I finally watched ‘13 Reasons Why’, and I couldn’t sleep that night. The next day I cried, and I didn’t understand why a dark, heavy-hearted show about depression, suicide, bullying, and sexual assault amongst high-school students was so deeply affecting a ‘well-adjusted’ mid-twenty something woman with a relatively socially comfortable past.
I mean, I was a high-functioning, self-confident, decent-looking, independent-minded, and socially adept woman. I’ve had occasional hiccups in my relationships with family, friends and partners like almost everyone, but it has never seriously affected my mental health to the point of self-destructive behaviors. Why then was this show so relatable to me? And that was exactly the point.
Hannah, the show’s lead protagonist has everything going for her. She was pretty, social, smart, and seemed like a nice person with her heart in the right place. Sure, she wasn’t perfect, but she was a multi-dimensional human being just like everyone else. Why would a girl like that be driven to commit suicide? You would assume that the ostracizing, isolation, and abuse that she faced would be the problems of a lonely, awkward, disturbed, troubled social recluse with a history of childhood trauma more like Tyler. If there was nothing obviously wrong with her, then it must be her surrounding circumstances that pushed her to such drastic measures, which leads to the next really pressing question.
How did our societal moral compass get so off-kilter that it starts to push the blame on conventionally ‘normal’ people rather than addressing the root cause of the problem?
The main reason for this is that abuse in our contemporary societal context is no longer obvious. It flies under the radar as playful banter, humorous jokes, healthy criticism, disagreements and debates. The most dangerous kind of abuse is not the one with physical marks that leaves behind evidence of its cruelty, it’s the subtle, masked, elusive kind of emotional abuse. It hides behind callous remarks appearing to be well-meaning, sweet misleading manipulating words, insidious intentions, or even something as simple as an indifferent shrug of the shoulder, a slight shove, a judgmental glance, and hostile silence.
Hannah becomes easy prey to other people not because she is not likeable enough, but because she is too likeable. She becomes the victim of other people’s jealousy, insecurities, and the ego-driven gratification of their selfish desires. They drive her to a point of self-destruction where she begins to question her own self-worth, which further affects her sense of self-esteem. There is so much societal pressure faced not just by women conforming to the ‘male gaze’, but also by everyone else to be so perfect. This unhealthy attitude pits people against each other in a cut-throat competitive game of constant comparison.
Jealousy turns people into assholes, and our current social climate feeds off the inherent need to not only be part of the tribe and to belong, but also to dominate and control it. Our desires have become driven by external validation, superficial status and material pursuits, which can be attributed to our consumerist culture, social-media obsessed, overwhelmingly fast-paced lifestyle.
There is tremendous pressure on our kids to perform through relentless competition and destructive criticism, which leads to escapist behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms. If our children work towards goals that serve social betterment, purpose, wellness and communal harmony as opposed to only their personal self-interests, they will be inspired by each other’s successes rather than disappointed, jealous and angered.
We are facing a world-wide empathy deficit, and everyone is to blame for it, and everyone is victim to it. Increasing empathy builds the foundation for internal values such as compassion, courage, moral integrity, self-awareness and a strong sense of self-worth. Inculcating empathy educates us about the illusory and temporary nature of superficial characteristics such external attractiveness, body image and material success. We need to reprioritize conventional notions of what it means to be a successful person, have a meaningful life, a stronger community and a better world.
‘13 Reasons Why’ shines the torch on extremely relevant issues not just amongst teenagers or people struggling with mental illnesses, but every single person living in our society.