Unless you’ve had your chicken head under a rock, you’ve heard about the newest Netflix sensational series: 13 Reasons Why. Should you watch it? Should you let your kids watch it? Do you need to watch it together? Far be it from me to tell another hen what to do concerning her chicks but here are my 13 Problems with 13 Reasons Why.
Teens and Tweens everywhere are obsessing over 13 Reasons Why. They aren’t the only ones. Everyone from arm chair psychologists to Christian radio celebrities have been talking about Netflix’s newest show, based on the popular book by the same title by Jay Asher, and its relevance to kids today. Everyone is weighing in on if parents should be using the series as a springboard for starting heavy discussions with their children. It tackles everything from suicide to bullying in today’s American culture.
You’ve seen the ads, you heard the hype and you’re still wondering: Should we be watching 13 Reasons Why? Maybe yes…maybe no. Aside from flagrant adult language, mild violence, and disturbing sexual assault scenes, there were several issues of concern that I noticed running through the series and I’m here to lay them out for you.
Here’s your parent’s guide to 13 Problems with 13 Reasons Why:
1) Flippant about Finality
The main focal character of this show is Hannah who seems very much like your average, everyday, American teenager. So, it should come as no surprise to any parent of a teen/tween person that she has a tendency to be a bit…flippant. As a parent, I am used to my daughters being flippant about many things: their classmates’ behavior, their room cleaning efforts, their dedication to Biology homework. There is really one area that I think they probably shouldn’t be flippant about- Death.
From the very first episode of this series, we get the feeling that Hannah isn’t taking her suicide too seriously. The tapes set a tone of exaggeration and self-deprecation. Making light of our own mortality is nothing new to this genre. Other characters in popular young adult fiction, such as Hazel and Gus from The Fault in Our Stars, also minimized their terminal conditions but it seems irresponsible and immature coming from someone who dies by their own hand.
BOTTOM LINE: Life is considered sacred in our home. It was disturbing to see the main character talk about hers with such little regard.
2) Revenge…From the Grave
While many other young adult authors have tackled the subject of suicide portraying somber characters in somewhat gritty fashion, 13 Reasons Why seems to take the melodramatic to a totally new level.
Producers claim the show focuses on how “insignificant actions of individuals can have a profound cumulative affect on others”. It feels more like a “Pretty Little Liars” episodes with the anti-heroine gaining redemption through revenge after death. This feeling is perpetuated by the fact that ALL of the tapes are given to ALL of the list participants…meaning everyone hears everyone’s tape. The premise of the show is a circa 1990’s way of airing everyone’s dirty laundry.
The way the show is filmed in flashback, gives the illusion that Hannah is ever present to witness the “confrontation” of her offenders. This is obviously not true, but it can be very easy to forget how this filming technique skews reality and gives a romanticized view to young adults that are considering suicide and want others to see the pain they have caused them.
Another shocking aspect of this series is that, by and large, no character catharsis occurs after having listened to their own tapes. Instead of contemplating how their actions have contributed to the hurt of another, many are instead concerned with keeping their actions from becoming known by others.
BOTTOM LINE: This isn’t a story about hurt and repentance. Most of the ripple effects caused by Hannah’s actions are not focused on the pain her choice causes, only the scrambling of others to save their reputations in the aftermath.
3) He Said, She said…
Gossip and slander are definitely tackled in this series. It’s one reason 13 Reasons Why is a great teaching opportunity to show young people how often relationships can be unnecessarily strained through misunderstandings. It shows how we can present “facts” in a way to justify our actions while not fairly representing other parties. It is a shame that so many characters in the show participate in slander and gossip without truly showing any remorse for their actions or how it effected another individual.
Because this show is set from the first person viewpoint of one of the characters, all of the events that take place are colored by that individual’s views. While that makes for good TV, it also means that the story being shown is often one sided, missing information, or conflicting based on whether Hannah knew all of the facts before she chose to tell us her story.
The irony in all of this is Hannah blames the misrepresentations made by other characters for her decision to kill herself even as she turns around and does the exact same thing. She also never atones for her misrepresentations. It muddies the water when the person we are supposed to feel sympathy for is engaging in the very behavior we are supposed to abhor.
BOTTOM LINE: In our house we teach that you say what you mean and mean what you say. Encourage your kids to delve deeper into rumors and find out all the “facts” before passing judgement on others.
4) Rebuttals are Futile
As mentioned above, Hannah chooses to confront those who wronged her after death. Because of this, the characters involved have no way to reach out, explain or atone for their slights (some quite small and some large). Hannah repeatedly laments that no one cared about her or tried to talk to her about the things that were going on in her life, but by confronting the other characters in this manner, she has removed any ability for anyone to do exactly that. We are left with are a first person account of events that are then shared with many parties (some of which were not even at fault) where the accused has no way to defend themselves against their accuser.
Throughout the series, there were many times and many opportunities for Hannah to reach out to those that cared about her. She chose not to all the while convincing herself she never had the opportunity.
BOTTOM LINE: The main character in this series exhibits a very immature way of dealing with the conflict around her. By refusing to open up to people who hurt us, we keep ourselves from being able to heal or allowing others to make positive change.
5) Raising the Petty to Painful
There are some pretty bad things that happen to Hannah during 13 Reasons Why. There are also some pretty small slights that almost seem pretty petty when you are trying to justify taking your own life. While it is difficult for parents to understand why some things we view as trivial can make such an enormous impact on the fragile teenage psyche, some events in this series are truly heinous.
By “producing tapes” for both the trivial and the awful, 13 Reasons Why elevates the small slights that we should be teaching our kids to overcome to the same height of awful situations such as sexual assault that should never be overlooked or minimized. Instead of making everything seem important, it trivializes the latter by lumping it in with generalized teenage behavior.
BOTTOM LINE: While gossiping and misunderstandings are a part of every teenagers journey, sexual assault and rape SHOULD NOT BE and shouldn’t be painted with the same wide brush.
6) No One is Innocent…Even the Innocent
The main theme of this series involves 13 audio recordings that are produced by Hannah before she kills herself. Each tape centers around a particular person that contributed to her decision to end her young life. This is made clear from the very beginning of tape #1. The tapes are then distributed as a whole collection, to each person “owning” a tape. However, the first person that we see “experience” the tapes is Clay, a young man who is left in turmoil for days. He cannot fathom anything he has done to Hannah to contribute to her decision to take her own life.
When all is said and done, Clay is right. He has done nothing to warrant Hannah taking her own life. Certainly nothing that any young, shy, teenage boy should be made to feel such heavy guilt over. Clay’s only crime against Hannah is that he didn’t profess his feelings for her. While this situation may make for sensational fodder in a teenage TV drama, exactly what lesson does this teach young viewers? Are we trying to tell kids that they should be making relationship choices based on how the other half will or will not react, or do we want them making these choices based on what is best for them personally?
BOTTOM LINE: Emotional blackmail and manipulation are heaped upon characters in this series. Make sure your kids understand that they should never feel pressured into commitment with another person based on the manipulative actions of the other individual.
7) Overly Accountable…Except for Hannah
This is a show about teenagers. Teenagers are limited in their decision making by both cognitive and structural constraints. While some of the infractions that Hannah experienced should never happen, regardless of age, some were so slight in nature to be easily explained by young people just not always being the best decision makers.
It seems unfair to lay the burden of a person’s suicide at the feet of someone because they chose to act immaturely and hide someone’s compliments. Should they suffer because they weren’t at an emotional level where they felt comfortable starting a deeper relationship? Is it unforgivable to be unable to comprehend how delaying one decision would lead to an awful car accident…but that’s exactly what Hannah has done.
While spreading rumors and telling lies and passing photos of someone should not be encouraged, I wonder if the implications of this show will be to frighten young people. Will they second guess every interaction they have with classmates for fear that they will in some way cause that person to do something drastic. Ultimately, Hannah chose to kill herself. Hannah.
BOTTOM LINE: Teens/Tweens make mistakes. They should be taught to use their best judgement but to also expect grace when they don’t have all the answers.
8) Adults Can’t be Trusted
During the course of Hannah’s story, she approaches two adults in an attempt to reach out for help before deciding to take her own life. In one case, while well meaning, her teacher minimizes her experiences and adequate help and guidance isn’t provided. In the second attempt, the adult in authority belittles Hannah and refuses to provide any real help at all.
The message in 13 Reasons Why is very clear: Don’t bank on the help of adults around you. They will not understand and will only cause further harm. Not only is this a false premise, its dangerous to perpetuate an “us” against “them” dichotomy when sometimes only adults are equipped with the knowledge to truly handle certain circumstances. This is NOT the lesson we want our kids to learn in our home. In fact, it is the opposite.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re going to let your children watch this show, be aware that the fallacy that adults are undependable needs to be addressed and corrected.
9) Parent’s Can’t be Bothered
This problem centers around the same theme as mentioned above. During the course of Hannah’s story, her parents are completely unaware of the hardships that Hannah is facing. They are extremely distracted with other ongoing issues in both their finances and marriage. Instead of the family unit coming together to help Hannah through this trying time, her parents are kept in the dark. They are left picking up the pieces after their child inexplicably decides to take her own life.
While I am sure the show is trying to present the disconnect that occurs between many teens/tweens and their parents, you could argue that presenting Hannah’s parents as completely self-absorbed only reinforces a dangerous stereotype that perpetuates the myth that kids today are “facing it alone”.
BOTTOM LINE: This show portrays parents as being unreachable and disconnected to their children’s lives. Make sure your kids realize this is not the case in your home.
10) See Nothing…Say Nothing
You’ve heard the hype. 13 Reason’s Why tackles difficult themes: The worst of which are suicide and sexual assault (rape). A character (Justin) in the series is granted a tape because he leaves his intoxicated girlfriend to be raped by another boy from her high school. We find out that Justin does nothing to stop the assault while it was happening. However, Hannah also witnesses the rape and does nothing to help her friend or stop the attack.
This show takes a horrible crime (rape) and instead of focusing on the true victim (Jessica) concentrates all attention on the two characters that had the ability to stop the attack but chose to do nothing. You would think that if the series was going to go in this direction that eventually the people that sat by and allowed it to happen would experience some type of growth or there would be some type of moral “lesson” learned. Nope. Poor Jessica is just left to find out by listening to a tape that the assault happened and that those closest to her knew and did nothing.
BOTTOM LINE: I want to raise kids that have the moral fortitude to stand up and do the right thing regardless of how they are “feeling” about their lives at the time. Helping others in the time of crisis should transcend your personal baggage.
11) Perpetuating Misunderstandings, Lies, and Foolish Decisions
Everyone in this show makes awful decisions…repeatedly. Almost the entire cast is made up of characters with incredibly tragic flaws that cause them to place themselves in danger and prevents them from being able to communicate in any real way whatsoever.
Is this what we are to believe is happening all across America? Are there really no well-adjusted high school kids out there that don’t drink, talk to their parents, and can hold an intelligible conversation with their friends when their feelings are hurt? Throughout the entire show, it is difficult to find many characters that exhibit normal behavior or have normal relationships with anyone.
By presenting only the bad, this show reinforces the stereotype that all teens/tweens make awful decisions when left to their own devices. I don’t normally look to TV programming to exhibit role models for my kids, but good grief…this is ridiculous. My own daughter was left wondering if SHE is the weirdo.
BOTTOM LINE: Make sure your kid understands that this is not an afterschool special or some public service announcement type broadcast. The characters on this show are stereotypical and NOT representative of the whole.
12) Where’s Hannah’s Tape?
All of the people responsible for Hannah taking her own life are given recordings. But, there is not one specifically made for the person that bears the most responsibility of all: Hannah. It’s very difficult to talk about this without it sounding like I am blaming the victim but the entire show posed a real problem for me as a parent:
How do we raise kids that feel in control of their lives when they are watching a show where the protagonist has decided that everyone’s opinion/actions/decisions are more important than her own?
This is not about belittling a young person that feels at the end of their rope. We need to be there to support them and help them to work through the problems that they encounter with friends, boyfriends, classmates, etc. But, I can’t help but think that while we are listening and trying to empathize, we also need to be teaching them that all of that “stuff” that they think is SO important… is really temporary and fleeting.
BOTTOM LINE: Raise your kids to know that THEY control their own destiny. We can raise kids that are considerate of the feelings of others, but ultimately, they themselves must be responsible for their own actions.
13) Hannah May be the Biggest Bully of Them All
Hear me out. I believe that really, Hannah is the biggest bully in this entire series. If Hannah weren’t dead, if she hadn’t committed suicide, and had made these tapes and distributed them to all of these people, what would be the reaction towards her?
In many cases, she takes very personal accounts and has made them public to people that aren’t even involved in the situation. She blows many events completely out of proportion as a way of attracting attention regardless of who she is hurting. She blames individuals for slights without first giving the person an opportunity to explain themselves. She causes innocent individuals to beat them selves up emotionally over things they haven’t even done. She takes the time to speak personally to all of these people that “wronged” her, yet doesn’t do the same for her parents who are devastated by their loss.
In my book, that my friends, is a bully.
BOTTOM LINE: While this show might be helpful in showing the inter-connectedness between events and how relationships can be hurt by miscommunication, the main character of this show is NO heroine. As a parent, while you obviously wouldn’t want your child to take their own life, there is not a lot of Hannah’s other behaviors that you would want to see your kids emulate.
Should you let you kid watch 13 Reasons Why? Maybe…maybe not. As with any pesky parenting decisions, the right answer often depends on you personal parenting priorities and style and now you’re armed with the parenting guide to show you my 13 Problems with 13 Reasons Why. The show is useful in sparking discussion with teens about taboo topics such as suicide, personal responsibility, sexual assault, and bullying. But- you might want to make sure you watch too, or have some talks to remind your kids what they’re seeing on the screen isn’t just sensational- it’s fictional.