By Aslam Shah
(Spoiler Alert: This article has direct references to the Netflix TV Series ’13 Reasons Why’)
Recently, the TV Series 13 Reasons Why set the world alight, with its controversial content of suicide. Riveting, dark, enlightening, intense but at times questionable, cringeworthy and benign. So many elements that make an excellent TV series for viewers to come back for more, and to come to school and work for water cooler conversations and home for dinner debates. Filmmakers have aggressively reiterated the role of the series as educational and do not mean to encourage suicide in addressing teenage issues. How effective can it be? Or is it just another profit-making industry this world has to offer? To us in Singapore, this series may lack an educational relevance present in the West while it is entertainment for us.
Shortly summarised, 13 Reasons Why revolves around high school student Hannah Baker, who had commits suicide due to an accumulation of emotional distress she faces. She leaves behind 13 sets of tapes blaming (some more intensely than others) 12 people (one character, Justin Foley, appears twice), all of of whom are fellow high school students except for her counsellor. Each episode revolves around a tape which very conveniently suits Netflix’s 13 episode per season classic formula. The climax of her emotional distress is shown on an episode where she gets raped by Bryce Walker, a school mate. The series was rated ‘R’ in the US, which means children under 17 require parental guidance while in Singapore it is M18. Let’s face it, in the modern world of Internet streaming and show-bingeing, no parent can fully control his/ her child’s television indulgence. Ratings merely serve their claimed purpose of being ‘’advisory’’ and many teenagers close to the age of the characters (13 to 16 year olds) are not advised to watch. These ratings defeat the purpose if the show is meant to be educational.
The show has many elements that may point stark flaws to the viewer that may largely have been overlooked when it comes to the topic of suicide. In Singapore, it was reported by the Institute Of Mental Health in 2015 that most teenage patients were admitted due to family issues. The source of depression that crumbled many teens mainly came from broken homes including divorces, family abuse, neglect, alcoholism and gambling issues. Hannah Baker had none of this issues. She in fact came from a home of loving parents who if anything to an Asian audience, was pampered. She was always acknowledged at home, conversed with her parents regularly in one episode, and was even rewarded with a car to attend a dance. Apart from financial squabbles among her parents, Hannah lived in a reasonably peaceful home and parents who cared. So if the the classic narrative of “family is the most important thing” is not the issue, what can lead one to suicide? And if so, why suicide and not something else?
The issue of rape is very controversial and needs to be addressed delicately. Let’s be clear. There is no such thing as justified rape or an excuse for such an act, regardless of the gender of the victim. Just like other heinous crimes such as murder, or a terrorist attack, it has no place in society. That being said, is there nothing one can do to not make him/her less susceptible to it?
In the series, Hannah Baker was raped when she went to Bryce Walker’s home alone late one night and into his jacuzzi where there were a few other friends. This was after witnessing Bryce rape her friend Jessica a few weeks earlier after Jessica was completely inebriated. So Hannah knew what Bryce was capable of. When everyone left the pool, she did not follow suit immediately but got engaged in a conversation with Bryce before she was raped. The series presented her as a victim, which she was, but didn’t she just hand the criminal a gun?
The show focused on how evil Bryce was but if it was meant to be educational, there should be a productive message, which to me the show lacked. Criminals will always exist. Regardless of the amount of education or awareness present in a society, there will always be crime. So is one going to sit there focusing on the obvious that the criminal is wrong, or establish a set of values or practises that does not give much chance to the criminal?
In Singapore today, ministers have said that terrorism can happen here as it is a matter of “not if but when”. Clearly terrorism is wrong but reiterating this fact will not prevent it and no amount of education will eradicate it. So our nation established the SGSecure movement, adopted Emergency Preparedness Day and installed crash-proof barriers and pillars in key areas. These were just some of the steps our country took to reduce the likelihood of terrorist incidents here. At a more micro level, can boys and girls take steps to prevent their bodies from being taken advantage of? Blaming and cursing the criminals does not safeguard oneself, regardless of the crime, but not giving them a chance would protect us better. The show, in my opinion, should have showed how Jessica (who had just been raped by Bryce few weeks earlier) and Hannah could have clearly taken several simple steps to prevent falling victim to a crime that could have a devastating impact to their well being. I wished the show had explored more of the educational side of the many issues tackled (which were very important and relevant issues) rather than the dramatic aspect of it. Is it any wonder that the series may have been focused more on drama than education? Because drama sells better, doesn’t it?
Hannah was never an unlikeable character in the film. She was the protagonist and in film theory, a viewer would subconciously find ways to identify himself/herself with the protagonist. The portrayal of realism in the issues faced like bullying, defamation, peer pressure, which are so relevant in today’s digital age can make Hannah’s experiences very relatable to many. American cinema has had many examples of such characters. Humphrey Bogart played Rick Blaine in Casablanca as a rich hopeless romantic, eventually deciding to sacrifice not being with her lover for her safety but established his eternal love for her. Simba, who left home after a devastating experience, returned to set things right. Such endings may be viewed as the clichéd ‘happily ever after’ theme and may be deemed uncreative or predictable from a film point of view. But for the sake of educating our young ones going through depression and social issues, in an age where suicide is at its highest in developed countries and modern states, maybe we need Hannah Baker to show us what our happily ever after is?