Teen bullying expert on how Netflix’s new show fell short
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the show 13 Reasons Why.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which tells the story behind why Hannah Baker, from a white picket fence town with an almost perfect family, committed suicide. From being raped by a popular boy, to witnessing her friend’s sexual assault, to her best friends turning their backs on her, Hannah endured countless acts of bullying, which she chronicles on 13 audio tapes that are passed around to her friends after her death. On the show, which was produced by Selena Gomez, we witness Hannah’s friend, Clay Jensen, helplessly wish he had known what she was facing, so he could have been there for her. We also watch as her peers (like character Zach Dempsey) sit on the sidelines and watch her demise. But despite the heartbreaking scenes and soul-crushing realities depicted, as I watched the show, I wondered, does 13 Reasons Why glamorize suicide?
Welcome to Liberty High, a place where the truth will always prevail. Liberty High is the setting for much of this show, and it is also a familiar place for many teens. As a 19-year-old who deals with the issues of online bullying every day – both as a blogger and as the founder of Media Impact and Navigation for Teens (MINT), an organization that works directly with teens in school – I think it’s important to approach the conversation of online bullying and suicide carefully. And I’m not sure this show did that.
As I watched, I found the aftermath of her suicide troubling. In real life, when someone commits suicide, their story ends there. 13 Reasons Why failed to end Baker’s story, since she lives on through the tapes. We become captivated by the drama of the suicide rather than the actual suicide itself.
Most teens don’t leave tapes for 13 people to realize how they assisted in someone’s suicide. Due to the tapes, we don’t witness the utter emptiness and grief that occur after someone commits suicide. Dead is dead, and as much as it may be hard to portray that on screen, 13 Reasons Why fails to end the last episode with closure. For teens who are battling mental health issues, witnessing the end of a life as easily as the show portrayed it could help desensitize kids to this very serious matter.
Even the adults in the show act questionably. Before the suicide, Hannah admits to a counselor that she is feeling lost and empty – clear signals of depression. As she talks about her sadness and anger, instead of being admitted to a clinic, the distracted employee simply gives her a box of tissues to heal her wounds. Had 13 Reasons Why showcased other forms of outreach, like therapy, teens watching it might realize that there is always an option that doesn’t include self-harm.
Teen suicide is still the second leading cause of death for teens – over 5,000 kids attempt it every day in America – and we have to approach the topic as a society if we ever want to see those numbers fall. We have to educate faculty and adults about the negative power that social media has with regards to suicide and rape culture. Whether that means switching the curriculum taught in health class, or more importantly, teaching health class past ninth grade: something in the world needs to change. Every school should take advice from 13 Reasons Why and put up posters with free hotlines and counseling services in the hallways. Do school boards really need to watch a show to realize that, though?
However, there were some ways that 13 Reasons Why succeeded in portraying what it’s like to be in teen in 2017. While it might have glamorized suicide, it doesn’t glamorize the very serious downside the Internet can have on teenagers. One of the characters, Justin Foley, sent around a sext in the first episode that catalyzed the defamation of Hannah’s reputation. Another picture was sent around by Hannah’s stalker, Tyler, that is a picture of Hannah drunkenly kissing another girl. Because she is kissing a girl, the teens insinuated that she is promiscuous, and the barrage of insults began. One innocuous picture can start a string of nasty words that can’t be taken back, which is important for young adults to understand – and something I tackle constantly when I present at high schools for MINT.
Instead of showcasing the tragic ending to a life, we witness a school become captivated by the drama of suicide. There will always be people who feel like they have no one to talk to, and those are the people most at risk whom we have to figure out how to reach. Suicide is not the answer. You don’t have to be part of a statistic larger than any of us can understand to end your pain.
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