A Darien teen's perspective: 13 Reasons Why
After well-deserved controversy over the graphic nature of this latest Netflix fad, a reminder that suicide prevention in high schools is just the beginning of the conversation.
In the past few weeks, Darien schools and youth organizations have followed the example of dozens of other communities across the country, reaching out to parents with concerns over the Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why.
Based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel of the same name, 13 Reasons Why begins a few weeks after the death of Hannah Baker, a junior at a suburban high school. Clay (Dylan Minnette), an awkward but endearing main character, receives a shoebox of 13 cassette tapes.
Each tape contains Hannah’s descriptions of traumatic events, bystanders and bullies that led to her decision to commit suicide, each addressed to the particular individual she believe caused the traumatic event. She had left instructions that the box be passed down the list of these individuals, and Clay is late in the list, so a majority of the other tormentors have already heard the tapes.
The novel began the same way but took place in a breathable, present-tense 24 hours. The TV show’s developer (screenwriter Brian Yorkey) expanded the idea into 13 hour-long episodes that switch repeatedly between the past (Hannah’s downfall) and the present (Clay’s experiences listening to the tapes). Clay becomes both detective and avenger, confronting students in a campaign for truth and the reparation of Hannah’s reputation.
The show starts off slowly; Hannah is slut-shamed by insensitive jocks, and even her own friends. One kid stalks her and shares her photos with the school, and another publishes a personal poem she wrote, without her permission, in a school magazine. But things worsen. Hannah witnesses her friend Jessica get raped while drunk at a party by basketball captain Bryce, while other characters cover it up. Hannah attends a different party and ends up being raped by Bryce herself. In a typical weekend Netflix-binge, the descent from sexual harassment, innuendo and rumors (first base? Third?) to graphic scenes of rape and suicide is dizzying and dark.
Despite (or possibly, in spite of) the four mental health professionals who consulted on the show, much of the critical reaction to 13 Reasons Why centers on its questionable treatment of suicide--and for good reason.
In journalism, writers and editors follow a careful formula of do’s and don’ts when writing about suicide. Studies have labeled sensationalist suicide coverage as a dangerous faux pas; Risk of additional suicides (“copycat” or “contagion” deaths) increases when the story explicitly describes the method, or uses dramatic and graphic headlines or images. Mental health and suicide awareness groups have expressed concern about the show’s startlingly naturalistic depiction of a suicide, which goes against decades of research.
The plot of the series is also based on significant pieces of misinformation. A large portion of the criticism has been directed towards how the show addresses depression and other mental illnesses, but this is largely because these issues aren’t addressed at all. According to experts, most suicides can be attributed to both treatable mental illness and overwhelming stressors or circumstances. Mental illness is not discussed in the series, and it’s easy to receive the impression that Hannah commits suicide because her laundry list of woes is longer than her neighbor’s. It’s a serious list, to be sure. But mental health professionals have advised that impressionable teens should avoid the show, because it may imply that suicide is a solution to problems, and that mental illness is intrinsically linked with trauma, which it is not.
The show has also been interpreted to glorify suicide as a revenge fantasy--or even martyrdom-- as Hannah’s suicide exposes problems in the community, incites action, and hurts her bullies, stalkers, and assailants. Hannah lives on through the tapes, but also through the cinematography in the show. Viewers continue to see her as part of the action long after her death. Many viewers can separate this thematic tool from reality, but the youngest (or most vulnerable) may not.
Given some of these elements, it’s reasonable to instate age restrictions, have discussions with parents, or provide “graphic nature” warnings for those who have struggled with mental illness or suicide. But it’s important to remember that most viewers--including teenagers--are well-equipped to handle both the subjects presented in the show, and to separate it from reality.
13 Reasons Why understands this. Although parents may not understand the appeal, thriller and morbid adolescent melodrama can make the series addictive. The vigilant, keen performance by Dylan Minnette (who plays Clay) builds up cumulative force as the energy--and gravity--matches the subject near the end of the season. But more importantly, 13 Reasons Why refuses to talk down to teenagers. One of the most jarring effects of the MA rating of the show is that it allows presentation of an authentic, uncensored version of high school than anything we see on broadcast networks or cable. Everyone swears, and they swear a lot. The bullying is awful, crude, and obscene-- and every teenager who listen to the show will have heard it before.
Difficult and uncomfortable issues are discussed, even within positive characters. Good-guy-protagonist Clay exploits classmate Tyler Down by sending the school a picture of him changing (an act of revenge.) Sheri, a cheerleader, refuses to call the police after knocking down a stop sign that resulted in the death of a peer.
The show is also notable for a brave depiction of sexual harassment and violence, and a powerful discussion of bystanders. Most of Hannah’s difficulties extend from a culture that, at first, pressures boys to lie about the extent of their sexual prowess, and then to shame girls for the same thing; that will assume sexual harassment is a compliment, that rape should be covered up, and that rejection from a girl is an intolerable offense to masculinity. Hannah is gossiped about, harassed, and when she laughingly tells a boy who has been stalking her that she doesn’t want to go out with him, he sends compromising photos of her to friends. A character says, in an attempt to defend his role as a bystander, “Nothing that happened to her is any different than what happens to any girl at any high school.”
These are all real problems, and teenagers experience them, but they are often considered shameful enough to be avoided or downplayed when young people talk to each other—nevermind when they’re with parents.
It isn’t all bad. High schools—and Darien High school in particular—can have all of these problems and still be incredibly happy, supportive places. But this show is not an opportunity for censorship; it’s an opportunity for discussion. And although almost every article appraising the show’s worth sounds something like “How to talk to your teen about ’13 Reasons Why’”, it’s much more likely teenagers have watched the entire series without their parents’ knowledge and have had many of these discussions with peers already.
Of course, the show’s artistic merit is left to the viewers. But 13 Reasons Why gives its viewers some credit, and it deserves more than a warning in a parent’s handbook.
Claire Borecki is a senior at Darien High School. She has written several articles for The Darien Times and is doing her senior internship with the Times.