The Surprising Impact Of 13 Reasons Why's Controversial Content

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix
Could the controversial subjects depicted in 13 Reasons Why be the very thing that helped certain members of the show's young audience connect to the series?
In 2017, it seemed that everyone had an opinion on Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. The high school-set drama, which dropped season 1 on Netflix in March of last year, tells the story of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who we learn at the beginning of the series has recently died by suicide. As her friend Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) listens to the 13 audio tapes Hannah has left behind, Hannah reveals that she was a sexual assault survivor and bullied and slut-shamed more than Clay knew.
While plenty of people (including this writer) lauded the series for its portrayal of difficult topics, particularly sexual assault, not everyone was pleased with how the show handled Hannah's death. Some, such as the organization Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), felt that the series should not have shown its extremely graphic scene of suicide, and that having Hannah tell her story following her death by suicide romanticizes ending one's life.
Yet despite the controversy surrounding the series, some teens found 13 Reasons Why particularly inspiring. Following the conversation surrounding season 1 of 13 Reasons Why, Netflix commissioned a study from Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development. The purpose? To see how young adults watching the streaming show felt about what is depicted in Hannah's story.
According to the study, 78% of viewers believed that the series helped them understand that their actions can have an impact on others. Seventy three percent decided to be more considerate about how they treated other people following their view of season 1. Fifty one percent said they reached out to someone they hurt after being inspired by Hannah and Clay's story.
The series also seemingly inspired some to seek out real-world information on the controversial topics depicted. Per the Northwestern study, around half of all viewers reported seeking information about sexual assault, depression, suicide, bullying, and supporting others.
In addition to the study, Netflix received testimonials from two young women who believed they connected to the struggles that Hannah went through on the show. In the video below, Riley, 19, whose school initiated the suicide prevention project "13 Reasons Why Not," shares her own testimony of dealing with an abusive relationship while in high school. Louise, 24, reveals in the video that she is also a sexual assault survivor, and that she could relate deeply to Hannah while coming to terms with her own rape.
The testimony and study may not be enough to convince everyone that 13 Reasons Why will have a positive impact on young adults, but there's little doubt that the series has sparked important conversation. With season 2 heading to Netflix, let's hope that positivity comes from the show's sophomore season as well.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
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