“13 Reasons Why” Polarizes Viewers

By Brooke Schultz and Amy Rudolph
News Editor and Elm Staff Writer

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and discusses instances of graphic sexual assault and self-harm. Amy Rudolph and Brooke Schultz watched the show and discussed three of the most talked-about aspects of the show.

WC students can report assault to the Department of Public Safety, 410-778-7810. Survivors and friends of survivors of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking may contact the Sexual Assault Response Advocate hotline, 410-699-0742, available 24/7. More WC-based resources are available at www.washcoll.edu/offices/wellness-and-prevention-education under “Gender-Based Violence Resources.”
Students can make an appointment with Counseling Services by phone or email, 410 778-7261 and vanderson2@washcoll.edu. Their hours are: Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1-4:30 p.m. Students can also call the National Suicide Hotline 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.


Point 1: The Representation of Sexual Assault and its Effects

BS: For those who are unfamiliar, the story is told in a mix of past and present. At the start of the story, Clay (Dylan Minnette), the meek and non-confrontational protagonist, receives a box of tapes, recorded by Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) prior to her death, explaining why she committed suicide. If you received the tapes, you are one of the reasons. Throughout the course of the show, Clay listens to Hannah’s narrative and confronts the people who had such a negative impact on her, all the while wondering what he had done to be included.
There are a lot of components explained through the course of the series that go into Hannah’s ultimate decision, but it all builds up to the last two episodes which both feature their own trigger warnings – one for graphic sexual assault and rape, the other for a graphic depiction of suicide and violence.
In episode 12, we see the main antagonist, Bryce (Justin Prentice), rape Hannah in a hot tub at his party. There’s no cut to black; the camera is focused on Hannah the whole time. Worse, too, is the fact that the scene is teased at the start of the episode, where we can hear an echo of the assault as she walks home slowly, with flashes of the memory sprinkled in. Later, when the assault actually occurs, the viewer is placed right next to Hannah’s face.
In an interview with Buzzfeed on April 7, Jay Asher, author of the novel the show is adapted from, said, “If we’re doing this, it can’t be something that you can look away from or just gloss over in your mind. You have to be uncomfortable when you’re watching it; otherwise you’re not in her mind…In a way, it’s disrespectful if we say, ‘We know this stuff is happening, but we don’t want to be made uncomfortable by it.’”
While the show emphasizes the abuse that the woman faces rather than the actions of the man, it still seems like a sensationalism of the act. To show it – not just as it happens, but as the episode begins, too – dramatizes the situation beyond an attempt at honesty.
AR: I believe that what Asher said about having to do an honest representation is accurate. In the real world, the life doesn’t go to black when incidents like rape occur. The replaying of the events that Hannah goes through is what is typical for rape victims and makes sense in the context, especially surrounding why she felt the need to kill herself shortly afterward.
I think it is hypocritical to say that “13 Reasons Why” can’t show real depictions of rape when shows like “Law and Order SVU” do it all the time. In “Law and Order,” it is equally, if not more, violent, because they don’t just focus on the victims face, but the entire situation. While I understand that it is triggering and an emotional subject for many people, I don’t believe that cutting to black would have accurately represented what was going on and done the scene as much justice.
The entire point of “13 Reasons Why” is to make people realize that you can’t just look away when bad things are happening to people, and this is one of those instances.
BS: This same use of camera placement is echoed in episode 13, the final installment in season one, when the camera is at the foot of the bathtub as Hannah kills herself. I don’t find it necessary to describe the scene because, as it happened, I closed the tab and never finished the episode.
AR: While you may have closed the tab and not finished the episode, that isn’t the intended response. This is another way that the show forces the audience to look at the reality of the situation. When I watched it I was shocked and just sat there awestruck for a minute. I wasn’t watching to be astounded by it or because it entertained me, but I was watching because I had just watched 13 hours leading up to that one moment that I knew was coming all along.

Point 2: The Graphic Depiction of Suicide and Self-Harm

BS: The series’s jarring depiction of both rape and suicide are among the first things that appear on Google when you search for either the show or the research that supports that the fact that it is a terrible idea to overtly depict suicide.
In the study, “Influences of media on suicide,” done by Kathryn Williams for the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health in 2002, it was found that, “the impact of the media on suicidal behaviour seems to be most likely when a method of suicide is specified—especially when presented in detail—when the story is reported or portrayed dramatically and prominently.” In the show, we are faced viewing her death; the action is not hidden by the walls of the bathtub, and we are not swooped back to the present day to avoid the scene altogether.
This is where the narration aspect of the story falls short. For the entirety of the series, we know what happened to Hannah because Hannah is telling us through the recordings, but this limited view is not used consistently when we reach this point. We are faced directly with her suicide, which Hannah cannot narrate – showing a deliberate choice to include a scene that broke with that narrative pattern of the show.
It also important to note that the show is marketed toward teenagers, as it fits neatly into the Young Adult genre, and it’s been found that, “younger people seem to be most vulnerable to the influence of the media,” according to Williams. The target audience for the show could face the most of its negative qualities.
AR: This is again very triggering and we’re thankful that the showrunners had enough good sense to put the disclaimer before the episode, as they did before episode 12. This was kind of them to do, because on other shows like “Law and Order,” they don’t ever tell you that a suicide is going to happen, most likely to not spoil the plot of the episode. The suicide scene is incredibly graphic, but the cutting shouldn’t be any more jarring than hangings that happen in other productions.
When we all tuned in for “13 Reasons Why,” we knew Hannah was going to kill herself. But I think the depiction is why so many people were shocked. There was plenty of foreshadowing to the act when characters spoke about how she did it: the scene at the basketball game where she is lying face up with her wrists slit in a very Ophelia-esque pose, or at the dance when the blood begins to pour out of nowhere. These scenes are more shocking because we didn’t know they were coming.
They are also more grotesque because the characters reacted to the situation in different ways. In the suicide scene, Hannah is alone when it happens and that does the act more justice than the teasers before it. Suicide is a solitary act and an individual choice. In the foreshadows, Clay freaks out and yells and screams the whole time it happens. But when Hannah is alone in the bathtub, there are no other reactions other than her own because those other characters don’t actually matter in that moment.

Point 3: Clay’s “Man-pain” and His Place in the Narrative

BS: Asher acknowledged the troubling content of the book, but said that it allows for conversation.
In a 2014 interview with School Library Journal, he said, “Books can be a non-threatening and safe way to explore these issues, which makes the book then feel personal…By using books, we can talk about situations that happen to fictional characters and explore their decisions and repercussions without talking about real people. It feels safer. By simply using books like mine to start discussions, educators send a message that they’re not afraid of these issues, and that’s very important for teens to know.”
This doesn’t line up with the show, however. I think the most significant problem with “13 Reasons Why,” is, at the end of the season, in the last two episodes, you realize the show is essentially about Clay, not Hannah.
When we first meet him, he’s your average guy – meek, non-confrontational. He is shown to be different from the other guys. In the opening scene of episode five, Hannah states that, “Boys are assholes. Some are assholes all of the time. All are assholes some of the time. It’s just how boys are. Well… maybe not all boys,” the last line coming as the camera finds Clay in a crowded dance hall.
We are told by Hannah that Clay is a nice guy (repeatedly). He is the only person included on the tapes who doesn’t deserve to be there, according to her. Even still, their relationship is a stretch. The story is focused on Clay’s interpretation of who Hannah is through what she left on the tapes and, throughout the length of the episodes, the two always seem to have a sense of removal from each other. He clearly has a crush on her, and she seems to like him, but their friendship is never fully developed.
Like I said earlier, when we first meet Clay, he’s very ambivalent, and, as the show continues, he begins to shift out of that. As he listens to the tapes, he confronts the people Hannah talks about and starts acting as some sort of vigilante. We see his emotional responses (or “man-pain”) to Hannah’s situations, which is usually emphasized more than Hannah’s own response.
In episode five, though, he really seals the deal with this mini-monologue: “When I listen to the tapes, I want to see her in school tomorrow. I want to eat Mike and Ikes out of the box with her at the Crestmont, I want to dance with her again and kiss her when I should have kissed her. But I can’t. Don’t you feel like someone should pay for that?”
Notice the use of “I” here. Clay wants, but Clay can’t – and someone should pay because he can’t get what he wants. (Forget about Hannah, right?)
The emphasis is placed on the wrong party here and it continues in the last two episodes. When we see Bryce assault Hannah, it cuts to Clay confronting him – a David v. Goliath, of sorts. When we are watching Hannah’s final hours, followed by her suicide, we are intermittently seeing Clay go up against the guidance counselor, a representation of the overarching, powerful administration. The people Clay confronts grow in threat-level and his character is slowly develop, thanks to Hannah’s tapes. Hannah becomes a tool for Clay’s characterization, which should not be the point of a story meant to be an “honest and open conversation” to bring awareness to “any sensitive issue,” in Asher’s words.
community to talk about suicide and how we can work together to create more awareness. Please feel free to let me know how best we can assist you.”
AR: While Clay is the protagonist and made into a much larger character than he was in the book, the focus is always on Hannah. Even when a scene is about Clay, such as when his parents try to give him anxiety medication, the reasoning is tied back to Hannah’s death. Clay hits his head and gets violently attacked by Bryce because of Hannah. Clay is a vessel through which Hannah’s story is told.
At least part of the series had to be about Clay because otherwise there would have been no way to see how characters on the tapes were reacting to the situation or how the story
would really unravel. If the show did not have Clay or another character listening to the tapes, it would have been like a listicle of why Hannah killed herself, and nothing more.
The scene in which Clay says that he made a girl kill herself because he was too afraid to love her annoyed me beyond belief because, while I do believe they had a good friendship and may have fallen into the star crossed lovers trope, Hannah didn’t kill herself because of Clay. She tells him that. She says he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes. In that same scene, he says that had he stayed in the bedroom with Hannah that night and told her he wasn’t going to leave her, she might still be here. That’s not true. Hannah still had horrible things happen to her. There’s no telling that if Clay had told her he had feelings for her that the other events wouldn’t have transpired.
Clay is used to show that we can’t do anything once the deed is done. Clay is all of us after a tragic event such as that. The whole story is about Hannah with an aside of the story that goes untold of the people left behind. Again, it doesn’t matter about everyone else, it only matters about the person who makes that choice.
BS: The real sinker, to me, is that it appears there may be a season two, which will take it away from its source text pretty drastically.
Selena Gomez, executive producer, said, “We don’t know what is going to go beyond it, but we know there are so many stories that lie beneath each character. That’s why it became a series in the first place. So we’ll see.” Again, our focus has shifted away from Hannah to literally anyone else in the show.
The show’s impact has also has touched the Washington College campus. In an emzail sent to the campus community on April 6, Dr. Miranda Altman wrote, “I’ve had several students come in to talk about how this has affected them….I’m writing to reach out to you and remind you that the Counseling Center staff is available to talk with you one-on-one or in a group about how this distressing story has impacted you.”
The Center is considering opening drop-in hours for group discussions to process the feelings the show evokes.
“I hope that we can talk openly about this story which so dramatically depicts the suicide of a young woman and the aftermath for those left behind,” she said. “It is important for our community to talk about suicide and how we can work together to create more awareness. Please feel free to let me know how best we can assist you.”

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