Commentary

‘13 Reasons Why’: An Incomplete Narrative

Almost overnight, the young-adult novel turned TV show “Thirteen Reasons Why” has become a national phenomenon. The reception among teens has been enthusiastically positive, while parents and medical professionals are less pleased by its overwhelming popularity. Many American schools, including my old high school, have sent emails home to explain the detrimental effects of the show’s portrayal of mental illness and to caution parents about their children watching the show. Last week, Lucy Grossbard wrote a Commentary article titled “Thirteen Reasons to Ditch this Show,” breaking down some of the issues with their narrative of teen suicide. While I agree that “Thirteen Reasons Why” presents a highly problematic storyline, I believe that Grossbard presents a simplistic and one-sided argument. She argues that the show normalises and trivialises depression, but the show goes further: it removes the main character, Hannah Baker’s, legitimacy as a person and therefore her right to a claim ownership of and recover from a mental illness.

One of the ideas that Grossbard mentioned briefly in her article was the hackneyed portrayal of depressed teenage girls possessing “a mysterious charm” that makes them attractive to characters on screen and viewers offscreen. I recognized the use of this tired trope as an example of a “manic pixie dream girl,” or MPDG. If you need examples of these characters, look no further than “Elizabethtown,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” “Looking for Alaska,” “Paper Towns” — within each of these narratives, a gorgeous, offbeat, and most importantly, damaged, young girl drastically brightens the life of a quiet, boring guy. Something tragic happens and she disappears from his life, leaving him a better, more developed person. Essentially, a MPDG is just a plot device to catalyze character development in the male protagonist.

While the MPDG storyline is one of the most addictive and engaging tropes out there, it also sets up an unhealthy power dynamic. Superficially, one may argue that this trope empowers the female character by imbuing her with power to change lives, to alter perceptions, to inspire others to be better. But realistically, MPDGs lack personality, character development, struggles, successes, and most importantly, the right to be a person. She becomes an instrument of male progress, not a human being. And within the context of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” the MPDG trope prevents the show from fleshing out Hannah Baker as a person, and thus, as someone who struggles with a real, debilitating, and dangerous mental illness. After all plot devices don’t have their own problems — or at least not problems worth addressing.

Because Hannah Baker is an MPDG, her mental illness is irrelevant to the development of the plot. The showrunners place her suicide in a vacuum, oversimplify the context, and erase mental illness from the narrative. Once mental illness has been removed from the story, we turn to more tangible, recognizable, and therefore more appealing, reasons for Hannah Baker’s suicide. Now we can ask: Why? Who hurt you? What happened to you? What made you unhappy? Why did you kill yourself?

According to the show, there should be answers to these questions, thirteen tangible, convenient, coherent answers, thirteen people or places or events that we can point to and blame. But there is no one convenient reason, or even thirteen convenient reasons, for why someone kills themselves.  When a teenager kills themselves, it is because society failed to provide an alternative, because no one told them the way out, because no one told them how to get help, because they are suffering from serious mental illness, and because nobody will treat them for it. But of course, in “Thirteen Reasons Why”, it is far more exciting to see Hannah Baker point fingers and skirt around the root of the issue.

My issue with “Thirteen Reasons Why” isn’t that the show discusses heavy topics like domestic abuse, suicide, and rape (even if the portrayals are indiscriminately used for shock value). It can be argued that the graphic nature of the suicide and rape scenes are intentionally horrific and jarring to draw attention to these issues. However, the show doesn’t identify the source of these problems, encourages misdirected perspectives, and provides no moral solutions beyond your average Disney Channel movie’s, “We should all be nicer to each other!” As a show geared towards a mature audience on the most ubiquitous streaming platform, “Thirteen Reasons Why” had a responsibility to introduce issues of mental health and refute existing stereotypes of depressed girls, and that’s where they failed.

There are no “Thirteen Reasons Why” Hannah committed suicide; there is one. And it is a reason that the show refuses to address.

May 5, 2017