Not having seen 13 Reasons Why, I’m skipping a detailed plot for those of you who don’t know what it’s about. But I will provide a synopsis. Basically, it’s about this boy who’s friend (crush? Both?) died by suicide because she was bullied (might oversimplification of suicide) and he’s listening to these tapes of her talking and remembering what an awesome person she really was. See, I can’t even explain it in a way that doesn’t prove how god damn problematic I think it is.
I thought maybe someday I’d see the show (not really knowing what it was about at first) but I know there is no way I will now. It’s so, so problematic there is no way I could ever watch it without being intensely uncomfortable and annoyed. It’s one thing to glamorize dying in a war cause people have glamorized that for years, or centuries, probably millennia, but dying by suicide?! Why did no one step in and say like “no, this is a terrible way to represent dying by suicide! You need to talk about it better!” And, if the show had to go on, why did no one suggest something like “Let’s use this show as a way to talk about what a devastating and complex thing suicide is.”
I’m all for destigmatizing mental health because it sucks to be scared of what people will think or do of they know. I’ve never dealt with thoughts of suicide but in the past I’ve dealt other scary problems like making myself want to throw up cause bulimia was rearing its ugly head, or wanting to hurt myself because my anxiety was so overwhelming and I just wanted to make the pain go away. It’s a terrible place to be. Feeling like you cannot talk to someone about it, not even your best friends, is one of the most isolating things I have ever experienced (which, FYI, can make your issues worse!). To top it off, many of us have so few positive media representations that let us know our mental illness is normal and, actually, more common than one might think and thus let us know we’re not alone in our experience. And for the record I’m doing much better now, so don’t worry about me.
In any case, tackling stigma around mental illness and suicide is great. But, and this is a big one, that doesn’t mean every instance of talking about mental health is going to be a positive one. Obviously if you’re calling people crazy for having a mental illness, that’s bad, but even things that appear positive aren’t necessarily helpful. If anything, 13 Reasons Why shows why it is just as dangerous to have the appearance of being positive but be glamorizing and oversimplifying dying by suicide. It’s problematic, especially because it would be so easy for the uninitiated person (there are many of you) to see the show and have no idea that the representation of suicide is, well, not wholely lacking. Also, it really seems like the show makes it about this boy and not about the character who died by suicide. While I have no problem about narratives demonstrating grief of loss, I really want to be wrong here because it sounds like they shifted the narrative too much onto him, which I don’t think was the right choice.