A Librarian’s Take On “13 Reasons Why”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post contains a few spoilers about the show and the book. But we feel strongly that shouldn’t stop parents from reading it.

It’s the show everyone’s talking about: Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”. Everyone, including parents, preteens, and teens, are talking about it. I hear it at school (I work at a middle school). I hear it from my 20 something year old friends. I hear it from parents my age and older. And there’s some good reasons for it. The acting is superb. The story is raw and honest and real – not something you see a lot from Hollywood. The plot is catchy, and the kids look like real – admittedly prettied up versions but still real – regular kids. It has an anti-bullying message. It brings some rough topics up for discussion.

But there’s a difference between bringing up difficult topics and glamorizing them. There’s a difference between reading about them and actually watching them.

But I have some serious concerns.

Let me start out by saying I read the book and watched the entire series. I thought the book was great, much for the same reasons. I believe it SHOULD be part of the classic YA canon. It has a place at the table and is much needed by many young adults/teens. The writing is excellent. The topic is timely, but classic all at the same time: be kinder to people, you never know what they’re going through. It reads like real life, and it does have some disturbing moments… because a book about teen suicide SHOULD be disturbing. It’s not an easy topic and it should shake you to your core.

But there’s a difference between bringing up difficult topics and glamorizing them. There’s a difference between reading about them and actually watching them. And I think that’s where the show goes a little over the line. For those of you who are only 4 or 5 episodes… or even 7 or 8 in, you’re going to be all “Calm down morality police. It’s not that bad.” Okay, so I’m not even talking about the moral issues. But they’re there too. Parents should know it depicts teens drinking, using drugs, getting into fights, being bullied, bullying others, having sex, using profanity… basically doing all the sketchy things teens are known to sometimes do. All in all, very similar to something you’d see on whatever the kids (AGH! I sound SO OLD) are watching on the CW nowadays.

– Spoilers Ahead –

However, here’s the issues: It also shows two graphic rape scenes. A student who has engaged in self-harm. At least two scenes of students getting the you-know-what beat out of them without defending themselves. And yes…the ending, a very graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide. The camera doesn’t move away for a second from the wrist slitting in the bathtub.


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Which, by the way, is different from the book. In the book she overdoses on pills. But the show creators decided the wrist slitting had a bigger visual impact. And it does… but maybe not the kind of impact they planned on.

 

 

Here’s a List of My Concerns

WERU_#1 Trigger warnings, like whoa. The show does give a heads up before the episode plays that there will be mature content and what the quality of that content will be. But still…even if you haven’t experienced that kind of trauma, it’s still super intense.


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WERU_#2This show is straight up dangerous for those with inclinations towards suicide ideation, self harm, or even just serious mental illness. It’s like throwing a match at gasoline soaked kindling and hoping it doesn’t start a fire.

WERU_#3Suicide was the 2nd cause of death among teenagers last year. We DO need to be talking about it. We need to be talking about the causes, and how to prevent it. We need to be talking about what to do if you have a friend who you suspect is suicidal and the signs to watch for. We need to be talking about mental illness (which contributes to over 90% of suicides) and viable alternatives to suicide. THE SHOW DOES NONE OF THESE THINGS. Hannah does list her causes- 13 reasons why, and the people who hurt her, etc. but the show doesn’t touch on things like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress. It touches briefly on her sexual assault but doesn’t give any help on how to process or find resources to heal from it. Outside of her internal monologue, it shows a few vague signs that she was considering suicide. But not much that could really be helpful to teens trying to prevent it in their social circles or themselves. And it definitely didn’t show a positive way to reach out to adults who could help: if anything the message was “adults will let you down…every time. Don’t even bother”. It talks about suicide, but doesn’t show any viable alternatives.

WERU_#4Hannah is treated like a martyr. You see the show from the point of view of a teenage boy who was in love with her, so obvs the portrayal is going to be a little skewed. He is wracked with guilt as he goes over the various trials Hannah has gone through and he sees very little imperfection in her actions or behavior. But we know people aren’t perfect. The characters mention once or twice that Hannah was full of “drama” but we don’t see that. Kids need to know that people who are considering suicide aren’t saints…and in fact they might be the kids that are always full of drama or that drive you crazy. Or they may just be invisible. Hannah talks about feeling invisible, yet she walks into a party of “popular kids” and they all start chanting “Hannah! Hannah! Hannah!” Hannah is not invisible. She is not portrayed as annoying or overdramatic. But the kid full of suicidal thoughts in their math class might be. Mental illness manifests in a variety of ways in adolescence, and some of those ways aren’t so pleasant. We don’t just need to save the sweet lonely Hannah Bakers of the world… we need to save anyone we can.

WERU_#5It glorifies suicide. Instead of showing the awful reality of suicide, which is supposedly what the creators were trying to do, Hannah is almost hero-like for her actions. She’s one of the main protagonists and you’re rooting for her to triumph over all the obstacles she’s facing. And this what makes the show so dangerous. The book does a better job of balancing out Hannah’s issues with reality. The show doesn’t. It’s basically sending the message: “Look how the school put up memorials for her. Look how nicely everyone talked about her. Look at how all the people who picked on her felt bad and their lives were ruined… wouldn’t that be perfect revenge? And look, even her parents were kind of okay in the end once they realized that she had her reasons.” And for teens who don’t have that fully developed prefrontal cortex, who are pretty much full-speed-ahead-nevermind-the-consequences, that is very, very dangerous.

You don’t pick up most of this until the last three or so episodes. And by that point it’s too late, you’re hooked and you’ve got to see how it ends. I know. I went into the series having been warned of this, and I still fell for it hook, line, and sinker. And it’s going to win awards. No doubt about that. Which will draw more and more people to watch it.


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The Consequences of 13 Reasons Why

I am very concerned that this show, instead of saving lives like it’s creators intended, may have some very tragic consequences instead. I’ve never struggled with suicidal ideation, just regular garden variety depression and anxiety, but it was a pretty heavy blow even to me. And I’m a grown up, with a fully functional understanding of actions and consequences. I am also self-aware enough to realize “Hey, this is triggering some not-so-good thoughts” and have 10+ years of therapeutic coping mechanisms in place to deal with that. Your regular depressed 14 year old kid? Not a chance. And that is a serious, serious problem.

There are no happy endings here, no real redemptive message. Yeah, it’s quality TV, but is that worth it? Parents, if you want to watch it to see what your kids might be going through, that’s one thing. But be very, very careful about letting your kids watch it. Watch it with them please and open up the discussion.

Again, the book could be useful, but the show… I’m just so concerned. #ReadTheBook

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