Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why’ Is Embroiled in Controversy

Here's why this new TV drama about teen suicide has been eliciting such polarizing reactions

High school years are the best years of your life, right? Maybe in works of fiction. For many adolescents, high school is a rough place populated by young people trying to find themselves as they make snap decisions fueled by their perceived immortality — and too often based on a complete deficit in empathy and maturity.

It’s no surprise that some kids leave high school traumatized by ceaseless bullying, teasing or harassment. It might be that they’re shy, that they look or speak differently from most others, or that they just cross the wrong people who are the ostensible leaders of the “Lord of the Flies” world of a modern high school.

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Even more tragic is that some children literally don’t survive high school, choosing to end their lives rather than find another way to get through those years and move on to adult life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 16 percent of U.S. high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months before they replied to a survey.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people between the ages 0f 10 and 24, according to the CDC. Many more women consider suicide, but men account for almost 77.9 percent of all suicides in the U.S.

Which brings us to “13 Reasons Why,” a new series on Netflix that’s been garnering much discussion. In the series, Hannah (Katherine Langford) has taken her own life and left a box of audio cassettes that explain her “life story” and how a number of different people contributed to her tragic decision. Shy boy Clay (Brandon Flynn) had a crush on Hannah — but he’s implicated in the story, too. The series unfolds as he listens to each of the tapes, imagines each of the events described by Hannah, and tries to puzzle out why such a vibrant young lady would make such a terrible choice.

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There’s no question the series raises a number of important topics that are part of the daily life of the modern American teenager, including sexting, the so-called rape culture, the inclination of many to think the worst of a girl while excusing a boy’s sexual aggression, and, of course, suicide itself. For that reason alone, “13 Reasons Why” is a welcome addition to the entertainment scene. Having said that, there are important caveats: It’s a slog to watch, and it has garnered a fair amount of controversy. The show is dreary, cynical and unrelievedly heavy.

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USA Today decries that “for a supposedly important discussion of teen suicide, mental illness isn’t explicitly mentioned in any of the episodes. Hannah explains the reasons that caused her to commit suicide, but the show fails to acknowledge that 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffer from mental illness.”

“The show fails to acknowledge that 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffer from mental illness.”

Many have also criticized the show as unrealistic and even exploitative. Netflix has been forced to add content warnings to each episode due to criticism.

“She’s telling the story in a way that means she’s getting resolution about her suicide, and that’s not a reality. If young people die by suicide it’s very final; you don’t get to see the reaction of people, you don’t get to see the reaction of bullies, you don’t get to be involved in your own funeral. Sadly, I think young people sometimes don’t always fully understand the finality of death. You don’t get resolution about that,” Kristen Douglas, a spokesperson for an Australian mental health organization called Headspace, told Buzzfeed about the series.

A public statement from the National Association of School Psychologists also warned people to keep impressionable youths away from the show. “Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies,” the group said in a statement. “They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Company asked whether the show exposes the truth or is “a primer on suicide” — and points out a significant narrative problem: “Adults are portrayed almost across the board as being disengaged, uninformed, and almost uncaring and, therefore, not a source of help or support around any of these issues.”

Many other groups have also spoken out against the show’s portrayal of suicide.

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Ultimately, however, whether the show is exploitive or simply using tried-and-true dramatic techniques to tell a story is somewhat besides the point. The show’s popularity and place in pop culture right now are undeniable. High school kids are watching it — and they’re talking about it with their peers.

What’s most important is that the show brings an important topic to light. It offers the opportunity for parents and other adults to engage in a timely discussion about a tragedy that takes the lives of far too many adolescents in the United States.

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