CW: suicide, sexual assault, bullying
Updated 5/29: When I first wrote this review I was just beginning blogging. Technically, I’m still a beginner blogger as I’m only about 1.5 months into my adventure, but this post was written before my blog even went live. It was written before I found my voice and before I felt comfortable with my own opinions. While I still stand behind much of what I said, there are some troublesome aspects of this show that I would like to mention and discuss, things that I wasn’t sure I was valid in feeling until recently.
13 Reasons Why follows young wholesome Clay Jensen (played by the wonderful Dylan Minnette) on his search to understand why his friend and crush, Hannah Baker (played by Katherine Langford) committed suicide. Shortly before her death, Hannah recorded her story on cassette tapes explaining 13 reasons that led her to her choice to kill herself. This unique perspective on teen drama is very welcome in a time of cliche shows and remakes, however, it is not without issues.
First, what I liked:
My favorite thing about the show? The magnificent acting. Each member of the cast certainly carried their weight, delivering smooth performances and showing the audience their ability to truthfully portray devastating circumstances. Kate Walsh’s portrayal of Hannah’s mother was intense and heartbreaking. She spends half the show with a red nose from all of the crying she is doing. Once I adjusted to this different picture of the actress, I could take in the true beauty of her vulnerability on the screen.
My favorite performance came from Dylan Minnette. Parents out there may recognize him from the Steve Carell family comedy, Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which was an adorable film we can discuss at another time. In three short years, you can see that the actor as grown into himself. His performance was honest and gut wrenching. His shifts from his livelier and carefree self from before Hannah’s death, to his dark, guilt ridden grieving self, were gracefully executed. He quickly became my favorite of the show and I am routing for him to have a long, beautiful career.
The story of 13 Reasons Why seems simple enough, but very quickly twists, turns, and complications develop. I want to add a disclaimer, however, they do have scenes depicting graphic rape and suicide which could definitely be triggering for some. The show does not shy away from calling out social issues, such as: bullying, suicide, sexual harassment, sexism, rape, addiction, and a school’s responsibility for the well being of their students. It leaves the audience questioning their own social responsibilities to others.
But, here’s what’s problematic:
You have to wait until the very end to get that message. Until the last couple episodes, I was very concerned about the message the show was sending. In fact, I could often be heard screaming, “It’s not your fault!” to the uncaring TV. But, the end wrapped up the message for me and helped me make sense of the overarching story. If a kid sits down to watch this show at a normal pace, instead of my watch-a-whole-season-in-a-day pace, this could prove to be incredibly dangerous to them. It really isn’t until the very end that we get any kind of positive message or hope.
The very first thing we learn from the show is that Hannah Baker has killed herself and she believes that 13 people are responsible for that choice. Therefore, she has recorded a tape for each and every person she blames to explain how they led to her suicide. The concept of social responsibility is important, people need to understand that they have an impact on other people, but the show ends up depicting Hannah as committing suicide purely out of revenge and hate. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but my understanding is that most people commit suicide out of feeling: depressed, alone, lost, and out of options. The show ends up making it seem like suicide is a really great way to get back at everyone who hurt you. Let me be clear about this: it absolutely is not.
Schools and teachers absolutely need to understand that they carry a responsibility for their students’ well being. Parents need to be aware of signs of depression and anxiety in their teens and seek help for them if something seems off. All of the adults in 13 Reason’s Why seem blissfully unaware of what the kids are doing, what being a teenager is like, and what their responsibility to the kids is. I think this can be a great eye opener for anyone who has kids or works with kids, but I also worry about the message that it sends to teens who may need help.
I try to steer clear of absolutes, so correct me if I’m wrong, but as I remember it, there wasn’t a single adult on that show that Hannah, or any of the other kids, could go to and trust. That can reinforce the polarization that already exists in the minds of many teens, that it’s “us against them” as far as teens and adults are concerned. Teens need to know and understand that there are people who they can talk to. Not every adult is so incredibly out of touch and self-involved that they can’t sit down and truly listen to what you have to say. I taught teenagers and spent many of my hours in the classroom sitting with a teen while they cried and expressed their feelings, whether they were overwhelmed, angry, scared, sad, or anxious. Teenagers need someone to listen to them, whether you understand what they are feeling or not, so that they know that they are not alone. I mean, don’t we all?
The bottom line is: this show has beautiful and powerful acting, it tackles some pretty important themes, and can serve as a catalyst for necessary discussions. It’s a popular show, kids are gonna watch it, so to say “just tell ’em it’s bad and to stay away” won’t help. Talking about what is both good and bad about the show can be powerful and could lead to surprising breakthroughs. If you haven’t yet watched the show and are considering it, I hope you’ll keep these points in mind as you view it. And if you, or anyone you know, is considering suicide, please know that you are not alone. You have options. And there are people who want to help.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
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