Last Friday, Ontarian’s saw their first school board make an official statement pertaining to the new Netflix original Drama “13 Reasons Why”, an adaptation of the 2007 Jay Asher novel of the same name. “Incidents of self-harm can increase after media portrayals of suicide. We do not want to contribute to this. We know, of course, that some students will watch this series or read the book outside of school”, wrote The Hamilton Wentworth District School Board on their website.
Disclaimer: I still have not finished “13 Reasons Why”. I know…I have brought shame to my millennial counterparts. But alas, after every episode I found myself searching for words to describe how the show made me feel. Amongst the uneasy feelings evoked, I knew one thing was consistent; I was searching for a clear-cut “like it” or “don’t like it” assessment.
As I begin to present both the pros and cons of this show, I now know that the answer is not that simple.
My most powerful argument against this show does not echo the most common complaints from viewers/critics (its graphic depictions and controversial topics). I actually find that those themes are what makes the show truly hook the viewer in. The “shock-value” that has viewers thinking “I can’t believe that this could be real” or “Do these things still happen in school?” is an effective attention-grabber.
What I find most detrimental to this show and its effect on young people actually has little to do with the show at all; it’s all about the medium. By that I mean that it’s a Netflix original. Netflix, as we know, is a relatively uncensored database of TV and Films promoting “binge-culture”. Netflix just recently reported having 100 million subscribers, with more than 60% of Americans saying they binge-watch and 37% of teens reporting they watch Netflix every single day.
This medium has quite obviously changed the way we consume visual media, but has also made acquiring content meant for adults much easier than it was pre-Netflix. I relate it back to my “torrenting” days, where downloading any R-rated content was a risky activity, usually inviting an abundance of viruses to destroy your computer.
I’m not foolish to believe there weren’t ways around getting your hands on adult content back then. I grew up in a relatively strict house when it came to mature content, but I had friends who had older siblings that purchased or rented content, which trickled down into our juvenile hands. In contrast to now, things are much simpler. Teens can easily (and sneakily, might I add) download services like Netflix onto their phones, TVs, and video game consoles, and welcome themselves to a wealth of relatively unrestricted content.
You may also argue that since “13 Reasons Why” was initially a book, any potential threat the storyline poses on someone with mental health issues has existed for years. It is my personal opinion that while literature certainly provides uniquely extensive detail (he says modestly as a writer…), the visual imagery that is depicted in the TV version allow for a much darker and more impactful perception. It is my best idea that this is attributed to the subconscious characteristics we observe but don’t regularly notice. Characteristics such as the visual style and score often combine together to create an incredibly addicting program, able to trigger those already vulnerable to mental health struggles.
I am far from a mental health expert, but I figure I should explain what “trigger” aspects I found most noticeable in the ten episodes I have watched thus far. I believe that Hannah Baker (the main character who commits suicide and whose story you are chasing) receives a great deal of attention for the impact of her suicide. Some find that this glorifies suicide and self-harming behavior. For example, imagine the impression this may have on an extremely lonely and isolated individual. Could this portray that in order to gain the attention you have craved night after night, the easy way is to cause yourself serious harm? Additionally, Hannah sends all those who have wronged her in the past a set of audio tapes and a map, creating what at time feels like a game or treasure hunt.
Now, here’s where I would like to flip the script.
13 Reasons Why could feasibly give naïve viewers (whether teens, young adults, parents, etc.) a somewhat accurate representation of warning signs to look for in someone who is suffering. Observing the way characters react with each other can often help the viewer begin to draw conclusions and reflect on their own relationships. For example, seeing a character avoiding their home life at all costs (only to be revealed that his mother has substance abuse problems), is a very relatable plotline that unfortunately happens in real-life. These plotlines serve well as a reality check; an eye-opener that these are real-world issues.
An open line of communication is often the key to any healthy relationship. Adding the potential hazards of overexposure to media into the mix, should make the need for communication between parents and kids even greater. Parents need to have an honest conversation with their kids about bullying, depression and the many other themes this show explores. It doesn’t have to be prying or as awkward as “so…um…do you get uh…bullied?” It can start of as reflective, letting your kids know that these teenage hardships are not new, that they most likely occurred when you were a teenager, and that it’s up to kids like yours to stand up and help end them.
Another aspect of the show that reinforces why parents and educators should be having a conversation with teens is just how disoriented or out of the loop every adult seems to be in this show. The producers do a fantastic job of illustrating just how easy it is for adults to get overly involved in their own life, especially if there is poor communication between them and their kids.
I enjoyed how “13 Reasons Why” accurately depicts to the viewers which characters really loved and cared Hannah, and which did not. Throughout the show, many classmates as well as school faculty exude a very “I’m in it for me” type of mentality, worrying about their reputation and displaying other self-absorbed behaviors. Again, with the proper reflection, these portrayals of may be an asset to a teen who is being neglected or taken advantage of by their friend(s).
“Characteristics such as the visual style and score often combine together to create an incredibly addicting program, able to trigger those already vulnerable to mental health struggles.”
Finally, I found this op-ed in Vanity Fair by writer Nic Sheff to be pretty compelling. He recounts a story of how a woman he met in a rehab centre once graphically described her own suicide attempt. Finding himself struggling with his own drug abuse, Sheff once attempted to take his own life. After recounting the terrifying memory of the woman’s graphic detail, he stopped his suicide attempt cold in its tracks. Sheff cites this occurrence as his sole inspiration for portraying the graphic detail in which Hannah Baker commits suicide. He fought hard to keep it in the show and stood by the reality that “suicide is not relief at all,—it’s a screaming, agonizing horror.”
I’m not naïve enough to end this off by pleading to parents to restrict their kids from watching this. It doesn’t take an expert to explain how telling your kids not to do something makes them a thousand times more likely to do it. What I would like to plead here is to talk openly about it. Your kids, or your parents can take it. If you don’t have an open relationship with your kids and you’re too afraid to start; it’s now or never. Mental health and bullying are very real problems that plague schools in a multitude of ways, whether we accept that or not. Acknowledging that their existence and talking about ways to combat them may not only make the lives of youth more enjoyable, but it may save them all together.