Warning: this review contains spoilers and triggers.
There has been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about 13 Reasons Why, Netflix’s new, highly awaited drama. It is based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher and tells the story of why Hannah Baker, a 17 year old high schooler chose to end her life, and how the actions of some of her peers influenced this devastating decision.
It is a raw, powerful drama which often leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable or even unable to watch; the most harrowing scenes being those of rape, suicide and of her parents’ discovery of her body. Kate Walsh’s scenes are heartbreaking: watching a distraught mother trying to understand what led her daughter to such a desperate, definitive act wrenches on the heart strings throughout the series, while Katherine Langford’s performance of Hannah expertly displays her pain overwhelming and ultimately consuming her, resulting in her rape scene, where she seems entirely devoid of any remaining emotion.
In this series, the protagonist, Hannah Baker, lists the 13 reasons (or rather the 13 actions of certain people at her school) which contributed to her struggle and finally led her to suicide. It is a tragic story, with an obvious leaning towards the importance of discussing mental health, depression, and bullying, which has captured the attention of a young audience across the globe very quickly. But what really hit home with me about this drama was the message of how important our individual actions are, and how possible it is to make an impact on someone else’s life without even really noticing.
Without wanting to belittle any of Hannah’s reasons at all, because I certainly don’t want to justify bullying or sexual violence in any way, what particularly struck me was how some of the reasons listed, such as teasing, rumours being spread about her, or classmates making errors in judgement, didn’t seem like significant-enough reasons to lead a person to suicide. It was the accumulation of everything that she couldn’t bear, and this, I think, is what is so important to understand and to acknowledge.
While watching 13 Reasons Why, I highly doubt that I was the only person who felt that they could relate to one – at least – of the characters. Although difficult to admit, I could certainly relate to the bullies, who teased Hannah without really thinking about it, or to those high schoolers who laughed along at another promiscuous rumour, considering their taunting to be simply a joke or something light-hearted. While I don’t believe I was a “bully” at school, I definitely played my part in occasional teasing, and received a certain amount of “banter” in return, and watching this drama didn’t half make me think back ten years and wonder what shouldn’t have been said, or where a line should have been drawn.
Secondly, Clay’s character, a guy who doesn’t personally partake in any bullying, yet who witnesses it all and doesn’t do anything to stop it, is also one to whom I’m sure many of us can relate. How many of us refrained from interfering at school, for fear of the spotlight ending up on our heads, or the rumours being aimed at us? Often it can feel easier to stay out of a situation than to get involved in it ourselves, but if this show teaches us anything, it’s that involvement is often what is needed to give someone the help and support they need, or to stop something terrible from happening.
Finally, at University, I (and some other girls in my accommodation block) was a victim of sexual assault. I wasn’t raped, but an act was forced upon me without my consent and it completely stripped me of my self-worth and sense of freedom. Speaking out about the experience with other victims – some of whom had much worse experiences than me – with my friends, and with the University counsellor, helped enormously and now I barely even think about the experience, let alone allow it to control any part of me. It makes me think that had Hannah had the same support system, and additional help from her high school counsellor, perhaps her story could have been different.
While this show highlights many important aspects of high school life, and the importance of seeking help and support when one is facing dark or difficult times, I think that there is one very simple message we can all take from it: our words and our actions can impact others much more than we realise. How often have we said something or laughed at a joke at someone else’s expense, and regretted it afterwards? This show really illustrates the importance of taking responsibility for our actions, and of realising that not everything is as it seems on the surface. No-one can truly know everything that is going on in someone else’s life, and sometimes it only takes one unkind word to ruin someone’s day, week, or worse, life. So let’s focus on being kind to one another, because, in the words of Aesop, from The Lion and the Mouse fable, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” and I think we would all do well to remember it.