“13 Reasons Why,” Netflix’s hit show based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, was controversial from its debut. It was highly praised for tackling the complex issues modern teenagers face, and strongly questioned for its handling of mental health and teen suicide.
Amid this debate, one of the most dangerous messages of the series was pushed under the rug or entirely missed. “13 Reasons Why” fails its teen base audience in one major way, by suggesting that love will save struggling young women.
The show tackles bullying, internalized homophobia, sexual harassment and assault. But it also implies that Hannah—the 15-year-old who took her own life—could have been saved if only she were capable of accepting the love of the kind teenage boy who adores her. This is ridiculous at best, dangerous at worst.
The premise of the show is hardly a secret. Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who dies by suicide, leaves 13 tapes explaining why she choose to take her own life. In each tape, she singles out a classmate, and explains how their actions contributed to her death.
However, the show’s main character is not Hannah, but Clay, a young man who was—not so—secretly in love with her. While claiming to explore the many circumstances that led to Hannah’s premature death, the show’s narrative arc revolves around Clay’s emotional roller coaster as he struggles to learn, and cope with, what he could have done to contribute to her decision or perhaps even halt her downward spiral.
After 11, often painfully long episodes, we finally find out what he did. Unlike the other characters—who in one way or another intentionally hurt Hannah to protect themselves or increase their social standing—Clay is only at fault for failing to declare his love to Hannah; asking for consent and stopping when she said “no” to having sex with him; and leaving the room when the visibly upset teenager begged him to do so.
According to Tony Padilla, who acts as Clay’s—and the show’s—conscience, this is what sealed Hannah’s fate. In a later scene, Hannah’s voice from the grave reaffirms this idea and adds to Clay’s confusion and remorse by confessing that she secretly loved him too and did not want him to leave even if she said she did.
By telling its young audience that Hannah did love Clay and did not want him to stop or go away even while saying so explicitly, and by suggesting that if he had done so Hannah’s destiny would have changed and she would be alive and happy, “13 Reasons Why” perpetuates a dangerous myth at the core of rape culture: the idea that, indeed, “no” means “yes,” and that women are too confused and damaged to realize it themselves.
This also plays into the question of suicide. As others have noted, “13 Reasons Why”’s portrayal of suicide is deeply problematic, because it oversimplifies and glamorizes it. I would add that by proposing romantic love as the cure for Hannah’s—and by extension all women’s—ills and travails, a show that prides itself on being realistic and raw, ends up reinforcing a dangerous trope: that women need to be saved by men, and that romantic love is what truly fulfills a woman’s life. Furthermore, the show subtly blames Hannah for her own death by implying that she was too confused and broken to realize what was best for her and give Clay a chance.
At the end of the day, “13 Reasons Why” is not an effort to help understand anxiety and mixed messages women constantly receive, but a soothing tale for the millions of young men watching who identify with Clay’s guilt and confusion in times of profound male anxiety over shifting gender roles, and open discourse about sexual violence and consent.
It is a reassuring fantasy that tells these young men that by respecting a woman’s explicit refusal of their advances, they are not only failing to achieve masculinity, but also letting the woman down.
In other words, “13 Reasons Why” tells young men that — as long as they are in love — forcing themselves on a vulnerable young woman could not only be considered an act of love, but it could also be just what the woman needs and wants without accepting or even knowing it. Hey, it could even be what saves her life!
This is a dangerous message in a society that is dealing with widespread sexual assault across university campuses, and where studies have shown that young people, particularly men, often do not understand how consent works.
By listening to Hannah and respecting her will, Clay did the right thing. He did not send her to her grave. The reasons why people choose to die by suicide are complex and often bewildering for their loved ones. But in “13 Reasons Why″ these remain mainly unexplored, because the show’s emphasis on male anxiety and guilt flattens and overshadows Hannah’s story.
As those who have lost a family member, partner or beloved friend to suicide know all too well, love is never enough to heal the profound despair, depression, mental health issues or other reasons that can lead someone to decide to take their own life.
In the end, “13 Reasons Why” contradicts its efforts to provide an unvarnished portrait of the complexities of teenage life and to raise awareness about how rape culture, magnified by technology and social media, is a key driver of trauma and anxiety for youth.
Instead, the show turns into the story of a girl too damaged to recognize true love, and of a knight too soft to impose his will and insist on saving the damsel in distress. “13 Reasons Why” is not about exploring the complex causes that led a young woman to take her own life; it is about the mourning process of the young man who failed to save her because he was too good for her.