’13 Reasons Why’ you should maybe not watch this Netflix series
Our contributor Carly Bellini is frustrated and infuriated by the Netflix series, based on young adult fiction, with what she calls irresponsible portrayals of such serious teen issues as suicide, rape, bullying and gun violence. Giving season two the benefit of the doubt, she weighs in on her frustration and offers a couple suggestions to Netflix, because, of course, there’s a third season in the works. Oy! Caution: Spoilers ahead.

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When Season Two of the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why dropped on the streaming service about a month ago, I hesitated to press play. The series — which deals with sensitive issues of teen suicide, drug abuse, rape and bullying — is based on a 2007 young adult novel by Jay Asher titled Th1rteen R3asons Why, which I read and appreciated as an eighth grader. When Netflix announced an adaptation executive-produced by an actress/singer popular with teens, Selena Gomez, for the stream-screen, I anxiously awaited its release. Contrary to expectations, though, I grew infuriated with the binge-watchable melodrama’s irresponsible portrayals of teen suicide and other teen issues. Alas, somehow, 13 Reasons, Season 2, sucked me back in.

Hannah Baker, the catalyst for the melodrama, whose creation of cassette tapes blaming her suicide on various teens and adults, leaves destruction in its wake.
Hannah Baker, the catalyst for the melodrama, whose creation of cassette tapes blaming her suicide on various teens and adults, leaves destruction in its wake.

Season One Faithful to Book, Season Two Goes Rogue

13 Reasons begins in the aftermath of Hannah Baker’s death by suicide. She left behind a series of cassette tapes, each dedicated to a peer or school administrator at Liberty High School who is a ‘Reason Why’ she chose to end her life. Hannah instructs her listeners to pass the tapes along in the order which they are numbered, and the students abide considering Hannah’s warning that a master copy exists in trusted hands. 13 Reasons first season follows Clay, Hannah’s friend/ secret-ish admirer, on his first listen through the tapes. Hannah, a pretty new girl in school, becomes a target for bullying. She is hyper-sensitive to the snubs and insults she receives in the toxic environment at Liberty High, where every cliche of teenage life is present- the geek, the jock, the bad cheerleader, the closeted lesbian… the beer pong parties where girls are encouraged to drink too much, where “something” happens to them that get swept under the rug/covered up.

Hannah Baker created the tapes. Here, Clay Jensen is listening to them and thinking about her.
Hannah Baker created the tapes. Here, Clay Jensen is listening to them and thinking about her. Courtesy of Netflix and “13 Reasons Why” website

Hannah’s tragedy isn’t the only tragedy these kids encounter, other truly horrific events occur – fatal car crashes, rape, attempted suicide by handgun, and more.

After Hannah’s parents get a hold of the tapes, Season Two goes completely rogue from the novel, following a legal battle between Hannah’s parents and Liberty High. Under the impression that Hannah’s cries for help went unheard in classrooms and counseling offices, they accuse the school of negligence. The rest of Hannah’s story is told through the flashbacks of those testifying in the court case.

Some Things 13 Reasons Gets Right

It’s through the court testimonies that 13 Reasons becomes an expose of American youth culture altogether. The trial calls attention to favoritism towards athletes in high schools, the pressures of preparing for the future, and administrations’ failures to bring an end to rape culture. As the teens testify in court, telling tales that their parents had never heard before, the trial also displays how little parents know about their child’s lives. Mass violence, sexual assault, part-time jobs, internships, drug abuse, social media, school clubs, college applications, team sports—this is teenage life in America.13 Reasons paints us a vivid picture of that experience. A show like this is necessary, but the lessons of 13 Reasons fall on the wrong ears.

Graphic Depiction of Suicide

13 Reasons makes several questionable choices in handling tough subjects for a youthful audience. For one, while Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), which provides guidance for media outlets on how to address suicide, advises media against “showing or describing suicide methods and locations,”* as to reduce risk of copycat suicide,13 Reasons depicts Hannah’s death in detail on screen. Nic Sheff, a 13 Reasons writer, penned an Op-Ed for Vanity Fair in defense of the show’s portrayal of Hannah’s death. Sheff feels confident in the show’s depiction, and believes that presenting the details of Hannah’s death may ultimately save a life. At the very least, Sheff is grateful the show sparked much needed discussions.

Sheff isn’t totally wrong. Not only is America recovering the loss of two cultural legacies, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain; but suicide related hospital visits have tripled in recent years, since 2008— the most at risk population being teenage girls just like Hannah.** Maybe if Americans do start talking about suicide more openly, it’s prevalence in US culture will decrease. However, testing that theory on young people is irresponsible.

In the two weeks after season one premiered, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine*** found that internet searches for “suicide prevention hotline” rose 21% higher than is typically expected. That’s awesome. At the same time, searches for “how to commit suicide” also appeared 26% higher than expected. 13 Reasons was marketed towards young people and produced in the style of teen shows like Gossip Girl or Riverdale. These statistics illustrate the dangers of a young audience consuming mature content. While some teens find solace in connecting with the teen drama, others feel overwhelmed and powerless to the seemingly unstoppable force of misunderstood teen issues.

Expecting Teens to Change the World

“I just really hate what it expects of high schoolers,” Hannah Silverman, a viewer of the show and my friend, wrote in a message after finishing season two, “Clay cannot stop a school shooting like that.”

My friend Hannah is referencing the finale of season two, when Clay unrealistically prevents a school shooting. The season ends with the gunman hopping in a getaway car, Clay left standing outside of the school, rifle in hand, police sirens blaring—one of the most serious teen issues of our time — mass shootings at schools — spun as a season finale cliff hanger.

It’s not only that 13 Reasons expects high schoolers to single-handedly prevent a mass shooting; this show expects teens to make massive cultural shifts which adults should be held responsible for making.

Suggestions: Market to Adults; Stronger Warnings; Parental Passcode

Had 13 Reasons been marketed to and produced for an older, more mature audience, it has potential to serve as a resource for adults to better understand youth issues and implement change. It’s not kids that need exposure to the horrors of teen life in America—they live it every day. It’s parents, teachers, trusted adults who don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a technological age of mass violence.

Netflix did include several warnings throughout the show– each episode begins with a warning label describing the sensitive content involved, and at the start of each season the cast addresses the audience, warning viewers of the mature content and recommending that kids watch with a trusted adult. However, considering 13 Reasons is a show which exhibits just how secretive teen’s lives can be, it’s absurd to believe a kid will grab an adult to watch the show with them rather than binge the series in the darkness of their bedrooms after their parents think they’ve gone to sleep. A more effective warning message would require a parental passcode before continuing.

Finally: Slow the Pace, Use/Create Adult-Only Channel for Sensitive Subjects

As Netflix renews 13 Reasons for a third season, I suggest Producer Gomez and team upload the season to an adult-only channel inaccessible to kids. Parents then can share the show with their kids if they wish, helping them digest the heavy content and put into perspective that one day high school will be a mere distant memory. I also suggest the show stray away from the action-adventure-mystery energy it has maintained for two seasons and adopt a slower, less kid-friendly pace that is more attractive to an adult audience. In catering to the wrong audience, 13 Reasons misses an enormous opportunity to educate viewers, change minds, and catalyze change for a brighter future.

NOTES

*Save.org website about preventing suicide.
**New York Times article
***Journal of the American Medical Association article

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