13 Reasons Why...and a Few Reasons Why Not
I've been reading a great deal about the "groundbreaking" Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and decided it was time to investigate this drama based on the book by the same name. Audiences have been polarized by the show's themes and its characters, some heralding it as an important piece in warning against bullying and the ripple effects of suicide, while others have found the show to have handled its delicate themes irresponsibly. I spent the last few days binge-watching 13 Reasons Why to figure out what this show achieves. With all due respect to what the show earnestly aspires to, 13 Reasons Why left me feeling that there are a few reasons "why not" to get too excited about the program.
Going into this show, I must admit that I was horribly bullied in high school and I even survived a few suicide attempts incited by the ongoing torture I endured. I tell you this, not to elicit sympathy, but to demonstrate that I, like many others who are watching 13 Reasons Why, have struggled with (or are currently struggling with) depression, estrangement, bullying, and thoughts of ending their life. There is a gravity that comes with the responsibility of telling a story that shapes how young people view suicide and how they synthesize their contributions to bullying (even if it is simply apathy). With my personal feelings and experiences disclosed to demonstrate personal bias, I must report that I find 13 Reasons Why both misses the mark and delivers irresponsibly on certain points.
The assumption that everyone will be binge-watching 13 Reasons Why is the creators’ first mistake. Each episode presents daunting experiences for the audience to process. The series ends with a special episode called Beyond the Reasons that goes more into the details of bully and suicide prevention, even offering a phone number for those looking for help. Where this fails to be useful is, if you are a teen watching one episode at a time, some episodes are likely to stir up feelings and emotions that might provoke someone to attempt suicide before reaching the show’s tragic conclusion which should act as a deterrent for many. That would certainly be too late for someone who doesn’t see the show through to the end to watch Beyond the Reasons. A questionable mystique is painted around Hannah, the girl who leaves behind a series of cassette tapes, on which she accuses those who contributed to the degradation and mental collapse that results in her suicide. She exacts her revenge in a way that is dramatic and that may be interpreted by some as clever or a grand final gesture. It is inevitable that someone will try to emulate her tactics. This criticism is by no means an attempt to diminish what this girl suffers on this show, which is mind-boggling. What concerns me (and hopefully others) is that when one of these episodes ends, there is nothing in place to help the teen process it. Instead of Beyond the Reasons capping-off the complete series, it would have been more effective to end each episode with a discussion about what happened therein and provide that hotline number for any kid (or adult, for that matter) who may have been negatively impacted by the episode.
13 Reasons Why also has a way of vilifying the adults in the story, revealing a school teacher to be apathetic to a cry for help, a principal to be too afraid of litigious retaliation to effectively protect the kids in his charge, and a counselor playing devil’s advocate when Hannah hints at the fact she has been raped, suggesting that “moving on” is an option. The counselor should have at least been cognizant enough to realize there was a serious problem and not let her leave his office without taking some sort of formal action. If I were a teenager watching 13 Reasons Why, I would be discouraged (mortified) to approach any adult for help after witnessing their neglect. Anyone who is out there crying for help: not all adults are as ineffective as these three, nor are they all as self-serving. There are many caring individuals who will help you if you are in trouble. If you do find an adult who fails you, then go speak to another. Someone WILL eventually listen AND hear you, so do not despair or give up. Do not let 13 Reasons Why be your deterrent against approaching someone for help or let it shape the way you feel about taking a problem to an adult. In fact, I think you will find there are many teachers, parents, and administrators out there who would have your best interests at heart.
Finally, and this may be a minor quibble for some, but this is a major failing in my mind: 13 Reasons Why deals in archetypes, stereotypes, and fantasy. The cast of this show, every last member, is a beautifully drawn cartoon of physical perfection. Even the extras appear to have been selected from a list of models who appear in Sears catalogues. Where are the relatable characters who actually look like they belong in a high school? The bell rings and pretty face after pretty enters the hallway, reinforcing, once again, that problems are only palatable if they belong to the perfectly shaped and the spotlessly complected. I believe that attractive people have their problems as well, but isn’t part of what the nerd/dork/marching band/drama geek/etc. crowd wading through in high school nothing but a cruel judgment on their physical form and their unwillingness to conform to social “norms”? Where are the people who get bullied every day, relentlessly punished for not being beautiful or being passionate about computers or music? Somehow, even though they are placated with the pretty imposters of their real selves, I cannot help but feel that they are not truly represented in this TV show. For a show that wants to draw attention to how we mistreat non-conformists, 13 Reasons Why does more to exacerbate the situations of bullying than it does to help to hinder them.
I would recommend watching 13 Reasons Why with caution. I encourage discussion before and after each episode (with a responsible adult), using the horrible things that happen within each as a jumping-off point for dialogue. It’s a chance to connect; decipher the difference between reality and fiction, and, most of all, to examine healthier choices than the ones represented by the show and its characters. Make no rash decisions. It does get better.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255