In a previous column, I gave credit to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why for doing what high school television shows rarely do: explore the consequences of the characters’ cruelty and apathy toward each other and themselves. Instead of portraying action, 13 Reasons Why focuses on reaction — the characters’ responses toward Hannah’s suicide and the incoming revelations that they could have more to do with it than they realized.
Of course, the show’s revelation is not that Hannah commits suicide (though caution: spoilers to 13 Reasons Why ahead) — it’s why she does. That’s what the title suggests, but it’s actually more complicated than that: not all 13 reasons are equal, and when it comes to exploring teenage suicide in real life, the show vastly ignores the factor of mental illness that feels so crucial to a subject like this.
But before I begin to discuss 13 Reasons Why’s treatment of suicide, let’s first examine the way it portrays sexual assault and rape. I am always weary when a series or film chooses to graphically depict rape scenes or uses them to supply a female character’s backstory, because such triggering themes are often employed by male writers and directors just to make their female characters more maudlin. And yet, 13 Reasons Why is different: Hannah’s rape isolates the protagonist to the extent that she commits suicide, and her suicide is the inciting incident for the entire show.
The reason most depictions of sexual assault feel gratuitous is because they are cop-outs, easy ways out for writers to accentuate trauma or backstory, and they usually include absolutely zero consequences for the perpetrators of the assault or the victims’ narratives as a whole. When there are consequences, they always almost entirely fall on the victim.
I now realize my mistake for praising 13 Reasons Why before I had a chance to watch the series further. In a show that’s all about consequences, it soon becomes clear that the rape victim is still the one whose suffering serves as fodder for the plot. It doesn’t matter if it’s the premise, and it doesn’t matter that Hannah is a main character — the series still manages to play into the tiresome practice of exacting pain on female characters so that the people around her can experience a revelation.
From the terrified, bloodied girl running for her life in every horror movie, to the sick and dying wives of male protagonists, to the female characters given histories of rape and assault to make them more interesting: Female suffering is a trope used over and over in the history of storytelling. Though 13 Reasons Why deals with sexual assault in a way that is integral to the story, it may well mean that vast flaws lie in the foundation of the premise itself. And of course, that is not to say that female characters shouldn’t have to encounter huge obstacles. But they don’t always have to be the victims in their own stories.
In this show, the fact that Hannah is still an active character after her death doesn’t make her suffering any more justified. In fact, this plays into a dangerous mentality surrounding suicide: that suicide is somehow a message to send, that a person’s death can make the people around them realize the extent of their misdeeds. Hannah is driven to this point because no one listens to her, but isn’t that a dangerous message to send as well? Real-life victims of assault need to realize that there are always people who can listen and help them. In this sense, 13 Reasons Why is devastatingly oblivious to young people dealing with similar struggles.
All of this is not to say that television would be better if themes of rape and suicide didn’t exist on screen. These stories urgently need to be told, and television as a form of mass communication has the unparalleled ability to instill empathy in viewers. But it’s the way these stories are unraveled, with so much disregard for who is watching, that makes me uneasy.
When dealing with subject matter as complicated and triggering as sexual assault and suicide, filmmakers have a critical responsibility to send a thoughtful, empowering message. They owe it to the audience, and they owe it to the characters themselves.
Zoe Cheng is a sopohmore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.