13 Reasons Why “13 Reasons Why” Demands Caution

Given how many of my students have been watching and talking about 13 Reasons Why, as well as how many think-pieces I have been seeing, I figured I had better see what it is all about for myself. I binge-watched the entire series, thirteen episodes, a few days ago. Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why revolves around Hannah Baker, a high school student who kills herself and the thirteen tapes she left explaining why she did so. The series is currently very popular with middle school and high school students.

As others have said, this series is generally problematic, yet interesting, too.

Here are 13 comments for your consideration: 

1. 13 Reasons Why is not about suicide, despite the entire premise. It does not address mental illness, be it depression or any other kind of mental medical situation. Suicide itself is never really addressed or analyzed. There is no psychological exploration of Hannah. There is no discussion of suicide prevention.

2. Where 13 Reasons Why does actually kind-of address suicide, it focuses on thirteen people and why they caused Hannah, in Hannah’s mind, to commit suicide. Screen time is devoted to these thirteen people regretting how they treated Hannah, regretting something they did or did not do, regretting something they said or did not say, and trying to hide their past actions involving Hannah for fear of getting into trouble. Suicide will not be properly addressed when people in the victim’s life are blamed

3. 13 Reasons Why is much more of an adventure, game, a puzzle to be solved in the spirit of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Jumanji, for example, instead of an exploration of causes and consequences of suicide. 

4. 13 Reasons Why revolves around a fit, able-bodied wealthy White heterosexual male high school student named Clay Jensen. The thirteen episodes are entirely too much about an “ideal” White male and his worldview. All thirteen episodes are spent with Clay listening to Hannah’s tapes and trying to fit everything together. Clay’s overall privilege and opportunity receive the attention and sharply contrast with Hannah’s (absence of a) story. 

5. 13 Reasons Why is entertaining. It has the prefect combination of comedy and drama that keeps viewers (passively?) glued to the screen. It is (almost – I fast forward through a few parts) never boring. This mix along with the very serious topic of suicide deserves pause, especially considering who is watching it. As others have said, it also relies on themes of nostalgia. 

6. 13 Reasons Why exist in something of a vacuum. There is no context: no history, (almost) no time, and (almost) no place. Religion is curiously completely absent from this series, as are all non-human animals.

7. 13 Reasons Why is entirely fictional. There is no Hannah Baker who lived. There is no Hannah Baker who made thirteen tapes about why she was ending her life. There is no Hannah Baker. There is no Clay Jensen either. All of these fictional characters in this fictional plot were designed to entertain and to make money. 

8. 13 Reasons Why is illogical and impossible. As others have said, the series depicts incompetent and unrealistic high school counselors. The tapes and their topics are impossible. After Hannah’s death her parents sue the school she and Clay attended, Clay’s lawyer-mom, in a clear conflict of interest, defends the school. The interwoven nature of the characters is equally impossible, too. Tony’s character is especially mysterious and other-worldly. 

9. 13 Reasons Why does not accurately portray (high school) life. Although common practice, it is worth noting that all of the people playing high school students are actually adults. And they were created to behave and act like adults. They are all far too independent. None of them have parents actively involved in their lives. Characters are all manifestations of some kind of stereotype.  

10. 13 Reasons Why does address bullying and social media. High school students are shown using technology to send and distribute pictures and messages meant to ridicule one another. Parents are shown as being unaware and unable to know how bad it can be for their children. If this series makes conversations about bullying possible and more effective, wonderful. However, the short film Imagine A World Where Being “Gay” The Norm & Being “Straight” Would Be The Minority! does a far better job of directly and honestly addressing bullying and social media and opening the door for important conversations.

11. 13 Reasons Why ultimately normalizes violence. All of the characters, at least at some point, are shown as initiating, perpetuating, and participating in violence of some kind or another. The narrative does not address these as learned behaviors. The narrative suggests that these are basically normal behaviors.  

12. 13 Reasons Why never does have a clear message. Clear messages, of course, are not automatically necessary, but there is never a message–built into the narrative–of “help is available.” There is never a move–built into the narrative–to actually challenge everyday life.

13. 13 Reasons Why ends with another suicide.

(Be sure to also see 13 Reasons Why I Hate 13 Reasons Why from the blog Living With Power here.)

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda