The show most tweeted about, 13 Reasons Why, was made to spread awareness that bullying in schools is a major problem, sometimes resulting in suicide. This is such an important message, but I believe it is a message that was poorly – and dangerously – delivered. I implore Selena Gomez, Brian Yorkey, and the other producers to make changes in order to deliver an accurate message with a realistic solution.
Warning: This blog article contains adult content and spoilers.
13 Reasons Why was too graphic.
The show was based off a young adult novel by Jay Asher; the target audience was teenagers. However, the show included too much adult content for it to be appropriate to the target audience. In fact, the show is rated TV-MA. According to TV Parental Guidelines (1), the rating TV-MA means, “This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17.” Why create a show for teens with a rating that excludes teens? This defies common sense.
Had 13 Reasons Why taken out some of the cussing, drug and alcohol prevalence, sex, and toned down the graphicness of the rape and suicide scenes, the show would have reached its target audience appropriately and still maintained authenticity.
The crude language and alcohol use is in-your-face in the Netflix show. Someone please give the writers a thesaurus. The amount of cussing, especially “f*ck,” is repetitive and accomplishes nothing other than assisting in a TV-MA rating. Why can’t we see an example of what happens when a teen makes good decisions? Even the book doesn’t have half as much cussing as the show. The excessive alcohol use is shown as a normal, accepted, expected part of high school, when that is simply not true (nor legal, nor healthy). There was only one instance in all of Season 1 where a character turned down an offer for alcohol. The show could have offered examples that show teens don’t have to give into peer pressure, they don’t have to break the law to have fun, and life is smoother when we don’t make drunken mistakes.
The sexual content in 13 Reasons Why goes above and beyond what is necessary to get the message across. For the moment, let’s save the two rape scenes for later and discuss some other scenes. A sex scene is included in Episode 8 between Jessica and Justin that is unnecessarily graphic – a scene that never happened in the book, as Jessica and Justin weren’t even dating in the book. In another episode, we see Clay masturbating to a picture of Hannah and Courtney kissing – neither of which happened in the book. In Episode 11, Hannah and Clay’s first kiss quickly goes from sweet and hesitant to stripping and groping and only stops from progressing when Hannah has flashbacks – and again, in the book, all that happened was kissing. It’s honestly awkward for an adult to watch a sex scene between two teenage characters. It feels like watching child porn (albeit soft porn), and it technically would be, except that the actors are all adults. The actors have to be adults for this reason. If the show cannot use teenage actors for teenage characters, it’s probably a good idea to tone it down a notch. The movie To Save A Life, has a scene where sex was simply implied, but nothing sexually graphic was shown. The two teens go into a bedroom, but what happens in the bedroom is left unseen. Using creative means to allude to sexual activity rather than bluntly showing it would also help bring the rating to TV-14.
I was curious to see the portrayal of high school parties in the media is accurate, especially concerning alcohol, drugs, and sex, so I took a poll in a group on Facebook. The group consists of people I have never met who come from all over the USA and also from other countries. These people come from different backgrounds and beliefs. I asked 235 people “Were high school parties sometimes, always, or never as wild as those portrayed in the media?” The results:
These numbers show that while some parties really are as wild in reality as shown in the media, not every high school student goes to crazy parties, and not every party or get-together involves drugs, sex, and alcohol. Therefore, it is unnecessary for a show (or young adult literature) to constantly include such wild parties with graphic scenes.
The rape scenes are extremely graphic. I like what one blogger (2) had to say about the rape scene, “They did a good job of showing Hannah (the girl who committed suicide) and how she felt during the rape, but watching her body writhe with each thrust was completely unnecessary and not something we needed to watch in order to understand the gravity of the situation. When you read something, your mind is only going to let it go as far as your mind can handle but when you watch it, you are at the mercy of someone else’s mind, and this time 13 Reasons Why did a poor job of understanding how much high school and middle school aged kids can handle.”
Katherine Langford (Hannah) did a fantastic job of having her face go blank. Her eyes seemed lifeless. Many survivors of rape disconnect from themselves to cope with the rape both during and after the crime. I thought it was important to show that she tried to get away but never said, “No.” Sometimes, rape survivors do not scream for help or say no. Sometimes they shut down. That does not equal consent, and I think this scene was a terrific example. Unfortunately, due to the vividness of this scene, the message gets lost. Even if only the thrusts had been left out, it would have been more appropriate – yet just as meaningful – for teens.
Hannah’s suicide scene was also extremely graphic. This is a problem that is important to recognize. Guidelines exist in how the media should portray and report suicide. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (3), “Suicide contagion is the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide and can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors. Reports of suicide should not be repetitive, as prolonged exposure can increase the likelihood of suicide contagion. Reports should not divulge detailed descriptions of the method used to avoid possible duplication. Reports should not glorify the victim and should not imply that suicide was effective in achieving a personal goal.” An article by First Things (4) does a great job going into greater detail on how the show went against each guideline.
Why is it important to follow these guidelines? A quote from the organization Reporting on Suicide (5) says, “More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration, and prominence of coverage. Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.” While it may sound strange that suicide is contagious, think about all the other emotions and behaviors that are contagious. How do you feel when you’ve been around someone who is high-strung? Do you feel anxious? Some people follow fashion trends without even realizing they are doing it. (Skinny jeans and leggings, anyone?) Do you find yourself yawning when someone else yawns? The fact is, many behaviors, including suicidal thoughts, can be contagious. Because studies have proven this, it is important to be proactive in discussions and education about suicide, but to follow the guidelines created by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
13 Reasons Why sends the message that suicide is a solution, self harm is an acceptable coping skill, and seeking help is useless.
Knowing about suicide contagion, it is likely that 13 Reasons Why could easily trigger someone to choose suicide. Not only that, but the suicide scene was a graphic tutorial in how to kill oneself. This contrasts with the novel, in which we know Hannah used pills to kill herself, but we never had a suicide scene. Clay speculates how it happened, but we never know what pills she took, how many, where she was, how she was found, etc. The Netflix show had Hannah use a different method of suicide – cutting the arteries in her arms – and included a graphic scene showing every detail. Brian Yorkey said in Beyond the Reasons that the decision to make the suicide scene so graphic in the Netflix show was to make it uncomfortable to watch, to dissuade anyone from doing it. Unfortunately, I think their method did the exact opposite of what they wanted. It made the perfect how-to guide, complete with longitudinal incisions – a detail I desperately wish 13 Reasons Why had left out.
I have come close to attempting suicide twice. When I watched the suicide scene, my first thought was, “That was easy.” Hannah definitely seemed scared while doing it. She did act like it was physically difficult to do and like it hurt. But after those few seconds of difficulty, she sat back and relaxed. Her lips trembled slightly for a moment, and then she looked sleepy and peaceful. She didn’t cry. She didn’t seem to regret her decision. Her breathing, which had quickened during the act, slowed in the aftermath. I wish the writers had done the opposite. I wish the easy part was the act of cutting. I wish Hannah had cried, had asked herself, “What have I done?” I wish she had shown what happens to your body when you bleed to death… that you shiver and become incredibly cold. You become gray. Honestly, I thought the blank look in her eyes during the rape scene was more haunting than the peaceful expression during her death. Thank God I did not see this episode as a teen considering suicide, because it might have convinced me to go through with my plan.
It is already too late to hope that no one who watches this show follows through with suicide. Two teen girls, who did not know each other, committed suicide shortly after watching the show 13 Reasons Why, according to a KTVU news report (6). Whether or not the show was a trigger, it is clear the show did not offer them hope. It did not give them advice. It did not offer answers – except for the suggestion that suicide is the answer.
The Netflix show and the book portray Hannah was successful in her goal. She couldn’t get her message across while she was alive… that she felt unsafe, that she felt alone, that she saw no purpose, that she wanted justice. But she achieved sending that message through her death. Not only did she send her message, but she got revenge through her death. We all have wanted revenge on people who have hurt us, or at the very least, justice. In the show, all the characters are indebted to Hannah because of her death. These misleading aspects provide great incentive for viewers to copy Hannah.
Dear readers, getting a message across is not worth ending your life.
Another message the novel, but especially the show, sends is that asking for help only makes things worse. The characterization of the teachers, school counselor, principal, vice principal, and parents offer not a single example of someone a teenager can go to for help. In fact, adults in this show are totally oblivious. None of the parents knew when their teens were sneaking in or out of bedroom windows. In Episode 1, the communications teacher was lecturing on nonverbal communication. Meanwhile, all the students are texting each other an innocent, yet unflattering, picture of Hannah going down a slide. The teacher tells students to put away cell phones, but they ignore her; she has no control, and she is completely unaware that something is going on. She fails again in Episode 7, where she receives an anonymous note about suicide, but she did not do much to discourage anyone from suicide, aside from provide hotline numbers. She barely attempted to moderate the discussion.
The character who gives the strongest message that teens should not seek help is the school counselor, Mr. Porter. He had zero control over the Honor Board students in Episode 6. When Tyler came to him in Episode 5 for help because he was pantsed, Mr. Porter essentially asks Tyler what he did to provoke the boys. And while that is a question that needs to be considered, it was not the proper time to ask. But worst of all is the scene between Mr. Porter and Hannah in Episode 13. Hannah tries to tell Mr. Porter about her encounter with Bryce. Mr. Porter cannot be blamed for not knowing what exactly happened to Hannah at the party, but he should have asked about rape using the word “rape,” and he should have reported to Hannah’s parents immediately that she said she saw no reason to life and he suspected rape or assault.
Readers, please let me tell you, you do not have to die to make people listen to you.
So where should someone turn if they are struggling? According to Skye in Episode 11, cutting is a coping strategy. She says, “It’s what you do instead of killing yourself. Suicide is for the weak.” As someone who struggled for three years with a cutting addiction and has been in recovery for 11 years, this line ripped my heart out. Let’s be extremely clear about this:
Self harm is a coping strategy, but not a healthy coping strategy.
Self harm does not mean you are strong.
Self harm is dangerous and can result in disfigurement, infection, and death.
Self harm does not mean someone is not suicidal.
While I self harmed, I struggled with suicidal thoughts. I took a poll in a self injury awareness group to see if I was in the minority. I wasn’t. Out of 154 people polled, 88% said they have contemplated or attempted suicide. Only 12% said they had never considered suicide. Parents, teachers, and counselors – I beg you to know that if someone is practicing self harm, they are likely considering suicide. Please consider self harm a red flag – not a trend.
Readers, please know that you do not have to punish yourself. You do not have to feel pain to feel alive. You are worth so much more than you know, and you deserve better than self injury.
Perhaps the second season of 13 Reasons Why will address some of these issues. Perhaps the adults that finally became involved in the last episode of Season 1 will redeem the show. Perhaps some good examples of what a person should do will be shown instead of only what not to do. I understand that the show needed to generate suspense and curiosity to keep the show going, to cover the costs, but that should never be done at the expense of someone’s health – or life – and that is what happened with Season 1.
When I was in college to earn a degree in secondary education, one of the teaching techniques that was repeated constantly was, “Don’t just tell students what not to do. Redirect them. Show them what they can do.” In my teaching career and as a parent, I have learned the value of positive examples.
What 13 Reasons Why can do to improve their message:
- Really focus on the ways Hannah’s suicide had side effects she never wanted (such as her parents’ emotional and financial state, Clay’s false-guilt and suicidal thoughts, Alex’s suicide attempt, the lawsuit, and the unbearable guilt many of the characters feel).
- Talk about PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Giving names to these conditions helps people to know that these feelings can be identified, they can be given help, and healing can happen.
- Create several adult characters that are good for teens to confide in. A competent teacher, counselor, parent.
- Show what could have happened had Hannah talked to her parents.
- Provide an example of a student who is open with his or her parents, and show the good results of such a relationship.
- Give reasons why someone is too valuable to have their life stolen by suicide.
- Send the message that surviving friends and family of a suicide victim are not to blame for a decision that was ultimately up to the victim.
- Continue all the things that have been done well: the scene transitions, the music, the casting, the acting. All of these were powerful.
- Continue showing how hurt and lost Clay and Hannah’s parents feel.
What parents can do:
- Watch out for red flags but also be aware red flags don’t need to exist for someone to be struggling with a mental health issue. (secretive behavior, excessive arguing, a drop in grades, drug and alcohol use, disinterest in hobbies, too tired to eat or shower, etc.)
- Do not supply alcohol and drugs for minors.
- Provide and require adult supervision at parties.
- Make your home a fun (safe) place for your teen to have friends over.
- Set curfews and rules.
- Enforce consequences and offer positive reinforcement.
- Be aware of what goes on in your teen’s life on social media.
- Be open and real with your teens; tell them about your years as a teenager, your regrets and your proud moments.
- If your teen is going to watch 13 Reasons Why, watch it with them.
What teens can do:
- Report bullying. If the person you reported to fails to address the situation, report it to someone else.
- Stand up for classmates who are being bullied.
- Don’t give into peer pressure when it comes to drinking, drugs, and sex.
- Find a responsible adult you trust and confide in him or her often.
- Know that the rules your teachers and parents enforce exist because you are loved.
- Know your worth is not based on other people.
- Know that what you are going through will not last forever, even though it feels that way. Each day is a success.
- If you think someone is dealing with depression, self harm, addiction, or contemplating suicide, tell a trusted adult immediately. Your friend may not appreciate it at the time, but you might save a life.
If you are struggling, please contact a professional. You don’t have to do this battle alone. Your journey can start with some of the resources I’ll list below. In addition, while I am not a professional, I’ve been in dark places, and I’ve come out of them. If you need someone to listen to you, if you need to talk to someone who has survived and healed, leave a comment, and I’ll be there. I don’t know you, but I love you.
As a Christian, I feel compelled to add that you are so incredibly valued, that Someone gave His life for You. He bled so you don’t have to. He conquered death so you can have heaven. He has a purpose for you in this world. You are so loved, more than you can ever possibly know or even imagine. Jesus knows you, and He loves you.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Focus on the Family counselors: 1-855-771-HELP (4357)
M-F 6am-8pm (Mountain Time Zone).
13 Reasons Why Not to Commit Suicide: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/teens/13-reasons-why-not?_ga=2.147574068.2048394733.1501526918-1820413583.1501526918
Suicide Lifelines by State and by Topic:
Christian Lifelines for suicide, addiction, abortion, homosexuality, and more:
To Write Love On Her Arms: resources for suicide prevention, self harm, and addiction:
Discussion Guide for 13 Reasons Why:
1. “The TV Parental Guidelines.” The TV Parental Guidelines, http://www.tvguidelines.org/ratings.htm. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
2. Harrington, Jamie. “WARNING: DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS WATCH 13 REASONS WHY.” Totally The Bomb.Com, 9 May 2017, totallythebomb.com/do-not-let-your-kids-watch-13-reasons-why. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
3. “What does ‘suicide contagion’ mean, and what can be done to prevent it?” HHS.gov, 21 Aug. 2015, http://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-does-suicide-contagion-mean/index.html. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
4. Kheriaty, Aaron. “Killer Show: ’13 Reasons Why’ Romanticizes Suicide.” First Things, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/05/killer-show. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
5. “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.” Reporting on Suicide, reportingonsuicide.org/recommendations/. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.
6. “Two families endure suicides, blame popular Netflix show.” KTVU, 22 June 2017, http://www.ktvu.com/news/263334963-story. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.