I feel a little cliche sharing my thoughts on the Netflix phenomenon that is 13 Reasons Why, but I have thought about this show a lot since I finished watching it and I feel the need to keep talking about it. How about you?
Before I watched it and while I was in the thick of the viewing, I didn’t read any media coverage – not because I chose not to, but more that I just didn’t hear or see any. Since I finished my binge (which was done and dusted in under a week), I’ve seen and heard media commentary evvvverrrrywhere. Whether that’s because I’m attuned to it now, or because it’s gotten even more traction as time has gone on and the volume of critique, opinion and thought on the show has increased, I’m not sure, but I do know that having watched it myself, it is something I want to talk about, something that I feel strongly about.
Most of the opinion I have heard and read has been quite critical of the show in terms of it’s conclusion, about the way it handled the sensitivity of the topic and dealt with the issue of suicide. I don’t feel it was more difficult to watch than any other TV show or movie content I’ve seen over the span of my life. The suicide scene was horrible and I covered my eyes for that part, not even because it was gory (though it was gory), but because I just ached at the despair and total helplessness someone in that situation must feel. To be able to hurt oneself like that was too hard to watch. Many felt this show glorified suicide and made it seem like an easy way out. I think after watching that scene it seems like the total opposite of easy. Others felt as though the show failed to deal with mental illness in any real capacity.
As someone who hasn’t ever suffered from mental illness, I may not be the best qualified to comment, but I have to say that I don’t necessarily agree. I don’t know that it was their intention to deal with mental illness, but rather to raise awareness of the culture amongst our youth that is real right now. The culture that led to this unspeakable but all too often occurrence.
I felt that 13 Reasons Why was entertaining, it was incredibly gripping (I watched 6 episodes in two days – my kids were with grandparents for the weekend so I just totally binged) and in it’s gripping entertainment, I felt like it really showcased the reality of life for many teenagers in the current climate of social media, always at the ready cell phone cameras, party culture and the standard popular vs marginalised members of a school society. Sure it is set in America, and there were quintessential American references of cheerleader, football jock etc of high school life that aren’t 100% accurate for us in New Zealand, but the reality is that as a nation we have a very high suicide rate amongst our young people so something must be similar across cultures.
The statistics in NZ are ridiculously high when it comes to suicide rates, the highest being amongst mid-20 year old males and 40-50 year old men. Mental illness or depression is reportedly responsible for 80% of suicides. I don’t doubt that for a moment, because I don’t think anyone in their right frame of mind with a healthy mental state would be able to do something so drastic and final. Our rational mind would steer us from that fate. You only have to watch a documentary about acute illness – cancer or life threatening disease – or see accident victims to see how the human spirit’s natural want is to live. To survive. To beat the odds. The will to live is strong. Look at tiny premature babies who by all accounts should not make it. Look at accident victims who overcome incredible odds to survive.
And though our suicide rates among teenagers is not our highest rate of fatality, it’s a crisis all the same. 13 Reason’s Why is a show dealing with teenagers and their emotions and in essence does a wonderful job at detailing the culmination of a bunch of small incidents, inappropriate and hurtful comments and events that can lead to a young person (with the inability to process rational thought, to resist what feels like insurmountable pressure) taking their own life in reaction to what are 100% horrible circumstances, but in the grand scheme of life, mostly insignificant.
Before you throw your hands up and think I’m being completely unreasonable with that last comment, I will say that the sexual assault contained in the show is absolutely not insignificant (and we’ll get to that later); but the taunts, the comments, the petty girl behaviour, the sexual innuendo-laced comments from boys, although it’s hurtful, and it’s hard to watch and it isn’t nice, is part of life. It’s stuff that I’m sure every single one of us has experienced at one time over the years because, well, quite frankly, people can be assholes. That doesn’t make it excusable, or acceptable or right, but it is sadly how it seems to be. But suicide is a very permanent solution to a temporary problem and teenagers aren’t often able to see that life is bigger than the boy that just dumped you or the bitchy school yard chat that ruins your reputation behind your back.
In case you haven’t watched, the structure of the show is clever, the use of cassette tapes narrating from Hannah’s point of view, allowing her pained voice to tell her story. Author Jay Asher has done a brilliant job of constructing a story around these difficult and sensitive topics in a way that you feel compelled to keep watching. There are times Hannah is annoying, times you want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to harden up, to not be so emotional, to ignore the comments, to stand up for herself. Times you wished she would talk to her parents and tell Clay how hard she was finding things. But if she had done all those things, she wouldn’t have reached her death. If she had the skills to communicate her pain, taken the opportunities to share her heart and the seriousness of her hurt, the show would have not been worth telling. It would have simply been the tale that many of us have experienced. The bullying at school. The cruel taunts. The mire of high school and puberty, and the coming of age.
I feel like the show really highlighted how Hannah reached the conclusion she did. It was another schoolyard encounter that piled hurt on top of the painful one before; another hallway whisper that pierced an already fragile heart; another disappointment that sat heavy on existent frustration. It was not one huge incident, but a bunch of tiny hurts that grew and festered that Hannah wasn’t mature enough or emotionally equipped-enough to deal with alone. And though her family appeared happy and close and her parents thought they were attentive and loving, they were consumed with their own issues and failed to see just how much pain their only daughter was in. And it was for that reason that my heart absolutely b.r.o.k.e when they returned home to find her gone. I can not imagine a worser pain. I am aware worser isn’t a word, but I think it fits here.
I was frustrated by moments in the show that weren’t fully developed like the reason Hannah’s family left the part of town they lived in previously. There was reference by her parents to Hannah changing schools and having left behind some horrible girls, but we had nothing more on this to know why. And I wished she would have talked to Clay about the way she was feeling because she knew he was a good guy, he wasn’t like the jocks and she liked him. But again, if she had done that, the story would not have been what it was.
I was frustrated by Hannah’s inability to respond when she was raped, in any way. To kick, to scream, to fight. I hated that she just let it happen to begin with and she just let it continue. Why she didn’t scream? Why didn’t she scream when Jessica was being raped? Why didn’t she run downstairs and tell someone? Why she didn’t tell someone what happened. Why she let these situations occur without speaking out or asking an adult for help. But I guess that’s the point right there. She didn’t because she couldn’t. She was broken. She was completely helpless. There is shame in rape, and never for the perpetrator. Always for the victim. And it’s wrong and it should never be that way. But it is. And the show highlights that marvelously.
There has been much criticism about the guidance counsellor Mr Porter and his failure to better support Hannah. Again, if he had better identified the severity of her mental state as she sat in his office crying out for help, the impact of the show would have been lost. She likely would have gotten the help she needed and the conclusion to the show would have been vastly different. And without that impact-ful conclusion, we would not be having the conversation and dialogue that has resulted.
I feel like it’s very important to watch the documentary “Beyond the Reasons” after watching 13 Reasons Why (and even if you don’t want to watch the show itself, then I recommend watching just the documentary). I found it gave really good perspective on why certain decisions were made and the drivers behind choices the producers made in putting each episode together. I do think it’s a real shame that a second season has been signed on. Why? Well I feel like the show’s impact was in its 13 episodes. I feel like the story was told, the effect was felt and the reasons behind Hannah’s decision were expanded on over the series of the show. To make a second season turns it into entertainment – which obviously it also was – but makes it about the money making side of it, rather than the initial message which I think is why this series has made such an impact.
As a parent I see incredible merit in 13 Reasons Why and feel like if it can open dialogue between children and parents, that is 100% positive. I feel like the biggest take away from watching the show is to make sure I am doing the best job I can when it comes to making sure my children know they can always talk to me. About anything. And the other thing that this taught me as incredibly important as parents is to know your kids friends. And know where they are as much as possible. I plan to be very involved in my kids lives. Not a helicopter parent, but involved. Interested. Open. That means starting now – while they’re little so they know I am interested in whatever they have to say. Putting my phone away and listening. Turning off the TV and sitting around the dinner table talking. Asking about their day. Asking about their friends. Encouraging friends to come to our house. Making our house the most fun place to be so that as my children grow, they wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’ll want to be away from me at parties or doing things that every teenager feels they need away from the watchful eyes of their parents, but at the end of the day I want them to come home to the security of their family and my arms. I want them to remember their parents as always being understanding, being supportive. Ahhhh so many things to think about as a mum.
Will I watch the second season? Probably. Because I’ll be curious about what they’ll be touching on and the characters they’ll be expanding on. I think it’s a mistake though and it dilutes the message.
Have you watched the show? What did you think?
PS: You never know what someone else is going through so remember – be kind x