The show 13 Reasons Why is Netflix's newest hit — but it's also deeply controversial. The series is based on Jay Asher's 2007 novel of the same name and is about a character named Hannah Baker who records 13 damning tapes for the individuals she believed played a role in her decision to kill herself.
Actress and 13 Reasons Why star Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah's grief-stricken mother in the show — believes that the series has enormous value and can be used responsibly as a springboard for better dialogue with teens about bullying, sexual assault, mental health and suicidal ideation.
But I'm not convinced this is the springboard any of us want our kids diving from.
The show's creator, Brian Yorkey, and the show's writers don't pull punches with their brutal scenes and subject matter.
“Facing these issues head-on — talking about them, being open about them — will always be our best defense against losing another life,” writer Nic Sheff said. “I’m proud to be a part of a television series that is forcing us to have these conversations, because silence really does equal death.”
Kate Walsh agrees with Sheff.
“People have been reacting differently to showing Hannah in the act of suicide and all the other sexual assault scenes, rape scenes. But Brian was intent on making sure there was nothing romantic or mysterious that anybody could project on to this to make it some dreamy, Gothy or some romantic Ophelia moment,” she said.
“I think [parents] should watch it with their kids and I really do think it should be mandatory in schools to watch this and talk about it and have education around it. Unfortunately, a lot of kids’ lives were lost before schools started having conversations and awareness and communities started having dialogue about it. As long as anything is shrouded in shame or secrecy, nothing good can come from it.”
I respect Walsh's take on 13 Reasons Why. I get it — it's a project she cares deeply about, and the subject matter is important. Still, I'm struggling a lot with this show.
Disclaimer: I haven't read the book, and I haven't watched the series. But I've watched some scenes. And the scenes I have watched disturb me deeply. I believe the show does indeed romanticize the suicide of the Hannah character — and I don't see that as a responsible or helpful choice. There are also disturbingly graphic scenes depicting both rape (two rapes, to be specific) and a bloody suicide that are triggering enough for adults — let alone the teen demographic the show is marketed to.
I'm not alone in my concerns. Viewers have had a myriad of responses to the show. And many are strongly opposed to the confusing messages in the show (justice in life is not possible, but kill yourself and you might just get revenge). Many experts insist that the show glamorizes suicide and may even set off or increase suicidal ideation in vulnerable teens.
It also surely doesn't help that Hannah is portrayed by an impossibly beautiful actress that many teen girls would love to look like and identify with. I find there to be something seedy about the glossy veneer of the series, something almost exploitative. 13 Reasons Why just doesn't sit right with me as a parent — and it also doesn't sit right with me as a crisis counselor.
I work as a counselor for Crisis Text Line. Since 13 Reasons Why was released, our site traffic has increased alarmingly. Many, many texters are talking about the show — but not necessarily in a helpful way. There are young students who want so badly to be like Hannah Baker, who want to hurt those who have hurt them.
But these kids don't have the emotional maturity to see beyond the right-here, right-now pain they're in. The dialogues we're having are worrisome. Right now, it seems like this show is making suicide cooler, more attainable and more mainstream for many of the at-risk kids we talk to.
One father, teacher and author, Jack VanNoord, wrote a brilliant opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune discussing the problematic tone of the show. I couldn't agree with his points more:
"The message of the series — intended or not — is that while justice may be elusive in life, it might be achieved in death. Most unsettling is the notion that one's suicide can serve as the catalyst to get the wheels of justice turning.
"The series also conveys the idea that if your voice goes unheard in life, your death can serve as an amplifier — an exclamation point if you will — ensuring that your message is heard loud and clear after you're gone."
However you feel about 13 Reasons Why, if you have tweens or teens, let's make sure their voices and most disturbing thoughts matter now. And let's be their amplifiers and advocates — and give them every reason to trust that no matter what, they will be heard.
And if your child is tuning into 13 Reasons Why, I think it's worth watching the show with them. I think it's also worth asking them why they're watching — discussing what's compelling about the storyline, what resonates the most with them.
You might just be surprised by their reasons why. And that's what really matters.