Wednesday, April 26, 2017

13 Reasons Why: 13 topics to consider

I’m reading blogs from a number of people who are upset about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The criticism is harsh. Some are saying that it glorifies suicide, encouraging teens to consider it a viable option, or that it advocates suicide as an effective means of exacting revenge on those who have wronged you. They are advising parents not to let their teenagers view it.  

I had to find out what all the fuss is about. Last weekend, I was finishing up my post-Easter vacation week and I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why for two days. To be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to watch it any other way because it was written in a way that always pulled me forward into next episode, and I couldn’t turn it off.

I do not agree that it glorifies suicide. The suicide scene was so terrifying that I had to look away. In the book, Hannah kills herself with pills. In the film, she slits her wrists. I don’t know how anyone could have watched this scene thinking it’s a cool thing to kill yourself. It was horrific!

I found it to be an engaging show that I really wished I could have watched with teenagers. If you’re the parent of a teen, I won’t say that you should let them watch it. But I will say that, depending upon the maturity of the teenager and your relationship, this film offers an opportunity to explore some important topics, and I can imagine that you might have many hours of good discussion while viewing it together.  

If you have teenagers in your home, and if you would like to take your relationship to a deeper level by watching and discussing 13 Reasons Why together, let me offer some possible fodder for discussion. It seems only right that I should offer 13 topics to consider.

1.       High school is depicted as a cruel, heartless place in this series. It’s a wonder anyone survives it. Is it really this bad? Is the social status of students (jocks, nerds, etc) a reflection of larger society or is high school a unique environment? Is the pressure to get into the right college an ever-present threat? Are friendships more important than doing the right thing? How are girls treated differently than boys? Are teachers as clueless as they appear in this series? From your experience, what seemed like a true depiction of high school and what was false?

2.       The bullying in this film seems over the top. Is this the way high school really is? Hannah isn’t the kind of person you would imagine being bullied; she is bright, smart, pretty. What does this say about people who are the targets of bullies?

3.       There are so many kinds of fear in the film: fear of being exposed for who you really are, fear of being rejected, fear of being perceived weak… As you think about each of the main characters, what they are afraid of and how does that fear drive their actions? (As a person of faith, I can’t help but think about how faith, which is the opposite of fear, might have made a difference. I noticed the absence of faith in the film.)

4.       I wonder if Hannah might represent more than one young woman in one high school. Is she like a composite character who experiences what so many other young women experience: harassment, objectification, slut-shaming, unwanted groping, rape? Are these common experiences among young women? Hannah seems hyper-sensitive to all of it. Nothing goes unnoticed. Is she more aware than most? Or is this just what it looks like when a young woman is paying attention?

5.       Consider the credibility of the narrator. Hannah doesn’t always tell the truth. For example, when Zach receives a note from her, she describes how he crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. In fact, he kept it. Does she see the world through a distorted lens where everyone is against her? Is her thinking twisted because she’s depressed?

6.       In her mind, Hannah knows how her narrative will end from the beginning of the first tape. Does she make the tapes, which she leaves as an extended suicide note, to get revenge, or to justify her choice? What is her motivation for making the tapes? (That may be at least as interesting to consider as her motivation for ending her life.)

7.       Does anyone in a healthy state of mind decide that it makes sense to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution like suicide? Or is it the choice of someone who is depressed, someone who experiences so much pain in life that they would do anything to make it stop? How much do you know about depression? If a person is struggling with depression, how can we give them permission to talk about it?

8.       It’s important to talk about suicide. You don’t plant the idea in someone’s head by talking about it. The best thing you can do with someone who is contemplating suicide is talk with them about it. Often, simply hearing oneself say the words out loud is enough to make sense of the thoughts. Do you know what the warning signs are for someone who is contemplating suicide? (You can find this by doing an easy internet search. Every person, especially every teenager, should be aware of these signs to watch for in their friends.)

9.       Some people fear that teenagers will watch 13 Reasons Why and be persuaded to commit suicide. Is that giving teens enough credit? They see actions in movies all the time they know are wrong and they know better than to copy them. In fact, if people are worried about young people copying the actions they see in movies, aren’t there are much worse movies that you should ban from their viewing—movies that glorify violence, racism, misogyny, illegal drugs, casual sex…? And don’t the destructive behaviors in this film clearly come with consequences? (which is more than one can say for a lot of movies, TV shows, video games, posts on social media)

10.   The main character in the series, Clay, considers suicide himself, but he decides against it. How was he different from Hannah in the way he reaches a different conclusion than she does?

11.    Clay makes the statement that any one of the people Hannah exposes on her tapes could have changed the outcome—if any one of them had helped her, she would still be alive. Is that fair? Is it true? When someone takes their own life, who is responsible?  

12.   Tony has a sense of loyalty to Hannah throughout the series that may be hard to understand. He's bound and determined to honor the wishes of a dead person, even when they don’t make sense. How important is it to keep a confidence when someone is in danger, or to protect someone you love at great cost to others? As a loyal friend, was Tony complicit in Hannah’s craziness?

13.    In 13 Reasons Why, the high school students live in their own world, which is completely closed off from the adults in their lives. The adults are not perfect; they make mistakes. But most of them care deeply about their children. Despite this, the teens do everything they can to hide information from their parents and teachers. The adults are expected to have superpowers and pick up on subtle clues, and the teens expect to navigate their struggles on their own. Does this ring true for you? How might 13 Reasons Why have played out differently if the adults and high school students had talked to each other about what mattered?  


  1. I agree with you that this series didn't seem to glorify suicide. The real story here seems to be more about bullying. I have been disappointed by all the negative publicity that has been directed towards this series. I love the fact that you have turned it around as a real opportunity for parents to talk to their teens about some real issues. I have been disappointed by a number of parents who have read some of the negative reports written about this series and who have just forbidden their teens from watching without taking the time to view the series for themselves and formulating their own opinions, a real missed opportunity for some real honest serious dialogue. These are tough times for teens and they could use some real support from adults rather than adults ignoring that these issues exist. Thank you Nancy, you really nailed this one as always.

  2. I haven't seen the series. I'm not sure that I will. It was kind of like watching Father of the Bride when I was planning my wedding. Too close to home.
    I am the mother of 2 boys -- 21 & 23. The 23 year old sailed through high school. The 21 did not. When he was 14, he told me that he would kill himself if I made him go back to 'that school'. He is not dramatic. He is a low key kid. I believed him and we moved him to a school that he chose where he finished with good grades and a scholarship to a good college where he is very happy. He's been in therapy since he was 13 and on anti-depressants.
    I asked him recently if he would like to go back and see his teachers at the second school. "No, Mom. I loathed high school."
    I think it hard for teens to communicate to their parents when things aren't going the way 'they are supposed to'. I cherished the time in the car on the way home from school as those 15-20 really gave me a window into what was going on in his head. When he started to drive himself, I invented reasons weekly why I needed him to go with me somewhere just to have that space to listen to whatever music he was into and peek into how he was doing. His art helped. Getting him a personal trainer helped. Having a great doctor was crucial.
    I am thankful to God that we have passed through that time. He still has rough patches but nothing like those days. I give thanks every night for his wonderful psychiatrist and Lexapro.
    One of his buddies has a brother that is experiencing his own version of high school hell. I asked and my son told me it was ok to call the mom. When I did, she sobbed for a solid hour wondering what she had done wrong and what could she do to make it better. All I have is 1)get a good doctor that the kid can connect to and 2)get a good doctor for you.
    I think that if this series had been available when he was in high school, I would have tried to watch it with him. And it would have been a good opener to talk about suicide and what it does to the left behind. I'm not sure that he would have agreed to it even though we were and are pretty close.
    Thank you for the thought provoking 13 list. Being the parent of a teen is a scary thing. Scarier still if high school is hell.


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