Why Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” Got Everything Wrong and One Thing Right

Women want desperately to be remembered, while men prefer to be forgotten.

Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” is based on the Young Adult novel by Jay Asher. It spent weeks on the New York Time’s best-seller list. The book connected with many young adults, including Selena Gomez, who optioned the book and serves as the series’ executive producer.

Full disclosure, I didn’t read the book.

In my defense, I’m far from a young adult. I’m not the target audience. I have experience dealing with the aftermath of teen suicide. I gave myself a pass for not reading the book and went straight for the series.

The critics rave the series is far better than the book. Not a good sign, as the book is almost always better than the adaptation.

I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, a book I was definitely part of the target market. After reading the book, I was inspired to significantly change my life. To say I was deeply invested in the book’s message is an understatement.

The movie adaptation with Julia Roberts was such a disappointment. It failed to capture the true essence of the book, connecting to who you are and living your truth.

The book version was all about self-discovery, and the movie version was about falling in love, in love with yourself and in love with someone else. You have to love Hollywood for having good intentions. It’s so hard to get it right.

Suicide has been a part of almost every stage of my life.

In grade school, the brother of a close family friend committed suicide. A few years later, a classmate’s older teenage brother shot himself to death. In middle school, two kids on my same grade level killed themselves.

High school was the worst. There was a suicide every year.

My high school had the highest suicide rate in the county. Grief counselors speaking to classes became an annual thing. A close neighbor’s brother committed suicide. One of my best friends attempted suicide. Three years later, her younger brother attempted as well.

In college, someone I knew committed suicide. Early in my corporate career, a close co-worker committed suicide. My co-worker took her life after being misdiagnosed by a notable psychiatrist, who was a referral from our boss’s boss. Did I mention we worked for a pharmaceutical company, selling antidepressant drugs?

I am unfortunately all too familiar with suicide and the aftermath it leaves behind for loved ones.

I had high hopes for Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” It’s a subject I care deeply about and feel it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Neither does mental health, but I’ll save that for another post on another day.

So, when I read the show was better than the book, I immediately dove right into binge watching the series. Four episodes in, I knew it was another case where Hollywood had good intentions and little more.

Good storytelling lies in the execution. The story was entertaining; the execution was flawed.

Suicide, rape, depression are serious and complex issues difficult to portray on the screen.

A series that tackles all three at the same time is even more of a challenge.

This is why far better series, like ABC’s “American Crime” by John Ridley and Sundance TV’s “Top of the Lake” by Jane Campion, were so brilliant.

They both remained true to the central theme and gave enough space for the sub-themes to exist and tie back to the core of the story, giving more weight and depth to the dialogue and characters. Neither series never bit off more than they could chew. This is how you execute a good story.

To speak an authentic truth requires you speak to people who have lived this truth.

I’m not sure this was the case with “13 Reasons Why.” People who are slipping away retreat. They don’t keep searching for ways to connect. They rarely seek help.

At the core of suicide is a feeling of helplessness. A singular driving force becomes so unbearable, they feel there is no way out of it. People attempt or commit suicide for one very strong reason, not thirteen of them.

The characters were three-dimensional versions of known stereotypes, especially the women.

The grieving mother, blinded with grief and guilt, desperately searches for a sign or reason to help her make sense of why it happened. The worrying mother, who becomes overly involved in her son’s life and tries and fails to connect. The unknowing victim of a sexual assault, who tries to cope with alcohol and promiscuity.

Each character desperately looking for answers and finding comfort in their male counterpart, who serves as a calming influence with all the answers.

The actresses did their best with the material they were given. It’s their strong performances that made the series halfway watchable.

Just so we’re clear; a grieving mother is not the only one who is distraught when a couple loses a child. A father is going through the same emotions. A worrying mother sets boundaries and safeguards her child at any cost, especially when she’s opposing counsel.

A woman knows when she’s been violated, period. She needs no one to tell her. She knows something is different. Her reaction is to withdraw, retreat, and self-destruct.

She doesn’t become horny. Sex isn’t a coping mechanism for assault victims. Lusting after your boyfriend, who was complicit in your rape, is unrealistic and overtly offensive. I feel like, if I write it, then someone will understand how absurd this storyline is.

I’m not saying men can’t write female characters and vice versa. John Fawcett and Graeme Manson defy this myth every season on Orphan Black. Shonda Rhimes defies all odds by writing complex, flawed, and sympathetic male and female characters for three shows.

I am saying it helps to get perspective. Talk to people who have lived the truth you’re trying to tell.

High school was hell for me, too.

I’m not one of those people who dismiss teenage angst as something trivial. I lived it, so I know it’s real. High school is all about fitting in.

As much as my parents raised me to be my own person and to have my own voice, all I wanted was to be accepted in high school. All anyone in high school wants to do is fit in anywhere.

We all want to fit in.

We make friends in grade school to fit in with our class. We dress and talk a certain way to fit in middle school. We rebel and try to discover who we really are, while making sure we’re not alone on this quest while in high school.

We work our way into sororities, fraternities, and other collegiate organizations, so we don’t feel so alone when we’re away from home. We graduate, start working, and buy a home in suburbia, where we do our best to blend in and not stand out. We spend our lives fitting in.

High school is where we first learn the consequences of what happens when we don’t.

I wasn’t one of the “cool kids.” I was an African-American in a predominately white environment. I wasn’t part of the “cool” crowd. I was definitely “cool kid adjacent.” I attended the top public high school in the county.

Several years ago, USA Today did a report on the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” of high schools in the country. My high school was prominently featured as a “have” school.

Often, I was the only person of color in a class or social situation. It was the story of my life until college. I went to Florida A&M University, a Historically Black College and University.

It’s safe to say my experience differed from Hannah’s, the main character.

Back then, bullying was referred to as teasing. I have been on both sides of this coin. I received my fair share of teasing, and I dished it out.

I can honestly say it was never anything cruel or criminal as what was portrayed in the series. I never had malicious intent. I can’t say the same for some of my old classmates.

Kids are cruel. There is this inherent need to avoid being teased, so you are quick to tease others. Today, kids have far more at their disposal, so the cruel factor is amplified.

Everything is for public consumption.

Children are not equipped to process humiliation and rejection, and each child handles it differently. I don’t remember being as self-absorbed as teenagers typically are today. Maybe I was and didn’t realize it. I remember my parents were big on taking responsibility and made sure I did too.

When I hurt someone’s feelings, I apologized face-to-face. When someone hurt my feelings, I was vocal about it. I told someone. Texting, posting, and FaceTime leave little incentive for face-to-face communication. It’s truly a lost art.

While the concept of leaving a recorded account of why you took your own life is compelling, I struggle with finding it realistic. Again, there tends to be retreat and withdraw, not continued failed attempts at fitting in.

Some kids feel there is no reason to wait. They feel things will never get better. They feel tied to a fate they didn’t choose, one chosen for them by others.

It’s sad when you think about it. We spend our youth thinking things will never get better and our adult lives in a constant state of hoping they do.

Hannah was one of those kids who lost hope. I expected her to withdraw, become reclusive. I expected her to exhibit all the typical warning signs of a teenager overwhelmed and in trouble.

I didn’t expect her to document her most intimate secrets and shame the very kids who brought so much shame to her. Again, Hannah’s experience was not what I witnessed with each of the real-life suicide victims I knew.

Suicide is an unexplainable, unimaginable, and unpredictable mess.

It leaves families and communities stricken with grief, wondering how it all went so horribly wrong. There are no words of comfort or message of hope to take away the pain felt by people who feel they could have done more.

Complex situations elicit emotions

Suicide, sexual assault, stalking, and bullying are a lot to handle individually. Attempting to handle them all at once at the peak of puberty is enough to send anyone over the edge.

As an adult, I can’t imagine having to deal with all these traumas at once. I’ve seen the effects leading up to and what remains after suicide. Stalking is something I thankfully never had to deal with. Bullying, I know all too well.

I was raised during the era of hands-on parenting. My parents were involved in every aspect of my life, not in a hovering helicopter way, but in a loving and supportive way. I’m not sure who or when this line was crossed.

Parenting today is an all-in tiger mom approach or hands-off and let kids be kids mentality. I don’t have kids, so I never judge. I can only speak about my parents and how I was raised.

For me, bullying took place in and out of school.

Kids were teased for many reasons. I was constantly teased for being smart. I was a studious child, who always found a reason to be in front of a book. I was also allergic to just about everything outside during the spring and summer, when kids were playing outside.

Whether in school or at home, when either I or another child was being picked on, a parent was always involved.

Someone’s parent would come and tell the other child’s parent. There would be this meeting of the minds among the adults via phone calls. It always ended the same way; kids were forced to apologize, make-up, and continue to play.

If the act was bad enough, you would receive a spanking from the parent first made aware of your wrong doing and, again later, when your parents got home from work. It was an unspoken rule; all kids were raised with the same values. This was community parenting at its best.

I am a better person because of my parents, not in spite of them.

Because of my parents, I know right from wrong. I know when someone is suffering and how to offer help. My parents are the reason I am a well-adjusted adult, living a happy and fulfilling life.

My parents taught me struggle gives way to progress, sacrifice creates something better, and love endures everything. Love for yourself and each other.

I am who I am today because my parents chose parenting over friendship. They were and always will be my role models. We enjoy a loving and deep friendship today, because they raised me with the right balance of discipline, love, and support.

Sexual assault was something I only read about before college.

I knew it existed, but little more. This all changed when I went to college. Show me a young woman in college, and I’ll show you someone who has either been sexually assaulted or knows someone who has. Sexual assault of young women on college campuses is an epidemic.

There were plenty of situations where I could have easily been sexually assaulted. I was young and naive. Through the grace of God, I wasn’t. I had two close encounters, which both ended with me doing what I could to prevent the situation from escalating. I was lucky.

Two women, who shared the same major as me, were brutally raped, neither of which ever fully recovered.

The assailant didn’t attend school. He was someone part of the local community. Both women attempted to return to campus the following semester. One made it through a month before returning home. The second one only made it through the next semester, and her grades dramatically declined.

Before the assault, both women held high GPAs and were socially outgoing. We didn’t hang out in the same circles, although our circles intersected at times. I knew them and they knew me. Their assault was a blow to the entire campus and community. We all felt their pain and devastation.

My point is neither women resorted to promiscuous behavior after their assault. There wasn’t any flirting or sex of any kind as what was portrayed in the series. There was therapy and isolation to give these women the time and tools needed to recover.

If I’m a teen watching the series, the characters only show me how not to navigate complex emotions.

Good writing informs, uplifts, and enlightens. Great writing gets people talking.

“13 Reasons Why”, the book and series, has created a national dialogue around suicide and that’s a good thing.

While neither the book nor the series were executed well, people did read and watch, people who feel hopelessness or know someone who does.

Dialogue brings attention, and attention causes action.

My hope is the dialogue causes people get the help they need before it’s too late. In a perfect world, mental health is a fully funded national priority. We are a long way from this being a reality. We are closer today than we were before the book was published.

Dialogue is the first step. Awareness the second. Action the third.

If you see someone who may need your help, don’t hesitate; extend an olive branch. Even if they refuse your help, get them talking.

I wish this was something I did for my best friend in high school. Her suicide attempt wasn’t successful. Someone caught her in time. I wish I did something sooner, anything.

So much is being written about the series, some good and some not so good. I applaud the series for attempting to tackle something that affects so many people but rarely gets mentioned. I only wish the people behind the series would have taken greater care in portraying the subject matter.

There have been many series to address teen suicide, but very few are about teen suicide. Hopefully, this will not be among the first or last attempts. Hopefully, future series creators will learn from the mistakes of “13 Reasons Why” and continue the dialogue.

Always speak your truth and clear the path, so others can speak theirs.

Storytelling Enthusiast Wellness Maven Advocate for more inclusion in wellness and storytelling.