What do you think about this whole “social media” culture? I’d love to get to know!

– Carole

We’re All A Little Edmund Pevensie

I had an interesting thought today.

I was watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe with my sister, and found I had a lot more to think about with this movie than I had in my childhood.

Growing up, it was (and still is) one of my favourite movies. It is a beautifully crafted film and stays relatively close to the book series by C.S Lewis.

I remember being absolutely fascinated by Edmund Pevensie.

Firstly, he was played by Skandar Keynes, who in 2005 (when the movie came out) was the cutest little boy I had ever seen. What more could a 7-year-old ask for? (Apparently, it was a post-puberty Skandar Keynes, because by 2010, when the most recent movie came out, I was convinced I was in love.) Already, by aesthetics only, I was drawn to his character. Though, let’s forget in the books he’s as “white” as it gets, blonde hair… blue eyes…

Secondly, many people refer to Edmund as a “rat”. Really, he is. He sells out his siblings for turkish delight, betrays his family (and ultimately the whole kingdom of Narnia), all while being a snark little jerk. Many can argue that he had a rough upbringing, and obviously was very affected from having to move away from home during WWII, and having no father figure present during very crucial parts of his life. However, none of his siblings seem to have that same darkness he does.

C.S Lewis, the author of the Narnia series is someone I’d very much like to meet someday, because I would want to discuss with him his books. C.S Lewis was a Christian, and the story of Narnia is supposed to be based on the story of Christ.

Likewise, Edmund is meant to represent all of us. Throughout the books and film, he is lost. This is most present in his first entering to Narnia. He shuts the door to the wardrobe, plunging himself in darkness. This is the exact opposite of his sister Lucy, who keeps the door open a little, so she can always find the light.

Edmund is more concerned about himself than others. He sides with the White Witch, and finds himself going against his family. This descent is similar to humankind to the fall of man, where sin grips us and doesn’t want to let us go.

The White Witch does not let Edmund go. Despite his growing understanding that being on her side does nothing but harm for him, he can’t seem to break free. Everything he says seems to make everything worse, and he becomes absolutely miserable.

I wonder now, was I so fascinated in Edmund because he showed me so much of what I saw in myself? Edmund is selfish, self-serving, and in need of grace; just like all of us are.

He didn’t deserve to be rescued. He was a traitor. He should have died at the hands of the White Witch on the stone table, since he betrayed Narnia. But Aslan took his place for him, saved him from the evil he had done. From that moment forward, Edmund was a new person.

It’s beautiful to me really, that someone can go through such a change of heart. Ultimately, Edmund almost gives up his life at the end to break the White Witch’s ice sceptre; something he never would have done at the beginning.

I feel like we can be a lot like Edmund. We all have evil in us. But we can all be saved and become new people. It just takes faith, and the willingness to ask for God’s forgiveness.

– Carole