’13 Reasons Why’: Good Show, Missed Opportunity
Everyone is talking about the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why — parents, kids, schools. There has been a lot of controversy around the show because of its graphic and honest portrayal of suicide, consent, sexual assault, homophobia, and bullying and the impact these depictions could have.
For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s a quick overview: It’s a show that takes viewers through 13 cassette tapes a high school girl makes to explain her suicide.
For starters let’s give credit where it’s due: This show is a compelling deconstruction of current high-school memes with relatable and complex characters. It starkly portrays issues that kids are facing and the real disconnection of adults from that experience. It takes the experience of high school, which we often write off as ignorable drama – and helps the audience really feel what it’s like to be in the mind of a hormone-driven, emotional, frontal-lobe-stunted teenager. Most importantly, it has done an amazing job of getting people talking about issues that are usually purposely ignored because they’re upsetting.
Many viewers’ criticism of the show revolves around its graphic depiction of sexual assault and suicide. While we agree the episodes should open with a trigger warning to viewers, who may have had violent experiences similar to the show’s characters, these explicit scenes are not my biggest concern. Nor is the suicide contagion that many worry about. Portraying this kind of violence realistically helps viewers to feel as uncomfortable about these issues as they should, and may make it more difficult to brush off in real life. Personally, we like the intensity of the show, how it portrays our choices as painful and serious.
The real issues are the show’s depiction of support and its ending. (Mild spoiler alert.)
The show’s negligent, bumbling counselor is a caricature of that role, which leaves out a crucial element: that any counselor, no matter how unskilled and judgmental, would need to contact the parents if a student reported a sexual assault. Yet, the scenario, unfortunately, isn’t unfathomable; most schools in India don’t have school counselors; those that exist are not always qualified or helpful, and many teens feel alienated from their parents in the way the show captures. If the goal of the show was to present how the suicidal character felt – completely alone – then it succeeded.
However, it’s one thing for the main character to feel this way; it’s another for the audience. By not depicting alternative support options like clinical counselors and support groups, viewers are left with little learning of how to be helpful to themselves or others in a similar real-life situation. Let us be clear: The show didn’t need to depict the main character pursuing these options; that would have changed its plot and point. But these options could have made an appearance in the background in a way that didn’t sink into the main character’s consciousness, but did sink into viewers’.
Without depicting these options, viewers are left with helplessness, hopelessness and the idea that suicide is an acceptable choice, indeed, the only, inevitable one. (And a blameless one; the suicide-as-revenge plot shifts the blame to others for what is always an individual’s choice.)
If instead, for example, the show had ended with a last episode of the characters’ lives in the future, it could have still portrayed the desolation of feeling suicidal, but also provided some much-needed examples of self-reflection and consequences of actions. It was a missed opportunity (probably sacrificed for the sake of a second season). But any show that tackles topics like this has a responsibility not to miss such an opportunity, particularly shows aimed at impressionable teens.
More than graphic depictions of violence and desolation, teens need these depictions of reflection and cause-and-effect. Teens’ hormones are running rampant – their feelings are actually, biologically more intense than adults’. And their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that counterweights their powerful emotions by factoring consequences and thinking of the future, isn’t fully developed. It’s up to the adults in their lives – and yes, the media that targets them – to help them bridge this gap in maturity. It’s possible to be true to a suicidal teen’s emotions and experience and show opportunities to get help, the consequences of her suicide. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Unfortunately, the show’s creators found them to be so. Which means parents will need to fill in where the show misses the mark, and buffer teens from harm by actively engaging with their media consumption. Rather than keep kids from watching the show, use it as an opportunity to watch it with them and discuss the experiences and feelings it depicts. In India, this kind of open discussion is even more important, as the avenues where teens can seek support on their own are more limited. (But they are there.) Your kid’s school and life are not the exception; you could be the parent of any one of the high school stereotypes depicted on the show. The difference is, you’re there and you’re talking.