Hagiography, 13 Reasons Why, and understanding the implications of our work by Matthew Maichen

Disclaimer: Before writing this, I watched season 1 of the Netflix show Thirteen Reasons Why, and the season 1 special: Beyond the Reasons. I also read the novel, which is a lot simpler and a lot less problematic than the show that I’ll be discussing.

1.

    Hagiographies are Sainthood Narratives, and they have a wide variety of permutations. One of the most famous, Saint George and the Dragon, has imbued our culture with the relatively secular and fairy-tale-esque “Man saves Princess from Dragon” archetype. Part of the reason for this is that pagan heroes were often retooled as Saints in order to help along the conversion of the Celts, or whoever else was being converted at that time.

    This is all to say that George killing a dragon is not his actual Sainthood Narrative. It was attached to him approximately 700 years after his death. Saint George’s actual Sainthood Narrative shares the core aspect of every Hagiography, or, at least, every one that I’ve ever heard of. He is a man who suffered for his goodness at the hands of a cruel world. He refused to renounce his Christian faith during the Diocletian Persecution, and was decapitated. If a Saint isn’t a martyr outright, they will be a person brutally tortured for their Christian goodness, and will refuse to give it up even under the horrific pain they endure. Key also to Hagiographies is that miracles may be attributed to the Saint during their life, but are certainly attributed to them after their death.

    The point will be better made by looking at another (non-canonized) Saint. William of Norwich, the boy supposedly murdered by Jews.

    I’m throwing that out right away because I want to make absolutely no apologies or excuses for antisemitism, and I want it to be the first thing we recognize and understand about the story. Still, here is the story:

    In 1144, a 12-year-old apprentice tanner named William was found dead outside the town of Norwich. His death was quickly blamed on the local Jews, whom he would have had a lot of dealings with. The story claims that he was killed as part of the nonexistent Jewish “blood libel” ritual. I won’t get into the details of all this, but suffice it to say that mob “Justice” was carried out against these Jews, and it was part of a general trend of such “Justice” taking place in Europe at the time. This story, alone, was enough for an entire cult to be formed in William’s name. For miracles to be attributed to him after his death. For a variety of other murdered “child martyrs” to pop up in the years that followed, who would also be viewed as Saints by some individuals, and also have miracles attributed to them.

    This goes to show that the defining feature of a Saint, to some, isn’t faith, heroism, or goodness. Being steadfast in your martyrdom is not necessary for that martyrdom to count. Sure, William was never canonized, but the idea of his sainthood was powerful enough to last hundreds of years in Norwich. And let’s be real, William didn’t do anything. He didn’t convert anyone or slay any dragons or refuse to relent his faith. He was a victim.

    But what he shared in common with all Saints, the only thing that mattered to his followers, was that he was an innocent person killed by a cruel world. A world too cruel for his innocence.

2.

    Thirteen Reasons Why (at least the first season) is a good show. It is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed in a way that makes it authentically relatable. The scenes that are meant to be tragic are tragic, the scenes that are meant to be harrowing are harrowing, and when it wants to be heartwarming (every once in a while) it is. The core romance is believable on both sides in a way that a lot of young adult romances in fiction are not. It is an imperfect show. Its “one tape to one episode” flow is contrived no matter how it tries to justify it, and occasionally there are so many dream-sequences, delusions, hallucinations, and reality-bending flashbacks that it becomes difficult to tell what’s actually happening. But the season I watched was solidly good.

    It’s also a modern Hagiography that elevates suicide to an act of matyrdom.

Without pointing to the broad events of the plot, I’m going to point to a few specific details (and as such spoilers) that I noticed as someone who has heard and read a few Hagiographies.

When 17-year-old Clay Jensen initially listens to Hannah Baker’s tapes, which he received after her suicidal death (!), they are almost unbearable, to him. Because of his guilt (!!), and the feeling that they all, collectively, let Hannah down (!!!). Thankfully, he is being helped through these tapes by Tony, a latino guy from a Catholic (!!!!) family who has a cross (!!!!!) tattooed on the inside of his wrist. Yes, Tony has a lot of tattoos, (As do many of the high-schoolers in this show, by the way. I can say as an educator that tattooed teenagers exist, but they’re definitely rarer than this) and Tony is also gay. But Tony is also described in a throwaway line by his ex-boyfriend as having the “moral code of a medieval flagellant.” (!!!!!!)

Clay immediately discovers that there are others who are as aware of these tapes as he is, and all of them are dealing with the guilt in their own way. One of them, Alex Standall, after the episode that his sins (!!!!!!!) are featured in, throws himself into a pool and completely submerges himself, only to emerge a second later and float there. For the rest of the show after that, he is far more willing to confess to his guilt. (!!!!!!!!)

The similarities become a little less blatant as the show goes on, to be fair to it. But always they simmer in the background. Always there is the sense that we are talking about “the things that killed Hannah,” like sexual harassment and eventual assault, like how we’re afraid to get close to someone who is clearly hurting, and therefore needs it the most. Like how we lie and conceal the parts of ourselves that we don’t want people to see, and will throw others under the bus for it. In Thirteen Reasons Why, messages on these issues are delivered directly from the mouths of characters, and we talk about them without any real subtlety.

But we do not, really, talk about suicide. There’s a confidence that the entire show is about suicide, so why would we need to say much about it? Anti-Suicide posters are put up around the school, but these are seen as emblems of the inauthentic and empty ways that adults try to connect with us. During a scene of chaotic tantrum-infused character development, Alex Standall rips one of them down and shouts: “Suicide isn’t an option? Well clearly it is an option! How about: ‘don’t be a dick to people?’”

Hannah Baker’s curse is that she is beautiful. And it is true that Katherine Langford is beautiful, in an unconventional but effective way. Hannah’s beauty, however, is occasionally mentioned three or four times in a single episode. It’s what garners unwanted attention from boys, in the first place. It’s what drives a closeted lesbian to kiss her, and the campus stalker to take a picture of it. It’s what places a wedge between her and her best friend. Attention over her beauty leads to other, horrific things that I won’t mention here, but it also makes Clay, who she “should have been with all along” jealous of other guys and too nervous to pursue her in the first place.

Isn’t it interesting how, in our culture, “Beautiful” is everything that a woman is supposed to be?

But Hannah is too beautiful. And the world is too cruel to beautiful girls. And, ultimately, Hannah is too beautiful to survive. We all should be her. But if we are, to that extent, we’ll die.

And because this world is so cruel to the innocent and beautiful, when it happens, it will be our fault. And we will be forced to deal with the consequences, to reflect that we should all be better. We should revere someone who was naturally beautiful without vanity, and who died for it.

It’d be more direct to say she died for our sins.

3.

    You probably already know the controversy. The response started before the show even aired. So I’m going to talk about the response to the response, and I’m going to go full English major and separate the later creator response from the “text” of the show (the piece of art standing on its own, and all that really matters).

    In the “text” of Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah Baker is a Saint and a Martyr for the sins of High Schoolers. This is an assertion that goes completely unchallenged within the first season, and the seasons after it possess another quality, which is “trash.” (I’m sorry, I had to indulge myself).

    So there was a response to this. And there’s been a response to that response. Hannah’s graphic suicide scene was actually removed by Netflix in July of 2019, over a year ago. Is it worth noting that in Jay Asher’s original novel, Hannah swallowed pills, but this wasn’t violent or shocking enough for Netflix? Maybe it is, but it doesn’t matter. Because the graphic nature of that scene, as well as the multiple graphic rape scenes, were never what mattered about the problematic messaging of Thirteen Reasons Why.

    I’m saying that so argumentatively because it’s clear that Netflix thinks that’s the problem, or at least wants it to be. If you start up the show now, in 2020, you’ll start with a message from the cast talking to you about the “triggering” nature of the scenes that you’re about to watch. During the credits of every episode, there is a link provided to the site https://13reasonswhy.info/, which takes the unsubtle nature of some of the show’s dialogue and turns it into actual PSAs. There is now a “Beyond The Reasons” special in three parts on Netflix that really addresses the deeper implications of what viewers are seeing in the show. And within that special, if you dig for it, suicide is treated as not being the answer.

For the first time.

So I’ve alluded to my problems with this, and I’m going to spell them out clearly:

1: All this victim-focused suicide prevention is actually condemned as “useless” within the text of the show. Within the TEXT, WE need to be nicer to potential suicide victims, and when we aren’t, suicide is a natural (and therefore justified) consequence.

2: There is a misunderstanding that the show was controversial, in the first place, because it was “graphic.” No. The show was controversial before it was available for anyone to even know how graphic it was, and went on to inspire actual copycat self-harm and attempted suicide, because it sells a seductive message to teenagers who desperately want to hear it, and who are being told it nowhere else in media: they all will be sorry. Your death will mean something, if your life doesn’t.

As an adult, I have the life experience to understand that Hannah’s tapes are mystical. Their distribution and the way it works, the way that the apostle Tony seems to just apparate into existence whenever the plot needs him to tell Clay to listen, these things are (figuratively, but figuratively in every sense) miraculous. It would never happen in real life.

At sixteen, I doubt I’d understand that.

Conclusion.

Nothing will fix your story if the deeper implications are harmful.

No amount of talking about social issues will fix your writing, or your art, if the core message that it is advocating is a harmful one.

I believe that Jay Asher is a nice guy. I believe that the act of writing a novel is an inherently empathetic act, and I believe that his novel was intended for suicide prevention. (And it is, if you read it). I also believe that everyone involved in Thirteen Reasons Why made it from a place of genuine empathy, love, and concern for the struggles that teenagers face. I believe that they made something good, in the sense that we call genuinely affecting and well-made art good.

But they also made something harmful. Something that, at its core, advocates a harmful message that suicide can be sacred, that uses ancient tropes either ingrained in humanity or at least ingrained in western culture to make this point. The effect of this harmful media was immediate. It wasn’t the usual social-justice themed bickering over things like problematic representation while the not-quite-perfect liberals among us wrung our hands and wondered if it even mattered. The show did lead to copycat behavior. Because it was good. It was effective, and it delivered its message well, even while being made by people who would deny that it had that message in the first place.

When we write, the onus is on us to understand what we are writing. What the most harmful implication of it might be, and to actively counter it. I joked, recently, about a horror novel I read using asides to try to not have us interpret it in a problematic or sexist way, but I think I get it, now. You cannot write something harmful, and then say “No” when people interpret it in a harmful way. You cannot ignore the problematic implications of what you are creating. You have to look them straight in the face, be aware that they are there, and say to yourself:

“Okay, we need to change what we’re saying, now, before we release this.”

If you have suicidal ideation, it is almost certainly brought on by internal factors, and not by life circumstances. Your life circumstances can be contributing factors. But suicide is not the natural consequence of anything, and is not justified under any circumstance. People around you are aware of this, and generally will not blame themselves beyond feeling like they should have spotted the signs and gotten you help.

This means that suicide is not, has never been, and will never be an act of martyrdom. Martyrdom itself is a tantalizing propagandistic fantasy, and it can’t substitute for being alive and actively trying to make the world a better place. In the show, Hannah’s suicide forces everyone around her, and her entire school, to hold themselves accountable. This does not happen in real life, even as suicide happens every day.

Did I spell that out too much? Possibly.

But maybe that’s for the best.




Image Credit: Netflix

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