Last week, I powered through the entirity of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why within the space of three days.
It’s no secret that I love a good teen TV show. And 13 Reasons Why has all the makings of excellent storytelling. The episodic format, where we are drip fed information at a pace that leaves you compelled to watch more immediately, is highly engaging. The portrayal of teenage life is relatable rather than glamourous or aspirational. The ‘love story’ aspect has the irresistible combination of being endearing yet tragic at the same time.
As a piece of storytelling, it is a good one.
But… because of the subject matter, and because of the impressionability of the target audience, I’ve been unable to simply call 13 Reasons Why ‘a great show’ and leave it at that. To say I’ve had mixed feelings is somewhat of an understatement. I’ve been coming back to it in my thoughts for the last week since finishing the 13 episodes, still unsure of how I actually feel about it on the whole.
Does 13 Reasons Why genuinely do a good job of raising awareness for suicide and depression? For impressionable and vulnerable teenagers? Or does it do the opposite – enabling and justifying the behaviour it portrays?
Since finishing the series, I’ve read a lot of opinions on 13 Reasons Why. Arguments that vary wildly. Indeed, after watching the first few episodes of 13 Reasons Why, my own opinion was swiftly veering towards “Here we go, another glamourised portrayal of what it means to be a teenager going through issues”. But, by the end, 13 Reasons Why didn’t feel particularly glamourous at all, and I could identify numerous worthwhile takeaways from the storyline.
The thing is, I was watching 13 Reasons Why through the eyes of my teenage self. I grew up during a time when films and TV were in a phase of romanticising teenage angst, depression, and self harm. Looking back, I have a LOT of fun memories of secondary school. But, at times, my friends and I were a moody bunch. We’d pour over films like The Craft, Girl Interrupted, Virgin Suicides, Empire Records, Cruel Intentions, and not forgetting older classics, like Heathers. It was ‘cool’ to be an outsider, to feel like the world was against you, to have issues. We took these examples from our screens and applied them to the emotions we were experiencing in our own day to day lives.
And none of it was in a particularly positive way.
So, for the person suffering with overwhelming teenage insecurity and angst, what does 13 Reasons Why tell them?
That killing yourself could be the thing that FINALLY gets the person you like to care for you? Yes, you might not be there to experience it, but at this point far, far down the tunnel of teenage angst, that could be the only logical outcome you can conceive. Far more logical than the likelihood of it happening if you don’t do something drastic.
That you can blame your friends and peers for your actions and fulfill the sort of emotional revenge fantasy that every despairing teenager has imagined at one point or another?
That you can go to your teachers / elders for help. But don’t expect them to actually be any good at assessing the help you need?
That the onus is on ‘testing’ your friends, peers, teachers, and family? “Some of you cared. But none of you cared enough”.
That you can take the biggest decision you can ever ever make about your life, and attribute the blame everywhere else but yourself?
For this person, I worry about the impact a show like 13 Reasons Why might have.
For everyone surrounding this person, I feel like 13 Reasons Why is an exemplary show to watch.
It does an excellent job at raising awareness and empathy for bullying, consent, and being kind to people.
Of demonstrating that someone can be deeply troubled, without you having any idea. “What does it look like? It looks like nothing”.
It deftly portrays the snowball effect that can happen when one person’s idea of a small, harmless action affects another person deeply, with far reaching consequences.
As a mother of boys, I thought 13 Reasons Why was good at depicting what it is to create respectful relationships and attitudes towards women, as well as drawing a very clear line between this and the complete opposite – what not do to under any circumstances.
13 Reasons Why does a great job of emphatically portraying emotional immaturity – all the unsaid things that you lack the confidence and conviction to be honest about, not realising that everyone else is also struggling with those same insecurities.
13 Reasons Why provides a great example of how differently things can turn out when you open up. When you are honest and genuine, rather than trying to play it cool, or hide your true feelings.
13 Reasons Why gives us a great example of a very important quality – That being a kind person and reaching out to people is one of the best things you can do. (Was I alone in feeling rather emotional at Clay and Skye’s exchange in the last episode?)
Watching 13 Reasons Why through the eyes of a parent gave me yet another perspective on the subject matter. The last episode was very hard to watch, and has stayed in my thoughts. It has made me think, waaaay in advance, about the importance of maintaining good communication and understanding with my own children when they are in that stage of life.
And, ultimately, it’s the parent in me that feels uneasy about what 13 Reasons Why actually says. Impressionable teens watching alone or with their friendship groups could certainly take away a reductive interpretation to suit their needs at that particular time.
But, when watched with, or followed up by a discussion, with the adults in their lives, 13 Reasons Why could provide the starting point for a really important conversation. It could be an extremely valuable tool for parents and teachers and friendship groups. If my boys were teenagers, I would like to watch this with them and welcome it as a basis for a discussion.
I hope 13 Reasons Why is embraced as a conversation topic between students and teachers, parents and their children. Used as an opportunity to discuss interpretations and opinions on the events and actions depicted in the show, used as a vehicle to help us understand each other better.
I know it can be incredibly difficult to get that dialogue going between teenagers and adults, and if 13 Reasons Why can help to bridge that divide, then it could be a very positive thing.
Have you watched 13 Reasons Why? Where do you fall in the helpful VS harmful debate? I’d love to hear your opinions.