3 problems I have with Netflix's 13 Reasons Why

Talking about a topic as sensitive as suicide is undoubtedly a difficult thing - and one that's highly controversial.

But that didn't deter the people behind streaming service Netflix's latest breakthrough hit 13 Reasons Why - a teen drama series that revolves around the touchy issue of suicide.

Based on Jay Asher's New York Times best-selling novel, it tells of the events surrounding high school teen Hannah Baker (played by actress Katherine Langford), who left behind 13 cassette tapes that supposedly unravel the story behind why she took her own life.

The protagonist, Hannah Baker (foreground).Photo: Netflix

Like many, I too jumped on the bandwagon and completed watching (read binge watched) the series over the Good Friday long weekend.

As I moved on from one episode to the next, I couldn't help but notice that the initial excitement and curiosity I felt had gradually turned into annoyance and incredulity.

I had problems with the way the show turned out.

Photo: Netflix

Other than the fact that it should really have been condensed into perhaps '6 Reasons Why' or a movie even, there were other issues I couldn't look past.

1. It glamorises suicide

First, the show glamorises suicide by playing up the story of a teen who meticulously plans to release tapes - also because of wanting to "seek revenge" - before killing herself.

Photo: YouTube

In fact, 13 Reasons Why has been called out by rights groups and other publications for the message the show was sending out.

And it's terribly dangerous, especially for young adults.

According to the World Health Organisation, close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year and there are many more who attempt suicide. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death among those aged between 15 to 29 years old globally.

Granted, Netflix did add more warnings (after receiving backlash) to the show and to graphic episodes (there were multiple rape scenes), as well as provided links to mental health resources.

2. Hannah Baker's graphic suicide

However, my main gripe with the show - just like many others - is the scene at the centre of it all: Hannah Baker's graphic suicide.

Why was there a need to include the scene at all? It was uncomfortable and extremely hard to watch. Sure, I get it. That's the whole point, right?

In an opinion-ed in Vanity Fair, writer Nic Sheff defended the move: "From the very beginning, I agreed that we should depict the suicide with as much detail and accuracy as possible.

"I even argued for it - relating the story of my own suicide attempt to the other writers."

In a counter argument in CNN by mental health advocate and speaker Mark Henick: "The biggest problem with Sheff's defence is that, while it feels right, it's scientifically, demonstrably, incorrect and dangerous."

I agree totally. Would it hurt to leave out the graphic scene and just zoom in on Hannah's parents discovering her body?

To me, that scene on her parents stumbling on her limp body was, in my opinion, the most heartbreaking and infuriating part, not so much the suicide itself, because I cannot fathom why any child would ever want to do this to their parents.

There should be a better way to portray the troubles and demons that some teens are battling inside.

And it pains me to think that teenagers who are hurting inside might want to copy Hannah's behaviour. Besides, that scene could have been a trigger for people who have suicidal thoughts or are recovering from their own hurdles in life.

There should be a better way to portray the troubles and demons that some teens are battling inside.

Despite the show's sensitive subject matter, 13 Reasons Why has been confirmed for a second season during the MTV Movie and TV awards held on May 7.

3. Stars have a role to play in sending across the right message

Besides its controversial theme, there's another reason behind why 13 Reasons Why is so popular.

Pop singer Selena Gomez is apparently the driving force behind it, although she may not appear on screen. The singer is the executive producer for the series and refers to the show as her "passion project".

The fact that Gomez is the most followed personality on Instagram might have helped the show's strong following.

So this leaves one wondering if she could've done more to help spread the message of seeking help to teens who are in need.

The two main stars of the show, Langford and Dylan Minette, who plays Clay Jensen, boast over three million Instagram followers each.

Photo: Netflix

Several other co-stars also have at least one million fans on their social media pages. So that's a great deal of people they could influence.

Gomez herself said she wanted to adapt 13 Reasons Why "because suicide should never be an option", which has now become an ironic statement in light of the accusations.

Be mentally prepared for 13 Reasons Why

At the end of it all, I understand that everyone behind the project had good intentions. That's clear. What's also clear is that they weren't interested in sugar-coating distressing issues.

But that doesn't change my stance that there could've been better ways to truly protect and positively influence vulnerable young adults with this series.

Anyone who is interested in watching 13 Reasons Why should be fully prepared for the heaviness of the entire show and I would strongly discourage people struggling with mental disorders from watching it.

Regardless, the overarching message of the show (or at least what I hope other viewers get) is to be kind to everyone because you never know who's having a pretty lousy day at school, work or just life in general.

And I genuinely hope season two of 13 Reasons Why will deliver that same point with even more precision.

ssandrea@sph.com.sg