It might be odd to draw this experience from a Netflix TV drama series, but it has impacted me in many ways and I find it crossing my mind regularly. I am referring to the Netflix drama teenage series 13 Reasons Why, based on the eponymous book by Jay Asher, in which a seventeen year old girl commits suicide and leaves thirteen tapes, explaining the thirteen reasons why she did it. She leaves these tapes to every person who contributed to her committing suicide, involving friends and non-friends likewise.
I started out watching the show as a mere after-work evening pleasure, but it turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking series I have ever watched and it left me to ponder about our ways of communication and how much harm our deeds and words can do.
I was riveted by how the depiction of the slow demise of Hannah Baker, the girl in question, is displayed and how bullying and mental as well as physical abuse can shape a human being.
Of course I was aware of bullying at schools, reports in the newspaper about teenagers killing themselves, as well as other subjects addressed in the series, like rape and public humiliation. I knew that these things were happening occasionally, but I did not think about them deeply until I watched this very show.
What might be of interest, too, is that I attended a Montessori school when I was a child, founded and led by my own parents. Why is this important, you ask? Well, I do not seek to idealise the Montessorian style of schooling, but bullying was completely off-limits at this school, which meant I was not entirely aware of the concept until I transferred to regular high school, aged fifteen. I was lucky enough to never get fervently bullied myself, but my sister, chubby and slightly naïve, was the constant target of people so insecure the only way to feel superior was to belittle others. I only understand now how hard it must have been for her and why, up to this very day, she feels immediately criticised when you address something about her.
But let’s return to Hannah Baker and her thirteen reasons why she killed herself. It all starts rather innocently for the beholder’s eye, but even back when I was watching it, I considered the first blow to be utterly disdainful. So the story is that Hannah Baker goes on a date with the football star of her school, who takes a picture of her sliding down a slide, revealing her underwear in the process. The next day, Hannah finds herself being laughed at by the whole school, for the boy shared the picture with everybody. From this, Hannah’s life spirals down, including incidents like betrayal of a friend, a traumatic car accident which Hannah blames herself for, watching her formerly best friend get raped by a football player, before, ultimately, getting raped by him herself, knocking in the last nail to the proverbial coffin.
As mentioned already, we are aware these things can happen and not everybody who has been subject to bullying or humiliation ends up committing suicide. However, what struck me watching this show was not merely the cruelty displayed by some students, mostly shrugged off as “jokes”, but the notion that this seems to be widely accepted in our society. We know it exists, we probably shake our heads upon hearing about it, but there is little anybody does to prevent it from happening. On the contrary, it is in fact endorsed by adults in acting the same way. Just think of our discourse of politics all around the world, especially closely related to cyber-bullying – a topic which has extended bullying to a completely new level of possibilities to spread malice. Especially during the last political campaigns, as well as in Europe and the United States, it has become evident how low and aggressive the level of communication has become within politics, and it is questionable if children and teenagers can desist from demeaning ways of communication if the leaders of the most powerful nations cannot.
Only a few days ago, I read that a politician, upon losing the election, replied to another politician on Twitter that he would remain a “fat, ugly loser.” It rendered me speechless that grown-up people would talk to each other like that on public social media feeds, and it became clear that the hatred and malicious language used in facilities where teenagers mingle, will not differ from the language adults are allowed to use in the public sphere without facing consequences. Bullying at schools and among young people has been a matter of discussion for a long time, but probably it is high time to include the way adults speak to another, especially when they are supposed to be the leaders and role models of a nation.
It would then, hopefully, also lead to feasible measures to help people being subjected to depreciatory language and humiliating actions and teach people to take active responsibility for words and actions that might lead to someone feeling so desperate that suicide seemingly becomes the only option.
In the show, it is regularly pointed out that committing suicide was Hannah’s choice and that nobody but her is to be blamed for it. One girl states that only the weak ones commit suicide and that everyone has to endure the daily torture of high school life. It were these notions that upset me most because it indicates that being bullied is not only normal, it is accepted and that everyone not being able to deal with it, was just too weak in the end.
However, I am not preaching what to do without including me in the equation, which was a rather difficult process but helped me reflect on my own actions I might have executed without realising what pain I might have caused to another human being. It made me sick to the stomach to realise what I might have done to marginalise other people while being at school because it probably secured score points with the “popular people”. I am disgusted to think what I might have done to other people, not knowing how potentially harming it could have been – and I am not the parade example for bullying, believe me.
It strikes me how oblivious we have grown – or always been – to the impact our words and deeds have on other people, but with grown-ups and people of authority behaving the same way or justifying their incapability of stopping bullying by claiming this is just normal teenage behaviour, how should young people learn that it is completely off-limits to humiliate, marginalise or actively belittle someone?
Still, many teenagers – and people, for that matter – have to suffer from these conditions in everyday life, including of course racism and sexism in the debate. During the show, for instance, Hannah Baker is put on a list ranking the girls from hot to not, her being on the hot list for “the greatest arse”. Now, some might think this is flattering, but Hannah and any woman of common sense would agree, it is not. Your whole personality being reduced to parts of your body is not flattering, it is objectifying and, as Hannah states it, makes her open game for any boy at school. We see scenes where boys circle Hannah, taking pictures of her bum, some of them even grasping it, and I was horrified. Not necessarily by the mere action of it, but by the oblivion of these boys to understand what they were doing and how disdainful their actions were. We know, not everybody who has ever bullied someone – probably being not even aware of it – is a bad person per se, but it is so widely normalised that we cannot even often understand what pain we are causing someone else.
The worst fact to accept watching this show was that, as a viewer, you always know how it will end. Hannah Baker states at the very beginning that she is dead and the whole story of her is told in two time frames, one of the present and the people on the tapes dealing with her death, and one while she is still alive, struggling to find happiness. You watch how these people hurt her and how, slowly, by every act of malice, she stumbles towards her fateful decision. You cry because you want to jump into the TV to change the story, to make an ending where she will survive, find a nice man and have children.
I actually caught myself fantasising about a Hannah Baker at college, where she would most likely study journalism or English literature. I caught myself thinking how she would laugh with friends and be ensconced in the college library. If it had all turned out to be different, Hannah Baker might have got married to a nice guy, worked and also suffered from everyday problems, but she could have been happy. It is painstaking to witness how this girl is treated by others, knowing what the outcome will be, thereby raising the awareness to the bitterness and malice of the words and deeds she has to endure, and you pray there will be a loophole in the plot, something changing the course. But there is not. You can fantasise about how great her life could have been, but the outcome will still be the same. And, of course, I understand she is only a fictional character, but she represents a myriad of people who have suffered from the same and who have made the same fateful decision to end their lives before they even properly started.
Now, does this mean we always have to blame ourselves when someone commits suicide, or that at least part of the blame lies with the executor of the deed? Honestly, is it important? For me, this should not be about who to blame, but more about reflecting on our behaviour and growing out of our own oblivion to realise what we might do to someone by uttering a misplaced phrase or executing a humiliating “joke”. I hope people will start to think in a more engaged way about how we need to communicate with each other and open a discourse in which dialogue can happen in a more direct and less destructive way. Words have power, we all know that, so we have to wield this weapon with great care. When I was finished watching the first season, I prayed more people would watch it to raise awareness of how a little word you say, or an action or a “joke” you do without considering what you might unleash, can actually cause somebody’s life.
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