A few weeks before spring break, one of my students told me I should watch a show on Netflix called "13 Reasons Why." She told me the premise, (she said it was about a girl who commits suicide and the clues she leaves behind about why she did it) and because I'm a sucker for mysteries of any kind, I decided to check it out. I finished the last episode today.
I don't really write "reviews" about things on here, but I want to say a few things about this show. My student's synopsis was actually pretty good. But, if you haven't watched this show- be warned- it is devastating. The language, the content, the message- will wreck your sensitivity. It simply isn't for everyone.
I made it through for a couple of reasons. As a high school teacher, I try to stay connected with my students by getting on their level. I'm not going to listen to their music or use Snapchat- I'm just too old for that-but I try to select a couple of cultural things each year to engage in. More specifically, I wanted to try to connect with this student- a young lady who is spending time in tutoring, and yet, with whom I've had a hard time connecting. In teaching, connection is everything.
So I watched, even as things progressively worsened throughout the story. The plot is dark to begin with. The main character, Hannah Baker, has recently killed herself, but before doing so, created a series of 13 tapes explaining the various reasons why. Though dark, the premise is intriguing, and it's hard to not just let your Netflix take you into the next episode and then the next and then the next... And yet, with each episode, with each escalation of violence and use foul language and portrayal of sexual exploitation, I wanted to stop watching. I was frequently disgusted by the graphic nature and sexualization of heinous acts, and the abundance of foul language. I grew tired of the portrayal of adults as bumbling, but well-meaning idiots and high school students as angsty, artsy geniuses who seemed to have no limits and were never held accountable- either in school or at home. I was also very confused about the overall point the creators of this show were trying to make. But I wanted to see where they went with it. Because, underneath all of that filth, there was something going on- a message that might just be worth tuning into, and I wanted to get to the end of the message and see if it was worth wading through the muck to get it.
The jury is still out on whether the message- that bullying is a terrifyingly serious reality- was worth me watching it... so that's not the reason I'm writing here. I'm writing here to convey a couple of thoughts that were important to me as I watched the show.
This show is written by adults and it is most definitely for adults. If you have a teenager, do not let them watch it. Something that Hollywood does not get that high school teachers do- teenagers are still kids. You can feed them scripts in which they say words like "existential" and "Orwellian" but the teenagers who are watching this show do not have any idea what that means. Thousands of kids will watch this show, and I'm doubtful that they can actually digest the onslaught of sex, violence and partying and then discern the "meaning" underneath it all. Much of the nuance is lost on young minds- the adult creating it might see an opportunity for something artistic, expressive, even cathartic for his or herself, but most kids are just caught up in the raw events of the plot itself. Additionally, what is portrayed on popular TV shows does, in some ways, legitimize the experiences depicted in the shows. Even if the intention is to show that sometimes really bad things can happen in such and such circumstance, when the circumstance appears on a TV show in a seductive way, kids are going to be drawn into that circumstance, even if they were, up to that moment, naive that such a thing exists in the world. I fear that what teenagers will gain from watching a show like this is that some of the things depicted are actually "normal"- and just to give you an idea of what is depicted- there are high school keg parties, drugs are bought and sold, drinking and driving results in a traffic fatality, there are two rapes, two suicides, and toward the end, a kid seems to be building up an arsenal of sorts in what appears to be the fledgling stage of a plan to shoot the people who have bullied him. Most disturbing of all is the theme that drives the rest of the story- Hannah is telling about all of these events as she records the tapes- the "reasons" why she has committed suicide. My greatest fear in watching this TV show is that teenage suicide has been twisted to serve a purpose in story that's perhaps meant to be cautionary, but is in fact, a revenge plot. And revenge is very sexy and exciting. Who doesn't like to hear a story about someone getting revenge? One of my favorite books is the Count of Monte Cristo- simply because the Count spends so much time and detail connecting the dots back to the people who betrayed him. There's something similar with what Hannah is doing in this show. She carefully chronicles the wrongs she has suffered, and then sends them out into the world where they at last turn heads and get people motivated to do the right thing- because she is dead. Whether she "intends" the tapes to be a way to to "get back at" the people who caused her the pain and suffering that drove her to suicide isn't exactly clear, but that's exactly what seems to be happening as the show progresses. But let's not forget that Hannah is not the Count of Monte Cristo. He is motivated to create a new life. She ends hers. And what could be more serious, or more seriously off track, than planting the idea in the underdeveloped frontal lobe of a teenager that there is some poetic justice in getting back at one's enemies after committing suicide. I don't know that the creators of the show intended that message to be a part of the show, but for me, it was impossible to ignore that the plot could be twisted in such a way.
I like art in all forms, and I really do think that this show has some artistic elements, and likely was trying to accomplish something good by taking some risky "artistic" license with this topic. As a would-be story-teller myself, I give the benefit of the doubt to the folks who created this show, but I felt so strongly about its potential to create a lot of confusion and chaos for young people that I wanted to write about it.
Before I shut this down, I want to say this- good came from me watching this show. Albeit probably not quite in the way the creators were hoping for, but who know? One of the major take-aways for me in watching this was to be even more vigilant and engaged as I interact with students everyday. Each day, there is a temptation to see the work and not the student. But watching a show like this reminds me that they are real, and there are really things (even things like this show) that are out there to steal, kill and destroy. So in these past few days, I've been as intentional as ever to hold them accountable, and make eye contact, and help them see what I see. I see you. I see you where you are. I see you where you can be. And I care about both. Maybe that is one reason why Hannah Baker isn't a total waste of my time or yours- but I'm old. Keep your kids away.