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Confronting Images SUICIDE, RAPE CULTURE AND RESPONSIBILITY IN 13 REASONS WHY: The recent Netflix series has proven a divisive one, earning praise and condemnation alike for its disturbing depictions of sexual assault and suicide. But, as ADOLFO ARANJUEZ argues, the best conversations about these topics are had out in the open--opportunities that this show enables in spades.

In May, it was announced that Netflix series 13 Reasons Why had been renewed for a second season, set to air in 2018. (1) This came as no surprise, given the series' immense reach--while Netflix viewership ratings aren't made public, we do know that the show was tweeted about 11 million times just in the month following its March premiere. (2) Its tropes and taglines have already permeated youth culture, with teens posting homages and even parody videos on YouTube and Instagram. (3) And it's been critically lauded, too, not just for its 'visual genius' and shrewd use of pop-culture iconography,' (4) but also for its deftly paced plotline and clever tropes that target popular appeal without patronising viewers. (5)

This complimentary reception has been matched with equally vigorous concern, however, particularly regarding the show's depictions of self-harm and suicide. Australian youth mental-health foundation headspace issued a warning about 'dangerous content' in the series, (6) while Hunter Institute of Mental Health director Jaelea Skehan condemned the show

for failing to 'encourage young people to involve and talk to adults or to seek help through counsellors or services'. (7) In New Zealand--which has the highest rate of teen suicide across the OECD--the Office of Film and Literature Classification created an entirely new category, RP18, to prevent minors from watching the show without adult supervision. (8) In its country of origin, suicide-prevention organisations--including Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and the Jed Foundation, (9) as well as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists (10)--have disseminated resources to assist in warding off any deleterious responses the show may elicit.

The furore rests on the fact that, in the words of American Association of Suicidology president Julie Cerel, 'Irresponsible portrayals can lead people who are already vulnerable to see suicide as a more readily available option.' (11) With 13 Reasons Why reaching ever more audiences, it's prudent that we approach the series as we would any other 'danger': armed with an artillery of knowledge as a defensive measure.


13 Reasons Why recounts the story of sparky sophomore Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford)--or, as she makes plain in the first of thirteen accounts recorded onto cassette tapes, the story of 'why [her] life ended'. While Hannah is conventionally attractive and sufficiently well liked at her high school, she is nevertheless plagued by difficulties relating to body image, boys and squabbles with friends. The cassettes are, in fact, a protracted suicide note of sorts, elucidating how several individuals played a role in her decision to kill herself. She begins by pinning blame on first kiss Justin (Brandon Flynn) and ex-best friend Jessica (Alisha Boe), 'who each broke [her] heart'. She proceeds to place culpability on former pal Alex (Miles Heizer), nerd Tyler (Devin Druid), and school golden children Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) and Marcus (Steven Silver), 'who each helped to destroy [her] reputation'. Then there are kind-hearted jock Zach (Ross Butler) and cruel intellectual Ryan (Tommy Dorfman), 'who broke [her] spirit', and popular girl Sheri (Ajiona Alexus), who embroils Hannah in an accidental misdemeanour with tragic consequences. Finally, she points an aural finger at top athlete Bryce (Justin Prentice), the affable rich kid 'who broke [her] soul', and school counsellor Mr Porter (Derek Luke), who fails to recognise and respond to her last pleas for help. As the show unravels its intricate narrative, it interweaves guilt and blame, trauma and shame among its key characters, distending to incorporate themes as multitudinous as bullying, slut-shaming, heterosexism and sexual abuse.

Yet, at heart, 13 Reasons Why is as much the story of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), Hannah's would-be paramour and eleventh subject, who spends the majority of the series piecing together her final moments. After twelve hours of build-up, one of the season's concluding sequences depicts Hannah's death and subsequent discovery in full graphic glory. It's in this facet that the series' problematic storyline and style are most felt. Speaking in generic terms, the show is presented as a kind of reverse murder mystery (we know 'who' did it, and instead are tantalised to figure out why and how), as well as a speculative rape-revenge narrative (with the victim of sexual violence seeking retribution from the grave). In true mystery-drama fashion, each episode seethes with cliffhangers and suspenseful drama; as The New Yorker critic Jia Tolentino describes it, 13 Reasons Why is akin to 'an addictive scavenger hunt'. (12) But, by resorting to such formulas, is the show downplaying the gravitas of its undeniably heavy subject matter? And, more significantly, can capitalising on trauma for the sake of spectacle ever be justified?

Complicating these questions are the pivotal ways in which the Netflix product has diverged from its source text, Jay Asher's eponymous 2007 novel. Tolentino cites these as the manner of Hannah's suicide (in the book, a passing mention of ingested pills; in the series, an archetypally poignant scene of bleeding to death); the extent of the rape scenes (brief in the book, drawn-out in the series); and the length of time Clay takes to listen to the tapes (in one sitting versus weeks upon weeks, Netflix Clay confronting his cassette companions with indictments on Hannah's behalf). (13) Indeed, the viewer is positioned to identify with Clay--the 'nice guy' with no obvious cause for blame, treading the path to clear his name--and this betrays the showrunners' primary thematic motivation. Like him, we are given no respite, despite our 'innocence'; we must undergo a prolonged penance to assuage guilt over the dead we could have 'saved' if only we weren't, in Clay's words, 'too afraid' to help.


During a February press conference, 13 Reasons Why executive producer Selena Gomez asserted that she wanted young viewers to 'see something that's going to shake them [...] I want them to understand it.' (14) In a similar vein, screenwriter Nic Sheff has shared the benefits of firsthand awareness of suicide 'in all its horror': his own attempt to take his life was thwarted by memories of an acquaintance's violent bodily reaction to ingesting copious pills. He believes an approach that similarly 'dispel[s] the myth of the quiet drifting off' is 'our best defense against losing another life' (15)--a stance shared by the medical professionals (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center child psychologist Rebecca Hedrick, Stanford University psychiatrist Rona Hu and clinical psychologist Helen Hsu) who consulted for the series and championed its significance in companion episode Behind the Reasons. Sheff concludes: 'To do anything else would be not only irresponsible, but dangerous.' (16) Yet it's this notion of responsibility that's proven a sticking point in the debate. Do detailed portrayals deter those contemplating taking their lives or drive them to push through with it? And whose job is it to ensure these possibly distressing images help rather than harm the anti-suicide cause?

For decades, mental-health advocates have fought for better media reportage and depictions of suicide and mental illness. In Australia, for instance, federal initiative Mindframe has published guidelines that aim 'to minimise harm and copycat behaviour, and reduce [...] stigma and discrimination'. (17) Such moves are underpinned by what's known as the 'Papageno effect': first identified in 2010, it refers to the phenomenon whereby 'responsible' portrayals and careful reporting stave off attempts through education, especially about healthy coping mechanisms and support services. (18) This is the counterpoint to the earlier-identified 'Werther effect', which alludes to the way graphic depictions or descriptions can inspire vulnerable individuals to imitate the act (19)--a tendency that is intensified when the death is somehow glamorised or the deceased person is glorified. (20)

Even though causality is difficult to establish, (21) the society-wide fear of 'suicide contagion' can't be downplayed--especially as suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among young people worldwide. (22) Locally, the latest instalment of the Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) report has determined that 8.8 per cent of teens have contemplated suicide and 4.6 per cent have engaged in an attempt. (23) This concern is particularly potent in the case of 13 Reasons Why. In a recent study, researcher John W Ayers and colleagues found that the series sparked approximately 0.9-1.5 million more suicide-related internet searches over its first nineteen days of being on air. While some of these did involve positive phrases such as 'suicide prevention', more worrying search terms like 'how to kill yourself showed an increase, too. (24) A US survey also noted that 95 per cent of American paediatric emergency services saw a rise in reported cases of self-harm, of which 40 per cent comprised 'copycat gestures or attempts', in the month after the show's premiere. (25) In Australia, headspace reported a 'constant stream' of users availing themselves of its online counselling services following the show's local debut. (26)

But research has also consistently shown that talking about suicide decreases the likelihood of going through with it; (27) with 50-70 per cent of individuals who attempt suicide conveying their intention prior to the act, (28) crucial intervention time exists. Coupled with our understanding of the Papageno effect, this means the issue is not the fact of representing or discussing suicide, but rather the manner in which each is done. When evaluating 13 Reasons Why's merits, artistic decisions must be weighed against impact. As FilmInk's Michael Winsall contends, merely showing the horrors of something--contrary to Gomez's pronouncement--does not equate to commentary: 'Criticism is not generated if the setting is one where we expect these sorts of things to generally happen; school is a rough place, and teenagers can be unendingly cruel.' (29) Exacerbating this weakening of the series' political thrust is Netflix's refusal to retrofit existing episodes with localised warning messages and helpline numbers, (30) possibly because its support website already offers detailed (albeit not immediately on-screen) information. (31) Surely, a program truly wishing to combat suicide would make support as accessible as possible?

More troublingly, 13 Reasons Why's depictions themselves fall short of doing justice to suicide as it happens in the real world. Unlike Hannah, who spends a large amount of time preparing for her death, most individuals who try to take their lives lack premeditation--according to one study, 61.8 per cent of suicides are impulsive, while others indicate that only about 25 per cent involve a suicide note. (32) Of those who do devise a 'suicide plan', only 40 per cent follow through with an attempt. (33) Moreover, attempts are hardly ever rational: more than 90 per cent of those who have died by suicide suffered from a mental illness. (34) Suicide, therefore, is never really a 'choice'--or, at least, not a rational one. But 13 Reasons Why, in failing to account for how mental health could've played a factor in Hannah's spiral towards self-death, seemingly presents taking one's life as a reasonable 'option'.


Something 13 Reasons Why does do well is unflinchingly portray the impacts of rape culture, slut-shaming and cyberbullying, and how a culture of toxic masculinity facilitates all of these. Throughout the show, female characters are subjected to regular objectification, and sometimes even harassment. In Hannah's case specifically, she has two revealing photos taken and circulated without her consent (by Justin, then by Tyler); she is 'ranked' on a 'Hot or Not' list (courtesy of Alex); she is groped and propositioned; and, most harrowingly, she not only witnesses the rape of Jessica, but is later raped herself, by Bryce--who abrogates his guilt by saying the girls 'wanted it' despite not having obtained their consent. (35)

'Unflinching' is also an apposite way to describe the series' portrayal of the aforementioned sexual abuses. In Behind the Reasons, Langford celebrates the potency of director Jessica Yu's decision to linger on Hannah's rape for 'longer than is comfortable'; showrunner Brian Yorkey defends the show's inclusion of such confronting imagery 'because to do otherwise is to minimise [...] what teenage girls go through every day'. This stylistic decision to (in Tolentino's words) 'shovel trauma at their audience' (36) is controversial, as it has the potential to trigger viewers with histories of sexual trauma. (37) But some critics have deemed it empowering as well: it's not often that a piece of television privileges the victim's perspective, particularly in capturing the fight/flight/freeze response during a traumatic incident such as a rape. (38) Moreover, the show nods to the truth about real-world rapists' identities--US estimates reveal that, in eight out of ten cases, it's someone close to the victim (39)--and puts forward cutting critiques of 'bro culture', middle-class parochialism and the dearth of consent education among young people.

Admittedly, Hannah does follow a long line of female protagonists who take their own lives as a way to 'save' their souls by severing them from their 'defiled' bodies. (40) But 13 Reasons Why is also an incisive reminder of the link between rape and suicide: survivors of sexual abuse are over 50 per cent more likely to attempt suicide than those who have not experienced such trauma. (41) And, while Hannah's trajectory ends in doom, the show does channel optimism through Jessica, who embodies an alternative (if incredibly difficult) path: to keep living despite hardship, open up to loved ones and let them help.


13 Reasons Why may not be immune from criticism, but it has undeniably succeeded in its intention to inspire conversation. And, despite our warnings and attempts at prohibition, it's likely that young people will find a way to watch this series (and others like it); as doctor of psychology John M Grohol observes, today's teens and tweens 'have access to as much suicidal content online as they could ever want'. (42) No matter our best intentions or efforts--and with no enforceable industry code of conduct or government regulation for streaming services (43)--we currently have no way to police such viewing behaviour. As an anonymous adolescent interviewee asserts in Daily Review, 'It's not about banning Netflix [...] I think adults underestimate kids' ability to watch stuff.' (44)

Attempting to console Clay, saintly figure Tony (Christian Navarro) diffuses responsibility and says, 'We all let her down.' With 13 Reasons Why's second season forthcoming, it's imperative that we equip ourselves with knowledge, resources and a willingness to engage with--rather than evade--these heavy topics, in a bid to ensure that the young people who'll inevitably sneak a viewing on a phone or tablet feel safe and supported. What is consent? What is sexual respect? What are the telltale signs of mental illness? What organisations and helplines exist to aid those who are vulnerable? Let's do all we can to make sure we don't let them down.

Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of Metro and editor-in-chief of Archer. He is also consulting editor for Liminal. subeditor of Screen Education, and a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. Adolfo's nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Right Now, Overland, Meanjin. The Manila Review and Peril, among others, <>


(1) Matt Petronzio, 'Study Links 13 Reasons Why to Possible Increase in Suicidal Thoughts', Maskable, 1 August 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(2) Jia Tolentino, '13 Reasons Why Makes a Smarmy Spectacle of Suicide', The New Yorker, 10 May 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(3) Katherine Rosman, 'Netflix Triggers Online Debate with a Show About Teen Suicide, 13 Reasons Why', The New York Times, 19 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(4) Joanna Robinson, 'The Unsettling Visual Genius of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why', Vanity Fair, 2 April 2017, < -movies-tv-shows~say-anything>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(5) Maureen Ryan, 'TV Review: 13 Reasons Why on Netflix', Variety, 21 March 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(6)'Dangerous Content in 13 Reasons Why', media release, headspace, 18 April 2017, <>, accessed 25 September 2017.

(7) Jaelea Skehan, quoted in Broede Carmody, 'Headspace Issues Warning over Graphic Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why', The Age, 18 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(8) Eleanor Ainge Roy, '13 Reasons Why: New Zealand Bans Under-18s from Watching Suicide Drama Without Adult', The Guardian, 28 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(9) 'Tips for Watching New Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why', SAVE website, 30 March 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(10) Christine Moutier, Jill Cook & Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, 'A Teachable Moment: Using 13 Reasons Why to Initiate a Helpful Conversation About Suicide Prevention and Mental Health', webinar, 2 May 2017, available at <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(11) Julie Cerel, quoted in Petronzio, op. cit.

(12) Tolentino, op. cit.

(13) ibid.

(14) Selena Gomez, quoted in Wenlei Ma, 'Headspace Issues Warning Against Netflix Show 13 Reasons Why',, 18 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(15) Nic Sheff, '13 Reasons Why Writer: Why We Didn't Shy Away from Hannah's Suicide', Vanity Fair, 19 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(16) ibid.

(17) 'Mindframe for Media Professionals', Mindframe website, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(18) See Merike Sisask & Airi Varnik, 'Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systematic Review', International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 9, no. 1, January 2012, pp. 123-38, available at <>, accessed 10 September 2017; and Vera Feuer & Jennifer Havens, 'Teen Suicide: Fanning the Flames of a Public Health Crisis', Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 56, no. 9, September 2017, p. 723.

(19) Feuer & Havens, ibid.

(20) Jaelea Skehan, '13 Reasons Why Needed to Conform to Australian Standards', The Age, 29 August 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(21) John M Grohol, 'Is Suicide Contagion Real?', Psych Central, 19 May 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(22) Feuer & Havens, op. cit.

(23) Australian Institute of Family Studies, Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children Annual Statistical Report2016, 2017, p. 124, <>, accessed 12 September 2017. (24) Petronzio, op. cit.

(25) Feuer & Havens, op. cit.

(26) Carmody, op. cit.

(27) Sansea L Jacobson, 'Thirteen Reasons to Be Concerned About 13 Reasons Why', The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, vol. 33, no. 6, June 2017, p. 8.

(28) Tracy Gladstone, '13 Reasons Why and the Need for Correct Messages About Teen Depression and Suicide', Women Change Worlds, 10 May 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(29) Michael Winsall, 'On 13 Reasons Why and Social Responsibility', FilmInk, 24 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(30) Esther Han, '13 Reasons Why: Mental Health Groups Slam Netflix over Help Information Refusal', The Age, 27 August 2017, < -refusal-20170825-gy479q.html>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(31) 13 Reasons Why 'Crisis Information' website, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(32) Winsall, op. cit.

(33) The LSAC report also offers that 'there is not always "causal" order in suicidal ideation, plans and attempts'; see Australian Institute of Family Studies, op. cit., p. 124.

(34) Jacobson, op. cit.

(35) For blow-by-blow comparisons of 13 Reasons Why plot events in which women are mistreated with real-world facts about sexual violence, see Alia E Dastagir, '13 Reasons Why a Conversation About Rape Culture Is As Important as One About Suicide', USA Today, 8 May 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(36) Tolentino, op. cit.

(37) Amelia Abraham, 'How Sexual Assault Survivors Feel Watching Rape Scenes on TV, Refmery29, 4 September 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(38) Molly Freeman, '13 Reasons Why Is a Step Forward for TV's Portrayal of Rape', Screen Rant, 7 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(39) Samantha Rullo, 'Bryce from 13 Reasons Why Is a Rapist Whose Relatability Makes Him Even Scarier', Bustle, 1 April 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(40) Georgina Lucas, '13 Reasons Why Follows a Long Literary (and Misogynistic) Tradition of Rape and Suicide', The Conversation, 19 June 2017, <>, accessed 10 September 2017.

(41) See John Briere & Marsha Runtz, 'Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviours in Former Sexual Abuse Victims', Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, vol. 18, no. 4, 1986, pp. 413-23, available at <>, accessed 25 September 2017; and Diann M Ackard & Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, 'Date Violence and Date Rape Among Adolescents: Associations with Disordered Eating Behaviors and Psychological Health', Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 26, no. 5, May 2002, pp. 455-73.

(42) Grohol, op. cit.

(43) Han, op. cit.

(44) A Teenager's Response to Netflix's Suicide Drama 13 Reasons Why, Daily Review, 30 May 2017, < 60430/>, accessed 10 September 2017.
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Author:Aranjuez, Adolfo
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Television program review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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