Warning: Contains minor spoilers
The Netflix teen series, 13 Reasons Why, chronicling the emotional breakdown of Hannah Baker, who committed suicide, has been extensively lauded and criticized online. Students are bringing it up in class, with psychologists and with parents. The thirteen episode streaming phenomenon has rattled parents and educators and writers everywhere. It has also been hit with complaints that it glorifies suicide and will result in more teens attempting to end their lives rather than fewer. Are the criticisms justified?
Critics conveniently ignore the obvious. This series is entertainment. The subject matter is intense and important, yet it has had a huge impact on viewers because it is a work of fiction with an exceptional cast, carefully constructed and performed, that deeply touches people with the tragedy of needless loss. The target audience are teens and preteens, and critics worry it will encourage more young people to consider suicide as an option to bad times in their lives. But as the internet explosion of conversations about the show erupted, it is clear that dialogue is just beginning. Taking the taboo subject of suicide, blame and responsibility to the public can only result in good. Assuming any show can or will result in more death doesn’t take into account all those that will be stopped by the groundswell of public chatter on the subject.
One complaint is that the show implies that if a teen kills herself, she will get justice and revenge on those who harmed her in life. Suicide is the ultimate revenge. It hurts every family member, close friend and even acquaintances over and over again. It’s something people who loved the deceased will live with for the rest of their lives. Talking about it doesn’t give new life to the revenge motive, but can be a starting point for teaching the damaging effects of suicide. Teens need to understand the permanence of suicide. They won’t be there afterward to watch and to see the results of their actions. They won’t have the responsibility of the anger unleashed on those who harmed them, but they won’t have the satisfaction of seeing it play out, either, if that is their reason for choosing to die. If there are people they care about at the end, they should know they will ruin the lives of those they care most about, while those they want to teach a lesson won’t care.
Another criticism is that the show glamorizes suicide and may encourage more copycats hoping to become a “star” like Hannah Baker. The actor who plays Hannah may not be typical of teens who decide to end their lives. She wasn’t terribly depressed or suffering from an apparent mental illness, although it was obvious toward the last tape that she felt her life had become hopeless. Hannah was attractive and articulate, not the sort of person one assumes is mistreated by friends and peers. Yet, Hannah was continually bashed, ridiculed, and treated badly by everyone. Her friends dumped her. Her crush fumbled their friendship. Her parents bickered constantly and were more focused on their failing business than on their daughter’s welfare.
If anything, the show suffers from not showing a balance of high school life. Everyone who has attended a public high school has seen athletes or other groups getting star treatment. But they are not the only groups with flaws that attract sociopathic user types, and they are not the best example of groups a teen should want to join. There were hundreds of other students at that school, but Hannah was fixated on a small group of male athletes and their female followers. She had a few friends outside the clique but none were very close to her. The real focus of the show and the discussion should be about Hannah and her life. The suicide was shocking, graphic and realistic, but the show isn’t really about suicide. It’s about how badly people treat each other.
Hannah had flaws, not all of which were her fault, but which she could have handled with help. The basics are:
- Hannah was a mediocre student with no apparent hobbies or interests. She had a part time job she enjoyed, and she wrote occasional poetry, but even that led to her suicide. She didn’t belong to clubs on campus, wasn’t involved with sports and didn’t volunteer anywhere helping people less fortunate than she was.
- In an era of helicopter parenting, adults were eerily absent and unconnected from the daily lives of the primary characters in the series. Hannah’s parents were physically present, but they had no relationship with her. They didn’t know who her friends were, didn’t invite other teens over to their house, and never seemed to do anything fun with their child. Their time was spent working, arguing and sitting around their house. When Hannah lost the few friends she had, her parents didn’t know. When her world started to inch toward the downward spiral, no one who could do anything about it did or said even one thing that could help. The real Hannah was virtually invisible to everyone except Clay.
- Clay was too young and scared to be involved with Hannah, which isn’t that far-fetched for a 16-17 year old male. Hannah’s obsession with finding a boyfriend was sad. If she had hobbies and interests and outside pursuits she loved, she wouldn’t have been so desperate for romance, which she was clearly not old enough for. It is custom for teens to date, but no one in the series showed any responsibility for dating or adult-style relationships. The one exception was Tony, who had his own flaws and idiosyncracies. His character was 18 but seemed more like 30 years old. His personal relationship with an obviously older man didn’t seem odd, because Tony didn’t act like a teenager.
- All the teens depicted in the series had too much freedom. They had cars, they had parties in parent-free zone homes, and easy access to alcohol and drugs. Sex was rampant and expected. Every one of those teens at those unchaperoned parties was a neglected teen. When parents abdicate responsibility, people are harmed.
- The school officials were far too worried about lawsuits and were not capable of handling the jobs or responsibilities they were given. The counselor Hannah turned to was more concerned with being politically and legally correct than with helping a student who was clearly desperate and in trouble. He should not have merely asked if she wanted to report a crime, and then disuaded her from making the call, but should have contact the police immediately. Doing the legal thing and doing the morally right thing are not always the same.
- The students surrounding Hannah were thoughtless and vile. They intentionally did horrible things to her and to each other. There should be zero tolerance for that in schools and by parents, but the parents for the most part, didn’t know or didn’t care, and the school was oddly disconnected from the students. If nothing else comes out of a conversation about this show, teens need to be taught that mistreating another person physically or with words, is never acceptable and will result in severe consequences. Then the adults in these children’s lives must make sure consequences happen.
- It’s not currently cool to talk about morals or ethics as an ideal, but children need to develop a moral compass somehow. It should come from their parents and other important adults in their lives. If that doesn’t happen, is it the school’s responsibility to help students become ethical people who have high standards? Apparently not. Schools spend their energy on creating and educating students. They focus on passing tests, learning, getting good grades and going to college at the high end. At the low end, they hope students will graduate and move on to adult lives. It is startling that so many crimes were committed on this show that were never revealed to an adult. Rape, stalking, leaving the scene of an accident, providing alcohol or drugs to underage teens who are harmed by them are all crimes of varying degrees. Hannah and other students were victimized many times because their peers treated crimes like they were the norm rather than breaking laws. One person who should have upheld the laws and could have been a force for good and for saving lives, was exposed as a corrupt police officer.
Hannah was responsible for ending her life, but the guilt will be carried forever by her parents, as it should be. If they had taken the time to know their daughter, they would have seen something was wrong. They let her leave one night when she was obviously suffering, without noticing because they were too wrapped up in their own lives and problems.
What can parents do to prevent suicide? There are some basics that too many parents refuse to take on for fear of offending their children, friends or neighbors.
- Know your children’s friends.
- Encourage teens to have meaningful extracurricular activities. A paid job isn’t enough. Sports, hobbies, volunteering, attending groups and activities where alcohol isn’t allowed. Youth groups that are sponsored by responsible adults are ways for teens to congregate without putting themselves in harms way. 4H clubs, outside classes, and training are other productive ways to spend one’s time. Aimlessly hanging out with other teens is not productive.
- Suggest your children hang out in groups rather than dating individually. That used to be popular among teens who weren’t emotionally ready for intense one on one romantic relationships. Teens aren’t usually mature enough for sexual relationships and it seems to be starting younger.
- Bully proof children. Everyone is teased in high school. It’s a rite of passage. Children and teens need to know that everyone is teased, but they should not give bullies an easy target by reacting.
- Consider enrolling your teens in martial arts or in some physical activity that promotes strong minds as well as bodies.
- Talk to your children daily. Be home for dinner. Be available if your child just wants to talk. Try not to be too judgmental when they open up to you
- Offer to carpool, even when teens have drivers’ licenses. Driving a car and not talking is a good way to listen and learn what is going on with teens and their peers.
- Don’t be afraid to bring up the subject of suicide. Learn how to talk to your children about it in a nonthreatening way.
- Insist your community and schools get involved in keeping kids safe and informed. There should be zero tolerance for law breaking and dangerous behavior.
13 Reasons Why is entertainment. The subject matter is sensitive and graphic, but this is still a television series that was filmed thoughtfully, with talented actors whose portrayal of disturbing characters was superb. Rather than complaining about the producers, Netflix or the subject matter, adults should work together on solutions so Hannah’s fictional experience isn’t lived out by real children.
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