On the cusp of awards season in 2014, Pretty Little Liars star Troian Bellisario penned a plea to Emmy voters to consider teen shows as they reviewed the best of that year’s television. “Girls, Veep, House of Cards and Breaking Bad could not be more different in their style of storytelling, and yet we love and value them all. I believe it's because no matter how different the method of storytelling, they all seek to express the same thing: truth, truth that represents a human experience. Otherwise, we wouldn't watch them. So, can there be truth in a teenage soap?” she wrote.
Three years later, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association responded, “Yes,” by announcing Katherine Langford as a 2018 Golden Globe nominee. The actress is one of five contenders in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series — Drama category for her portrayal of Hannah Baker in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.
Based on Jay Asher's young adult novel and produced by Selena Gomez, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of a group of students reliving the events leading up to Hannah’s suicide. Despite the mature subject matter, 13 Reasons Why is a show intended for teens, and following the show's release, its young audience immediately responded. It reached 3.4 million tweets in the week following its release, eventually becoming the fourth most tweeted-about show, the second most-searched series on Google, and the eleventh most posted-about live-action show on Tumblr in 2017.
Of course, not all of that engagement was positive. Controversy surrounding 13 Reasons Why began when mental health professionals, parents, and other viewers spoke out against the emotional, too-real treatment of certain triggering events central to the story — including, but not limited to, Hannah’s graphic suicide scene. Dan Reidenberg, executive director for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, made headlines when he expressed his concern that young people in particular run the risk of comparing Hannah’s experiences to their own, failing to identify other ways to cope, and acting on them in a similar, final way. (Netflix reacted to the criticism by adding trigger warnings and linking to resources from SAVE and the JED Foundation.)
But many teens were in fact connecting with Hannah's story line on a deeper level. Teen Vogue investigated what teens actually thought about the show, and their viewpoints were surprisingly (or not at all surprisingly) similar to those expressed by adults — with one major asterisk. The realness that adults were denouncing was exactly the thing that was striking an emotional chord with young people. Nicole E. stated it well when she said, “I felt sad after originally watching it. But it made me think about the impact that my actions have on another person’s life. What’s upsetting, though, is that this show isn’t just a work of fiction; it happens to teenagers daily. I had a moment of realization after watching it about what I needed to change.”
When she first set out to produce this project, Gomez had hoped that 13 Reasons Why would serve as a bridge between adults and teens to talk about bullying, mental health, sexual assault, suicide, and other aspects of the modern teen experience portrayed in the show — partially inspired by her own experience in rehab to focus on her mental health — saying, "I think that stuff is uncomfortable for people to talk about, but it is happening and hopefully it opened the door for people to actually accept what's happening and actually go and change it, talk about it."
And it did. That's a direct result of Langford's raw, honest performance. If she wasn’t believable — if she didn’t so heartbreakingly move through her character’s exhaustion, so emotionlessly react to her own rape, so secretly suffer, so dejectedly walk out of her counselor’s office and straight to her bathtub — then 13 Reasons Why wouldn’t have upset as many people as it did.
"The choice to stay on these moments to a point where it makes the audience just past uncomfortable was a very deliberate decision, and it was done because we wanted to show the ugliness and not use these events and issues as plot devices or romanticize them in any way," Langford told MTV News ahead of the show's release. “In doing that, it challenges the audience."
After seeing the discussions that evolved from the show, Langford told Variety that she had no regrets. “Overall, I think it was a good thing,” she said. “You need there to be opinions in order for there to be discussions, and that’s really what the show is about — talking about issues that are taboo or that people wouldn’t usually discuss with parents or teachers.”
Langford's Golden Globe nomination has sparked similar push-and-pull critique, with some Twitter users expressing the opinion that honoring the show in any capacity further glorifies its depiction of mental illness and suicide, and others lauding the actress for filming sensitive scenes with grace.
With the TV drama category, the HFPA typically honors women who show their characters' many complexities through powerful performances. Recent winners include Claire Foy for The Crown, Taraji P. Henson for Empire, and Ruth Wilson for The Affair.
Regardless of the public debate, that the HFPA recognizes Langford’s performance as among the best in TV this year alongside actresses from critically acclaimed adult series like Outlander, The Crown, The Deuce, and The Handmaid's Tale says that there is a place in the zeitgeist for teen shows — a place that has been largely unoccupied since Claire Danes's 1995 win in the category for her portrayal of Angela Chase in My So-Called Life. (Unlike 13 Reasons Why, My So-Called Life was largely praised for its authentic depiction of teens dealing with child abuse, homophobia, school violence and other timely issues in the mid-nineties.)
This nomination says that teens today are seen as capable of consuming media in a thoughtful and critical way. It validates that the modern teen experience, the teen "truth" that Bellisario implored awards voters to recognize, is finally being seen and heard.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.