I finished watching the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why this morning. High school in America is so vastly different from my high school experience in the Netherlands on every level, and it never ceases to shock me.
I wrote the following in response to a question a parent had on a school parent Facebook page. It’s aimed at parents who are wondering about the series but who don’t have the time to watch the whole thing themselves, so I’ll be going all out with spoilers.
A high school girl (Hannah) commits suicide and she has left seven tapes, with thirteen sides recorded, each side focusing on one person who played a part in her getting to the point of suicide. Before she kills herself she sends the tapes to the first person, who is instructed to give them to the next person on a list until everyone involved has listened to them.
The viewer follows along as Clay, a boy who was madly in love with Hannah but was afraid to show his feelings, listens to the tapes. It’s flashbacks and Hannah’s voice as well as scenes where the kids involved are trying to cover up events Hannah mentions on the tapes, for various reasons.
And the series manages to fit practically every high school drama in there. The rich jock school hero who seems about to get away with raping Hannah and another girl; a boy who’s homeless half the time to avoid getting beat up by his crackhead mother’s boyfriend; a lesbian who’s deep in the closet and wants to keep it that way; a photographer nerd who is also a stalker and who gets tripped up and shoved around on a daily basis at school; a girl whose vodka intake steadily increases, at home and at school, and who finds out after the fact that she was raped when she was passed-out drunk at a party; a boy who considers himself a journalist with artistic tendencies who takes the liberty of publishing a deeply personal poem by Hannah in a sort-of school paper without her permission; Instagram photos that do the rounds, suggesting that Hannah’s “easy”; a drunk driving accident involving a stop sign falling over, leading to a second car accident in which another high school boy is killed; a boy whose cop father is about as affectionate as a concrete driveway; the school counselor who asks the wrong questions when Hannah tries to tell him that she was raped at a party; and finally her parents, who are having problems with their business and who chew Hannah out for a mistake she made on the one day that that chewing-out was the last drop in the bucket…
As I was watching the first half I wasn’t sure what to think and where it was going. I felt that it was putting a lot of responsibility on the kids; however, as it goes on, and you learn about the rapes and the attempts to cover them up, and when the counselor and the parents are also mentioned, it gets more balanced out.
I have to say that I did have to suspend quite a lot of disbelief. To begin with, the fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds are mostly played by actors who are clearly well into their twenties, and the sophistication of the dialog and the intrigue are also at a much higher level than what goes on at the average public high school, which is supposed to be the setting here. (This may be something high school kids watching the series wouldn’t notice, since they often feel so much more grown-up than they are.) And then there’s the question: would a girl with all the insight Hannah has into herself and the role others have played in her misery actually kill herself? Or, would a suicidal teenager go through all the trouble of creating those tapes, and the insight that comes with it and then still kill herself? I don’t know, and ultimately that doesn’t matter–the tapes are the vehicle for the story.
My first thought after watching the whole series was that it’s mostly eye-opening to parents, because the high school drama is nothing new to most (public school) kids. It does a good job of showing parents the secret life of kids, and how we adults can be completely in the dark. There’s something for everyone to relate to.
In one scene, when Hannah is trying to talk to the counselor, he asks what her friends say, and she tells him she has no friends. He says that sure she does, what about [name], and I see you talking with [name], etc. I’ve been guilty of the same thing with my daughter. I’ve pointed out how there seem to be a lot of kids saying hi or hugging her when we walk through her school. But she says there’s a difference between real friends and hallway friends. Hallway friends can act as if you’re their best friend ever, but then they leave to go hang out with their actual friends. Hallway friends–what a cynical term for a seventeen-year-old to be using.
After thinking some more, I felt that of course the series still has something to offer for kids as well. It shows how everyone has issues that others aren’t necessarily aware of, and that being unaware can lead to misunderstandings, misjudgments, etc. Hannah is a bright, beautiful girl, who on the surface seems to have everything going for her. But kids can be lonely in a crowd. There are the kids who will watch 13 Reasons Why and get that, but they were probably already the more considerate kids. I wonder to what degree it will change any bullies’ hearts and minds. It definitely provides plenty of discussion material.
In the last episode you see Hannah sit in the bathtub and kill herself. It’s a shockingly violent scene; Hannah herself is clearly unprepared for the way the blood gushes out when she slits her wrists. This scene is every parent’s judgement call to make, depending on their child. It could be a deterrent for a child who has contemplated slitting their wrists, seeing the actual horror of it, but it could just as well be something a child in an extremely self-destructive state could emulate.
Unlike most American high school shows, 13 Reasons Why doesn’t end on a terribly happy note. Clay comes out of his own head a bit and gets over his insecurity enough to approach a girl who he thinks might be lonely; the other girl who was raped eventually tells her father, and the jock rapist will probably go to jail. But the policeman’s son shoots himself in the head and the last you hear about him is that he’s in critical condition, and the nerdy/creepy photographer kid is shown to have a secret weapons cache, suggesting that, barring some intervention, there could be a school shooting in the near future.
Ultimately, I expect that high school kids–especially in public school–will recognize a lot, and they will probably also appreciate the fact that they are taken seriously, in the sense that the series doesn’t have a Disney ending. There’s no clear-cut solution, and it’s a problem that will always be around to a certain degree.
For me as a parent it’s only marginally comforting to know that my daughter isn’t the only child out there who hates high school. The big take-away for us is to stay involved, if we can. But sometimes when you ask about something, you’ll get to hear, “It’s complicated, Mom.” After seeing this–dang girl, I believe it!
There’s a lot of controversy about the series. Should kids watch it or would it do more damage than good? Would it give already depressed teens ideas? If you want my opinion, this is out there–there’s no way to prevent your child from watching this if they want to. It would be good to watch it with them, or if it’s watched in school in combination with discussion led by someone who really knows what they’re doing. The problem is that it’s thirteen episodes. How do you monitor the kids in between screenings and discussions until you get to the end, to prevent any troubled kids from acting on what they’ve seen so far? I don’t know. Schools and parents unite, I suppose. I was just made aware of this site with good tips for discussing the series and the subject matter in general. Good luck out there.