I remember “Thirteen Reasons Why” from middle school. My school library had two copies of the young-adult fiction novel, and for a few months, both seemed to always be checked out. Friends of mine hyped it up – they said it was a page turner and a tear jerker. I waited my turn to read the book myself. Although years have passed, Jay Asher’s book is still drawing up enough attention to earn itself an appropriate 13-episode adaptation on Netflix, notably produced by Selena Gomez. The release has inspired a great amount of social media attention: not necessarily because of the story, but because of the suspected impact the subject matter has had on two California teenagers.
The story follows the high school experience of Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who has recently committed suicide. We learn about her experience through thirteen tapes she makes before her death and sends to her classmate Clay, who listens dutifully on his father’s walkmen. Each tape corresponds to a person she holds accountable in some way for pushing her to kill herself. Clay is portrayed as supposedly having a crush on Hannah. Clay’s thoughts about Hannah’s life and death intermingle with her taped commentary. Hannah is sarcastic, cynical and a condescending prophetic – but also youthful in a way that is almost charming.
At it’s core it is a familiar story of high school dramatics – but one that tackles sensitive issues like sexual assault, depression and suicide in a way that tries to make it accessible to its audience. However, considering the target audience is pre-teens, things have become tricky for “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
Shortly after its premiere on Netflix in April, a news story hit social media that calls into question the messages the series sends to young people. Four days apart from one another, two girls, aged under 16, killed themselves after watching the show. The families of the two girls have spoken out, saying scenes in the show acted as a trigger for their children who were struggling with depression at the time. In particular, the families and critics of the show have a problem with the graphic depiction of Hannah’s actual act of killing herself. Netflix has added a content warning to the beginning of the episodes, and writers of the show have made their intentions clear: to portray suicide in absolute negativity.
This is not an isolated incident for the story: the book was recently banned in a Colorado school district after it saw seven students take their lives in a span of a few months. While I think it is safe to say a book/tv series cannot be the sole reason kids are committing suicide, I am left to wonder if the images of pretty, made-up teen actors glamorize suicide in a way that comes with a filmed portrayal of a topic so sensitive.
Are the creators taking a responsible approach to their audience in how the show was produced? Further, in terms of creativity – are they responsible at all to be responsible to an audience?
Subject matter in young adult film and literature has always been tricky. The genre is aimed at a demographic that finds itself still in a developmental phase. Should those making YA creative works have a responsibility to acknowledge their target audience is in a developmental stage? Or, do we look to parents of children at impressionable ages to monitor the content of the media their kids are consuming?
Kids are learning about “grown up” issues like the ones in “Thirteen Reasons Why,” as it is easily available to them. Shows like it have the opportunity to open up a dialogue for young people to think and ask questions about these sort of issues. I can think back to what I learned about growing up from shows like “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” which featured kids dealing with a plethora of taboo issues.
“Thirteen Reasons Why” might similarly serve to introduce the topic of mental illness to young people – and as these disorders become more prevalent, education and understanding on emotional hardship can actually save lives. But how do parents know their children are ready to handle these ideas?
In all fairness, I have only seen one episode of the series – and it was not the one where the girl dies a gory death at her own hands. I do not know if I am ready to watch it, and I know a lot of my friends expressed confusion for the purpose of depicting such a thing. And for the record, I do not remember there being a graphic death scene in the book. However, I am lead to think that censorship is not the answer here, and it has never really been a viable one. Kids are going to seek out what is popular, “Thirteen Reasons Why” has already been such a hit and its has already been for another season. Criticism on the content of “Thirteen Reasons Why” highlights a bigger issue: that of failed communication between young people and education on mental health and suicide.