Over the past 2 weeks I've watched 13 Reasons Why and I have a lot of thoughts about it. I wasn't sure whether I was going to write about it or not. To be honest I wasn't even sure I would even be able to finish the show. Some people I know binged the whole show over a few days, but I couldn't. I had to take several days in between certain episodes. Initially I was just going to let this show go. I read the book when it first came out and liked it. I watched the show initially to see how it adapted. I finished watching it because I wanted to see how it ended. Not that I didn't already know the story line, but I wanted to see how the adaptation played out. To be honest, this show scares me. Not in a "scary movie" way, but in a "this show could be very dangerous" way. A lot of people have written about it already, and I'll link to those at the bottom of this article. But I did want to add my voice to growing crowd.
I'm a middle school librarian and a lot of my students are watching it and requesting the book and it worries me. I'm going to try and get out my thoughts on this. It might be rambling and jumbled, but to be incredibly cliche, here is my list of reasons why:
The long and the short of it is that I think this show tackles an immensely important topic, it brings to light issues that need to be talked about in candid ways. However, it does so in a way that not only misses the mark, but is irresponsible.
1. This is TV-MA marketed to teens and young adults. According to Netflix the rating for 13 Reasons Why is TV-MA, which according to their own guidelines means "This program may contain one or more of the following: intensely suggestive dialogue (D), Strong course language (L), intense sexual situations (S), or intense violence (V). Mature audiences only. The program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17." Yet, kids in my middle school are watching it, my daughter's district put it in their weekly memo as something for parents to keep an eye on. Whether or not it is rated TV-MA (and it should be), kids are watching from it and learning. I've read of several reviews by those in the medical field that kids that age do not have the capacity to understand the permanence of suicide, that they can't yet see the long term consequences of their actions. I'm not normally on the whole "The song made me do it" bandwagon, but I can see how this show could serve as a how to. If someone is already feeling the way Hannah does in the story, how watching might give them ideas they didn't already have, or solidify their own plans in their mind as they watch Hannah's plan get executed. To the people who say that you can just not watch it, absolutely, I didn't have to watch it. However, kids are watching and we, as adults (especially parents of those who work in a school) need to be prepared to talk about this issues with students. It's a show that needs to be prepared for. The plus side to this show is that it has definitely started a dialog and that is never a bad thing, I just wish the show had done a better job of dealing with the issues that Hannah faces. It gives such an incomplete look at it and that's unfortunate.
2. This movie has some very explicit assault and rape scenes. They are incredibly well filmed in terms of how these things can happen. Which is exactly what makes them hard to watch. There are 2 rape scenes. One where a drunk girl at a party passes out and is raped and another where Hannah finds herself alone in a hot tub with the same guy, who proceeds to hold her down and rape her. I've talked to a lot of people about this show and there is a general consensus around this. If you have ever been assaulted these scenes and the ones of the fall out from these assaults will likely be a trigger. You will see yourself in these scenes. You will remember what it was like to realize that you have lost control of the situation and your power has been taken away, and you will struggle to breath as you remember what it was like in the days after as you tried to figure out what you do next. This story line is remarkably well laid out and realistic, and that's what makes it so scary. The bigger issue is that ways to deal with the assaults in a way that might be helpful are largely unmentioned. Hannah wants people to help her, wants to reach out to Clay and her school counselor, but doesn't have the capacity to do so. This is also realistic, but if someone is watching the show, and those options are left unsaid, then the audience is left believing that after an assault or rape you truly are all alone. The fact that the counselor is so unhelpful is offensive. School counselors are trained to help in these situations and to make it seem like a dead end option is unfair to counselors and unfair to the audience. Sure, one guy might be horrible at their job, but it paints a picture that there is no where to turn and that you truly are all on your own. That is a tragedy. There are so many ways to get help.
3. The Suicide. Not only is it shown in it's entirety, it is also left as the only possible solution to the events leading up to it. Again, no other alternatives are given a realistic look. We see Hannah's slow decent and easily see how she reached this point. She has been bullied, assaulted, ignored, taken advantage of and is left feeling isolated and alone. So she does what she believes is her only way out and slits her wrists in the bathroom. This is shown from start to finish and while it isn't glorified, it certainly isn't looked down upon either. Suicide is messy, for the person who takes their own life and the people who remain. Some people say it's selfish because you don't think of the people left behind, others say that it's the ultimate act of selflessness, because you are removing yourself as a burden. I promise you it's neither of those. There are so many ways that people get to that point, and no two people reach it the same way, but when you hit that point, it's nothing but scary and sad. At the moment they feel like there is no way out, even though rationally you might now there really is. To leave those other resources in the background is irresponsible.
4. Mental Illness is largely ignored. Yes Hannah was treated horribly by a group of people at her school and these things drove her to suicide. However, mental illness plays a part and it isn't mentioned here at all. I read a tweet thread by author Matt Haig that struck a chord and I think is apt. He said "Treat anxiety like the flu. Respect it, do what you need to get better, but don't let it define you. Exist beside it." The flu gets better, but anxiety and depression are more like a chronic disease that you can treat and learn to live with. It will inform your actions and your feelings, but it is survivable. In this movie, that is barely explored at all beyond posters being hung in the hallway telling people to get help. Hannah's only option, her only solution to her illness according to this story is suicide. She may have felt that way, but it's not accurate.
As an adult watching this show I come at it with my own life experiences driving me. I've dealt with anxiety and depression my whole life. I've nearly hit the bottom 2 times. To be clear, neither time did I have a plan or was I at the moment of actually committing suicide. I can only say that I had reached a point where I could see why it becomes an option, and that is scary enough. My freshman year of college I found myself getting into situations that I could no longer control. I didn't like my program, my roommates and I wasn't finding a place with the other people in the school and I started making bad decisions just so I would feel like I was part of something. I began to really dislike myself and I thought there was no way out so I began to think of alternatives. Luckily for me my anxiety kicked in and laundry listed all the ways I could mess it up and as it turned out the fear of screwing up a suicide far outweighed actually dying. I transferred schools and a teacher at my new school suggested therapy to help control my anxiety. I'm forever grateful for that. I learned skills and strategies to cope with my mental illness that carried me for 17 years. They worked until they didn't anymore. More recently I found myself slipping again, the pressure of returning to a toxic work environment, an administration that seemed to be actively trying to tear people apart and having to take a online course about mental illness and campus assault for my grad work combined to overwhelm me. Friends tried to bolster me by telling me I was right to be upset and that I should be mad, others told me I just needed to let it go and not let people get to me. The problem with anxiety and depression, as I've talked about before, is that while those people might have been right, and I could see that with the rational part of my brain, the rest of my brain still couldn't stop the thoughts from dragging me down. Luckily, I am already armed with an arsenal of resources at my disposal and was able to speak to my schools psychiatrist, talk to a therapist and lean on the friends that somehow knew what I needed to hear. In this particular instance it took one friend, who probably doesn't even know the impact he had, to say just the right thing. When I admitted to him that I sometimes couldn't get out of my own head long enough to help myself he very simply replied "When you feel that way, come find me. I have your back." I don't know where my thoughts would have lead me, but I do know that using my resources and feeling that support was the turning point for me and I found myself stepping out of my own way and getting back on track.
All that was a long winded way of saying that when I say this show can be dangerous, I'm saying it with the expertise of someone who has lived it. When I watched this show I felt what Hannah felt and the emotions it dredged up were real and they were scary. And I am fully aware of my illness and of my resources. I have an incredible family, who, even though they don't always understand are always supportive. It terrifies me that someone might watch this show and not have the resources or support system to get the help they need. That they might see this show as a blueprint for what to do when you experience an assault or a rape, or when you find yourself trapped by your own thoughts.
5. Is this revenge porn? Simply put, I think it is to an extent. Hannah leaves her tapes behind to show people why she did it. It's a suicide note of sorts, but the intent is to not only make the people she feels are responsible understand, but to make them regret what they did (or didn't do). You've heard, I'm sure, that when someone dies people regret all they didn't do, the things they didn't say. The reactions to the tapes are two fold. Hannah is right, people do feel bad, some of them are spinning dangerously out of control themselves in the aftermath. Hannah's parents are falling apart. Clay is left to always wonder "what if?" and not just because he feels that way, but because Hannah flat out tells him that if he had only stuck around, if he has only done something, she might not be dead. Tony, the keeper of the tapes, even tells Clay the he is the reason Hannah is dead. That is a lot to lay at someones feet. On the flip side, Hannah is also very wrong. The things that happened to her are reprehensible, and for a large bulk of the show we see the cast of characters trying desperately to hide their secrets. There is a sense of "Who cares if Hannah dies, so long as she doesn't take me down with her." This includes a person who was raped who doesn't want anyone to know, the rapist, a guy who takes peeping tom pictures, and the guy who sent pictures of Hannah to the whole school. These people did horrible, illegal things and Hannah was a casualty of it. After her death they respond by closing ranks to protect themselves. As a viewer you can see how suicide is a viable option- on one hand people learned their lesson and feel the pain of losing Hannah giving her the assumed satisfaction of being right on that front, that her death somehow showed them and made them feel bad. On the other hand, she is also right that people didn't care about her at all, that her death would simply remove a player from the board. Its a scary message to put out there.
I can honestly say that when someone you love, a family member or a friend, commits suicide you will blame yourself over and over again. I have 2 cousins who, in the past several years lost their battles with mental illness and/or addiction. I was not super close with either person, but we had some activities in common (we all ran) and of course, we were family. I can tell you exactly the last time I spoke to my cousin and what we talked about. I can tell you that I was distracted and upset about my father being sick. I can tell you that looking back I wish I had spent more time talking to him and that the "what if" game played in my head for a long time. I can tell you that I wish I had the chance to tell him that I was proud of him and that I low-key bragged about being his cousin at races we both ran. However, the blame is not on me, the same way the blame wouldn't be on anyone else if the tables were turned, the same way the blame is not on any of the people Hannah makes a tape for. Suicide is a choice. There are a million ways people end up there, and there are a million other choices that can be made, but it is a choice that a person makes for themselves.
6. Season 2- Please don't. The series ended with a few cliff hangers that to me were cheap grabs at drama and a second season. If you are writing a book or making a show about how this death ripples through the school and community, do that. Don't tell me another character tried to commit suicide- I assume you're hoping season 2 will explore what they can do different this time. Don't show me another character running away from his deposition with a bag full of clothes, some alcohol and a gun- in season 2 will we see Justin down and out on his own, losing his own battle? Don't show me the peeping tom rifling through the trunk in his room, shuffling explosives and guns as if it were no big deal- Are you making a play for a school shooting in season 2? And don't show me the rapist hanging out as if nothing will ever get to him, that little moment of hesitation barely enough to scratch the surface of what he should fear coming his way- will that be season 2, Bryce finally being held accountable for his actions? You dangerously miscalculated the depression and suicide story, please don't tackle these other topics.
7. So should you watch? I don't know. Watching for me was a little bit like watching a car crash. I knew what was coming and couldn't look away. I have a group of friends who have watched that felt the same way, that this show causes harm to people with struggle with mental illness or who have been assaulted or raped. I have others that have watched that feel none of those things and thought it was a fantastic show that dealt with harsh realities in an honest manner. I do think that if you do watch, or that if you have a child that watches, that you should be prepared to handle everything that the show puts out there. If watching graphic scenes is likely to trigger you, then stay away. If your kid might be harmed by watching that kind of scene, then don't let them watch it. If you or your child watches, be ready to talk about it, don't let the teachable moments pass. Don't let the show and the choices Hannah made steer your choices, because the show didn't provide all the other ways of coping, of surviving and of existing- it only gave one perceived way out.
Which leads me to....
Resources and other Articles:
So many other people have written on this topic that it would be a shame not to share. And there are resources out there for people who need help. Use them.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Suicide Prevention Services
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Considerations for Educators - National Association For School Psychologists
13 Reasons why is a Bad Show- Shaun David Hutchinson
Why Teen Mental Health Experts are Focused on 13 Reasons Why- CNN
Does 13 Reasons Why Glamorize Teen Suicide? - Rolling Stone
13 Reasons Why Writer: Why we didn't shy away from Hannah's suicide- Vanity Fair