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*Content warning: this post discusses suicide and sexual assault*
I have no doubt that you or someone you know has recently been enthralled by the very popular TV series 13 Reasons Why. The 13 episode series explores the severe hardships that can accompany puberty and adolescence, as well as themes such as romance, emotional confusion, suicide and sexual assault. Although much feedback for this show has been negative, and rightly so, it gives us an opportunity to talk about serious issues facing teens in modern society. It motivates us to ensure that we address these issues safely and with access to appropriate resources.
13 Reasons Why portrays graphic scenes of both rape and suicide, with the suicide scene raising many eyebrows at the extremity of the detail. Mental health organisations have issued warnings about the show based on this scene. This includes the mental health organisation Headspace, as they believe it exposes viewers to harmful suicide messages and imagery. The suicide is depicted in such a way that it dramatises and romanticises suicide which is increasingly harmful for teen viewers. The extremely graphic suicide representation does not abide by strict guidelines put in place by Mindframe to respect people’s mental health issues. Mindframe advises that you don’t divulge the method of suicide or refer to any explicit details left in a suicide note, and this show does just that. Studies show a significant relationship between exposure to suicide and increases in suicidal behaviour, so the prominence of this exposure is highly inappropriate as it has the capacity to mentally harm viewers.
Mental health organisations are adamant that the suicide scene was unnecessary, however hundreds of thousands of young people have already watched it and therefore we have no choice but to address these issues and discuss them in a safe, but educational way.
Beyond Blue suggests that ‘if someone you know seems to be struggling, reach out and connect with them. Showing that you care could make a huge difference in their life. If you are struggling yourself, you might feel better if you reach out for support, get treatment and start taking steps towards recovery.’
Poor mental health is often a factor regarding suicide, however in this case it appears mental health is not a contributor. The show doesn’t discuss the main character struggling with any mental health issues, and the suicide is instead blamed on the 13 people, or the 13 reasons, that contributed to her death. This is a dangerous interpretation because suicide should not be blamed on anyone. Help is always available to people who are struggling with their mental health, and it must be acknowledged that the show incorrectly interprets the lack of support services on offer. The main character in the show did confide in her school counsellor about her assault and he responded with victim blaming. This is an extremely dangerous contradiction because it may discourage viewers from seeking help regarding their own mental health issues. It is important to note that the way the counsellor dealt with the situation at hand is not the way regular counsellors would treat situations such as this. We are never alone, no matter how big or small our issues are, we can always seek help.
Although most discussion about the show in the media has been about the suicide, there are other important themes. As written by Michelle Andrews in Mamamia, ‘largely, (the show is) about sexual assault in all of its forms, and the disastrous impact it has on women’s lives’. The TV show dissects the ideology behind sex and relationships, including the subject of consent. This is explored not only in a positive light where consent is present but also in a negative light where there is no given consent.
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The series cleverly portrays the difference between wanted sex and unwanted sex. The difference is depicted as one scene shows a rape occurring whilst the girl is drunk and after she comes to terms with what has happened it becomes clear she had not given consent. Another scene shows a boy being respectful and continually asking if what they are doing is ok. 13 Reasons Why should be applauded for demonstrating affirmative consent to the audience. The differences portrayed are educating teenage viewers of the appropriate ways to approach sexual relationships. This topic is extremely important amongst all young women and its prevalence in 13 Reasons Why signifies the importance of ensuring sex has the consent of all individuals involved.
13 Reasons Why shows the serious and damaging harm of the different forms of sexual harassment. It highlights rape culture from bullying and slut shaming to the extreme cases of rape. This harmful culture is revealed in the show by explicit photos being shared and inappropriate touching, both occurring without consent, and all stemming from a lack of respect.
If you or any of your friends are ever a victim of sexual harassment or assault, the most important thing to know is that it wasn’t your fault. No one has the right to force you into sex. It doesn’t matter if they’re your partner, husband, if you’ve had sex before or you’ve never had sex with them. You can tell a trusted adult, call a helpline like 1800 RESPECT, or speak to your school counsellor. A counsellor will help you deal with your feelings, get medical attention if you need it and decide what to do next, (like report the assault to police).
Although the intended message of the show is not the suicide, it’s the lead up to the suicide, such graphic details were not essential. The suicide is intended to merely be the visual interpretation of the bigger message, the extremely damaging results of continuous sexual harassment. However this doesn’t come across without possible harm to viewers. Though the show cleverly discusses rape culture and irresponsibly presents suicide, it may be triggering for both and if addressed by parents, teachers or guardians it must be approached sensitively and mindfully.
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Without the release of this TV show, difficult and awkward conversations between peers, families, friends and teachers may not have occurred. Numerous important pressures and challenges teenagers are faced with are carefully depicted in this show, however suicide certainly is not. Although a lot of the content is explicit and hard to come to terms with, without it being addressed conversations are not being had. Without the conversations, awareness is not being spread, and without the awareness more and more teenage girls and boys might be showing warning signs and other particular suicidal behaviours without it being recognised.
Women deserve to be treated as equals, and not just as sexual objects. Men need to understand that consent is not reinforced enough in modern society, and that being abused can sometimes be life altering. Of the percentage of teens that commit suicide every year, 34% are females aged between 15-19 and of the sexual assault that occurs every year, 60% are females under the age of twenty. 13 Reasons Why brings up the important issues surrounding these alarming statistics. We are encouraged to discuss these issues, seek help for those in need and hopefully spread awareness so we can reduce the amount of young people dying from such dreadful circumstances.
If you or someone you know is struggling with the topics raised in the show then you can seek support on these websites below:
Suicide Call Back Service
To find out more information visit the following Rosie pages on Sexual Assault, What is Consent? and Slut Shaming.
Gen is a 16 year old feminist who enjoys travelling, playing sport, and listening to a wide variety of music.