By Emma Everett, MEDIAGIRLS Editorial Intern
You may remember last year when the series 13 Reasons Why was released on Netflix and caused quite a controversial stir (to say the least). The show, which follows the story of a teen girl who committed suicide, received more social media attention than any other show at that time, and everyone seem to be talking about it. Perhaps you got a warning letter from a guidance counselor, superintendent and/or another administrator telling you about the gravity of the show’s subject matter. Maybe your girl binge-watched the whole series before you even heard of it. Perhaps she’s watching Season 1 now to get ready for the release of Season 2 (which focuses more on the teen’s mom trying to get legal justice). For good or bad, the craze is not over, and it’s essential to get on board with how to talk to kids about this show.
For those of you who do not yet know the plotline of the show, 13 Reasons Why, based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, focuses on the suicide of a high schooler named Hannah Baker. The 13-episode show takes place two weeks after her death, when a friend of hers, Clay Jensen, who was in love with Hannah, finds a mysterious packaged on his porch.
Inside are cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah, each naming a person who contributed to her tragic death. These tapes essentially act as Hannah’s suicide note, with her instructions being that each person implicated on the tapes must listen to them to the end, and then pass them onto the next person mentioned.
The show details Hannah’s struggle with bullying among her friends, rape, depression, slut shaming, and even a graphic depiction of her suicide. And it is these extreme elements that draw the conflict about the message this show is really portraying to its audience, mainly teens and young adults.
On one side, some argue that 13 Reasons Why takes on an extraordinary task by discussing, in great detail, topics that are often stigmatized, ignored, or swept under the rug. In an interview with the Associated Press, executive producer Selena Gomez explained that the show’s goal was to increase conversations about these issues, as they are not easy ones to talk about. In defense of the show’s graphic nature, Dylan Minnette, who plays Clay, explains that the only way to drive home the tragic nature of Hannah’s circumstances is “to break your heart because that’s real life.” Some also argued that Hannah’s character acts as an example for how to identify warning signs of someone considering suicide.
It is also worth noting how the show gives the same weight to everything that happens to Hannah, which contribute to her ultimate decision to take her own life. For example, Hannah endures the humiliation and sadness following an instance of slut shaming after a former friend of hers makes a list of Best of/Worst of in their class, and names Hannah “Best Butt.” From then on, people constantly tease her about this, and she even loses another close friend. This gossip ends up contributing equally to Hannah’s death as some of the other truly terrible things that happen to her. For many teens, this is exactly how they feel. You can never predict the impact something will have on someone’s self-esteem, even if it seems small at the time, and the show touches on that nicely. It’s worth noting here that this should be a strong talking point with your girl if she’s watching: How does she feel that in the show, the same weight seems to be given to having nasty gossip posted online about one’s self as it is to getting raped? They are both unquestionably awful; do they belong in the same category?
Despite the show’s intentions expressed by its creators, though, many people, including mental health professionals, have voiced strong concerns about its actual effects on viewers. Currently, over 50 research studies exist that analyze how the media’s coverage of suicide impacts public health, and each has found that when suicide is discussed in particular ways, suicide rates can increase. In order to expose more media outlets to the challenges of discussing suicide, ReportingOnSuicide.org has listed helpful recommendations about dos and don’ts, including not to sensationalize or glamorize the suicide, not to discuss contents of the suicide note, if there is one, and not to describe the suicide method.
When looked at closely, 13 Reasons Why disobeys all of these rules and more listed on the site, leaving many experts to fear an increase of deaths by suicide, especially among young people. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for Americans nationwide, yet the third among teenagers. 13 Reasons Why depicts suicide as a coping mechanism for Hannah, a way for her to get revenge and control over those who have hurt her, and to portray her fictional situation as the norm puts struggling teens at risk. According to John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who works with teens at risk for suicide, “When we are [teenagers], our coping mechanisms are not developed, so we are left to rely on primitive defense mechanisms and our most primitive is avoidance. Suicide is the ultimate act of avoidance—avoiding life.” By sensationalizing the act as 13 Reasons Why does, it may put suicide on the table as a real possibility for someone in crisis.
All this said, 13 Reasons Why is obviously an incredibly popular novel and show and, again, given that it it’s second season is being release this Friday, the buzz is going to continue. Whether or not you want your daughter to watch the show, its popularity can be used as a great opportunity to have an open conversation with her about challenging, important topics that may not have come up otherwise.
○ To start, if your daughter wants to watch the show, try watching it with her, and discuss what you think the show does well, or poorly. Note: the show can be very challenging to watch at times, so if you choose to watch, try to avoid binge-watching. Also, note that is recommended for age 16+ by Common Sense Media, although it’s being watched by girls much younger.
○ Ask your daughter what she thinks of how Hannah is treated, and if she’s ever seen anyone at her school treated in a similar way. Talk together about what the best ways to help would look like. Make sure she knows that just being there to listen to someone who needs it can make a huge difference.
○ Ask her who she would turn to for help, and make sure she lists someone who is a non-parent, like a teacher, coach, or friend. Also ensure she has access to the appropriate emergency contact information in case someone she knows is in crisis.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Emma Everett is a senior at Boston University studying Advertising with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She was a MEDIAGIRLS teacher for our 10-week after-school program for middle-school girls, and ran the Boston Marathon.