About a year ago today, I posted an extended commentary on the television series 13 Reasons Why. Despite generating enormous public outrage, Netflix chose to renew the show for a second season. This season is out now, and spoiler alert — it’s just as awful as the first.
For a show widely hailed as the harbinger of a new era of mental health advocacy, 13 Reasons Why failed spectacularly in its first season — and it has just picked right back up from where it left off. True, Netflix has made some concessions, including both commissioning a report from Northwestern University detailing the success of the show and making a concerted effort to emphasize that suicide is not the answer for struggling youth. But it’s still not enough.
The primary objective of Netflix’s published study is to convince viewers that the show’s value lies in its ability to start a conversation on mental health. The show even takes shots at its critics in one of its episodes, when self-righteous protagonist Clay asks his principle “How is silence going to help us?”
None of this is even remotely relevant. Nobody who originally criticized 13 Reasons Why suggested that silence is the answer. Of course we need to talk about suicide and depression; it’s the only viable way to end prejudice and stigmatization. But we need to do it right. Studies have proven that contact-based education — when people share their personal stories of struggle and recovery — is by far the most effective way of breaking down stigma surrounding suicide. 13 Reasons Why, in contrast, explicitly shows the inability of a girl’s peers and role models (including her counselor) to help her in any way, and celebrates her legacy after she successfully kills herself. This show does nothing to deconstruct and in fact encourages the belief that suicide leads to a kind of popular immortality, and that it can be the best solution to a problem.
The second season of 13 Reasons Why is defined by clumsy, obscenely explicit attempts to appease critics. This is no more prevalent than in the discovery of a list of “Reasons Why Not” found by Hannah’s mother after her death. This scene is nothing but an outrageous attempt to win over viewers — and as unconvincing as it is, it is unlikely to have any impact on those struggling with suicidal ideation. As an effort to change the show’s portrayal of suicide, it is drastically underwhelming.
Worse than this casual acknowledgement of the show’s problems, however, is the introduction and perpetuation of new and seriously harmful cultural myths. After suffering sexual abuse at his high school, one character goes to retrieve guns from his arsenal with the intent of shooting up the school. While he eventually relents on this plan, the idea that school shooters are the victims of bullying pushed to their breaking point and seeking revenge against their tormentors (and that if their peers had just reached out to them they could have prevented the shooting) is heinously false. This theory first originated after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and has since been discredited beyond argument. Case studies have shown that in the case of this specific event, the shooters were never bullied. They had their own circle of friends, never discussed being bullied in their diaries, and did not target their ‘popular jock’ peers. Fast-forward to the more recent Parkland shooting — no effort any of the perpetrator’s classmates could have made would have changed who Nikolas Cruz was. If you don’t believe me, take the testament of survivor Isabelle Robinson instead, succinctly written in a New York Times op-ed titled “I Tried to Befriend Nikolas Cruz. He Still Killed My Friends.”
13 Reasons Why is in no way interested in providing viewers with alternatives to suicide. Like all shows, it is concerned with being shocking and getting ratings. It fails to frame suicide or mental illness is any way close to appropriate, and facilitates dangerous myths about school shootings. This series is a sickening attempt to grab viewers and make money, and it’s important to not fall victim to its calculated misinterpretations of the truth.
Originally published 5/25/18.