I just finished watching the last episode of 13 Reasons Why, the controversial Netflix series on teenage suicide. Apparently I signed up for Netflix just in time….
I want to avoid posting spoilers. But this series was extremely well done–well-written, well-acted, intelligent, going into all the angles. You get a wide range of perspectives, from the suicidal girl to her friends, frenemies, enemies, counselor at school, parents.
Now, of course, I haven’t watched much teenage TV since I left high school, and my son only just hit his teenage years, so I don’t know what’s “normal” these days. But I was surprised at how frank the show is, depicting the teenage love of the f- word, scenes of rape, scenes of violence.
It’s not the usual whitewashed version of teenage life which I used to see. Sure we had Beverly Hills: 90210 when I was a kid, but you still had FCC guidelines restricting what we saw. And, of course, concerns about what you’re teaching the children if you make underage bad behaviors seem normal or attractive. On the other side of the spectrum, there were the happy-joy versions of teenage life on shows such as Head of the Class or Cosby Show or Saved by the Bell. There were movies as well, not worried about the FCC, but usually either goofy or teen exploitation (Last American Virgin, Porky’s, slasher movies, that sort of thing).
Also, in shows like that, parents were often clueless or nonexistent, just off-screen entities. Or silly, with weird ideas about fashion or what’s cool. Or the school administration would just be out to get you.
13 Reasons Why is not restricted by FCC guidelines, since it’s on the Internet, not TV. And it does not hold back. On the one hand, it’s startling to see this on a show directed toward teens, but on the other hand, I remember what teenagers were really like when I was a kid. And yeah, it was like this, except that cassette tapes were not antiques in those days, and we didn’t have the Net or cell phones….You could argue that young teenagers should not watch this, but older ones have heard at least as bad every day in their high schools.
Also, the parents in the series are varied: everything from neglectful to involved, though still clueless because their kids didn’t tell them anything about their struggles. But they’re trying to get through to their kids, trying to understand them, not letting them get away with “It’s nothing, so leave me alone.”
Parents and school administration are shown as a resource teens can go to for help, though they’re not perfect, as you see the principal and the counselor being clueless or not pushing hard enough. But once the teens realize they can talk to their parents, a light begins to shine in their darkened lives. This is just what the producers intended, to encourage them to talk to adults. I can recall being just like that myself in high school, not opening up to teachers or my parents about bullying at school, even though they could have helped me.
This series has become controversial recently, with adults concerned that it’s glorifying suicide or doesn’t help kids dealing with these issues.
But I see no glorification; I see pain, lots of pain, not just in the suicidal girl but in everyone orbiting her.
I see the kids shifting from denial, to trying to defend themselves, to letting history repeat itself when their friends show signs of suicidal thoughts, to finally beginning to take responsibility for their actions and do what needs to be done. I see the adults begin to realize what they need to do as well.
I see a strong message that actions have consequences: not just the kids who bullied the girl, but the girl’s actions, and the actions of adults.
I see a frank depiction of what girls deal with in high school, that there are still guys who feel entitled to rank girls according to “hotness” or take whatever they want from them, even now in 2017 after decades of feminism. I see a vivid depiction of what it’s like to be raped, and then see your rapist cheered and honored. I see a girl dying in pain rather than drifting off to sleep in some sanitized version of suicide.
I also see notices in the series of how to get help, such as this website.
I don’t think it’s just meant for teenagers. I think it’s also meant to wake up adults to what kids are going through, especially adults who have forgotten what high school was like.
At the end of the series is a kind of making-of episode explaining what everyone involved in the show wanted to accomplish. You see what’s on their hearts and why they made such graphic depictions. They wanted to give teenagers honesty, and help them. They wanted to take high school struggles seriously instead of dismissing them, because to teens, they are their whole world and are intense. Also, the writer of the Netflix adaptation explains here that he once wanted to take his own life. He says,
In 13 Reasons Why, the story of a high-school girl who takes her own life, I saw the opportunity to explore issues of cyberbullying, sexual assault, depression, and what it means to live in a country where women are devalued to the extent that a man who brags about sexually assaulting them can still be elected president. And, beyond all that, I recognized the potential for the show to bravely and unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens and young adults—a topic I felt very strongly about.
He explains that he was in the process of swallowing pills when he remembered a woman he once knew, and her horrifying story of a suicide attempt. It was brutal, painful, and I’ll let you read the article to get the details. He realized what he was doing, and began to throw up the pills. He says,
So when it came time to discuss the portrayal of the protagonist’s suicide in 13 Reasons Why, I of course immediately flashed on my own experience. It seemed to me the perfect opportunity to show what an actual suicide really looks like—to dispel the myth of the quiet drifting off, and to make viewers face the reality of what happens when you jump from a burning building into something much, much worse.
It overwhelmingly seems to me that the most irresponsible thing we could’ve done would have been not to show the death at all. In AA, they call it playing the tape: encouraging alcoholics to really think through in detail the exact sequence of events that will occur after relapse. It’s the same thing with suicide. To play the tape through is to see the ultimate reality that suicide is not a relief at all—it’s a screaming, agonizing, horror.
The rape scenes were difficult to watch, of course, as a woman, that feeling of powerlessness because a man is typically physically larger and stronger than a girl or woman. I remember times when an ex forced or tried to force me into doing things I repeatedly refused to do. How he seemed to feel entitled to expect these things from me. But just because it’s difficult to watch, does not mean it should not be depicted.
This is hardly a new problem. In my teens, suicide had become a big issue. The radio played songs telling kids “don’t say suicide.”
I remember times in my teen years and early 20s when I thought my suffering would never end. I remember wanting to kill myself. I’ve been through it again, about 7 years ago when I lost a friendship that was important to me.
7 years ago, I was old enough to know it would eventually pass, and push through. But when I was a kid, I didn’t know things would ever get better. But I didn’t have the means, I knew it would hurt my parents, and I believed that I would go to Hell, so I didn’t do it.
Now, I look back at my reasons and know they weren’t worth suicide, that life got better afterward. I realize all the things I would’ve missed out on. But a teenager doesn’t know all that.
This series is trying to help stop teenage suicide, not cause it. Despite all the controversy it has inspired, I think we should applaud and support it, not fight it.
Is it perfect? Apparently not, considering all the controversy. People find all sorts of reasons to attack it. But is any work of art ever truly perfect? Is that even possible?