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13 Thoughts on 13 Reasons Why

Like [apparently] everyone else I watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why last week.

I actually started watching it a couple weeks back but stopped after the first episode, it just wasn’t for me. But I watched the other 12 episodes in two days as I was traveling to New Jersey.

It was an intense couple of days.

With that in mind…

Here are 13 thoughts about the series

Spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen the series and don’t want to know details, I’d go ahead and stop here. 

  1. Depression killed Hannah Baker. The entire premise of the storyline is that the characters wrestle through, “Did I do something that lead to Hannah killing herself? Could I have done something to prevent her from killing herself?” Those are tragic questions that anyone who knows a person who has committed suicide wonders. The true monster that drove Hannah to kill herself was depression. Sure, people in her life pushed her into deeper and deeper places. Sure, there were moments when her parents or the school counselor could have seen the severity of her depression. But she largely kept it to herself. Even Bryce, the most monstrous of characters, didn’t kill her.
  2. An accurate display of the two streams of teenage life. In the first couple of episodes you wonder, “Where are these kids parents?” But as it goes along you begin to see glimpses, then chunks, of parents trying to intervene. Most of the parents in 13 Reason Why are asking all the right questions, looking for all the right things, truly caring. Their teenage children just don’t allow them in. (Except for Justin’s mom, who had problems of her own. And Bryce’s parents, who I envisioned as Biff from Back to the Future.) This is an age-old tension and it’s all over classic literature about the adolescent experience (remember Romeo & Juliet?) as much as it’s all over this series and as much as it defines the relationships you have with teenagers today. There are things that teenagers will talk to their parents about and there are things that they’d rather go to their grave than discuss. It’s in episode 13, when Hannah goes to the school counselor, that she finally musters up the courage to admit she’s been bullied and raped. As adults we need to remember that if a teenager opens up to us about “what’s really going on” we need to remember that they are exhibiting colossal courage in that moment. That’s a holy moment and everything else needs to stop. I wanted to reach into the screen and hit the Do Not Disturb button on Mr. Porter’s phone.
  3. Clay is you. Clay is me. I kept hoping for the storyline to turn in Clay’s favor and it didn’t. Since we see this story through Clay’s eyes we want him to be heroic but he’s stoic. He’s in love with Hannah. She’s clearly in love with him. But he’s like 16 years old… he equipped with a certain tool bag developmentally and he can’t quite figure out what’s going on with Hannah on the inside. In so many ways you and I– adults– are the stoic in teenagers lives. We lack empathy towards the intensity of what they are going through. We don’t mean to but we trivialize all the feels. We see the story through Clay’s eyes because that’s how we see most of the teenagers in our lives.
  4. Tony is an enabling little punk of a muse. Tony doesn’t appear in a tape but the tapes wouldn’t exist if he didn’t enable them, even unwittingly. The fact that he shows up in Clay’s life all the time displays that in some ways he’s not even really an actual character in the story, he’s almost like Clay’s conscience or spiritual guide.
  5. Thirteen different perspectives is perfect for teenage brains learning about perspective. This series is really long. I kept wondering if they were dragging it out to thirteen episodes just because that’s the number of tapes. Seriously, it was a 5 hour storyline packed into 13 hours, really slow! But I think the deep exploration of each person’s story was important for the shows audience, adolescents, because a key developmental task of adolescent brain development involves third-party perspective. (p. 166-172) One of the phenomena that’s happened since the series has become popular has been people passing along memes and deciding who is which character from the show in their life.
  6. The series is dated in some important ways. One particular incident, the sexting scandal, is handled completely different in 2017 than it was when the book was published in 2007. Yes, things like that can and do still happen. But in 2007 I couldn’t get parents to even understand what cyberbullying was, much less expect a school to have a policy about it. That’s just not the case in 2017. Every school has a policy about cyberbullying and online harassment that extends beyond the schools walls. In an article at NYmag.com a teenager shares, “There were a lot of things that relate to a lot of girls, like how she gets harassed by the guys at her school. I think the actress did a really good job portraying the emotions of that. But the way the rumors were spread by phone— that would get shut down at my school so quickly. Someone would just bring a screenshot to the principal, and they’d immediately stop that. I think that was a bit unrealistic, and a little bit out of touch with what high school is actually like.” – Liz, 14, New York I’m not saying this isn’t something you should worry about… but I am saying that generally schools and parents are better equipped to spot and respond to that part of the show.
  7. 20-somethings playing 16-year olds… This is just a general frustration I have with these kinds of shows, it’s annoying that 16-year old characters are portrayed by actual 21-year olds. This makes real 16-years olds wonder… why doesn’t my body look like that? I mean, I dunno, maybe because that person playing a 16-year old is a fully grown adult! The guy who played Bryce is 23. Ross Butler, who plays Zach, is 26.
  8. Why did they suck at basketball so badly? An important aspect of their character was that each of them were star basketball players. It’s as if this Jimmy Fallon skit on SNL was done to make fun of just how bad these “stars” were at basketball. (see below)
  9. Episodes 12 and 13 were excruciating. I felt like episodes 2-11 were just gearing you up for the last two. I understand why director Selena Gomez felt the need to portray the rape and suicide scenes in excruciating detail, it should feel horrible because they are truly horrible things, but there’s a line between accurate portrayal and gratuitous portrayal worthy of consideration. Did either of those scenes advance the narrative? Were either necessary to accurately portray Hannah’s spiral towards suicide? Obviously, the director felt they were necessary. Similar to the conversations we had a decade ago about Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion, there is room for artistic license.
  10. The problem of innocent jokes. I identified a lot with Alex’s tape in that I was probably a teenager who carried jokes too far with unintended consequences. “Come on. It’s just a joke.” When he said that my heart sunk because I know I said that a million times in high school. Hannah blamed the beginning of her downfall on being objectified on a list floating around the high school for having the “best ass” on campus. (If something like this existed in high school I didn’t know about it!) This was a good reminder that even something you see as completely innocent can have unintended consequences in developing a reputation, or worse, what a person begins to think of herself.
  11. Speaking of self-talk … I think a helpful conversation with teenagers is about our self-talk. In the tapes you hear Hannah’s self-talk, which is often negative about herself. And in the portrayal of Clay, you see his self-talk as he processes listening to each tape. He is more neutral, tipping back and forth between positive and negative views of himself. I think teenagers need to hear that this running narrative about ourselves in our heads is something everyone has, that it can be very helpful for yourself. But when it turns negative that’s a sign that you need help.
  12. We all take turns as the antagonist. One of the brilliant things about this series is that there’s no clear protagonist and antagonist. In fact, I think each character takes turns playing the role of antagonist against Hannah … or against other characters, against themselves. This is much more accurate to life than the typical narrative, I found it refreshing. Sometimes we’re good guys, sometimes we’re bad guys, but none of us are pure evil or pure good.
  13. Never give up on hot chocolate. As an adult, I think one of the clear mistakes Hannah made was giving up on her hot chocolate routine. When her old friends ditched her I wished she’d found new friends, moving up or down or laterally on the social ladder. As a youth worker, this is often when teenagers wander into our youth ministry. Their old friends ditched them and they are really looking for a place to belong. My advice to teenagers who see their friend group pivot on them would be … don’t give up on hot chocolate. That was the most healthy and happiest part of Hannah’s story. Get some hot chocolate buddies and hold onto them.

 

By Adam McLane

Adam McLane is a partner at The Youth Cartel, co-author of A Parent's Guide to Understanding Social Media, blogger of 10+ years, and a fan of all things San Diego State University Aztecs.

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