While many people surely thought the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why was just another sappy teen drama, the show (which was based on the novel written by Jay Asher) instead proved to send one hell of a powerful message that is concerningly relatable to real life.
The show tells the story of Hannah (Katherine Langford), a high schooler who took her own life for the aforementioned 13 reasons, which are fleshed out in each episode by highlighting the specific ways that the people in her life wronged her thanks to a collection of cassette tapes… whether they realized it or not. This device allows us a look into Hannah’s tormented life as she navigates high school — at times invisible, at times a target, and at times something in between. It also presents itself as something like a horror story because this is a girl who had a support structure and people who cared about her. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Especially when weighed against the ample hell that some face.
Hannah’s days were filled with drama and rumors that objectified her and teased about her sexuality. Her writing and most precious confessions were stolen from her. She got a reputation, that unshakeable thing that all teenagers and young adults fear. People said she was easy and multiple students tried to force themselves on her, with one raping her in a particularly difficult graphic scene.
These students knew they had wronged Hannah but did they know what they were doing would cause her to kill herself? Did they care? As the show moved through its run, it was clear that some didn’t while others were gutted by the loss or changed by their role.
Hannah’s crush, Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), was hit hardest by his place on the tapes. Even as one of Hannah’s best friends Clay was not able to break through her emotional barrier after she was raped by Bryce (Justin Prentice) after a party. While Clay thought he was personally responsible for Hanna’s death, he discovered his only flaw was not turning one more time to talk to her as she went through her downward spiral.
Jessica (Alisha Boe) became Hannah’s friend after the school thought it was fitting that the two new kids be paired up. Naturally, it was quite the opposite at first but soon after they became close friends and endured high schools demons together. Until one party where Hannah witnessed an unconscious Jessica get raped by Bryce, the same jock who raped Hannah. Jessica accused Hannah of being jealous when she told her about it and slapped her across the face thus ending their relationship.
Alex (Miles Heizer) was a loner who was welcomed by Jessica and Hannah as part of the new kid’s trio but he desperately wanted to be part of the cool kids. He slowly broke away from Hannah after he started dating Jessica and tried to get in with the jocks who were all in Bryce’s circle. A pursuit toward acceptance that was far more desperate than anyone realized.
While the ability of Hannah’s fellow students (or teenagers, in general) to recognize trouble signs is less than certain, the adults in Hannah’s school should have been more able, right? If you’re a parent, you want to believe that, but while the counselor and educators were well intentioned, they couldn’t have failed more. Principal Gary Bolan (Steven Weber) tried to cover up the bullying by painting over graffiti in the bathrooms. Teachers talked about the signs of suicide and yet still managed to not see a cry for help in a poem that described how horrible Hannah felt which hinted at suicide.
Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), the guidance counselor, failed her the most. A few days before Hannah killed herself, she spoke to him, telling him that she was raped, but she was too scared to identify her attacker. And in a moment that probably resonates with far too many women and teen girls, Mr. Porter tells Hannah that he can’t do anything without a name and mentions that it may be best to move on. Even a comment about ending her life wasn’t enough for him to even call her parents — people who, if they had known, clearly would have moved heaven and earth to reach their daughter.
Unlike a lot of teens, Hannah’s parents (Kate Walsh & Brian d’Arcy James) tried to focus on her and affirm that she was loved. But life is chaotic, people have jobs and other concerns, and a teenager that doesn’t want to talk can’t always be spotted, even by the most attentive parent. On the night when she was raped at Bryce’s party, Hannah’s parents were asleep when she came home late and unaware that she was crying in her bedroom. A week later, she would be dead and their life would be upended.
Even if they were awake, would Hannah have said anything, though? Unfortunately, so many young women feel shame and embarrassment when they’re sexually assaulted. They worry that no one will believe them or that they’ll be blamed. Because of this, so many assaults go unreported and loved ones are left in the dark while the torment erodes the insides of a person who has already lost so much.
In the end, despite all the effort, the posters in the halls, the ears to listen and the shoulders to lean on urging kids not to kill themselves, kids still get overlooked. The struggle for kids to get beyond bullying is never more clear than in the last episode of the show when the attention paid to all that was missed with Hannah obscures another troubled teen’s descent. And that’s what makes this all so impactful and, unfortunately, hopeless. Because we know that this kind of thing can and does happen in the real world and the best we can do to stop it is to hope that we don’t miss the signs and be vigilant. Maybe this show makes that more clear. The need to pay attention, not just say we’re trying to.
If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed or at the end of their rope please call the Suicide Hotline at 1-800-784-2433