Thirteen Reasons Why Not: Sensational New Show Raises Controversy
On April 28, parents received an email from Head of School Bruce Dennis that expressed concerns about the shocking content depicted in 13 Reasons Why, a hugely popular Netflix series that had been released a month prior. The email warned of the show’s graphic and largely decontextualized portrayal of substance abuse, rape, and suicide.
“We feel that this show is absolutely not appropriate for our Lower or Middle School students, and we even have serious reservations about Upper School students watching it without added context,” read the email as it cautioned parents about the possible negative impacts of the show on young students.
13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s novel of the same name, tells the story of a high school student, Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves 13 cassette tapes in her wake, each detailing one of the factors that led to her death. As the audience listens to the tapes along with the protagonist, Clay Jensen, the traumatic events that occur in the weeks leading up to Hannah’s death are displayed in 13 uncensored, harrowing episodes.
In the past, the book has been included on Packer Middle School summer reading lists, and Asher himself spoke to the Middle School about his book a few years ago. Within Packer, the novel is almost universally accepted as a positive learning tool for Middle School students, given the correct context and environment, in its examination of serious and crucial issues that pertain to the lives of students.
However, the television series is rated TV-MA, which classifies it as unsuitable for those under the age of 17.
“I feel like reading something, you see it through your own lens, and seeing something, it’s like you don’t have that opportunity for your own filter to kind of make sense of it,” said Health Teacher Bessie Oster on the differences of the book and the series. “The graphic nature of the actual suicide and sexual assaults are pretty hard to watch.”
Although the creators of the show argue that they depicted her suicide so graphically in order in order to warn against it, mental health studies suggest that portrayals of self-harm such as this one have the opposite effect.
The promotion of the novel as appropriate for middle school students has led to younger students watching the show with the understanding that it is just as appropriate. With Netflix easily accessible to anyone with a computer or phone, students can watch the show without the knowledge of their parents.
Singer Selena Gomez is one of the producers and the public face of 13 Reasons Why, and the show was promoted and advertised largely over social media, especially on Instagram. Despite the content rating of the series, this mode of advertisement, which seems to target an audience of teenagers—Instagram-savvy Selena Gomez fans—adds yet another layer to the mixed signals younger children receive about 13 Reasons Why.
“The thing that is problematic to me is that, because the book targeted younger kids, the assumption is that the TV show is just fine for them too,” said Ms. Oster. “It’s horrifying to think of a 10-year-old potentially watching this young person grapple with a very serious issue and ultimately take her life. That’s a lot for a 10-year-old to wrap their mind around.”
When Dr. Dennis noticed the attention that the show was receiving from younger students, in conjunction with the mental health concerns surrounding the series that had begun to emerge, he felt compelled to reach out to parents.
Suicide is always a difficult and complex topic to discuss, no matter the medium. When an issue as sensitive as suicide is explored, there is great room for error, but at first, it seemed as if 13 Reasons Why got it right. The show was released to immediate critical acclaim and became a widely celebrated sensation, especially among teenagers, in a matter of days.
Soon, however, the landscape of media attention surrounding the show shifted drastically, and “glorification” became a buzzword. Amid this mediastorm of criticism, Netflix added trigger warnings to the beginning of the show.
“Anything that makes something like suicide seem in some way kind of romantic sends probably the most problematic message about suicide, because people often think, ‘oh, if I killed myself, people would appreciate me, people would miss me’, all that side of suicide, as opposed to the tragedy of it and the sadness of it,” said Carlos Prieto, Upper School psychologist.
The first shot of the TV show is of Hannah Baker’s locker, covered in flowers, sweet notes, and pictures of her. The viewer soon learns that Hannah had few close friends in her lifetime, and yet is being showered with love after her death.
“It sends the message that suicide is an option, and that it’s a good option,” said Kaitlin Flores (‘19). “That’s not okay.”
“It teaches that your actions have consequences, and that what you do can actually have a serious effect on someone, even if you don’t know it,” said Davis Robertson (‘20), highlighting some of the beneficial lessons the show teaches. “I think that there is a certain amount of flexibility with any art form, and that it can’t be taken too seriously.”
However, while labeling the show as an overt glorification or romanticism of suicide may be a stretch, it is widely agreed among mental health professionals that the show normalizes suicide.
“It’s portrayed as if this is a very typical high school experience, and I don’t think that is a healthy thing to normalize,” said Ms. Oster.
In terms of the impact the show can have on students, Dr. Dennis hopes to impress that this is no small issue in Packer.
“I’m pretty cautious about not wanting to flood the community with words of advice, and telling people how to raise their kids, but we’ve always tried to communicate with families if we think there is an issue of safety or risk,” he said.