If you haven’t heard, a new Netflix series has got people talking. The issues raised by the series, Thirteen Reasons Why, affect all communities, Haida Gwaii included. The show’s premise raises alarms because its main character, 17-year-old Hannah, kills herself and explains why through a series of taped recordings sent to friends (and enemies) just prior to committing suicide. The show is also about rape and other forms of violence, raising another difficult and important topic. A series that involves suicide or rape must empower, not merely entertain.
But the point of the show is entertainment, not empowerment. As for entertainment, Thirteen Reasons actually raises the bar. The series tells a compelling story, without feeling like a soap opera (at least not until the end). It seems almost too realistic at times, with a documentary-like feel that reveals the ‘real’ lives of today’s teens. It can be painful to watch. Each episode builds the story by deepening, rather than exploding, the overall narrative. But underlying all this is a deeply flawed premise. Far from documentary, Thirteen Reasons is pure fiction.
The series packs a punch. Suicide, rape, school-yard fist fight, stalking, death by car accident, self-harm, another rape, brutal beating, parental violence, another (possible) suicide, and a cover up — all in just 13 episodes. Underlying the narrative is a strong critique of a bullying culture, based on a teacher-supported hierarchy of looks, money, and strength. Here, young men dominate through a regime of fear, violence, loyalty, and camaraderie. But young women fight each other; they are dominated. As for adults, they are simply clueless. Some care, but don’t see anything. Others don’t care. (They don’t see anything, either.) This critique has some merit, given the lived experiences of many youth today. This adds a touch of validity to the show overall, but still leaves the show wanting in terms of how it depicts such a serious subject.
Episode after episode depicts a dystopian view of youth culture, dressed as ordinary. But nothing about the show is ordinary. Few schools face so much tragedy in such a short time. Adolescence is a tough time for many teens, but it’s never constructed to string an audience through 13 straight hours of streaming media drama. Suicide and rape are never plot devices, justice is never served as told through this show, and there is nothing entertaining about these topics. Our culture can, and must, do a better job for young people, starting by listening more and empowering youth in the decisions that involve them. Teens face challenges, including bullying, sexism, and isolation. But these realities are never made-for-TV. They are real and complex, deeply personal, and always nuanced. In real life, nobody is a stock character.
What bothers me most about the show is not the seriousness of the topics it raises. To the contrary, we need to have more stories, more conversations, about serious things like rape, sexual assault, drug and alcohol use, violence, and bullying. This part of the show is good. But serious topics require serious treatment. Thirteen Reasons is good TV in that it’s compelling entertainment. But it’s also harmful, in that it raises issues without addressing them. We need to hear more stories about rape told by girls themselves, about isolation told by teens themselves, and about youth culture told by, not for, the young people in our community.
If your teen watched, or plans to watch, Thirteen Reasons I recommend that you watch it together. Be prepared to answer some tough questions about suicide, rape, violence, drugs, and drinking. Also, be ready to witness adults failing at doing the right thing and all too often missing the point altogether. The show, for its shortcomings, is a strong indictment that all adults must pay attention to. Netflix falls short, but does tell a story that resonates with young people — for good reason. We must pay attention to this. Finally, if you are thinking of suicide, are attempting suicide, or know someone who is suicidal, talk to someone you trust. Get help. You can call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).