You can’t remedy depression with ‘love’
13 Reasons Why, a Netflix original series based on the YA fiction novel by Jay Asher, details the events leading up to and following the suicide of 16-year-old Hannah Baker. It grossly trivialises mental health and romanticises suicide – and don’t tell me it doesn’t when her ‘suicide note’ comes in the form of god damn cassette tapes. Indie, right?
The show leaves you asking – whose story is this? Hannah’s? Clay’s? The dual narrative is spread so thin that it’s hard to sympathise with anyone. That aside, every character appears horribly selfish, overdramatic, and frankly unrealistic. It’s like its writer, Brian Yorkey, googled ‘Millenial trope’ and spat out a dozen whining brats. It turns into a ‘whodunnit’; a blame game where fingers are pointed and guilt is spread around a bunch of teenagers like a really, really shit version of The Secret History. Suicide isn’t caused by other people – it’s not murder.
The show even addresses this, but still its message is confused: ‘I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her’ Clay says – fundamentally fucked-up – to which Mr. Porter replies ‘You can’t love someone back to life’. True. This little exchange, however, ends with Clay saying, ‘You can try’. What kind of message is that? ‘We all killed Hannah Baker’ Tony tells Clay. No, you didn’t – she killed herself. That’s the point.
Suicide is caused by mental illness, not bullying; but is Hannah Baker portrayed as mentally ill? Everyone’s experience is different, but are there any symptoms of depression here? Where’s the numbing lethargy? Where’s her losing interest in her appearance? Where’s the self-harm? Speaking of which – Skye, the one character with scars, tells Clay ‘it’s what you do instead of killing yourself’. Where’s her recovery? What sort of message is this sending to the millions of young adults watching this show? Not everyone who commits suicides shows signs, granted. Almost all suicides are described as ‘shocking’. But is the word ‘depression’ ever uttered once in all 13 episodes?
It’s unrealistic. The mental health narrative is as pushed under the rug as ever and Hannah Baker is about as good a poster girl for the depressed as Kendall Jenner is for the oppressed. We never really tap into Hannah’s psyche: she’s just a narrator. The result is that she comes off as an over-dramatic snowflake. Yorkey’s way of addressing this seems to be making Hannah say ‘I’m not!’ whenever anyone accuses her of seeking attention or being a drama queen.
Give us a protagonist who physically can’t get out of bed; who ugly cries in the bath every night for months; who suffers with irrational thoughts of self-hatred. Just something – anything – to throw the focus on the day-to-day struggles of someone with a mental illness. A real-life Hannah Baker would not commit suicide – because Hannah Baker is not mentally ill. Or at least not the Hannah Baker we’re being shown.