The release of Season Two of Netflix's controversial 13 Reasons Why has been met discussion and outrage, as well as renewed discussion and outrage over Season One. Observing, reading, and occasionally participating in this discussion on social media, I've started to see a trend in one certain defense, and it's textbook victim blaming.
If my above photo banner did not load on your device, this is a content warning for discussion of suicide, sexual assault, and surrounding topics.
Before I even start, a brief refutation of the argument "life doesn't come with Trigger Warnings." This is aside from the actual topic because 13 Reason's Why actually checks off that box. Good job 13RW; you get one point.
Life may not come with Trigger Warnings, but almost all mass media comes with Content Warnings.
MPAA ratings, ESRB ratings, TV Parental Guide ratings, none of these required by law. All of these are optional. It just so happens that the the common public decided "hey, it would be nice to know what I'm getting myself into," and mass media manufacturing companies agreed.
It's not a matter of law. It's a social and cultural agreement that won the popular vote of where people spend their money.
Also, before you jump into this essay, I would encourage you to feed clicks to my first essay on the topic which covers 13 Reasons, other television shows and movies that discuss suicide, literature, and the Catch 22 of public health vs. personal therapy.
13 Reasons Why Fans and Apologists
It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that this show doesn't have actual fans. Regardless of my opinion or perceived value of a piece of media, there's gonna be an audience for pretty much everything out there. That's the great thing about mass media.
It would also be disingenuous to suggest that there aren't a number of fans - and on the flip side, haters - of the show who have their opinion strictly because of the politics of the show. With art as multifaceted as an audiovisual experience, any single-issue fan or single-issue hater can form an opinion on any number of things. Maybe you really like Selena Gomez, maybe you really hate the scene lighting. My point is that there's not just one reason that people do or do not enjoy a piece of media, and frankly that's a bit of a false dichotomy too.
Speaking of false dichotomies, I'm going to split the 13 Reasons Why fandom into two groups: fans of the show as a show, and fans of the show as a statement. Yes there are people that fall in between, but that's not how soft science variables work, so let's go!
Fans of the show
I don't have much to say about fans of the show itself. Perceived problems aside, the show could be mistaken for a piece of CW fluff. Pretty actors playing high school students and everyone is a little bit miserable. There are people out there who have seen every film in the Saw series, so there could also be people who are just in it for the shocking scenes. IDK.
Fans of the show as a statement
As you will have read in my last essay (you better go read it), I used to fit this description. Before I had even seen the show, I held these truth statements above all else:
I'm willing to be proved wrong here, but most discussion I see of 13 Reasons don't go much further than these two points. Any argument to the contrary is shut down by these two polarizing ideas. If you believe them to be wholly and absolutely true, it's very easy to justify the graphic nature of 13 Reasons Why.
With these beliefs, the more graphic, frankly the better. It's bigger; it's louder; it gets people talking. The more graphic, the more people talk, mystery step, the ultimate stigmatization of mental illness.
Suicide and Agency
So before I even introduce this rhetoric I've found swimming around message boards, I want to introduce a previously existing debate that doesn't have a clean answer. In the event that an individual dies by suicide, who has agency? Whose fault is it if we are to burden ourselves with the task of assigning blame?
You may have noticed my choice to use the language "dies by suicide." I'm not sure when it came about, but it has been growing in popularity with many style guides, like AP, advocating its use.
Now, ignoring the two other examples AP gives in that post, one of the benefits of using "died by suicide" is that it takes agency away from the deceased. Structurally it's similar to "died from asphyxiation," "killed by a passing train," or "drowned in a vat of milk."
Saying "she committed suicide" assigns the grammatical agency, and in turn real life agency, to the deceased. "she kicked the ball," "he murdered a group of twenty," "she committed suicide."
From a physical perspective, it cannot be ignored that the deceased is the one that physically committed the act, but in organizations working to destigmatize mental illness and in news reporting, there is a movement to shift the focus to place agency on what caused the person to die by suicide. In this discourse, the agent is depression, or trauma, or any number of mental disabilities.
What becomes linguistically confusing to many is this almost personification of a mental illness. In a murder case it's easy to create characters and wrap your head around "Jenny shot Suzie," but in cases of death by suicide, it's not so clear. Especially in cases of depression and longtime mental illness when there isn't some sort of aggravating factor to point to.
Media coverage of adolescent deaths by suicide in correspondence to severe bullying are a regrettably helpful example of this conflict, and fits well adjacently to 13 Reasons Why. One can't say directly that the bully killed the now deceased, as there was no direct physical agency there, instead the best you can say is that the bullying lead to the death by suicide.
Long story short, it's complicated; soft sciences are complicated; there's no empirical source to tell us who causes what and so we must ruminate with what we have. However, I do believe I can can posit this statement that's less of a statement and more of a suggestion, but I'm sure people do it already:
So with that in place, let's move on to this argument I've seen far too much of.
People who are against 13 Reasons Why aren't thinking critically about it
I'll start picking this apart by doing my best to respect it. My guess is that the intent behind it is to defend against a group of people with the belief of:
If someone's thought process was a simple as banning a book because you don't like that it mentions birth control, I'd agree that that's unhelpful, bland, and silly. But that's not the belief I have, and the same goes for many others.
Again, it would be disingenuous to suggest that there aren't any people out there who want to shut down just because they don't personally like it, so I can't speak to them. The more developed argument I'm seeing and that I discuss more in detail in my last essay about this is:
After the release of Season One, copycat suicides began. As I discussed prior, it is impossible to unequivocally state a television show was the sole cause of a death by suicide, but for the families of the deceased and for researchers at JAMA Internal Medicine, it was close enough to point out the problem.
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal published monthly by the American Medical Association, was conducted post-release of Season One of 13 Reasons Why. This study, which was cited in this article from The Atlantic, suggested that suggest "13 Reasons Why, in its present form, has both increased suicide awareness while unintentionally increasing suicidal ideation.”
Which brings me back to my titular point:
If you think that 'lack of critical thinking' is the problem with 13 Reasons Why, you are placing agency in the hands of those that have died by suicide
You are, inadvertently or not, saying that people who viewed the show - a show that was marketed towards a vulnerable demographic and actively went against public health guidelines - that the people who viewed this show and died by suicide, died because they were not critically thinking about it. They died because they weren't smart or holy enough to grasp the nuance and the great positive effect that the show was going to have for the mental health community.
They died because they were stupid.
Part of me feels guilty for borrowing the term "victim blaming" as it is more native to sexual assault discourse, but I find it fitting here. The topics run parallel and both reflect a culture of assigning agency to disadvantaged people (women, queer men, trans people; people with mental disabilities) for experiencing horrifying events outside their control (assault; death by suicide). (I should also note that Season Two tries to bring to light heterosexual male-on-male sexual assault).
If you truly believe that 13 Reasons Why has a positive effect once you 'think hard enough' then you are blaming the victims of death by suicide, and that is not what an advocate for mental health awareness should be doing.
Then you're either ignorant to, contesting, or disregarding those that did die by suicide, and I don't think that something like that can be trivialized or divorced from the topic, especially by people claiming to be on the side of mental health awareness.
And that's a Catch 22 that I tackled a bit in my last essay. Yes, the show may have done some good, but it also did some bad. And the response I have for that is: look at all the other media that only did good. Or at least, did good, and the bad didn't lead to deaths by suicide. There are dozens of shows, completed, currently running, and someday may be written that tackle mental health, depression, cutting, an suicide.
The only thing that makes 13 Reasons Why notable is that they did it wrong.
At this point it might actually be fitting to do a close reading of Season One and look at how the show does or doesn't give narrative agency to Hannah Baker and her death by suicide, but this has been done before and done better than I probably could, and I am in no mood to re watch the entire first season.
If you have another reason for defending 13 Reasons Why, great. Actually, email it to me; I'd love to write another essay. For me, it's pretty clear, defense of 13RW goes against the values I would expect from someone who legitimately cares about mental health awareness. If you're aware of the effect that the show has had, you're either pro victim blaming, or you're a utilitarian that's thinking oh it's fine that a few viewers offed themselves, it's all for the greater good.
If you like the show for being a show, great! It's absolutely fine to like things!
But if you like, support, and advocate for the show because you believe that it has a positive effect for the community, then I wholeheartedly believe that you are mistaken. Not everything is as simple as free the nipple.