The Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel of Thirteen Reasons Why has been well-received around the world. This is due to its freshness, beautiful-looking cast members and nail-biting plot. Not to mention that it’s been heavily endorsed by the pop princess, Selena Gomez, herself. Yup, Thirteen Reasons Why was bound to be a killer. One major criticism I would like to point out about the show is the way Hollywood shamefully romanticises suicide throughout the series. The ‘suicide’ trope is best exemplified in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), to the most recently atrocious Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer). Most celebrity deaths are also linked to suicide, stars that have committed suicide include; Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy and Kurt Cobain.
Hollywood pins suicide as a beautiful enigma. We are forced to envision a beautiful woman wrapped in a white, flowy, silk garment; standing at the top of a 20-storey building, turning her head towards you. That’s because this imagery was already reinforced a century before Hollywood, in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as in Ophelia (1851-1852) by John Everett Millais and John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888). The romantic notion of suicide, specifically female suicide, dominated their works, to accompany the Victorian ideal of feminine weakness along with the literal formation of the “fallen woman” epithet. The phrase stems from the saying “fallen from the grace of God” and applied to women with even the slightest sexual appetite, prostitutes, nymphomaniacs and unfaithful married women. On the contrary, the Pre-Raphaelites attempted to remove the stigma of the fallen woman by portraying them in a positive light and pinpointing social injustices of the Victorian era. This, however, led to the unintentional development of the glorification of suicide.
Now let’s go back to Thirteen Reasons Why. Hannah Baker becomes a victim of bullying because of the initial photograph taken of her by Justin, revealing her underwear as she slides down the slide. The photograph then gets passed around her school, instantly labelling her as a slut or whore. She’s thereafter considered as a “fallen woman”; she ends up losing her friends, dignity, self-confidence, virginity, she becomes a laughing stock and the whole world seems to be against her. Hannah becomes the epitome of the “fallen woman”, and rather than face society’s misconception of her, she is portrayed as weak and must succumb to suicide. Hannah’s character is similar to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of Mariana (1830) in his poem. Mariana (1897), as depicted in the above painting by John William Waterhouse, is a woman who continuously laments her lack of connection with society. The isolation defines her existence, and her longing for human interaction leaves her wishing for death at the end of every stanza. The Victorian era encouraged a premature death to the “fallen woman”. Hannah in death, becomes a beautiful corpse, her sleeping and passive state becomes the embodiment of perfect femininity, because when she was alive, she represented a threat to patriarchal society.
The Pre-Raphaelites manifested compassion and sympathy for the fallen women in their paintings by depicting suicide as chilling but purifying at the same time. This style of painting instantly becomes a hauntingly beautiful piece of art, since seeing something beautiful die has a much greater impact on people. Note that none of the paintings show a decomposed female body. Hence why Hollywood glorifies suicide, they borrow similar imagery from the Pre-Raphaelites to implement shock, evoking a bigger emotional impact on the audience.
The above image shows a scene of Hannah dying in her bathtub, this is reminiscent of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-1870). Both depictions are symbolic and contain religious iconographies, stimulating a deeply transcendental quality. Both Hannah and Beatrice are captured in a moment of ecstasy with their eyes closed and lips parted, ready to embrace death. Hannah is surrounded in her white bathroom with vertical Greek crosses on the wall. The dim light from the sun is the only source of light that captures her hopelessness, misery and her desire for redemption. The whiteness of the room, furthermore, gives it a mystic and heavenly touch. This scene is spiritual because Hannah’s soul does not die, she is reincarnated in the tapes that she makes, like God, she is still heard but not seen, ironically juxtaposed to the Victorian expectation of women obligated to be seen but not heard. In a way Hannah is resurrected through her tapes. She becomes a spiritual entity that can only find peace when justice is served, by incriminating all the people who pushed her to her death.
So, in a world full of fame-seeking teens, the picture that is painted in Thirteen Reasons Why is very much of a romanticised version of female suicide. It gives you hope that there is life after death and that your spirit will haunt those that have done you wrong like in the movie, Ghost (1990) by Jerry Zucker. That is of course, not going to happen and not true.
In the Victorian era, it was society’s norms, expectations and backward ideals that pushed women to their own deaths. However, in the twenty-first century, self-mutilation reasserted a degree of reality in victims. Bodily harm signified a desire for the real world and the need to feel alive, as the psychoanalytical philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, would put it- people are seeking a “passion for the real”. We are thrill-seekers; jumping off planes, climbing on mountains, swimming with sharks and driving fast cars etc. The “passion for the real” derives from the torture and death of Christ that eventually led to his resurrection and the birth of Christianity. The theory goes- in order to feel alive, one has to self-destruct first. For example, Fight Club (David Fincher) teaches us that it is only through the act of self-destruction via violence, that masculinity can be reborn in a world dominated by a feminised consumer culture. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (2011, David Yates), for Lord Voldemort to die, Harry must kill himself first.
Similarly, Hannah’s bodily scarification and self-destruction can also be seen as an act of reclamation of her sexuality. As she is resurrected through the tapes, her body is not seen, only her voice can be heard and listened to. People would not have listened to her otherwise, just like when she wrote the poem, her classmates simply laughed at her pain when she was alive. Now that she’s gone, only her voice remains, she finally has a voice – by eliminating her body through her suicide- she no longer can be judged and humiliated due to her sexuality.
In the end, Hannah is revived, once again the visual arts give us the illusion of life after self-destruction. Yes, it seems that our fellow First World inhabitants busy bees, trying so hard to find life after death. This delusion is summed up perfectly by Craig Roberts (Oliver) in Submarine (2010, Richard Ayoade): “I find that the only way to get through life is to picture myself in an entirely disconnected reality. I often imagine how people would react to my death. Mr Dunthorne’s quavering voice as he makes the announcement. The shocked faces of my classmates. A playground bedecked with flowers. The empty stillness of a school corridor. Local news analysis….The steady stoicism of my parents. . . Candlelit vigils…And finally, my glorious resurrection.”