CN: Suicide, bullying, rape,
When 13 Reasons Why – a Netflix series produced by Selena Gomez – premiered on March 31st, it caused immediate backlash for the way it chose to portray mental illness and bullying, with the greatest themes being suicide and rape.
Eight months later, the show continues to stir discussion around its depiction of the complex aforementioned topics, as actress Katherine Langford lands a Golden Globe nomination for portraying the beautiful and intelligent Hannah Baker; a teenage girl who took her own life.
The nomination has sparked the debate of whether or not Langford deserves her nomination at all. Many are in agreement that she is a great actress, but the problem actually lies with the show itself. Should Langford gain recognition for her acting abilities when it’s for portraying a somewhat problematic character, in a similarly problematic show?
People have taken to Twitter to say that Langford deserves her nomination for starring in a show that brings awareness to mental illness in any way in the first place. However, 13 Reasons Why heavily misses out on the opportunity to provide a proper in-depth exploration and commentary on mental illness, especially for teenagers suffering with this at high school. Fundamentally, mental illness in film and television always seems to come hand-in-hand with the romanticisation and glamorisation of it.
People with mental illness are either depicted as evil outcasts, or as cool, deep and attractive people whose mental illness is the catalyst for this. The latter unfortunately seems to be the case for Hannah through the tragedy of her suicide – the only main element of mental illness we see tied to this character – especially as someone whose story is told through her own narration after death, and in flashbacks through the incredibly dull main character, Clay.
With this in mind, it’s arguable that Langford’s character did not bring anything new or praiseworthy to the table in regarding the portrayal of mental illness in the film. Plus, the tape Hannah leaves for Clay leads him to believe that he could have saved her if only he had the courage to tell Hannah he loved her when she was alive. This is a massive trope featured in storylines that depict mental illness. Clay even tells Mr Porter, the school counsellor, that he “cost a girl his life because I was too afraid to love her.” It’s wrong of Hannah to lead Clay to believe that love could be a cure for bullying and mental illness, when – whilst it can help – this isn’t the case. This is instead the romanticisation of mental illness, and so Langford’s acting abilities here are rendered useless.
“Fundamentally, mental illness in film and television always seems to come hand-in-hand with the romanticisation and glamorisation of it”
Others have argued that Langford’s acting was in fact remarkable, especially when taking into account that 13 Reason Why explores an abundance of difficult subject matters. “It’s not easy to film a graphic suicide scene,” someone said on Twitter, adding “it’s a sensitive subject and Katherine deserves [her nomination].” This scene is the most controversial scene in the show, as they show Hannah’s suicide in its entirety – ignoring the guidelines they sought out from suicide prevention experts. What is shown is very disturbing and uncomfortable to watch. We see the pain Hannah is in, and we even see her parents find her afterwards.
However, this scene tends to split people down the middle in terms of whether or not it was appropriate to show. It is worthwhile in highlighting the struggle for people who are unfamiliar with mental illness and suicidal thoughts and feelings, and this may have been their intended audience. Still, this scene comes at a huge risk as it is potentially triggering for people who are currently struggling with their mental health, or have been in a similar situation before. Either way, the distressing scene would have been incredibly difficult to film, and so Langford should perhaps be praised for her acting abilities here. On the contrary, should we allow Langford to receive praise for a scene that may put others at risk?
There are some things about 13 Reasons Why that most people agree on. The show explores bullying and sexual assault in great depth, which are seemingly factors contributing to Hannah’s suicide. The show’s depiction of these has been commemorated to some extent, although it isn’t without its problems. Hannah cared a lot about her reputation which is ruined when teenage boys spread rumours about her, and when she is ultimately raped by Bryce. When Clay learns about Bryce raping both Jessica and Hannah, he confronts him which reveals a disturbing, yet realistic representation of rape culture. “If you wanna call it rape, call it rape. Same difference” is something Bryce says, which shows he has no real grasp on the effects of his actions and how incredibly they impacted the lives of Hannah and Jessica. Plus, there is some dialogue about whether or not Hannah was lying on her tapes with Ryan and Courtney sharing different opinions. It’s hard to watch, but is ultimately the perfect depiction of varying attitudes in modern society. Whilst Hannah was sexually assaulted – she is dead. We see the discussion around it and the aftermath of how Jessica copes with remembering she was raped. These things don’t come from Langford herself, and so we don’t need her to highlight what the show does well.
“Should we allow Langford to receive praise for a scene that may put others at risk?”
Whilst most people focused on Hannah’s suicide and what 13 Reasons Why did wrong, they forgot to pay attention to and notice the signs of someone else’s poor mental health: Alex. None of the characters seemed to notice how Alex was feeling, acting and looking, but it was there for us – the audience – to see. After Clay leaves Mr Porter’s office, someone comes in to tell him that Alex shot himself the night before, and is in hospital in critical condition. Mr Porter’s face at this moment is priceless. He just had Clay ask him what they’ll do the next time someone wants to kill themselves, and here they are; too late, again. This truly brings the show full circle. Again, this is something the show does cleverly which also does not depend on Langford’s performance to achieve.
Perhaps there is no right answer here. It’s safe to say that Langford doesn’t deserve her nomination for bringing positive awareness to mental illness, but she gives a great performance in difficult scenes and her nomination does help to bring recognition to a show that gets things both right and wrong. It is important to keep open the ongoing discussion surrounding how mental illness is portrayed on screen. It’s rare that things are handled perfectly when it comes to depicting messy and complex narratives. It’s always difficult to find a way to show suicide, sexual assault and mental illness in a way that everyone – with their individual set of experiences – is going to be happy with. Ultimately, 13 Reasons Why likely has got nominations at the Golden Globes because people look at the series and think it’s groundbreaking despite its dangers, purely because it tackles a taboo topic.