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If You’re Hating On ‘13 Reasons Why,’ You’re Watching It All Wrong

Where to Stream

13 Reasons Why

Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or without access to a Netflix account, which isn’t likely — you’ve probably binge-watched your way through 13 Reasons Why by now. The mini-series, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 YA book of the same name, has been the talk of the Internet since its March 31st release, and while the reception has been generally positive, like all things, the series has its share of detractors who claim it’s stupid, irresponsible, and even outright dangerous. Netflix has even decided to add a trigger warning to the beginning of each episode in what I assume is an effort to assuage the easily offended. The problem is, the haters are looking at it all wrong.

On the off chance you’ve managed to dodge (or made a conscious effort to avoid) the hype, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school student who committed suicide and left behind a series of cassette tapes on which she narrates the events and the people responsible for her decision to take her own life. These events are largely revealed through the eyes of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a friend and former crush of Hannah’s who himself features on one of the later tapes. It’s occasionally unintentionally funny, sometimes devastating and others overly dramatic, and always honest — sometimes to the point of being cringe-worthy. It’s, to be frank, riveting TV.

Gif: Netflix

Perhaps the biggest and most ominous criticism of the series is that it “glamorizes” teen suicide… by covering the topic of teen suicide. Not only is the suggestion that teens — who are indeed committing suicide in extremely high numbers these days — can’t handle and/or shouldn’t see stories they can relate to depicted in pop culture ridiculous, it’s reductive. Being a teenager can be a lonely, difficult experience, and knowing that you’re not alone in what you’re going through can mean the difference between making it through alive and feeling like suicide is the only way out, just as Hannah Baker did.

Does 13 Reasons Why do a disservice to those with mental illness everywhere? I don’t think so. After all, much of the stigma of mental illness is combatted by giving it a voice to begin with — something 13 Reasons Why does with heart, if occasionally not much finesse. Admittedly, there were large gaps in Hannah’s story that could have done with being filled in, and many of us would have been interested to see them. While it’s clear that she experienced terrible bullying, isolation, and even rape, it’s also fair to infer that Hannah suffered with mental health issues that, if treated, may or may not have saved her life. But the show wasn’t about that, really.

Gif: Netflix

Whether you’re only recently out of your teenage years or high school seems like a distant memory, you can probably remember even a little bit of just how torturous of a period it can be. That is, in essence, what the the show is about. It’s full of sex, drinking, fighting, lying, and plenty of tears, and it’s refreshing in its honesty. When you’re 16 or 17, it’s impossible to fathom that everything that matters to you in that moment — a boyfriend or girlfriend, school gossip, parent trouble, which college you’ll get into, etc. — won’t really matter at all in a decade. Everything at that age is larger than life and it’s hard to see beyond it. Hannah certainly couldn’t, and that’s what was so heartbreaking.

Gif: Netflix

Growing up and navigating the thorny path to adulthood is hard and messy, full of booby traps and bad decisions, and there’s no one right way to make it through — you just do what you can to try and get to the other side. Hannah no longer felt willing or able to continue trudging down that road, and so she made the decision to end her young life. Was it the right decision? To her it was, although the audience knew better. Either way, it was an honest one, and isn’t that all we can ask for?

Just because a show doesn’t handle things the way we think they should according to our own experiences, preferences, and moral compasses doesn’t mean that the show is doing it wrong. Fiction isn’t about wish fulfillment — that’s fanfiction you’re thinking of. Perhaps you would have written it differently, but you didn’t write it, but it’s not your story and you don’t get to choose. It sounds harsh, but it’s true.

Gif: Netflix

The job of art is to tell a story sincerely, not to hide its flaws or attempt to mold them into something more palatable and less potentially offensive. Besides, the old adage is true here more than anywhere else: you can’t please everyone. Your choice as a viewer is to watch it or move on to something else more suited to your tastes. It really is that simple.

As much as we look to entertainment to mirror and elevate our lives and experiences, it’s important to remember that at its core, it is indeed just that: entertainment. 13 Reasons Why is a television show that, yes, deals with some very real issues. However, it’s not responsible for plumbing the depths of every facet of those issues. In fact, doing so would be impossible — and genuinely unwise — within the confines of a series of 13 hour-long episodes.

Gif: Netflix

Jennifer Still is a writer and editor from New York who cares too way much about fictional characters and spends her time writing about them.

Stream 13 Reasons Why on Netflix

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