I honestly wasn’t going to watch the latest trendy Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”. I had heard various criticism from different areas in my life and I honestly didn’t want to watch TV to feel upset. But after many people also recommended me to watch it, “because you are a therapist”, I thought it would actually be good to understand how society may be seeing some of these issues.
And aside from being a “binge-worthy” kind of show, and being an artistic and cinematographically well done show, it has some very problematic representation of many issues. These issues by themselves would be difficult to tackle in a show, but together send some very confusing ideas. I would like to go over some of the most important ones and share how, in my opinion, the show gets it right and wrong. I will try to not give away major spoilers other than general story themes.
It is definitely not a show for teenagers
Netflix categorizes this show as “TV-MA”, or “for mature audiences”, adding “it may not be suitable for children 17 and under”. It speaks to me about the irony of a story that is lived by people under 17 that cannot be watched by them, as if what teenagers usually live is almost unbearable given their maturity.
Bullying is a big topic on the show and although it may touch on some components, it does little help to shed light on the issue. Sure, the show is not a documentary and has every right to be sensationalist, but I still think some aspects could have been brought up.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 40 to 80 percent of children will be bullied at one point of their school career. According to them:
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions.
The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to “cause” the bullying.
So without going much deeper on the topic I see a couple of misinterpretations that the show does. One of the worst factors of bullying is the factor of repetition that we see in the definition. We may see some of that on the show, but not through the same people always, it’s almost like it’s separate incidents that make someone feel bad. It is not usually the case.
Another important detail in the definition is that the person being bullied does nothing to cause it. This is very unclear in the show as the protagonist is reminded of how she is “bringing this to herself”. Very dangerous statement that I see constantly brought up again.
If you are interested in learning more, check out The Bully Project to access tons of resources on the topic for educators, parents or students. They have help for many things, like what to do if you are being bullied as well as a toolkit for educators to bring to their schools.
Suicide and Mental Health
The topic of suicide is represented throughout the TV show with some (but little) understanding of the phenomenon of suicide. This is such an important topic that I believe it would need a separate post. Mental health in general is not represented in any realistic or useful way. I don’t want to spoil the show but definitely the portrayal of the counselor is not the best we could have gotten (and yes, I am biased on this one) and it could make other teenagers think that they should not ask for help.
A quick search on google scared me, as the first websites when searching for suicide content are not very well founded. I personally disagree with the notion of blaming and scaring youth to not kill themselves. It has proven to be an unsuccessful method (quick google search of news) and I personally think it’s counterproductive to wanting adolescents to have honest and meaningful conversations with adults.
On the basics of what you need to know, suicide is more complicated than just deciding to kill yourself or not. It is true that it can be prevented, if the person goes to counseling, takes medication and/or has a good support network that can notice the warning signs. However, even with those strength factors, someone may decide to kill themselves. It is also true that bullying, sexual assault and stress can be risk factors for teenagers who are already struggling with their sense of “being”.
One thing I was very against of is the depiction of the actual suicide with the method. Multiple researches (this or this for example) have found that depiction of suicide in media and news actually increases suicidality in the target population of that media. To do this in the show for artistic purposes is very irresponsible, in my opinion.
If you or anybody you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, remember the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or check out their website.
The show does poorly in representing sexual assault in any useful way. We all should know by know that women are not believed and slut shamed when they come forward with allegations of sexual assault. By representing the same idea, and by showing rape in a very graphic way, the show does nothing to help on this issue. It does represent rape culture in the way that many of us have gotten to know it. But by itself, it becomes more of a problem than anything else.
I do think 13 Reasons Why represents sexuality in a more realistic way than other shows. Through the eyes of hormoned teenagers we learn about fluidity, exploration and about the difficulties that come from understanding one-self and our needs. If anything, it exemplifies (through the act of not addressing it), that consent is something that needs to be taught in schools, prior to the ages in which adolescents are sexually interested.
If you want more info about sexual assault, RAINN is doing great work on a national level. If you need help, visit their website or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
How well is adolescence represented in the show?
These people are the generation ‘Z’ers, those whom some adults have described as the saviors of the wrongs that all the previous generations have done. But what we see depicted is more of the old ‘millennials be millennials’ content. They are represented as entitled, spoiled, struggling, self-serving, selfish, sex and drug oriented youth. Is this all true? Without wanting to talk for them (although my answer is a clear no) this great article of non other but Teen Vogue has some brief commentary from teenagers themselves.
What can we do?
So, I have explored some of these issues and given you just a couple of resources to get more information for you, your children, or your students. I think it is great that many people are reflecting on these issues and talking about it. It’s really good if our teenagers are talking to us about it. But, I also believe wholeheartedly that, awareness, for the sake of it, it’s useless. Prevention, however, is useful. And awareness campaigns are usually in the very beginning of prevention, but they are not enough.
For all of these issues, we need to educate ourselves if we are privileged enough to have access to information. If you can contribute into other people having this education, do! This goes from crating training for teachers about bullying, legislating for sexual education, creating caring environments in our schools, or as simple as making sure that no child goes to school hungry. I am sure that the writers of the show did not expect to change the world with 13 Reasons Why, but they sure should have given it more thought into what they could have done to better help our society in some of these problems.
If you want to contact me for anything, you can do so here, or in the comments bellow!