Since when has trauma and self-harm been a popular and fun thing to think about? Since the recent explosion in popularity of 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix adaptation of the book by Jay Asher, it seems to be a new, unfortunate trend to treat suicide like some hypothetical tragedy that produces martyrs through brain illness. And as someone with too much experience with the subject, I feel that it is imperative to put an end to this irresponsible handling.
My first grievance is with the very concept of this adaptation. I can’t speak for how the original book handled its content, nor can I vouch for its overall quality. But by turning a simple 13-chapter book into a dramatized 13-hour-long series, the message is distilled until all that remains is just another capitalistic mess. The intention is no longer to bring awareness to sensitive topics, but to bring in money. “Make this work popular for the sake of it,” instead of “treat this story and subject with respect.” If you need any more proof of its shallow purpose, it’s being renewed for a second season, diverging from the book and officially showcasing itself as a big cash-grab.
Which brings me to the venue itself. Perhaps 13 Reasons Why may have fared better on a channel such as HBO, which aired The Immortal Henrietta Lacks. It wouldn’t have gotten its lucrative audience of teens and young adults from Netflix, but it could have retained at least some semblance of respect by being aired elsewhere. However, by sitting on Netflix with the likes of pop culture hits Stranger Things and Orange Is the New Black, it’s marketed as pure entertainment and is thus treated as such.
13 Reasons Why is supposedly meant to spur discussion about mental health, but as I’ve experienced first-hand, viewers are instead discussing the fictional plot and characters instead of its underlying issues. It is nothing more than “drama porn” for those who view mental illness and self-harm with a detached sense of morbid curiosity. For these reasons, it is almost entirely the producers’ faults that people neglect to take away whatever crucial themes may underlie Asher’s story, such as tolerance and empathy for others.
The main problem with “talking about it (suicide, bullying, etc.),” as so many well-meaning people are bent on doing, is that all those PSA’s and dramatizations are terribly easy to distort beyond its intention. When the media uplifts suicide victims as piteous figures to be posthumously mourned and adored, the message sent to at-risk people is that killing yourself makes you a hero. People will throw flowers on your cask and love you like they never did when you were alive. It’s a cruel sham perpetrated again and again.
13 Reasons Why does nothing other than sensationalize the horrific topics it so proudly flaunts. Selena Gomez, its executive producer, describes Asher’s book as a “beautifully tragic, complicated, yet suspenseful story” in response to criticisms, which is the biggest crock I’ve ever had to personally lay eyes on. The show outright depicts people harming themselves, being sexually assaulted, and the main character’s suicide in question. It’s not beautiful or progressive to shove terrifying content into viewers’ faces in the name of awareness and then turn around to squeeze money and fame out of it.
We need to discuss and de-stigmatize mental health, and we need to talk about why our teens are dying at an increasing rate, but producing a show that uses the very real struggles of people everywhere for profit and entertainment is absolutely not the way to do it. My mentally ill friends and colleagues are not specimens to gawk at and woobify, nor are they people to idealize as tragic heroes. Do not support this show or its two-faced ideals.