Make no mistake: the Netflix video production of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is reckless. I hate to see adults enriching themselves by exploiting adolescent pain, and Hollywood’s record in this regard is abysmal.
Can anyone make a video people want to watch that accurately depicts the degeneracy of suicide? Drawing a sympathetic character fundamentally romanticizes the abhorrent actions to come.
Parents are up in arms, and schools are sending frantic emails to prove they’re on top of the crisis.
Suicide, as currently being glorified in 13 Reasons Why, is known to be contagious, especially amongst young people aged 15-24. Parents fear for their children. Schools fear taking the blame.
“It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture.”
–Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements (§47)
Kids are shaking their heads at the sudden storm of attention; nothing in their world has actually changed. They made this book a bestseller in 2011.
I’m shaking my head, too. Nothing in the world of being a teenager has changed since I gratefully outgrew that burden over twenty years ago.
Adults don’t listen to children. Schools are bureaucratic temples to the arbitrary that demand conformity while telling blatant lies about the value placed on individuals confined therein.
Nothing has changed.
Except, in a more crowded world, contagion spreads faster. It took the growth of cities to create immense pools of victims for epidemics of plague and flu. Similarly, the growth of social media fuels the twin scourges of mass hysteria and shared delusions.
Our children are vulnerable to the foolish, romantic notion that they can solve their problems with suicide because they are adolescents. It is the nature of the undeveloped prefrontal cortex of a teenager to fail to observe his own errors in judgement, and to experience heightened pleasure from the reward center of the brain when taking risks. Teens literally can’t yet grasp the enormity of the long term consequences of their actions.
But what about this show, this crisis, the teens at risk today?
Here’s a radical thought: why don’t we listen to them? Why not participate in a conversation about this show and its appeal to the kids who’ve made it so popular? Don’t let them watch it alone, even if that means viewing it by yourself to share the experience afterwards in conversation.
Do not let it drop until you’ve seen the conversation through.
I watched the entire series. I find the depiction of reckless teens making foolish, selfish, sometimes deadly choices just as aggravating as I think I would have when I was their age; now, as mother, I also find it terrifying.
I’m not watching this show because it’s great, or because I’m fascinated. (I’d judge it an interesting story with good production values.) I’m watching because I have a teenaged son.
Having viewed the show, I’m also reading the novel, because my son has, and because he thinks the book is important.
Most of the teen-oriented viewing that I do (e.g., The Fosters) seems to carry a similar message, though always padded with plenty of foolish, risk-taking behavior that makes for dramatic, cliff-hanger moments:
Here I am, with my complex feelings and powerful emotions, and the adults around me don’t see what I’m going through and misunderstand when I try to explain. I wish someone would help me, but I have no faith that they can.
Some of this goes back to the as-yet-undeveloped prefrontal cortex. Kids can’t always hear you through their own internal noise. At least, they don’t hear you the first time. That’s when you have to try again, and keep trying with different words, or mime, or finger puppets… whatever it takes until you get through.
To fail at this is not a good option.
That seems to be the message Hannah Baker tried to send by filling thirteen audio cassettes with desperation in Jay Asher’s story.
So I’m sitting down to watch 13 Reasons Why, and I’m inviting my son to join me, if he wants to. I’m talking about the show. I’m talking about my reactions to the show. I’m asking his opinions of the story, the show, the novel, the dynamics between the characters, and how it all relates to real life.
I’m talking to my kid about this.
This isn’t a subject I’m going to let go, and, after some initial reluctance to delve into the darkest corners of the conversation, I am hearing back from my son.
I’m listening to what he has to say.