- 03 May 17
it's the most controversial new show of the year- but the team behind hard-hitting teen drama 13 Reasons Why argue that its gritty approach is entirely merited.
A glossy teen drama may seem an unlikely source of internet-shaking controversy, but Netflix has found itself in the firing line over its new high school mystery series, 13 Reasons Why. The charge is that this chronicling of the suicide of a young girl is insufficiently unflinching regarding the reality of depression and classroom bullying – that it, in fact, fosters an unseemly prurience on the part of the viewer towards the suffering of protagonist Hannah.
“13 Reasons Why takes a voyeuristic lense to rape and suicide, with complicated results” tutted a recent Vox.com headline. In the accompanying article, it was argued that the show, just released on the streaming site, “depicts suicide and rape in graphic, cringing detail, and some viewers have felt as though the show is asking them to become voyeurs, to be titillated by watching a teenage girl’s body in pain”.
Also piling in was America’s Suicide Awareness Voices of Education – “it’s probably done more harm than any good,” said a spokesman – and none other than former X Factor contestant Lucy Spraggan, who slammed it as “an awful, awful portrayal of mental health and suicide. Gutted young people are being told that’s how it is”.
It’s possible cast and producers had a sense of the approaching storm front when they met the media recently, with producer Brian Yorkey stating that he was at all times alive to the dangers of glamorising Hannah’s suicide.
“That was the most important question we faced,” he said. “In telling a 13 episode television series about a young woman who committed suicide are you in some way championing what she did? We set out to tell the story in such a way that the [viewer] would understand both the tragedy and the senselessness.
“We hoped we would bring especially teenagers and young adults into Hannah’s story and explain the ways in which she could have survived what she was going through – and that how, had the people in her life behaved just a little differently, that it would have drastically affected the outcome… We were first and foremost very, very concerned with telling the story of the pain of the suicide and why that should be the outcome for all of us to avoid at all costs.”
13 Reasons Why is adapted from the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher. Both television drama and book take place in the aftermath of the suicide of Hannah. Before killing herself she records 13 cassette tapes that chronicle the events leading up to her death and implicate various friends, acquaintances and family members. The story is told from the perspective of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a shy class-mate of Hannah’s who, delving into the cassettes, tries to tie together the mystery around her decision to take her own life.
It’s an unflinching tale that does not look away from the horrible reality of suicide. In a recent interview Asher said that, sitting down to wrote the book, he was determined no punches would be pulled.
“That raw and honest approach was my first big decision I had to make when writing the book,” he reflected, “and the writers of the series felt the same way. These things happen, and to give respect to the people they do happen to, it felt wrong to hold back. It needs to be uncomfortable to read or watch. If it’s not, and we pull away, it felt like the story would only contribute to that problem of not truthfully tackling these things. We’re already good at avoiding uncomfortable subjects, and that needs to change.”
One reason the series has received so much attention is that pop star Selena Gomez was a driving force behind its journey to the screen. (The presence of Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy as executive producer doubtless contributed too). Gomez has described the book has her “passion project” and stated that, such was her determination that it be true to the novel, she decided not to take a role (though she does pop up on the soundtrack).
“I was actually going through a really difficult time when they started production,” she said in February. “I went away for 90 days, and I actually met tons of kids in this place that were talking about a lot of the issues that these characters are experiencing.”
Instead, the lead part of Hannah has gone to Australian newcomer Katherine Langford, plucked from obscurity in Perth for her first acting gig. “It was a wild experience,” she commented recently. “I sent in a tape and was cast without meeting anyone in question. Once I got cast they told me the good news was that I had the part. The bad news was that I had to get a visa in ten days. It was very close to me not being able to do it.”
Growing up in Western Australia, the vicissitudes of American high school were new to her. Yet she had absorbed enough US culture to quickly come to grips with Hannah and her travails.
“This may just be me, but I feel like everyone’s dream is to live as an American high school student,” she said. “There are so many teen films set in America that you live vicariously through them, anyway. But it was totally different. I got to experience Halloween, and prom, and cheerleaders… and the Fourth of July! It was crazy. It was definitely different. For me, personally, it was so weird and bizarre because it actually felt very realistic.”
“I had read the book when my niece, who was then a teenager recommended it to me,” added producer Yorkey. “Long before we knew it was going to be any sort of project, I read through it in one sitting. I found it so suspenseful, so thrilling, so emotional. It made me think about who I had been at high school and how I had treated people.”
13 Reasons Why is on Netflix now.