How 13 Reasons Why Compares to ’80s Pop Culture About Teen Suicide

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L-R: Molly Ringwald in Surviving, Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why. Photo: ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images, Beth Dubber/Netflix

A lot has been written about 13 Reasons Why in the month since the Netflix series about teen suicide first started streaming. While initial reviews mostly praised the drama, based on the novel by Jay Asher and developed for television by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Brian Yorkey, much of the subsequent coverage has focused on concerns raised by parents and educators who fear the depiction of protagonist Hannah Baker’s death, as well as the suicide note she leaves in the form of multiple cassette tapes, may inspire copycat behavior.

It’s rare to see so much robust conversation of this nature around a teen show, and that’s partly because it’s rare for television to focus an entire series on teen suicide. 13 Reasons deserves credit for delving into that subject in such detail and showing how it connects to distinctly contemporary problems like cyberbullying. But given America’s tendency to succumb to pop-cultural amnesia, it should be noted that this is not the first time TV has tackled the issue so directly.

During the 1980s — a decade that 13 Reasons repeatedly evokes with its pop music choices and the omnipresence of those cassette tapes, as well as the Walkman that Clay Jensen uses to listen to them — three made-for-TV movies, the go-to genre for confronting often-taboo social issues, dealt specifically with teen suicide during the 1984–1985 television season.

First there was the CBS Schoolbreak Special Hear Me Cry, in which two boys, including one played by Robert MacNaughton of E.T. fame, form a suicide pact. Then came the CBS prime-time movie Silence of the Heart, in which a high-schooler (Chad Lowe) intentionally drives his car off a cliff, leaving his sister (Dana Hill), parents (Mariette Hartley and Howard Hesseman) and best friend (Charlie Sheen — yes, you heard me) to sort out why he chose death. And in February of 1985, there was the ABC movie Surviving, a vaguely Romeo and Juliet–esque tale in which a pair of young lovers (Zach Galligan of Gremlins and Molly Ringwald) decide to end it all, leaving their parents, who are longtime friends, to grieve and lob blame at one another.

I don’t remember seeing Silence of the Heart; I am sure I saw Hear Me Cry even though I remember little about it. But Surviving I recall very well. When the movie originally aired, I was in seventh grade, a particularly difficult year thanks to surging hormones, an increasing emphasis on status and appearance at my intermediate school, and the fact that seventh-graders were total assholes to each other. (One of my best friends and I still darkly reminisce about the time a rich, popular kid looked her right in the eye and said: “I hope you drown.” Which is very … specific?)

I wasn’t a suicidal 12-year-old, but I was definitely overflowing with angst and intrigued by suicide as a storytelling device. I also was obsessed with Ringwald, whose fame was rising thanks to Sixteen Candles and would spike even higher when The Breakfast Club was released less than a week after Surviving was broadcast. Basically, Surviving was extremely relevant to my interests in February of 1985 and I watched it with zero parental supervision, the same way many preteens and teens likely have experienced 13 Reasons Why.

The movie didn’t romanticize suicide for me necessarily, but it definitely made an impression. Thirty-plus years later, I still vividly remember which Pat Benatar songs were used on its soundtrack (“We Live for Love” and “We Belong”), as well as the scene where the two main characters turn the key in a parked car’s ignition and hold each other while waiting for death to come for them in Lonnie’s parents’ garage. Surviving did not further my interest in pursuing suicide, but it did amp up my fixation on it. Not too long after, I wrote a short story about a girl who kills herself, and I’m sure it was inspired, at least subconsciously, by that movie. My point is: I completely understand why a kid in 2017 would be utterly drawn in by 13 Reasons Why, because I felt the same way in 1985 about Surviving.

Looking back at Surviving now — a version with weird subtitles can still be found on YouTube — it’s striking to realize how many of its elements are echoed in 13 Reasons Why. The shy, desperate dance that is young love sits at the core of both stories. Lonnie, Ringwald’s character, stays in a mental hospital after previously attempting to slit her wrists, which is what Hannah ultimately does in 13 Reasons Why. Lonnie also has a reputation for hooking up with guys, though Surviving doesn’t explore that in nearly as much detail or with any of the nuance that 13 Reasons Why does. Surviving also devotes a large portion of its time to exploring how the suicides of Lonnie and Galligan’s Rick affect their families, particularly the parents, played by Ellen Burstyn, Len Cariou, Marsha Mason, and Paul Sorvino, and, to a lesser extent, Rick’s younger siblings (Heather O’Rourke of Poltergeist fame and — did I mention this movie had an ’80s dream cast? — River Phoenix).

But Surviving is ultimately very different from and not as affecting as 13 Reasons because you can tell it was made both by and for grown-ups. The problems that both Rick and Lonnie struggle with are defined by their issues with their parents. While the movie suggests that both of them have other at least casual acquaintances their age, it hardly engages with who they are outside of their relationships with each other and their immediate relations, nor does it spend much time considering how their suicides might have affected anyone beyond their respective households.

13 Reasons Why was, obviously, made by grown-ups, too. But while its adult characters are important, especially Hannah’s parents, its energies are most deeply invested in its kids, specifically Hannah and the friends/frenemies she believes are responsible for her pain. Because it relies so heavily on flashbacks to sophomore year, before Hannah makes the decision to die, many of the episodes deal with the universal, timeless stuff we’ve seen hundreds of times in other teen TV shows and movies: awkwardness at school dances, peer pressure related to drugs and alcohol, feelings of worthlessness that seep in after being mocked by the “popular” kids. (“I hope you drown” never goes out of style, apparently.) In a lot of ways, 13 Reasons feels like a Ringwaldian hybrid: a mixture of Surviving and a John Hughes movie.

With its overt references to well-known entries in the high-school pop culture canon, from Sixteen Candles (Hannah Baker shares a last name with Ringwald’s character, Samantha Baker) to Say Anything (more on that from Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson) to Clueless, (yes, there’s a game of Suck and Blow in 13 Reasons), the series can, at times, be as inviting and familiar as one of those teen movies we all still actively quote. But the thing is, 13 Reasons isn’t merely telling us that life moves pretty fast and we should stop and look around so we don’t miss it. It’s telling us something more unsettling: that sometimes life moves with such speed and cruelty that a teenager may be inclined to just stop, period.

The tonal switches the show engages in, as well as the way it toggles between life at Liberty High pre- and post-Hannah’s death, run the risk of diluting the truth of what happens after suicide: that a person is gone and doesn’t come back. At any age, it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the finality of death. It’s even harder when you’re in your preteen or teen years. The fact that 13 Reasons also plays right into the fantasies some may indulge in when they consider suicide — that killing themselves will really show everyone, and also finally attract the attention and empathy they crave — may make it even easier for more impressionable binge-watchers to overlook the harsh realities associated with ending a life. That said, the show doesn’t ignore those harsh realities. Clay, Hannah’s parents, and other characters are very clearly shown to be struggling mightily after Hannah’s death.

While I think 13 Reasons Why deals with suicide in a mostly thoughtful and sensitive manner, as a mother myself, I do understand why some parents are concerned about how some kids are receiving the show. That’s why I think that what was true 30 years ago — that it’s best for a young person to process a piece of television that deals with this subject by discussing it with an adult — is just as true today, as is the fact that parents should watch a show before presuming it’s too dangerous for their sons or daughters to handle. It’s also still true that teenagers get something more valuable out of this type of narrative when it stays zeroed in on actual young people.

Another thing I remember distinctly about Surviving is that, after Lonnie and Rick died, I only watched for a few more minutes and then turned off the TV. If Molly Ringwald wasn’t in it anymore, I wasn’t into it either, which meant that, at the time, I didn’t fully grasp the impact their suicide had on others.

I suspect most kids watching 13 Reasons Why will stick with it all the way to the admittedly raw and graphic end, and I honestly think that’s appropriate. A series like this should be seen in complete context and, ideally, with Mom, Dad, or an older sibling not far away, to remind young viewers that anything they have to say into an old-fashioned tape recorder, they can and should say to someone they trust first.

How 13 Reasons Why Compares to ’80s Films About Teen Suicide