Clay Jensen is not a hero.
I remember reading 13 Reasons Why in high school, and Clay’s purpose as a character was mainly to listen and react to the tapes. The Clay Jensen of the newly adapted show is multidimensional with his own trauma and issues. What I fear, and what many others seem to fear based on what I’ve seen recently on social media, is that people are interpreting Clay as having the “right” attitudes toward Hannah, the other characters, and the complex issues of mental health and suicide.
The intense feelings of responsibility Clay feels and then lays on the other people who have tapes do have messages: Don’t bully, be kind because you don’t know what other people are dealing with, don’t be a bystander, don’t gloss over serious issues like bullying and assault. I don’t have a problem with those messages, and I’ve seen some really horrible news recently about an eleven year old who committed suicide after a prank went viral on social media and nobody would tell him otherwise.
The issue that I’m seeing is Clay’s vigilante justice being portrayed as admirable and not simplistic or idealistic. When everyone seems to not want to take responsibility for what they did to Hannah, and worse, want to cover it up, Clay wants so desperately to believe that he could have saved her that, to audiences, it may seem believable. “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her,” seems like such a true statement, especially since Hannah probably believed that herself.
Mental health problems can be exacerbated or triggered when you are bullied, experience trauma, or experience sexual assault, like Hannah. But she needed an adult who would be able to help her work through these issues and professional help, not a shoulder to cry on and someone to love her. Likewise, the portrayal of Mr. Porter was highly unrealistic because mandatory reporting would have compelled him to tell Hannah’s parents or the proper authorities that she was at risk.
This show does a lot of things the book failed to do: it gives the characters with tapes backgrounds, it shows the aftermath of the tapes, it seems to bring justice to what the school failed to do to help Hannah, it holds people responsible for the crimes they committed. But I can’t shake the feeling, and it seems like many others can’t either, that the show glorifies suicide. Hannah’s intention with the tapes was to hold everyone who had contributed to her death responsible, but nobody is responsible when someone else commits suicide. These were not abusive adults, and I’m by no means excusing their actions, but even in recognizing the struggles they each had, the show doesn’t seem to think that those struggles are enough. Instead, the message is that once you commit suicide, everyone will regret how much they wronged you.
The exact audiences that many seem to think the show would reach, struggling teens and bullying teens, are not mutually exclusive. Can you blame Hannah for what appears to be a suicide attempt by Alex? For Clay’s mental break? For Justin possessing a gun? The tapes are a factor, but they aren’t forcing the kids to do anything. Giving children this kind of adult responsibility where actual adults are not to be trusted and mental health is not factored into the equation creates a recipe for disaster and mistrust. Hannah’s death is tragic and Clay has a right to his feelings, but a lot of what he does just makes everything worse and hurts others. Clay is not a villain, but he’s not a hero, either. He’s a kid, and the vast majority of what happened was out of his control, as much as he thinks otherwise.
What the show portrayed on-screen is harmful to its audience, especially to those who are already suffering from mental illness and may be watching the show because they identify with it. Personally, the portion where Hannah commits suicide and her parents find her made me feel physically ill due to how graphic it was. Depictions of suicide in the media often are related to increases in suicide of the audience, and the show absolutely does not follow WHO guidelines.
This show seems to do the opposite of what it attempts to accomplish. It gives too much responsibility to the teenagers in the situation, particularly Clay, and unintentionally glorifies suicide. I can only hope that it doesn’t do as much harm as its portrayals have the potential to do.