Whether you’ve watched it or not, Netflix’s newest original series, 13 Reasons Why, is most definitely on your radar. Originally aimed at teens — it’s based on a 2007 YA novel of the same name — the show, and the controversy surrounding its graphic depiction of suicide, has quickly become a minor juggernaut, making it impossible for even those of us who had no interest in wading through all 13 of the show’s hours not to take notice.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a quick rundown: The show centers around a high schooler named Hannah Baker, who, by the time the action begins, has already committed suicide. Before she died, Hannah cataloged the reasons that she decided to take her own life, recorded cassette tapes for every person she deemed responsible, and delivered them to a classmate with a demand that they would be listened to and passed along.
If this doesn’t happen, Hannah warns from beyond the grave, a trusted individual will make the tapes available to the public, thereby implicating every person Hannah believes is on the hook for her death.
“This was not a spur of the moment decision,” Hannah says. “Do not take me for granted. Not again.”
The rest of the show plays out like a PSA wrapped in a murder mystery. As the tapes are played one by one, we learn that there’s much more than meets the eye to Hannah’s suicide, including bullying, victim-blaming, betrayal, and, most distressingly, numerous instances of sexual assault.
That’s a lot of drama, so it’s no surprise that it makes for addictive viewing — especially for teens, who report suicidal thoughts at an alarming rate. And while it would be easy to write off the concern that adults began expressing about 13 Reasons Why as needless hand-wringing, the way the show portrays suicide was deserving of some conversation.
As the show took off, schools began sending home notes warning parents of the show’s subject matter and websites commissioned a stream of think pieces on whether it should have been made at all. Soon, those who were associated with the series’ creation began defending the artistic merit of filming Hannah’s suicide, while, at the same time, more and more sources began to report that the show had been renewed for a second season — with possible topics being copycat suicides (a phenomenon that was most recently seen in a Palo Alto school districtt), a rape trial, or potentially a school shooting. All of this fueled even more wide-eyed adult terror and some involved parties distancing themselves from the project.
But here’s a question: Where are the teens in this discussion? It’s tough to find an anchor point in the midst of all this controversy, but as one reads more and more essays about the show’s problems and nods along with the points adult writers make about vulnerable populations, wish-fulfillment, and teens not being able to tell the difference between a TV show and reality (especially when that TV show purports to show reality), one begins to wonder more and more whether all the consternation, the criticism, and the attempts to make sense of how this show is affecting the “vulnerable demographics” isn’t actually proving the show’s point: Adults in teen’s lives are so focused on “more important things” that they don’t involve the actual teens in the conversation at all.
“I think it’s probably one of the worst times for this show to happen,” says Alexa Curtis, the 19-year-old founder of Media Impact and Navigation for Teens, “because there’s no foundation for this. There’s nobody out there, no parents talking to this to their kids, and parents and faculty aren’t educated on how to talk to their kids about it.”
Curtis doesn’t think the show is all negative, but as someone who knows what it’s like to be bullied and to feel hopeless, she wants to make sure teens have resources. She believes that the sea of think pieces written by adults aren’t particularly helpful to teens who may be suicidal. Instead, she says, schools should focus on making the discussion of suicide a part of their curriculums — and not just for five minutes in health class, but as a regular topic of discussion. Because the more those in charge of ensuring teens’ safety shy away from facing the topic head on, the less likely it is that those needing help will come looking for it.
“I think it’s up to parents and faculty to start opening the discussion,” Curtis continues. “People are writing about it and talking about it, but nobody is talking to the kids.”
While adults spend so much time worrying about whether the show is good for teens, what they’re forgetting is that even if the show is flawed, it’s also a conversation that teens are willing to have provided that they’re heard. Certainly, a frank discussion of how filmmakers can do better is important, but the conversation shouldn’t happen above teen’s heads. We don’t need more adults screaming “won’t somebody think of the children?” while not including those same young people in the discussion.
What’s even more worrying for Curtis is that the focus of the conversation is placed only on suicide when the show deals with so many real-life issues that need discussing.
“Educating teens on what to do when they witness a rape, what to do when they witness somebody bullying somebody else is also important,” she says. “I think that’s something else that schools and the media fail at right now: Educating people on what to do when they see these things. Because I can tell you a ton of people I know don’t do anything because they don’t know what to do.”
Curtis’s point is clear: The kids will only be all right if the adults actually help them out.
“The first thing for parents to understand is that their kids are watching the show,” says Kathy Cowan, communications director for the National Association of School Psychologists, which made the news last week when the organization released a strongly-worded statement urging caregivers to take a more active part in the conversation.
“Say ‘I’d love to watch it with you’ and sit with their teenager and watch it streaming,” she continues. “If there’s pushback from that — I could see some adolescents being like, ‘I don’t want to watch this with my mom’ — the adults should watch it anyway. There’s hard stuff to talk about.”
Of course, this advice is predicated on the idea that banning teens from watching the show is not the best course of action. While some have warned that teens shouldn’t be watching the show at all — and NASP stresses that kids who feel like they will be affected by the themes presented should avoid it (or at least not watch on their own) — we all know that as soon as teens are told that something is forbidden, they’ll find a way to get their hands on it. If parents and teachers want to help they should forget the scare tactics and focus more on the fact that it deals with sensitive issues presented in a heightened way.
“Don’t disrespect why this is so riveting to kids,” Cowan says. “It’s because these issues resonate with the kids. If adults say, “you should never have watched the show. It’s really bad for you,” and we shut down the reasons why it’s important to them, then we contribute to the barrier between adults and kids that the show depicts. We will actually be proving that the show was right about the way adults behave.”
Some administrators have yet to receive the memo. At a middle school in Canada, for instance, the school’s leadership has banned all talk of the show due to its violent and unpleasant content. The intent, we have to assume, is good, but the idea that banning the show will somehow ease the problems it gives light to is foolhardy. Teens have, tragically, committed suicide for centuries before 13 Reasons Why hit Netflix, and while it may seem overwhelming to task teachers and staff members with leading the conversation (especially when they haven’t been given adequate training), banning all talk of the show, especially when it’s so culturally relevant, could lead teens to think that their problems aren’t important or worth discussing.
“It would be a real shame if adults not only ignored the potential serious risks associated with the show,” Cowan says, “but also ignored an opportunity to actually get real about the issues and what kids are dealing with, and be more open, and be seen as accessible around these issues to kids.”
Cowan, who says she’s been fielding nonstop calls from reporters and school districts since NASP’s statement went out late last week, says she doesn’t yet know how the media firestorm around the series will play out. What she does know is that we need to stop reading and start talking; or if we are reading, we should be reading about how to talk to teens as opposed to lighting up the internet with comment after comment about whether the show glorifies teen suicide.
While a wide range of resources on the 13 Reasons Why landing page would have been very useful* it’s not all on Netflix to teach us how to talk about suicide. They’re an entertainment provider. But they’re also bringing the show back for a second season and it’s on all of us to learn how to speak more openly about the issues at stake and how they affect teens.
“Will we look back on this and say, “well in the end a lot of good came out of that because adults started to really understand some of the issues that kids are dealing with, they engaged in conversations, parents feel like they can talk to their children more about some of these issues?'” Cowan asks. “Maybe, I don’t know. But shame on us as adults if we don’t pay attention to it from the risk prevention standpoint. Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity that’s also embedded in there.”
*The series does feature a behind-the-story special starring producer Selena Gomez, which offers viewers resources. It’s a stand-alone episode meant to be watched after the series has ended. On Monday, Netflix announced it would add a “warning card” at the top of the series.