By criticizing Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher as well as the Netflix series "13 Reasons Why", I in no way mean to minimize the suffering of those who feel suicidal or the fictional character of Hannah Baker: there's no doubt this girl went through some immensely painful things throughout the novel, including a ton of social ridicule and being raped. However, I take issue with the way Hannah handles her suffering, and the messages that her methods as well as the book as a whole convey about suicide.
You've probably heard of Thirteen Reasons Why: either the novel by Jay Asher or the new Netflix series, an adaptation of the novel. In case you haven't, let me fill you in: it centers around a girl, Hannah Baker, who, due to many awful things happening to her, commits suicide. Some of these horrible things that happen to her include rumors at school about her being a slut, a boy at her school taking pictures of her through her bedroom window, her good friend Jessica turning on her by believing in the rumors, witnessing Jessica's rape, being raped herself, and not being taken seriously by her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, that she was suicidal. These awful events and betrayals cause her to record herself on 7 tapes, using each side (except the 14th on the last tape) to tell of a crime or betrayal a person committed against her, then sending them to each person by instructing each person to forward the tapes to the next person on her list after listening through all 13 sides.
Now that you have the summary, here's the main reason I don't like Thirteen Reasons Why: Hannah's character is not very likable.
Maybe you disagree. Apparently, a lot of people do, because Thirteen Reasons Why is a bestseller, and it's rare for people to like a book without liking the main character. I see multiple issues with Hannah's character, though.
For one, she goes out of her way to blame 13 people for making her kill herself. This means she doesn't take any accountability for her own actions, as well as she feels wrathful towards 13 people, enough so to attempt to make them feel guilty for life. Because here's the thing: you can't get over realizing you're a reason someone killed theirself (even if it's not entirely true, this what Hannah wants the people who listen to her tapes to think). That's something you would never be able to forgive yourself for (or, at least, most people wouldn't). So Hannah is wishing lifelong guilt on these 13 people by putting out these tapes and telling them she blames them. On her first tape, she says, "I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why" (Asher, pg. 7) . It's clear here that she is blaming each of them for her suicide. And maybe you think some of the people on her tape deserve to feel lifelong guilt. Even the ones who, in my opinion, commit the worse crimes: her guidance counselor, who doesn't take her seriously, and the guy who rapes her, don't deserve to feel heavy guilt for life. At least, I don't think so. In fact, I think it's borderline evil to wish guilt on people for life. But that's what Hannah's doing, and she makes that intention clear from the start of the novel.
Hannah's not afraid to publicly shame the 13 people on the tapes, either. A big part of the reason the 13 people agree to pass on the tapes is due to the threat that Hannah gave someone a copy of all the tapes and permission to publicly release them should the chain of passing along the tapes be broken.
Additionally, the point that she doesn't take any accountability for her own suicide and only blames others is problematic in multiple ways: it is unrealistic and ignores the reality of depression for many suicide victims. I've read some suicide notes online, and many include the victim saying "Please forgive me" and apologizing to their loved ones. They feel bad for killing themselves. They really deeply care about those they are leaving behind. It's also not realistic in that most of the time (not that I've ever felt suicidal, but I have done some research on the topic), those who are pushed to commit suicide appear to do so because of having depression. Yes, other people can play a role in worsening their depression. Often, however, those who commit suicide do it primarily because of depression, because they can't take the pain anymore. Not only because multiple people betrayed them or were mean to them, as in the case of Hannah. Neither the TV series nor the book address the problem of depression, which is a huge problem. It's making it even more difficult to understand those who are suicidal, which I thought was one of the points of Thirteen Reasons Why, and if it isn't, it should be.
The fact that Hannah Baker is neither likable nor a realistic portrayal of someone who is suicidal is highly problematic and even dangerous. We should feel sympathetic towards those who are suicidal. They need our help. And this book is framing a suicidal person as someone who has psychopathic tendencies and next to no remorse for anyone but herself (and maybe Clay).
Did I just say "psychopathic tendencies"? Yup. Not sure if this is the most reliable source ever, but I googled "signs of a psychopath" and here are some that came up that I think are eerily close to Hannah's character (article content in italics, my view in regular font underneath):
Conning and manipulativeness: The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others...exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one’s victims.
As already mentioned, there is a lot of manipulation in Hannah forcing along the tapes through the threat of public humiliation (as another copy of the tapes will be released if the participants refuse to comply to moving along the tapes). Additionally, Hannah completely disregards the feelings of the 13 participants in the tapes, even though some have not intended to hurt her at all (like Alex, who only put her on a list for having a nice butt. Yes, that lead to other things, but Alex himself didn't do a whole lot wrong, besides objectifying her, which, while not cool, doesn't seem to merit making him feel guilty for life).
Lack of remorse or guilt: A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, cold-hearted, and non-empathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one’s victims.
Hannah has disdain for almost everyone in her tapes: she uses condescending and degrading language when referring to them. In some cases, I think this completely justified: like when she's talking to her rapist. But in others, it comes off pretty cold and unfeeling.
Callousness and lack of empathy: A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.
Again, Hannah seems to lack empathy for those she leaves behind, except for Clay. She does apologize to him, which is good.
Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: A failure to accept responsibility for one’s actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.
This one is a little tricky. Hannah should feel somewhat accountable for her suicide, I think. It seems to me that most real life suicide victims do, as they apologize in their notes. However, it does seem to me in a way that suicide is almost not a choice when someone is that depressed. But if one believes we have free will, it is a choice, ultimately. And since Hannah never even mentions having depression, only blaming others for it, it does seem to be her choice, though she puts the blame for it on others.
(Italicized quotes from https://www.thrillist.com/health/nation/signs-someone-is-a-psychopath).
Incidentally, Hannah's threat of publicly humiliating the 13 people on the tapes if they should stop passing it along is an example of her stooping to the level of some of the people she hated so much who publicly humiliated her. And, why wouldn't she turn in her rapist instead of using him as a tool to tell her story? Also, why wouldn't report her guidance counselor? If it was really justice she was after, it seems clear she should've turned both of them in.
Anyway, all this is to say that, because Hannah is not portrayed positively, people may be less likely to feel sympathy for someone is suicidal. Which is a huge problem. We need to take suicide seriously. It's awful that it happens, and that there is not much communication about it. We need to show those who feel suicidal compassion and love. Portraying a fictional character who is suicidal as wrathful and sometimes even cold does not help us reach that goal, it just puts us back further.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please call: