The Ghost of Hannah Baker

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[Content Warning: This article discusses themes of mental health, sexual assault and suicide.]

Words || Jasmine Phillips

With the second season of Netflix’s 13 REASONS WHY freshly stamped in the brains of adolescents worldwide, it is time for us to sit back and reassess how we represent mental illness in popular media.

Disclaimer: I do not like this show. In fact, I would say that I despise it. Aside from the terrible writing and impassionate acting, it is problematic in the sense that it’s fundamentally irresponsible for any text to include graphic depictions of suicide – let alone a show with such a young target audience. The fear that this series has become a significant public health concern is well-founded, with a spike in copycat suicides occurring after the show gained popularity.

Suicide is represented as something that “happens to someone”. Hannah Baker’s cause of death is represented as murder in the text’s moniker in itself; as viewers, we are aware that we are watching her ‘thirteen reasons why’ she committed suicide, through the people who led her to the act. We readily accept these thirteen reasons – really, eleven individuals – as the people who are responsible for her death. We understand it as the inevitable result of cyberbullying, a tragic end to a tragic life.

It is under this framework, that Hannah becomes a ghost of her own narrative. Instead of the focus being on Hannah, the story becomes about Clay. In this way, it becomes a drama primarily concerned with revenge. This is the most significant departure from the original novel, and is the key aspect of the series that I’d like to problematize. While Novel Clay passively listens to Hannah’s voice – which controls the narrative – following along her journey with a map she has given him, TV Clay faces each of his fellow reasons head-on. He interrogates them for their passivity, for their cruelty, and for their cowardice. He is the central and active agent of the narrative.

This shift of agency is a complete disservice to the growing conversation about suicidality in wider society. Both the Netflix series and the book are ultimately about Clay’s experience of man-pain, and not about depression, bullying and the damage it could have on one’s life. It’s about how it affects his life, more than it is about Hannah’s death.

The active and immediate dislike of Hannah as a character is the strangest evidence I’ve found in support of this argument. For whatever reason, despite the fact that the show depicts not only a serial rapist and a deeply irresponsible and immoral school psychologist, Hannah seems to be everyone’s least favourite character. The Internet demonises her every expression of how she feels, her every action – from calling her weak for not “trying hard enough” to report her sexual assault, to calling her a bad friend for not reaching out hard enough to Jessica.

If this was your reaction to Hannah’s character, I want you to ask yourself why.

It is easy to hate someone who doesn’t exist, even if she is a character we are meant to feel empathy for. But what’s concerning is the reality that people who hate Hannah for the very thing she is struggling with – her depressive symptoms, withdrawal from those around her, and emotional vulnerability –

these people might very well be the same ones who dismiss those of us suffering from mental illness in the real world.

In fairness to those of you who hated Hannah and are feeling defensive at this point, this response is due to how she is portrayed: a passive lamb to slaughter (by her own hand). In reducing Hannah to an inactive and fundamentally weak character, removing her agency, detaching her from her voice and representing her as a ghost, the show contributes to an ableist cultural narrative in which the already isolating experience of mental illness is understood as selfish, self-indulgent and manipulative. This turns it into a show where the actual experience of mental illness is not worth representing, as much as the straight white boy’s man-pain after the fact.

In many ways, the producers and writers seem to have had good intentions; the idea that we ought to be kind to everyone, because we do not know what they are going through, is an honourable moral to uphold. But, you know what they say. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.