Since its premiere in late March, Netflix’s breakout teen drama 13 Reasons Why has become a pop cultural phenomenon, drawing praise and considerable criticism for its controversial storytelling - so much so, that Netflix has increased the voracity of the content warnings accompanying episodes.
The series, adapted from a 2007 bestselling novel by YA author Jay Asher, deals with the suicide of a teenage girl named Hannah Baker. Leaving behind a series of 13 cassette tapes, each addressed to one of her classmates, she outlines the reasons leading up to her decision to die by suicide, including sexual assault, bullying, and slut shaming.
The most recent attack on the show comes from the rock band Car Seat Headrest, whose music is included in the show’s soundtrack.
“As someone who contributed to the soundtrack for 13 Reasons Why, I am obliged to tell you all that it’s kind of f*****,” the band’s twitter profile said over the weekend.
as someone who contributed to the soundtrack for "13 Reasons Why", I am obliged to tell you all that it's kind of fucked
— car seat headrest (@carseatheadrest) April 30, 2017
“Writers: please don’t tell kids how to turn their miserable and hopeless lives into a thrilling and cathartic suicide mission.” In one follow-up tweet, the band added: “Kids: this is not a narrative you need to subscribe to. Go watch Spring Breakers instead.”
Banned in schools
The band’s critique comes hot on the heels of several other high profile ones; in Canada, the CBC News reported that an elementary school in Ontario has outright banned any mention of the show on its campus. Azza Ghali, principal of St Vincent’s Elementary School wrote that “the discussion that is unfolding at school is troubling. Please let your child know that discussion of 13 Reasons Why is not permitted at school due to the disturbing subject matter.”
St Vincent’s isn’t the only school in Ontario to issue warnings against the show; the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board released a statement telling teachers they were not to use 13 Reasons Why as a teaching aid. The board argued that the series “has graphic content related to suicide, glamorisation of suicidal behaviour and negative portrayals of helping professionals, which may prevent youth from seeking help.”
In New Zealand, the country’s classification body, the Office of Film & Literature, even created an entirely new certificate for the Netflix series, RP18. The censorship category forbids minors from watching 13 Reasons Why, unless in the company of adults.
While praising the show for drawing to light some of the hardships faced by young people in school today, the classification authority was highly critical of how the show represents youth suicide, claiming it risked spreading a “contagion.”
“New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD, and mental health advocates are extremely concerned about the effect 13 Reasons Why could have on teenagers around the country who are binge-watching it at just this moment,” a statement reads.
The authority also criticised the show for presenting Hannah’s suicide as the result of clear thinking and for painting over any potential mental health problems the character may have suffered, while the graphic scene showing her death has been described as “instructional.”
“It is also extremely damaging to present rape as a ‘good enough’ reason for someone to commit suicide,” the statement adds. “This sends the wrong message to survivors of sexual violence about their futures and their worth.”
Responding to the growing controversy, Netflix has added stronger trigger warnings to the series, with a new warning placed before the first episode. Three other episodes, which include scenes of sexual violence and suicide, also come with warnings.
Selena Gomez, the singer and star of the aforementioned Spring Breakers, is the producer of 13 Reasons Why, having optioned the rights to Jay Asher’s novel and developing it for television over a number of years.
Addressing the criticism of the show, she told the Associated Press: “We stayed very true to the book and initially what Jay Asher created was a beautifully tragic, complicated yet suspenseful story and I think that’s what we wanted to do.
“We wanted to do it justice and... yeah... [the backlash is] going to come no matter what. It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but I’m very fortunate with how it’s doing.”
Writing in Vanity Fair, Nic Sheff, one of the show’s writers, also defended 13 Reasons Why, staunchly rebutting against criticism that the show’s depiction of suicide was too graphic.
“It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all,” Sheff wrote, despite all suicide reporting guidelines advising not to show the method by which a person takes his or her life.