“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”
This is the voice of Hannah Baker, an unremarkable, “normal” young girl. She was a happy teenager; she had friends, hobbies, and parents she loved and who loved her.
Adapted from Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons, the series tells the story of Hannah’s life. It’s about adolescence, bullying, young sexuality, consent, physical and verbal abuse, alcohol, rape, regret, and suicide…
The series gives a clear picture of how anyone can be a victim of bullying. It isn’t always obvious that something is wrong, because victims may hide their suffering.
Hannah has good parents who are loving, attentive… and absorbed in their daily lives and financial worries. Assuming that their daughter is happy and well off, they look away for just one minute. And yet, even when things seem to be going well, when teens aren’t complaining – replying “Yes, everything’s fine,” – even then, tragedies can happen.
For Hannah, the tipping point revolves around a photo of her that’s a little too revealing. What at first seems fairly harmless spirals out of control. She finds herself branded an “easy” girl at her high school, with her name added to “Hot List” as “Best Ass.” She’s objectified: she is no longer considered as who she really is, but as an object. In light of this new reputation, boys begin to attempt inappropriate gestures towards Hannah, and then lash out at her based on her reaction… which seemingly doesn’t fit with her “easy” identity.
One of Hannah’s friends, who is usually “nice” to Hannah, is upset because she turns down his advances. He reacts by stealing the notes of encouragement from her compliment bag. In their class, each student has a small bag where anyone can drop in a compliment, or something nice. By taking these away from Hannah, this boy’s action is one of the key elements that pushes her to take her own life.
When it comes to bullying, what seems like a small act can have a large impact – whether positive or negative. On its own, stealing the notes wouldn’t have led Hannah to commit suicide. But in the context of her feeling singled out and devalued, these compliments represented one of the only glimmers of hope she had. She writes to him, admitting, “Life was becoming so hard; I felt so lonely, and those stupid compliments actually meant something to me.”
The series also emphasizes the role of social media. Hannah choosing to share her story with her bullies using cassette tapes is no coincidence. Her chosen method sharply contrasts with the omnipresence of social media, where after Hannah’s death, it became “cool” to take a selfie in front of her locker.
With social media and smart phones, pressure for teenagers today is constant and there are no longer any limits. Even in her room, Hannah isn’t sheltered from the abuse. Messages from her peers become weapons used to wound and torture her at the deepest level.
Of course, bullying has existed in schools long before technology. There were provocations and insults, but at least one could escape at home. In extreme cases, one would change schools. Today, there’s no longer an escape option. Bullies can follow you everywhere, on your computer or your phone; wherever you go, your digital presence follows. And stalking is widespread, too, such as Hannah’s “stalker,” Tyler.
This renders intimacy impossible. « We live in a world of stalkers, whom we feed of our own free will » Hannah says. It’s a terrible amount of pressure that many struggle to withstand: holding up when faced with new information, finding one’s place in all this digital turmoil is a major challenge for teenagers today. Sadly, reality reminds us of this too often… as many young adolescents, the victims of bullying, commit suicide.
While listening to the tapes, one can see how a state of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder takes hold of Hannah and leads to what’s known as emotional deregulation. This becomes clear in the scene where she and Clay embrace, a moment she’s long been waiting for, and she knows that she’s safe. But this is the exact moment when such demons bring up images and sounds linked to the trauma she’s experienced. She expresses a total rejection, which has nothing to do with what she is currently experiencing, and yet makes her happy.
Clay’s response is almost a good one, but thrown off by Hannah’s reaction, he freezes up and can’t bring himself to tell her how he feels about her. Which could have completely changed their lives… as Clay will understand – too late – when he listens to the tapes. He understands that if he had been brave enough to tell her how he felt, instead of freezing in silence, everything could have been different. He comes to understand he lacked the courage, unwilling to take the risk.
Another important question the series tackles is the notion of sexual consent. In the scene where Hannah and Clay are kissing, Clay stops before taking it further to reaffirm that he and Hannah are on the same page: “Are you sure?” he asks. She replies, “More than sure.” It’s helpful to have this visual of a healthy affirmation, which ensures there’s no doubt about the intentions of the person one is about to have sexual relations with.
This is called consent. As the 2016 campaign, Project Consent, states: if it’s not yes, it’s no.
On the opposite side, the character of Bryce shows us exactly what an unacceptable behavior looks like… and unfortunately, we see this too often. Bryce is a predator, the “ogre” type, who cares only about his own needs and wants. He wears the mask of seduction, under a pretext of generosity, while his generosity is merely there as a means of bringing those around him under his control.
Bryce takes advantage of a young girl, Jessica, and rapes her. In his mind, he didn’t commit rape, because even when a girl says no, he’s convinced she still wants to have sex with him. When it’s revealed that he did the same thing to Hannah, stealing the last bit of optimism she had left, and Clay insists that Bryce admitted he committed a crime, Bryce completely manipulates the story to justify his actions. He talks about how she came to his party, got in the hot tub without a suit on, and “made eyes.” “She wanted me,” he starts off saying, and after harassing Clay, continues, “She never said no […] You wanna call it rape, call it rape. Same difference.”
Alcohol is also a major issue in the show; listening to the thirteen tapes sheds light on the important role alcohol plays in the adolescent world. It helps them be more bold, helps them forget. At a time when alcohol remains a true issue for young people, one can only begin to outline the various situations it creates that can put them in harm’s way.
After all, alcohol is often used as a means of fitting in with a social group, and this sense of belonging is essential for teenagers: as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes, “The shortest route from self to self is through the other…the self is never enough, is never sufficient unto itself, but constantly seeks out signs and signals of meaning in the other.” To build their self-identity, teenagers need to find a feeling of both autonomy and belonging.
Watching the daily lives of these teenagers, one can see how lost they often feel. These young people are searching for a place in the cliques and hierarchies of high school. Their world revolves around belonging, reputation, and a group of friends. And that world can very quickly turn upside-down the minute they feel they’ve lost one of those three.
To help young people succeed in maturing into adults, it’s important to understand certain stages of development. Even if each individual is unique with their own background, abilities, challenges, and characteristics, there are certain major events linked to development that all teenagers have in common, which pop up during this transition time.
Research today shows that the area in the brain that undergoes the greatest changes after puberty is the prefrontal cortex. This region is associated with what we call “executive functions,” meaning the functions linked to organizing, planning, decision making, anticipating consequences, and impulse control.
The maturation of the prefrontal cortex is a process that takes place throughout adolescence and into young adulthood. This maturation process highly depends on “forged” experiences: executive functions are acquired and mastered thanks to practice. What these young adults face in terms of resources and experiences, and the ways they choose to spend their time, contribute to the diversity among individuals concerning cerebral development.
This is why it is extremely important for them to be able to act: “Everyone wants to talk. No one wants to do anything.”
In a beautiful scene with Tony and Clay, Tony has something he wants to talk about. But before talking to Clay, he makes him hike up a mountain. Clay has to face his fears, the fear of falling and the fear of dying. Tony knows exactly what he’s doing. He doesn’t put his friend in danger, but he uses his actions to safely nudge Clay beyond his limits. “You gotta go slow if you want to climb fast,” Tony tells him. A beautiful metaphor for learning how to grow and evolve by accepting the stages of our physical maturation to bloom into adulthood.
At the peak, Clay says how relieved he is that he survived. He’s bursting with joy at being alive, bubbling over with the pride of overcoming his fear, and his self-esteem is greater after accomplishing something he wouldn’t have thought possible.
This is how action allows us to improve our executive functions.
Then Tony reveals what he wants to tell Clay. Clay’s shocked, asking why he needed to bring him all the way up there to talk when he could have just as well told him what he had to say in the café where they usually meet. Tony asks him whether he would have really been willing to hear what he had to say. Clay recognizes it’s true, his willingness to listen and his understanding wouldn’t have been the same in the midst of all the noise, interruptions from cell phones, etc. Whereas up there, looking out at the landscape, taking in the sounds of nature, he could give his undivided attention.
Child psychologist Rebecca Hedrick explained another characteristic of adolescence when she told Netflix: “Young adults haven’t fully formed their frontal lobe, or their executive function as we call it, so everything that happens feels like this is forever. They often feel like there’s no way out, and this can lead to very impulsive acts.” One of the challenges of adolescence is the inability to embrace any future perspective.
“If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore, you don’t listen to that song anymore. But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head,” says Hannah. She shares this feeling that her suffering will never end… Because she doesn’t yet have the cognitive abilities to project into the future. « Everything started because I felt lost. I needed to have a direction, any direction », she says.
We realize at the end of the show, right up to the last tape, that often it wouldn’t have taken much to put things right: a friendly smile, a bit of attention…
The tapes allow us to see the characters’ different reactions. Some aren’t concerned by the role they’ve played in Hannah’s life, and feel like it’s all her fault. Others begin to wonder. We see them starting to become aware, in some there’s a mounting courage to face this, while in others it’s a lack of caring or denial.
We also come to see that things aren’t set in stone, that a word or gesture, even a smile, have the power to change everything. Listening to the tapes will profoundly change the lives of some of the listeners.
« Little things have importance » in the words of Hannah Baker…
Some have criticized the series for the “violence” of certain scenes, especially concerning Hannah’s suicide. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that suicide is death. Death that is brutal, that means despair and broken lives for the people who were close to the deceased. Hiding the reality of suicide contributes to building up this denial which hides behind a romantic vision of the act of suicide. Suicide is violent and painful; it is the loss of a life.
And often what lies behind suicide is not the desire to die but the desire for certain things in an adolescent’s life to stop. Listening to Hannah Baker’s tapes makes us want her to live. We understand it would have simply taken a small act to change her life. We tell ourselves that if she’d lived, she would have become a strong woman.
In describing the warning signs of suicidal thoughts, outlining various possible causes, and tackling how suicide affects the lives of those around the deceased, the show 13 Reasons Why” follows exactly what suicide prevention specialists promote.
A study in 1996 which looked at the consequences of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Nirvana’s lead singer, revealed that showing his loved ones’ mourning and the fact that his death was violent contributed to limiting the “chain reaction” that often occurs after the death of a celebrity.
The Netflix documentary “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons” is also interesting to watch as it takes into account the views of the producers, directors, actors, and mental health professionals.
This series takes us into the world of teenagers, showing us its beauty, strengths, optimism, despair, and fragility. Thanks to “13 Reasons Why,” a widespread discussion has been launched on social media about this previously taboo subject.
To conclude, I want to share with you the words of an incredible, young 20-year-old, Clara, who agreed to write for our blog on her thoughts after watching the show:
Thirteen Reasons Why – A Show Taking Action
“13 Reasons Why” tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high school girl who committed suicide. She uses tapes to record thirteen reasons that pushed her to take her own life and those tapes are then played for the people she believes were partly responsible for her death.
The episodes help us put together a picture of the various elements (like bullying, verbal and physical abuse, and mocking) that contributed to Hannah’s decision. For many, this may seem excessive, especially for men, for whom it’s sometimes difficult to understand something that can’t happen to them. I read a few critiques of people who were unhappy about the shocking nature of certain scenes deemed “too” violent.
As for me, I think this show is stunning in how well it reveals reality. On one hand, school bullying does really exist, whether it’s in middle school, high school, or even sometimes elementary school, and it is often ignored or minimized by adults, be they parents or teachers. On the other hand, the scenes criticized as being too violent or shocking certainly are, but this is precisely what is needed in order to show viewers how serious school bullying, depression, suicide, and the rest truly are. These scenes depict reality: suicide is always violent and showing it may well raise awareness among some people – those who’ve been contemplating it or those who may have been part of the cause!
Among the elements that drove Hannah to commit suicide, many correspond to what a good number of young girls experience in daily high school life. Some of them benefit from strong support from their loved ones and are sufficiently strong mentally to face these things and grow stronger from them. Others are alone in these situations and end up feeling weak or hopeless, maybe even hating themselves. Adolescence is a difficult period during which our bodies change as well as our perception of ourselves and of the world around us. Very often, young girls have low self-esteem and others’ behavior towards them has an influence on the way they build their self-image. So I think it’s important to watch this show, not only as entertainment, but more importantly because it makes an effort to denounce the school bullying that can lead to suicide and depression.
At the end of the show, I wish for viewers to take away an awareness, to question themselves, and ultimately to take responsibility: on one side, for young people in the way they treat others and the consequences their actions can have; and on the other, for adults who should listen to young people and protect them, who should not ignore reality and should punish school bullying.
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