My last blog entry, an immediate post-viewing impression of 13 Reasons Why, was generally a favorable review. I thought that the series was effective in raising awareness of teen suicide, bullying, and the complexity of such a tragedy. Dr. Andrew Pegoda, fellow blogger, presents a compelling 13-point argument why he believes the series did not effectively address the matter of suicide. Because I was moved by the show, because I believe that it was an effective agent of suicide awareness, and because I have time on my hands, I decided to respond to Dr. Pegoda’s points, all 13 of them (really?).
- 13 Reasons Why is about suicide. It is not a public service announcement, however. It is a fictional psychodrama. It does not set out to analyze suicide. It sets out to provoke a conversation by telling a fictional story of a teen’s experiences that led to suicide. It seems to have been very effective at that goal. How do I know this was the series’ goal? Well, the director and producers said so.
- In cases of suicide, people in the victim’s life often blame themselves. The point isn’t that the police or the parents or the teachers were blaming any of those kids for Hannah’s suicide. The point is that the kids were blaming themselves. That’s a fairly typical response and one that was countered by numerous adults in the show and some of the kids themselves. This self-blame was exacerbated by Hannah’s tapes, which are at once dramatic stage prop and essential vehicle for provoking the conversation. The confusion and blame and anger and fear and denial that was portrayed is what grief can look like. Suicide is messy, and not just for the dead person.
- 13 Reasons Why is not a Jumanji-esque game. It presents many factors that contribute to suicide. The writers took dramatic license with how the story unfolded because, well, they actually wanted people to watch the show. Dramatization does not invalidate the story nor the message. It keeps people watching. As I state in my original article, I saw displays of peer pressure, jocks vs. geeks, sexting, slut-shaming, binge-drinking, drunk driving, bullying, and so many other common yet potentially hurtful circumstances portrayed in this series. All of these things can contribute to a teen’s suicide depending upon how it unfolds and their interpretation of these events.
- 13 Reasons Why is a very white, suburban show. The majority of high schools in the country still look like white, suburban patriarchal havens because whites are still the majority. It would not have been possible to present this message in a way that reached all audiences. I saw that the producers worked hard to include people of color in a variety of roles. It still felt very white and very suburban, I hear you. I don’t think it’s possible to reach all audiences in one show. Clearly, a marketing decision was made to target a majority audience. It is what it is.
- 13 Reasons Why is entertaining, but not a comedy. Of course it’s entertaining, it’s a television show! No one would watch if it wasn’t. I didn’t see comedy anywhere in this show. It was pretty serious. Might some adult viewers have chuckled at the way the kids seemed to blow things out of proportion? Yes, myself included. Yet, that’s exactly what kids do. Their brains don’t work the same as adults. That’s a scientific fact. But I didn’t see any use of comedy. It was dead serious.
- 13 Reasons Whyis set in Anytown, USA, any time in the last decade or the next. If I’m a producer or a director, I want my series to relate to as wide an audience as possible. For this show, a specific place or exact time is not needed to deliver the product, and might actually serve to detract from the point as people attach norms and expectations to precise places and times. You wanted a hampster?
- 13 Reasons Whyis entirely fictional. Yes, yes it is. It makes money. Yes, yes it does. Cinema and television are businesses. Even documentaries generally hope to make enough to at least pay their producers and film crews. This does not negate the message or the reach. Imagine trying to get actors and sets and props and crews and a studio to take it to market on zero dollars. Often the only way to get a show on the air or in the theaters is to make it profitable. What, exactly, are your expectations here?
- 13 Reasons Why is entirely fictional. I wouldn’t say that I found the characters or storylines or relationships “illogical or impossible”, because I have lived in the real world where people who are innocent go to jail at an alarming rate and students are awarded diplomas without being able to string a proper sentence together. I’ve also had some seriously odd relationships, so none of it seems implausible to me. But even if it is, it’s fiction, so…
- 13 Reasons Why portrays a somewhat mature version of high school life, but it is high school nonetheless. Again, from a marketing standpoint, the filmmakers want these characters to appeal to high schoolers and adults. From an outreach standpoint, the message is as much for teens as it is for their parents. I didn’t view the behavior of the teen characters as particularly mature, to be honest. They have that kids-in-adult-bodies vibe that is familiar to anyone who has raised a teenager. I thought the acting was quite good in this way because, as the good Doctor points out, the actors were all adults. They acted very adult at times, yet feared their parents and teachers like little kids. This is a pretty spot-on portrayal of teenage angst in my book. I found it met my expectations that Clay (child of liberal professor and lawyer) and Tony’s (child of proud and independent Latino-Americans) parents were more permissive and trusting, that Courtney’s dads were hovering, and that the others were scattered across the socio-economic and parenting spectrums, including Bryce’s absentee wealthy parents. High school kids tend to be secretive, their parents seldom know what’s going on at school or with whom they interact, they are smarter than we adults think, and less wise and mature than they think themselves to be. I thought the producers and directors got it about right.
- 13 Reasons Why does address bullying and social media. Yes, yes it does. I’m sorry it didn’t do it to your satisfaction. Again, one show cannot be all things to all people. It would suck if it tried. That, by your own admission, there is another perfectly good film that addresses gay/straight normative issues, there is no need for this series to veer so far off its intended course to address that matter, as well. This is perhaps your most subjective and unsupported claim.
- 13 Reasons Why ultimately confronts violence. Well, yes, violence is shown and addressed in this series because violence is a huge part of our culture. At no point did I perceive the use of violence in this show as glamorized or inappropriate. I thought that it was presented as an important and realistic part of the overall dynamic. If there was a scene in which violence was used gratuitously, it would be when Bryce beat up Clay in Bryce’s living room. That was an odd scene, although it was in keeping with Bryce’s overall power-tripping, man-boy, jock persona (especially the post-fight whiskey, which was presumably a move he learned from his absentee father). But I digress. Overall, I felt the use of violence was apropos of how things escalate when so many rumors and secrets are swirling.
- 13 Reasons Why has a clear message about teen suicide. The message is that the warnings signs can be subtle and the cry for help faint. The message is that bullying, sexting, rape, and even seemingly harmless pranks can leave a teen feeling isolated and hopeless. People contemplating suicide do not wear a sign on their foreheads saying “help me”. The message is “don’t be a jerk.” It could be fatal.
- 13 Reasons Why ends with one kid reaching out to another. Yes, another kid attempted suicide and at least two more are out there with guns. We are left to assume the school counselor does the right thing on the legal side of things but we don’t know.
It’s a television drama designed to make us think about important issues facing kids today. It’s supposed to make us talk. It has done exactly that.
Anyone that wants to know more about the producers’ and director’s intent can hear it in their own words.