Last week I watched Hannah Baker commit suicide inches away from me. I cringed as I looked away in discomfort, my stomach turning.
Hannah is the fictional main character of “13 Reasons Why,” the popular new Netflix series that tells the story of a high schooler who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 audio tapes letting her former friends know how they each contributed to and were responsible for her suicide.
After I completed the first season, I spent days trying to figure out how to feel.
My answer came almost a week later. On Thursday, I heard the news ex-Patriots’ star tight end Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in his jail cell just days after he was acquitted of double homicide charges and before an appeals court could deliver a decision on a murder conviction sentencing him to life behind bars.
Despite Hernandez’s clear character flaws, I considered his suicide nothing short of a tragedy. I saw a dead father, a broken family and a 4-year-old girl who would never see her dad again.
Yet my social media timelines flooded with reactionary comments, jokes and celebrations. The majority of jokes used Hannah’s words as a punchline. Memes portrayed her line, “welcome to your tape,” above photos of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick wearing headphones.
I was disgusted, and my mind was made up. This is what happens when suicide is recklessly abused as a dramatic plot device. It becomes a dangerous punchline.
So “13 Reasons Why,” welcome to your tape.
The first season culminates after Hannah has explained the 13 experiences that drove her to commit suicide and placed sufficient blame on her peers. We watch her suicide from start to finish for more than one entirely uninterrupted, incredibly graphic minute as she bleeds to death in her family’s bathtub. The intention was to show the horror of suicide by making our stomachs turn, but it did more than that.
Though well-intentioned, it was a recklessly executed attempt to prompt dialogue, especially when suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers — the show’s target audience.
While presenting an artistic, blood-stained portrait of suicide, 13RW contributes to the scientific concept of suicide contagion. Research suggests when suicide is publicized in the media, particularly as an escape from distress, suicide rates temporarily spike as a result.
As the show’s viewers grew in numbers, so did calls made to suicide hotlines by individuals triggered by its content. The show tried to scare its teen audience into believing suicide was never an option, but instead immortalized a detailed “how to” guide for impressionable viewers.
But I can see the good intention behind this major miscalculation. What I can’t see is why any show allegedly encouraging positive dialogue about the struggles of suicide would paint its victims as manipulative, vindictive and attention-seeking.
Hannah’s tapes romanticize the adolescent “you’ll-regret-this-when-I’m-gone” notion, and in doing so present suicide as an act of retribution rather than desperation. It is this over-dramatized exploitation that turns suicide into a plot device — a plot device that allowed the internet to run rampant with “welcome to your tape” memes. Even Netflix tweeted the show’s unofficial catchphrase at its rival Hulu.
Equally as dangerous as 13RW’s portrayal of suicide victims is its justification of suicide by blaming survivors of suicide loss. It shames those who directly hurt the victim and those who failed to recognize signs someone might be struggling.
It implies parents and adults “just wouldn’t understand” and portrays both school and home as unsafe spaces to seek help, a message directly counterintuitive to the communication problems the show is supposed to dissolve.
In all its attempts to prompt conversation about suicide, 13RW alienates the communities most susceptible to its message: those struggling with suicidal thoughts and those managing the grief of suicide loss. Its flaws serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when we try to make a statement about an issue without the perspectives of those most influenced by said issue. This includes the researchers who study it, the people who are actively struggling or the communities who continue to grieve as a result.
It’s not enough to confront suicide in what we can write off as an over-dramatized TV series. It’s certainly not enough to treat suicide as a punchline. If you or someone you know is struggling, talk about it because there are plenty of people who want to listen.
We should all want to listen. It’s time for healthy conversations so we can start understanding those who need it and stop poor representations like this before they go viral and cause unnecessary damage.
When news of Hernandez’s suicide broke, the father of one of his alleged victims spoke out against people finding satisfaction in his death.
“Any loss of life is a shame,” he said.
If we want to stop losing, we have to start talking.
Madison Gouveia, ’17, is a managing editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]