By Graeme John Wilson
Abstract: 13 Reasons Why, a television series adapted from the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, quickly evolved into a cultural phenomenon following its premiere in 2017. The plot of 13 Reasons Why concerns the aftermath and fallout of a high school girl’s suicide, and was intended by producers to deconstruct social stigmas attached to the act and examine motivations for suicide. While the series has initiated an ongoing dialogue about suicide, 13 Reasons Why has also generated significant controversy regarding its portrayal, and the ultimate influence of the series has been called into question by professional organizations, who argue that 13 Reasons Why could possibly inspire copycat suicides. Suicide prevention advocacy groups have similar concerns that at-risk youth who view the series may instead be motivated, instead of deterred, to commit suicide. By applying rhetorical criticism to select episodes of 13 Reasons Why and employing audience reception and social learning theory for its framework, this research essay utilizes 13 Reasons Why as a vessel to examine the greater influence of media texts on audiences and whether they can be held wholly accountable for provoking subsequent audience behaviors.
Keywords: 13 Reasons Why, suicide, audience reception theory, social learning theory, rhetorical criticism
In the early twentieth century, as film gradually emerged as the preeminent form of entertainment media, there was frequent debate about the possibility of visual texts encouraging amoral behavior among younger audiences. In response, media producers advocated utilizing the platform to inform and educate audiences regarding contemporary social concerns, an early example being Traffic in Souls. Released in 1913, Traffic in Souls was advertised as a necessary text for audiences, discussing taboo topics such as sexuality and prostitution within a moralizing framework (Stamp 44). Nevertheless, such fears did not subside and finally culminated in the Payne Fund Studies, “a series of sociological and psychological inquiries into the effects of motion pictures on youth” (Vasey 127) conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s. First published in 1933, these studies mark the first serious attempt to analyze media influence. Following the Payne studies, there have been continuous inquiries into how violence in media such as film, television, and videogames can influence viewers to exhibit more aggressive, violent behaviors because they are idealized in entertainment (Signorelli 18). Contrastingly, much less attention had been paid to the possible influence popular media can exert toward suicidal behavior. Scientific studies regarding this particular subject were not conducted until the 1960s (Blood and Perkis 155). However, with the 2017 release of the web television series 13 Reasons Why, this topic was launched into the forefront of public debate.
13 Reasons Why, adapted by Brian Yorkey from the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why, premiered on streaming service Netflix on March 31, 2017, immediately accruing commercial success. As with its source material, the plot of 13 Reasons Why concerns the aftermath and fallout of a high school girl’s suicide. The student, Hannah Baker, dies from overdosing on pills in the novel; in the television adaptation, she cuts her wrists in her bathtub, the act of which is portrayed on-screen in a flashback during the first season finale, “Tape 7, Side A.” In both versions, her classmate and friend Clay Jensen subsequently receives a package containing 13 tapes Hannah recorded before her suicide. Each tape identifies a specific person that Hannah, a victim of bullying and sexual assault, blames for her suicide. Clay, who had secretly been in love with Hannah, begins a crusade against the individuals on the tapes, wanting them to pay for their actions. Throughout the series, Clay, who is overcome with guilt at failing to prevent Hannah’s death, repeatedly states that “we let her down” and “we all killed her.”
In an interview with Teen Vogue, Jay Asher, the author of the novel and a consultant for the television series, described the franchise as a “cautionary tale,” with the overarching narrative in both mediums designed to increase awareness regarding at-risk youth (Elizabeth, “‘13 Reasons Why’ Author Jay Asher on Working with Selena Gomez and the Netflix Adaptation”), as suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among teenagers (Curran 14); Asher himself was initially motivated to write the book after a teenage relative attempted suicide. However, while Asher’s intentions are admirable, the ultimate influence of the series has been called into question. Notably, the National Association Psychologists (NASP) released a statement regarding 13 Reasons Why, the first time the organization had ever done so for a television series, stating that it could possibly inspire copycat suicides:
Research shows that exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of death, can be one of the many risk factors that youth struggling with mental health conditions cite as a reason they contemplate or attempt suicide. (Howard, “Why Teen Mental Health Experts Are Focused on ‘13 Reasons Why’”)
Suicide prevention advocacy groups have similarly expressed concerns that at-risk youth who view the series may instead be motivated, instead of deterred, to commit suicide, arguing that “the show actually doesn’t present a viable alternative to suicide” (Thorbecke, “‘13 Reasons Why’ Faces Backlash from Suicide Prevention Advocacy Group”). Besides navigating the social relevance and impact of 13 Reasons Why, the debate surrounding the perceived influence of the series, both positive and negative, continues historical debates regarding the greater influence of media texts on audiences, and whether they can be held wholly accountable for provoking subsequent audience behaviors.
Framework and Methodology
For its theoretical framework, this research essay employs audience reception and social learning theory. Audience reception is a qualitative theory used to deconstruct audience interpretation of media texts. Development of the theory is popularly attributed to sociologist Stuart Hall, who argued that audiences could develop varied interpretations of the same media content, some resistant to the dominant ideology, or “preferred reading” (9), of their peer groups. Hall used several contemporary television series for his research, such as the 1960s western series The Virginian (7). Thus, audience reception is an appropriate framework through which to navigate the varied interpretations of 13 Reasons Why, particularly that rebuke the “preferred reading” of the series as communicating deterrent to self-harm. Additionally, social learning theory, developed by psychologists Albert Bandura and Richard Walters in the 1960s, suggests that individuals can adopt new behaviors through observing and subsequently imitating others (Signorelli 16). The prominence of television in contemporary American culture suggests that the medium can provide models for younger, more impressionable viewers to base personal behavior on (Duvall et al. 101), even potentially fatal behavior.
For its methodological approach, this critical essay utilizes textual analysis, a prominent research method used to analyze the content of media texts. Although textual analysis has been extensively applied to cinematic texts, scholars only began applying the method to television series during the 1970s. Since then, textual analysis has developed into one of the foremost methods within the field of television studies (Gray and Lotz 28). Textual analysis includes several varying approaches, one being rhetorical criticism. Rhetorical criticism is a form of textual analysis through which scholars can both identify the messages of a media text and evaluate their persuasive ability; such messages can be intentionally incorporated by the authors or otherwise. Rhetorical criticism is employed by media scholars to analyze how these messages can influence their audiences’ perception of reality (Frey et al. 2; 235). Resultantly, rhetorical criticism was the best suited method for this research essay, to contrast the intentional commentary producers incorporated into 13 Reasons Why with audience interpretation of these messages.
The debate regarding a possible relationship between suicide in fiction and contagion suicide can be traced as far back to the 1770s, when German writer Johann Wolfgang van Goethe published the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose eponymous protagonist fatally shoots himself following a failed relationship. The novel generated high sales and influenced contemporary European culture, with many readers emulating the doomed Werther in appearance and manner. Following its publication, a notable increase in suicides across Europe was attributed to The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the novel was subsequently banned (Gould et al. 1270). However, television, which has since succeeded literature in eminence in contemporary entertainment, can prompt much stronger visceral reactions from audiences, due to its inherently visual nature.
In 1999, the Surgeon General of the United States acknowledged, based on extensive study, the possibility that viewing suicide in fictional media texts could influence vulnerable youth into mimicking the act (Hecht 164). Suicide contagion can be attributed to social learning theory, where audiences mimic behaviors glorified in media (Gould et al. 1269); The Sorrows of Young Werther represents an early historical example of such a phenomenon. Today, television is one of the primary mediums, along with film and music, which have been researched relating to media influence on suicide, with social learning theory frequently being utilized for the framework. However, such studies are recognized to be laborious, as “determining whether those who completed suicide after the presentation of a given television program … were influenced by it is clearly difficult to establish in the case of completed suicides” (Blood and Perkis 157). Additionally, while different studies have indicated causal causation between viewings of suicide in media and the subsequent attempting of suicide, “these studies are small or have methodological problems” (158), thus failing to demonstrate consistency when replicated. Research indicates that viewing suicide in media alone is unlikely to act as a trigger, and instead must work in tandem with other factors such as location, seasonal trends, and, most frequently, mental illness. However, it is important to note that this research also suggests the possibility for media portrayals of suicide to function as deterrents for viewers:
Not all studies have hypothesized that fictional portrayals of suicide on television have a negative effect. Some have suggested that appropriate portrayals, for example, those that emphasize negative consequences or alternative courses of action, could actually have a positive, educative effect, and have found this to be the case. (157)
This has been the producers’ acknowledged goal for 13 Reasons Why: to “have a positive, educative effect” on its audience regarding contemporary issues facing high school youth, such as bullying, sexual assault, and suicidal ideation. However, despite the suggested moralizing framework of the series, 13 Reasons Why still presents a revenge fantasy. This is a common and universal suicide fantasy, emphasizing the effect that the suicide will have on the individual’s peers:
This suicide fantasy has a markedly sadistic orientation, with [the individual] often enjoying the role of the invisible observer of others’ suffering, especially due to their feelings of guilt and remorse because of the suicide. There is a sense of retaliation, revenge and irrevocable, everlasting triumph. (Campbell 175)
13 Reasons Why neatly fits this criteria, as Hannah’s motivations behind manufacturing the tapes were to ultimately obtain retaliation and revenge. In “Tape 7, Side A,” Hannah states on her final tape that, “Some of you cared. None of you cared enough,” thus negating her own agency regarding her suicide and instead firmly redirecting responsibility for the action toward her peers. Each tape identifies a specific person who pushed Hannah to commit suicide, through actions such as spreading rumors regarding her sexual history and even sexually assaulting her. Hannah herself acknowledges in an earlier tape that she hopes “these tapes will start a new butterfly effect,” resulting in retribution against those whom she perceived wronged her. Researchers have noted that any potential influence of media texts on suicidal viewers largely depends on “the nature of the fictional portrayal, suggesting that the likelihood of an imitation effect may be dependent on … the depiction of the consequences of the suicide” (Blood and Perkis 157). While Hannah’s suicide is presented as a tragedy, her posthumous plan does ultimately bear fruit. Once their roles in Hannah’s suicide become known, the individuals involved are either overcome with guilt or faced with consequences, thus justifying Hannah’s decision to commit suicide. In an interview with Slate, Alex Moen, a licensed school counselor, criticized this aspect of 13 Reasons Why’s narrative:
[It’s] essentially a fantasy of what someone who is considering suicide might have—that once you commit suicide, you can still communicate with your loved ones, and people will suddenly realize everything that you were going through and the depth of your pain … the cute, sensitive boy will fall in love with you and seek justice for you, and you’ll be able to orchestrate it, and in so doing kind of still be able to live. Especially when you’re a teenager, your brain doesn’t do a very good job of reminding you of the truth that, in fact, you will be dead, and that’s really the only outcome that’s important. (Martinelli, “13 Reasons Why’s Controversial Depiction of Teen Suicide Has School Counselors Picking Up the Pieces”)
Roen and many other school counselors were also critical of how 13 Reasons Why portrayed their profession. The only individual Hannah ever actually confides in during the series is the school counselor, Kevin Porter, who, she visits during a flashback in “Tape 7, Side A.” Hannah indicates she is struggling with depression and admits she was raped. Her assault is detailed in the preceding episode, “Tape 6, Side B,” where it is revealed that Bryce Walker, a popular athlete from a wealthy family, raped Hannah during a party at his house. However, Hannah is reluctant to name Bryce as her rapist:
Porter: “If you don’t want to give me a name, if you don’t want to press charges against this boy—if you’re not even sure you can press charges, then there really is only one option.”
Hannah: “What is it?”
Porter: “I’m not trying to be blunt here, Hannah, but you can move on.”
Hannah: “You mean, do nothing?”
Porter: “Is he in your class?”
Hannah: “He’s a senior.”
Porter: “That means he’ll be gone in a few months.”
Moen explained that the scene was wholly unrealistic, as school counselors “are mandated reporters, meaning that if we learn that someone has been harmed or may be harmed, we have a duty by law to report it … We don’t have to launch an investigation. We bring whatever information we do have to the police or to parents or Child Protective Services” (Martinelli, “13 Reasons Why’s Controversial Depiction of Teen Suicide Has School Counselors Picking Up the Pieces”). Porter is subsequently identified on Hannah’s 13th tape as the final reason in her decision to commit suicide. Hannah explains that after recording the previous 12 tapes, “I decided to give life one more chance. But this time, I was asking for help because I know I can’t do it alone.” However, Hannah resigns to kill herself after her failed talk with Porter. Because Porter is portrayed as inept by failing to recognize Hannah’s obvious suicidal ideation or aid her recovery from sexual trauma, school counselors, and psychologists argue that at-risk youth could interpret these scenes as representing the futility in seeking help from school faculty or other adults (Balingit, “Educators and School Psychologists Raise Alarms about ‘13 Reasons Why’”).
In addition to the narrative framework and portrayal of school counselors, the depiction of Hannah’s suicide in “Tape 7, Side A” also generated significant criticism. Hannah’s suicide is presented in graphic detail, with writers for the series detailing their goal to portray the act as painfully and realistically as possible to deter audiences from considering suicide as an option (Sheff, “13 Reasons Why Writer: Why We Didn’t Shy Away from Hannah’s Suicide”). However, this decision was criticized as misguided by mental health professionals for breaking promulgated guidance on depicting suicide in visual media, with the visceral nature of the scene backfiring by potentially serving as a trigger for suicidal youth (Butler, “‘13 Reasons Why’ Depicts a Graphic Suicide. Experts Say There’s a Problem with That”).
Despite such prominent criticisms, 13 Reasons Why quickly became a popular success. Jumpshot, a marketing analytics firm, determined that 13 Reasons Why was Netflix’s second-most streamed television series in the 30 days following its premiere (Spangler, “Netflix’s ‘Marvel’s the Defenders’ Poised for Binge-Viewing Pop, Data Indicates”) and the year’s most discussed program on social media (Martinelli, “13 Reasons Why’s Controversial Depiction of Teen Suicide Has School Counselors Picking Up the Pieces”). Netflix subsequently renewed 13 Reasons Why for a second season, which premiered on May 18, 2018. Because the entirety of the novel was adapted for the program’s first season, 13 Reasons Why’s second season consists of original content. This season of the series reveals that Bryce has raped numerous students besides Hannah and functions as a commentary on high school rape culture; the process in which rape is normalized in a community (Boswell and Spade 133) through “fundamental attitudes and values [that] are supportive of gender stereotypes and violence against women” (McMahon 357). Suicide still remains a prominent topic in the season, with Clay hallucinating the deceased Hannah and pursuing evidence against Bryce, blaming him especially for Hannah’s decision to kill herself—Bryce is ultimately arrested for felony sexual assault and sentenced to probation. However, seemingly in response to the criticisms of the first season, the second season opener, “The First Polaroid,” opens with a short video warning. This warning will also play before the opening episodes of future seasons:
13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues, taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation. But if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult. And if you ever feel you need someone to talk with, reach out to a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or an adult you trust, call a local helpline, or go to 13ReasonsWhy.info.
Such course correction is also integrated into the season’s actual narrative. Porter is consumed with guilt at his failure to help Hannah and retroactively portrayed as poor in his job, thus acknowledging criticism toward the character, and fired from the school in the penultimate episode of the season for his poor performance. In “The Missing Page,” the school’s principal—portrayed as an antagonistic figure in his drive to protect the school’s reputation, regardless of the well-being of its actual students—wonders aloud if Hannah wanted to glorify her death and “live on after,” a position also implied by the defense during the trial. This directly alludes to the criticisms of 13 Reasons Why’s preceding season being a “revenge fantasy.” However, Clay disagrees with the principal, explaining to him that the tapes have “start[ed] a conversation. I mean, we weren’t talking about these things before Hannah.” Hannah herself directly challenges such accusations in “The Third Polaroid,” when Clay hallucinates Hannah explaining that “it wasn’t revenge! I had to tell my own story. I wanted people to know what happened so maybe it wouldn’t happen again.” Therefore, 13 Reasons Why and its creative personnel maintain both the beneficent intent of the series and its ability to “start a conversation” regarding delicate issues such as suicide and sexual assault. 13 Reasons Why has certainly accomplished its goal to provoke conversation, as more than 600,000 news reports have been published about the series and its themes (Althouse et al. 1527). Upon release, both seasons also contributed to an increase in Internet searches regarding suicide-related topics, although it is important to note that it is unclear if such searches are representative of self-education regarding suicide or are indicative of suicidal thoughts (Ethgen and Bruyère 99).
The reason the program has provoked such extensive debate regarding its portrayal of suicide is because the relative risk of copycat suicide is higher among younger viewers, particularly 15–19 year olds; the typical age group of high school students (Gould et al. 1270). It is also worth noting that social learning theory “purports that similarity between the viewer and role model will influence whether or not televised behaviors are modeled” (Duvall et al. 112). Because the vast majority of 13 Reasons Why’s extensive ensemble are teenagers, the series has the potential to exert significant influence among younger audiences. This was demonstrated when a school superintendent in Florida reported an increase in suicidal behavior among students following the premiere of the program’s first season, with several students specifically identifying 13 Reasons Why as a trigger and motivator for their behavior (Balingit, “Educators and School Psychologists Raise Alarms about ‘13 Reasons Why’”). However, this is not to say that suicide should not be discussed in 13 Reasons Why or other popular media, or that the program itself is without any merit. The program depicts a considerable number of interracial relationships, which remain underrepresented in popular television (Craig-Henderson 71), and actively rebukes the practice of victim blaming, in which survivors of violent crimes such as sexual assault are blamed by authorities and peers for their trauma (George and Martínez 110). However, while it is observed that “teenagers will be able to connect with the show’s portrayals of peer pressure, toxic masculinity, and slut-shaming,” 13 Reasons Why’s placing “responsibility for a person’s suicide on the survivors of suicide loss, creat[ing] a false illusion that a suicidal person can be in control after her death, and offer[ing] no alternatives” (Martinelli, “13 Reasons Why’s Controversial Depiction of Teen Suicide Has School Counselors Picking Up the Pieces”) is undeniably dangerous and, despite the best intentions of 13 Reasons Why’s creative team, communicates a message entirely antithetical to the intended commentary of the program.
As evidenced through The Sorrows of Young Werther, “the magnitude of the increase in suicides … is proportional” to its prominence in cultural dialogue (Gould et al. 1271). Although no actual completed suicides have been attributed to 13 Reasons Why, its cultural prominence does imbue the series with considerable influence. While the purpose of 13 Reasons Why—to raise awareness regarding suicide—is commendable, the program’s social commentary is diluted due to its presentation as a revenge fantasy, wherein Hannah’s suicide ultimately results in legal and moral consequences against those who wrong her in life. This betrays the intended message of 13 Reasons Why by glamorizing suicide as a method of attack against those who persecute you. Numerous mental health experts have expressed concern about the series for this reason, arguing that 13 Reasons Why may actually help influence members of its audience towards committing suicide. This scenario is unfortunately not one outside the realm of possibility, after acknowledging the recognized influence of fictional portrayals of suicide in popular media.
Although positioned as a breakthrough text, 13 Reasons Why ultimately continues the flawed portrayal of suicide in popular media by failing to actually articulate any alternative to suicide, or promote resources available for at-risk youth. Notably, “guidelines for the treatment of fictional portrayals of suicide in film and television have not been developed” (Gould et al. 1275). Mass media has the potential to be a powerful tool in educating audiences about suicide prevention, informing viewers of causes and warning signs of suicide. Although 13 Reasons Why has generated significant controversy regarding its content, it has also initiated an ongoing dialogue about suicide, itself a praiseworthy achievement when considered the continued social stigma attached to the subject. However, it is acknowledged that, “focusing public attention on suicide without taking recommended efforts to minimize harm can be counterproductive, and even dangerous” (Gilbert, “Did 13 Reasons Why Spark a Suicide Contagion Effect?”). Therefore, one can only hope that future seasons of 13 Reasons Why exhibit a more nuanced portrayal of such delicate issues and succeed in educating its audiences safely, as intended by Asher, without unintentionally portraying the act of suicide as glamorous or romantic.
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“Tape 2, Side A.” 13 Reasons Why, created by Brian Yorkey, season 1, episode 3, Netflix, 2017.
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