When he adapted the eponymous novel by Jay Asher, screenwriter Brian Yorkey knew he was tackling an iconic book on adolescence that had an impact on a whole generation of young readers.
While he stayed relatively faithful to the original work, he and the producers, including Selena Gomez, decided to portray the unthinkable – the suicide of the main character Hannah.
Of course, the suicide is fictional and it is as much a narrative tool (it launches the rest of the story) as it is a sincere discussion about the character's suffering.
Many viewers and critics have been blown away by the series. As Digital Spy reports, over 3.5 million tweets were posted about the series in the first week after it aired. And the series set a record number of Google searches, beating out big films like Hunger Games and Harry Potter.
And on Tumblr, the temple of fandom, there's no escaping 13 Reasons Why and its many gifs and inspiring (or devastating) quotes. In any case, it's clear the series no one expected to be an event has found an audience and in only one season, it's created a solid fan base that's very active on social media.
#13ReasonsWhy is the most powerful show i have seen. it addresses teenage suicide & depression. it has forever made an impact on my life.— azalea leilani | XVI (@azaleajim) April 18, 2017
If there's one thing we can all agree on about the show's thirteen episodes, it's that they certainly inspire conversation.
The show creators are very clear on that point. Not only did they want to tell a story, they also wanted to raise awareness about the problems Hannah experiences: harassment, slut-shaming and finally, suicide.
Discussion about the plot – Who is on the cassettes? Who hurt Hannah? – quickly slips into more taboo topics. The series is important and necessary because it breaks the silence around teen suicide and goes as far as portraying the act itself, albeit somewhat cautiously.
While the show has gotten many people talking and means a lot to some people, as they've made clear on social media, it has also alarmed some parents and organizations who are afraid it may make suicide appear glamorous.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Dan Reidenberg, Executive Director of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) prevention program, explained that there is a "great amount of concern in the suicide prevention community around this series."
In his opinion, the fact that Hannah goes through with her suicide and is able to detail the events leading up to it after her death through her cassette recordings may glorify the act. He explains:
"Young people are not that great at separating fiction from reality. That gets even harder to do when you’re struggling with thoughts.”
However, while the show doesn't claim to represent every facet of the issue, nor to be a suicide prevention campaign, 13 Reasons Why did take care to tell Hannah's story.
And while the end may be controversial, the suicide is presented in an almost unbearable manner, which is far from glamorous. At that moment, Hannah takes control of her body, one that's been commented upon, criticized, sexualized and violated.
She decides that no one will ever take possession of her body again. And the episodes leading up to that moment demonstrate the accumulation and crescendo of bullying, brutality and trauma she experiences.
Because it chooses to address difficult subjects, 13 Reasons Why upsets those who want to reduce it to nothing more than a clumsy (or dangerous) representation of suicide.
But just like the MTV series Sweet/Vicious before it, the show can be credited with raising awareness about bullying and inspiring discussion. It's also worth mentioning that the problematic episodes begin with trigger warnings indicating that there will be scenes of rape and suicide that may be difficult for some viewers.
The series also comes with tools for helping people who may be considering suicide, like this website. And at the very end of the season, Netflix added a special episode that goes over the themes discussed in the series along with the actors, producers and a psychologist specialized in teen mental health.
It's a great way to debrief after the season and educate each other about the importance of speaking out in such situations.
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