13 Reasons Why is More About Bullying, Slut Shaming, and Rape Culture than Suicide

There is a Neflix show out there called 13 Reasons Why. Some people say this show is about suicide and feel that it is inappropriate (some schools are sending warning letters to parents about it). There are some great pieces about this and I encourage you to read them.

I come to show having survived the completed suicide of one of my best friends and I am publishing these thoughts on what would have been here 39th birthday. The night she killed herself she called me to see if I could hang out, but I was too worried about how I’d do in a law school class to go hang out – and I had no idea she was in so much pain. I would have skipped the bar exam itself if I had known that she was in so much pain. So it is not as if I come to 13 Reasons Why from a place of not knowing how devastating suicide is for those who survive.

The thing is, I don’t think 13 Reasons Why is about suicide. Yes, a girl does commit suicide and the tapes that she made explaining how she got to such a helpless point are the premise of the story, but her actual suicide is not the point of the show. What I think that this show gets so incredibly right, is how tough growing up can be, how kids so often do not talk about what’s impacting them, even to the best parents. I think this show talks honestly about those issues and does so better than anything I’ve seen before.

***Warning Spoiler Alerts***

In this series a young woman who is new to the school. A cute jock asks her out, and she has her first kiss. He takes a picture of her riding down a slide and there I think her skirt goes up and the guy’s “friend” sends the photo all around school, and a rumor starts that she is a slut.

Lesson One: There is a lot of slut shaming in our society and in our high schools. It can have an incredibly negative impact on girls. Also, it’s super scary to think moments that seem innocent or moments that you though were between the two of you can suddenly become wide spread. That’s why we know have laws about “Revenge Porn.”

She finds a few friends, but only a few. Her two closest friends basically ditch her (in part because they start dating each other, in part because they got more popular).

Lesson Two: High school can be achingly lonely. There’s even an app someone created now that is you can sit with us or something, but basically tries to tell people who feel lonely that there is a place where they may be welcome.

Then the geeky photographer at school stalks her, manages to get a picture of her and another friend (who happens to be female and very afraid she may be gay) experimenting with a kiss. This photo also gets widely circulated. While it isn’t completely clear who the girls are, a lot of people suspect she’s one of the girls. As an aside, the “good boy” who is the main narrator of this show flashes back to masturbating to this image – demonstrating a subtle and important point, even “good boys” get pulled into the hurtful drama and take advantage of it. Hannah (the girl who committed suicide) encourages everyone who reads the tape to throw a rock at the guy’s window. Instead the Clay (the “good boy”) takes a photo of this guy changing and shares it with the whole school. This kid, who was already widely unpopular, gets even more bullied and “pantsed” which the counselor at the school apparently doesn’t even understand the terminology, let alone acknowledge how harmful it is. Later, we also see that this kid is stockpiling weapons, with the implication being that he is planning on a school shooting.

Lesson Three: Vigilantism is not a good idea. I think we get some remorse from Clay about the impact that it had on this guy’s life, but I think he still feels perfectly justified in having done this because turnabout should be fair play right? Wrong. What the student did was absolutely wrong. But he’s also a student who is hurting and is widely unpopular and his only way to connect with people seems to be through photography. Vigilantism didn’t change what happened to Hannah and because actions have consequences, as the show is trying to show, what Clay did could end up being a large part of what tipped this kid over. Two wrongs, don’t make a right.

If there could be a true villain to the story, It is Bryce. Bryce is a super wealthy, super popular, super loved athlete. Basically a god at the school. And a serial rapist. He devalues women so much, he thinks of them as property and rapes his best friend’s girlfriend when she’s passed out drunk. Something Hannah witnesses and doesn’t do anything about, so she feels crappy about this. But then her boyfriend lies about what happens. Somehow she is was conscious enough to know something wrong happened, but not what happened and she starts drinking heavily – at school, skipping school, at home, always.

Then Bryce rapes Hannah in a hot tub. When Hannah tries to talk to her counselor about what happened he asks if she said no. As if the word “no” is the only way a person says “no.” Hannah tried to get away, tried to push him off, expressed a lack of consent and then went numb. He was much stronger and had her pinned down. This scene is powerful in that reminds me of how she committed suicide. While she is in the hot tub and he is raping her, we see her wrists being pinned down and scrapped against the side of the hot tub. This is the moment Hannah truly checks out and decides life isn’t worth living. So it’s interesting when she does the act, it is through cutting her wrists in a bathtub.

Lesson Four: Rape culture is a real thing. Jocks (and sometimes U.S. Presidents) think they should be immune from any kind of rape allegation because they are so popular any girl would want to have sex with them. When Clay is recording Bryce, trying to get a confession, there’s a line about how every girl at the high school wanted him. It’s pretty clear that he has likely raped far more than the two young women we know about.

Hannah makes one last ditch effort to try and get help before she kills herself – she turns to her high school guidance counselor. We see enough about his story to know he has a wife with young kids and his home life is likely distracting. While he’s meeting with Hannah his cell phone rings multiple times and this his direct phone line rings. I’m fairly certain if we got into the story there, something was happening at home that distracted him during the meeting with Hannah. But the reality is, Hannah was clearly feeling awful because of a rape he minimized and suggested was just behavior she now regretted. You couldn’t really get more warning signs than Hannah walked in there with and he didn’t do the basic things he should have done to plan for her safety.

Lesson Five: Schools perpetuate rape culture and would rather not rock the boat when a popular athlete is accused by a nobody girl. The school engages in a lot of idolized worship of their athletes and makes it clear they are the stars and the most important people at the school. There is a pretty widespread culture of sexual harassment at school and the school officials are oblivious to it. There’s a scene when Hannah’s mom goes into the bathroom and sees all sorts sexual messages that are also harassing, and the school had no idea. The school also appears to be oblivious to the sexual photos circulating during the school day. Schools are failing at keeping our students safe.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for parents watching 13 Reasons Why is understanding how little young adults confide in parents. Part of it is developmental hormones, lack of language to express what’s going on, being in a place where it seems like they are old enough to handle problems on their own. Not having any idea how their parents would react. But the parents depicted throughout much of this

Lesson Six: Our kids don’t talk about the things that are most upsetting to them. I believe part of the reason is not having the vocabulary. Emotional intelligence is hard. Part of it is also the normal development to adulthood and working on being your own person. Part of it is the fear of how what you say will be received. Will it be minimized? Will it be understood?

Conclusion

This is a show I’d watch with my 12 year old, and any child older than that. I’d use it as a tool to talk about the issues that happen in schools. I’d use it as an opening for difficult conversations. As for the issues of suicide, I’d use it for a reminder that she didn’t tell the people who cared about her most how much pain she was in. Her parents, her crush, they all would have supported her if they had known. We see how tortured the mom is by the fact she didn’t know about the pain her daughter was in and trying to learn and understand that pain. It’s important to turn to and be honest with those who we are closest with. Not to expect them to be able to take away the depression or the pain, but to help us access a network of resources and be a part of our mental health community.

For some great resources around suicide check out the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/