I was sitting in my class the other day, listening to celebratory speeches. One girl, a very talented speaker, has a power point; she turns it on and it’s a photo for the Netfix show Thirteen Reasons Why and says “This is not suicide.” How poignant, I was instantly reeled into her speech, the girl continued saying that the media needs to stop “romanticizing suicide,” now I’ve seen these arguments before, particularly online, and as much as I wanted to continue agreeing with her speech I couldn’t.
Now I’ll agree, that there are generally some issues that arise when suicides are highly publicized. While I was in high school, a young man in my community committed suicide and I’m not sure if it was the publicity he got or other kids were simply seriously shaken up, but a number of other suicides followed shortly after. In fact there have been studies that have found a link between highly publicized suicides and so called “copy-cat” cases.
But I digress, I’d like to share my previously held private opinions about suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why. Something I’m sure some are unaware of is that it started as a novel by Jay Asher first published in 2007; and honestly I think the book is better, the show took a lot of creative liberties. But if the book’s been around ten years, why did I only hear about it in the last year or so, and why did many people not even realize that it is a book? I think it boils down to the fact that film is so much more sensational in that it doesn’t make the viewer work as hard–with a book you have to mentally create scenes, what characters look like, and how they interact, with a movie, all of that has been done for you.
So when people saw Thirteen Reasons Why and saw Hannah Baker cutting her wrists, it caused a much bigger uproar than when people read about Hannah Baker over-dosing on pills–it was a stronger, more violent image. As a result, more people spoke out about and against the film when most readers stayed fairly quiet about it.
In the back of the novel, there is a section in which Asher gives a little Q&A about the book–why he wrote it, some of the thoughts that went into it, et cetera. From this you can see that while suicide is the driving force of the book, it’s not necessarily the most important thing about it. Interestingly enough, there are “special features” after the series on Netflix as well in which the directors and producers say somewhat similar things about the plot and the characters as the author did.
Both the book’s Q&A and the show’s “special features” stressed that the important thing was not that she killed herself and we need to be aware of the signs because there might be other “Hannah Bakers” out there. The “moral,” if you will, of Asher’s story is that you never know how you affect others’ lives. Hannah didn’t see that she was important to Clay, her parents, anyone really; and no one on the tapes saw how their actions affected Hannah. Those characters that she “blamed” did not take away her agency in suicide, they did not force her, it was still her choice. But people who haven’t read the book or even watched the movie and only read comments about it online might think that’s the case. Not one review article I saw said anything about that message; they just focused on the idea that Hannah was stupid and selfish.
I wish there were more media coverage of comparisons between the book and movie, I think that would have given people a better appreciation for what Asher was trying to communicate. Overall, I recommend the book, especially the tenth anniversary edition–it includes the original ending in which Hannah Baker survives. I’m not going to tell anyone to not watch the show, or to avoid articles about show or movie, I’m not even going to tell people to stop “romanticizing suicide.” I just hope that we are all more aware of the implications of our own actions and approach media about touchy topics like suicide with a more open mindset.