April 16, 2017

My Thoughts on '13 Reasons Why'

Since it’s announcement the series 13 Reasons Why has caused a lot of controversy. The show already had an audience for those who had read the book of the same name by Jay Asher from which it is based on, but it soon grabbed the attention of others. I am someone who has not read the book but the series really caught my eye. I’ve been reading comments and articles online giving positive and negative reviews of the show. A lot of negativity is coming from those who have experienced some of the things depicted in the show: suicidal feelings and attempts, depression, rape and bullying.

Before you read any further, I want to give a trigger warning for the aforementioned subjects as I will be discussing them in depth. If you do still wish to read, there are tw's for rape and suicide below in front of the paragraphs that discuss these in detail. Also, massive spoiler's ahead as I will be talking about major plot points of the entire show. In addition to these, I also think it’s important that whilst reading my thoughts on this show, you know that I have been bullied, I’ve been severely depressed and suicidal, and I’ve also experienced verbal and sexual harassment. I’ve never been raped. I’ve got friends who have tried to kill themselves. This is important because it gives you a background that may help you to understand where my viewpoints come from and who the hell I think I am giving my opinion about a show depicting such serious subject matters. Oh and here is an article a rape survivor wrote about the way it depicts it in the show as this is something I feel I cannot fully comment on.

Credit: tvguide.com
I’ve just finished watching the last episode of 13 Reasons Why. I’m left feeling uncomfortable at what I’ve witnessed and also unsatisfied at what they left unanswered. I don’t mean this as a bad thing though. I think overall the show has mostly done a good job at portraying bullying, depression, sexual abuse (including rape) and suicide which are tough subject matters.

I’m sure many people will agree with me when I say that the show is an uncomfortable watch, but honestly I’m glad that it is. I mean, it should be considering what it’s about: Hannah, a teenage girl, kills herself and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining what led her to do it. Bullying, rape and depression aren’t easy things to experience. They weigh you down so much that you may as well be carrying a bag full of stones everywhere you go. If you’re lucky enough to have not experienced anything as horrific as rape or depression and suicidal feelings, then perhaps the portrayals in the show will give you some insight into how horrific those things truly are. Maybe you know someone.

There are things the show gets right and things the show gets wrong. This was always going happen. It’s rare that everything is perfect and, like I’ve already mentioned, suicide is a tough and complex thing. It’s always difficult to portray this correctly and in a way that everyone is going to be happy with. But overall, yes - the entire show is a hard watch because of the topics it explores. It would still be hard to watch even if everything was displayed perfectly.

Something I found strange about 13 Reasons Why when I first started watching was the tapes Hannah left behind giving 13 reasons why she decided to kill herself. I felt that anyone who was feeling truly suicidal would not have the energy to prep for and do such a thing, especially when she had to relive all of the horrific things that happened to her as she recorded them. However, I do understand that Hannah did care about her reputation, which was ruined by about three people. She was a sweet and innocent girl, who became known as “easy” and “a slut” just because teenage boys spread around comments they didn’t think were going to be harmful. Also, the tapes dramatise everything and even romantise the suicide to some extent. But of course the show is entertainment and it’s a good plot device to help us explore Hannah's world as she recounts her experiences in an intriguing way that leaves us wanting to know more.

Hannah’s tapes give 13 reasons why she killed herself, but all of these reasons are people. She puts a lot of blame on people for what they did to her whilst she was alive. At first I thought this seemed ridiculous because the 13 people have done things that vary in weight yet they all have affected Hannah to some extent. I don’t think it was fair that Hannah did this to certain people who barely did anything or were good people who made stupid mistakes. But the others, well everything does add up and become overwhelming – especially when you’re depressed. It doesn’t matter how big or small something may be to you, because you have no idea how it will affect someone else. Guilt and blame are big themes for this series, and I think it’s one of the more subtle reasons why people may find this show hard to watch.

Above I touched upon how some people on Hannah’s tapes were good people who made stupid mistakes. I think this is something the show does really well. It shows that everyone can be a huge arsehole, whether they’re a huge one or a little one doesn’t matter. This is real because nobody is perfect and the littlest things can cause the worst reactions in some people, particularly if they’re already going through something. It reminds me of this quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about” – Wendy Mass, The Candymakers. Examples of characters like this are Alex who made a stupid “Hot List” because he was angry, and Ryan who published an intimate and personal poem of Hannah’s without her permission, just because he believed it was so good that people needed to see it. It also shows that even the most normal looking people can be capable of horrific things. For example, Bryce who rapes Jessica and Hannah and Tyler who went around taking photographs of people in their most intimate moments without their permission.

Whenever mental illness is depicted in media, it seems as though they all tend to make one simple mistake. Any guesses? Yes. It’s the romanticisation and glamorisation of mental illness. People with mental health issues in film and television are often depicted as cool, deep, attractive and fascinating solely because of their mental illness as though it’s that which gives them these qualities. They are also often shown as needing to be saved by someone. And what’s the only way to do this? For someone to love you. This is what 13 Reasons Why gets wrong. Thankfully, I don’t think it glamorises mental illness or suicide (though the tapes do a bit), but I do think there is some romanticisation in there. After Clay hears his tape, he feels overwhelmed with guilt. He thinks he could have saved her if only he had the courage to tell her he loved her when she was alive. It’s wrong that Hannah uses her tapes to put the burden of her death on, when they don’t deserve it. Clay is a kind and caring person who will always live with this guilt. In reality, love doesn’t save the mentally ill. Yes it can help a hell of a lot. It really can. But it’s not a cure. You can still struggle and feel depressed and suicidal even when someone loves you. Mental illness is complex. There’s no immediate cure.

Credit: smeharbinger.net
(TW: Rape) Besides the obvious suicide theme in the show, the next big thing that is portrayal is rape. Clay finds out that Bryce raped Jessica and then eventually finds out that he raped Hannah too. Clay is of course mortified when he finds these out and he confronts Bryce. Their conversation reveals a disturbing, yet realistic representation of rape culture. Bryce says to Clay, “Go get yourself laid, or try to. And then we’ll talk like grownups.” He also says “If you wanna call it rape, call it rape. Same difference.” This shows that Bryce is immature and has no real grasp on the effects of what he did both Jessica and Hannah. And he probably never will unless he is prosecuted as he never heard his tape. Clay skipped him, giving the tapes straight to the school counsellor, Mr Porter, along with an extra recording Clay added at the end: Bryce confessing. As Bryce has committed the most serious crime on the tapes, the rest of the group consider using him to get out of their own mistakes. Courtney adds that Hannah could be lying and it takes Ryan to say that he can’t believe she would take that stance, especially as the only girl who was present at the time. Courtney later corrects someone calling Bryce a rapist by saying “alleged rapist,” in which Ryan says “Fuck off Courtney.” This is a perfect depiction of varying attitudes towards rape in today’s society and the show does a brilliant job at portraying that. It also shows the outrage and upset Hannah felt when Mr Porter told her it’d take months for anything to happen and he can’t promise that the person responsible would go to jail. Clay tells Mr Porter that he believed Hannah and it only took that belief in her to confront Bryce and he ultimately got his confession. This says a lot about victim blaming and the lies and rumours that come out of rape cases. Some of the students already mentioned that they think Hannah is lying about some parts in the tapes. I do find it especially rewarding that it took a teenage boy to make the overall point of believing a rape victim though, as it’s stereotypical for guys to be the first ones to jump to asking questions such “how do you know? do you have proof?” and “what if she’s lying?” as opposed to believing someone and offering support. Then they wonder why rape victims don’t come forward straight away and such. Well it’s because you never believe them. 13 Reasons Why did something that I think was clever. Others may disagree, but this is something that I noticed. The show highlights how easy it can be to miss the signs of suicidal tendencies. Everyone realises they missed Hannah’s signs and so the school puts up posters to try and prevent it from happening to someone else. Hannah’s parents become concerned about what could have driven their daughter to end her life and put their focus on bullying. But what was clever was everyone was too busy fretting over Hannah and themselves to actually take notice and to notice to signs in someone else: Alex, who shoots himself and is left in critical condition at the hospital. No one noticed how he was feeling, acting and looking. And I honestly believe that this is the main point of the entire show. It comes full circle.

The most controversial thing that happened on the show is that they showed Hannah’s suicide. Naturally, this is the thing that most people have an issue with as it’s been credited as a scene that almost serves as a “how-to guide” for suicide. According to articles I’ve read, the producers of 13 Reasons Why contacted suicide prevention experts for guidance on what they could show in the series. They were advised not to show Hannah’s suicide but they did anyway. The developer of the show, Brian Yorkey, said it was a deliberate choice to show it. “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide.” There are guidelines for reporting on suicide which advise journalists to avoid sensationalising headlines or describing a suicide in graphic detail as studies have shown this can lead to copycat suicides.

(TW: Suicide) I think sensational headlines and describing suicides in detail in news reports is wrong. However, I think what they showed in 13 Reasons Why was a good call. Now honestly I’ve never seen anything depicting suicide as graphic as what this show did. You see Hannah slit her wrists in a bathtub. You see how sad she is. You see how much pain it causes her when the razor cuts deeply into her skin. You see the blood begin to pour out. You see her parents finding her. It’s painful to watch. It’s uncomfortable. It’s upsetting. But it’s real, and it’s raw. There are no stupid montages or dramatic, emotional ballads playing over this scene. It is what it is and I’m glad they showed it, because I hope it makes people who have little to no understanding about mental illness and suicide realise how truly horrific it really is. This scene raises awareness. I’ve been suicidal in the past and I know that I would never want to end my life in this particular way after seeing that. It looked painful and disturbing. But of course everyone is different. I’m pleased certain episodes have content warnings at the beginning, as I definitely don’t advise this being watched if you’re feeling depressed and/or suicidal because it’s upsetting and won’t help. And yeah, maybe it will serve as a how-to guide. It’s a difficult thing because depicting mental illness is hard.

I think the end scenes of the show are pretty powerful, where Clay is talking to Mr Porter about suicide prevention and Hannah’s last day.
Clay:I think we all could do better.
Mr P:You could know all the signs and understand the issues and still come up missing something.
Clay:That’s not good enough. What about the next kid who wants to kill himself?
As mentioned earlier, the irony of how everyone is trying to figure out why Hannah killed herself and how they didn’t realise she would that they missed the signs of Alex. After Clay leaves, someone comes in to tell Mr Porter that Alex shot himself the night before and is in critical condition. Mr Porter’s face is priceless, especially as he’s had Clay asking him about the next kid who wants to kill himself. And also why he didn’t do anything when Hannah basically told him she had been raped and clearly wasn’t happy. Mr Porter is on the tapes. He will feel guilty, and he will again about Alex. Spotting the signs of suicide is vital, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. That’s life.

“We all could have stopped it. But we didn’t.” That’s something Clay says at the end to Mr Porter after explaining Hannah’s last day, after she left his office. “That’s powerful. And painful” is what he responds, wiping a tear away from his cheek. I agree. It is powerful and painful. That’s what I thought when I saw the scene showing Hannah’s suicide. However, afterwards Clay adds “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her” which further adds to the romanticisation.

Credit: collider.com
Another issue I have is that the last thing Hannah says on her tapes is “No one is coming to stop me. Some of them cared, but not enough.” This is interesting because, with Hannah, she never really did show any signs of killing herself. In what we see, she never did seem upset enough and she never did explicitly tell anyone how she felt, apart from the school counsellor at the end. Hannah never told anyone she felt low or upset. It just came out in little things such as the poem which no one knew belonged to her, only the odd person who didn’t really take it seriously or didn’t know how to handle it. How were they ever supposed to know?

It’s good that Clay’s response to hearing everyone’s tapes seems human. He’s angry and upset that Hannah killed herself. He confronts everyone about what they did and why they did it after each tape. He’s angry he or anyone else couldn’t have saved her. Although, it's questionable that we experience Hannah's life through flashbacks which are through Clay. It's all told from his perspective; a boy who loved the dead girl deeply, which is an issue for a whole other essay. At least at the end, it seems that Clay tries to save someone else just by being there. He reaches out to Skye, who has scars on her wrists which he noticed in an earlier episode, to become friends again. He's seen what happened to Hannah and has become very vigilant of other people.

I hope from watching the show people take into account how fucking nasty teenagers can be. I hope people realise that certain actions and comments, no matter how big or small, can affect people tremendously. I hope people feel uncomfortable when they watch scenes of rape and suicide. I hope people see that sometimes it’s not easy to talk about what they’re going through. I hope people can tell when mental illness is being glamorised and romanticised. I hope people understand that suicide isn’t a sign of weakness and shows that someone has exhausted their coping mechanisms for dealing with pain. I hope people realise that suicide isn’t the answer. I hope you never have to go through it and I hope you take care of yourself if you are. Someone will always listen.

February 27, 2017

Book Review: We Were Liars

When browsing books, I kept coming across We Were Liars; a young adult novel by E. Lockhart. The book description I kept seeing was always the same, and it never really said much. It did, however, still give you the basic formula for what it is about. And as it turns out, that was all you needed.

We Were Liars begins with Cadence “Cady” Sinclair – one of the Liars – recounting her life and the summers she spent on a private island owned by her grandparents. The island, located near Martha’s Vineyard, consists of four houses – a large estate belonging to the grandparents, and then one house for their three daughters. Cady also recalls who she grew to know an Indian boy called Gat, who she fell deeply in love with, and some of the incidents that occur within her wealthy, seemingly perfect family.

During Summer Fifteen Cady and Gat begin a brief relationship, but then something goes horribly wrong and Cady is involved in an accident. She explains some details of what she remembers, but mostly Summer Fifteen is a blur. Cady’s mother makes her spend Summer Sixteen travelling Europe with her father, even though she’d rather go back to the island. Summer Seventeen, she finally returns.

Whilst back at the island, Cady continues to suffer from awful migraines, a result of her accident, as she tries to enjoy the summer and figure out what no one will tell her. Due to doctor’s orders, Cady has to remember what happened during Summer Fifteen by herself, in case it overwhelms or upsets her too much. She only remembers waking up, seriously injured, in the water near the beach. The rest of her memories surrounding the incident are based on what she has been told by doctors and her mother.

E. Lockhart’s writing is gripping and sophisticated, yet easy to read. Cady is an incredibly likeable character, who takes you on a journey of the intricacies of the Sinclair family as she explores the themes of self-acceptance and family morals. We learn more about her mother, Penny, and her two aunts. Who are they as people? Who wants the estate the most? How do they police each other and their family? We learn about their children, The Littles and the other Liars – Gat, Johnny and Mirren. What are their interests and their hobbies? Who is the funniest, the most political, and the most sincere? What does it mean to be in love during your teens? Especially with the Indian boy, who is always subtly outcast by Cady’s grandfather for being the child of the Indian man her auntie fell in love with.

Told in small chapters, the book is fascinating and tells a story of summer friendship and family values. It’s enthralling learning, along with Cady, the truth of what happened Summer Fifteen. It’s heartbreaking, devastating and was a twist that I did not see coming. It felt like I had been hit in the chest when I got to those pages. And then I still couldn’t put it down, with details from chapters before suddenly falling into place. The entire book and its endless meanings will always stay with me.

Is being affluent and prestigious enough to save the Sinclair family from tragedy? In We Were Liars, that just might be the tragedy. As the book description says, “Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.”

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