Recently, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has created what I wish were helpful conversations on my Facebook feed. But, more often than not, the people who are posting are educators of middle and high school students in small towns. The reasons why I have those sorts of educators on my feed are simple—I used to live in those small towns. But when I am looking at these posts, and reading the arguments against the series, I can’t help but become angry and frustrated with the content and the comments.
I am a survivor of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffer from anxiety and depression. I have a daughter who suffers from depression and anxiety, shows signs of post-traumatic stress (we don’t yet know for certain if she adopted those symptoms from being raised by me, or if she suffered some violence as a child that we have not uncovered). Both of us have been suicidal.
Given my experience with these events and situations, I have a perspective that, I believe, needs to be expressed and heard by those small-town educators. Because their reasons for not allowing students access to this series or the book that inspired the series are not, necessarily, informed reasons.
So, here are five common arguments against the show, and why I reject those arguments:
- Students are too young to see depictions of violence, assault, and suicide.
I can’t be certain when I started to be sexually abused, because I was a child, and I dissociated from those events. What I can say with certainty is that I started exhibiting signs of acute trauma by age nine or ten, and I was suicidal by about the age of eleven. My daughter first needed psychiatric care at age 9. She was hospitalized by age 16, having struggled with major depression for over a year, and finally admitting her intention regarding suicide.
Students are not too young to see depictions of such violence, assault, and suicide. Students as young as eight or nine years old are experiencing such violence, assault, and thoughts of suicide!
There is some sort of desire to ignore that our children are exposed to and experiencing things that we wish they were not exposed to or experiencing. Even I, being fully aware of all the warning signs of mental illness, didn’t know that my daughter was experiencing certain symptoms until it was almost too late.
We don’t want our children to be suffering in this way, so we ignore the signs of that suffering—pretending that the bad things can’t be happening.
This does no good for our students. This does no good for the whole of humanity. Pretending problems don’t exist has never solved a single problem. Wishing that our kids are too young to be harmed in this way—battered physically and psychologically, being taken advantage of, being pushed to a place where life is too hard to continue living, being abused, bullied, assaulted, raped—will not make it a reality. It is ignorant to keep insisting that middle and high school students don’t see this violence every day. They do. They aren’t too young to watch a show that addresses issues that they are experiencing. They certainly are not too young to watch a show that brings the possibility of identifying with characters that are suffering, when nobody else in their life or experience seems to understand or care about what they are going through.
As a child, I didn’t know where to turn with my pain. As a teenager, I didn’t feel connected enough to anyone to admit how dark and dangerous my internal dialogue was becoming. I pretended to be innocent and outgoing and “normal”, because nobody was talking about things like mental illness or suicide. I felt completely divided and set apart from everyone around me. I had nowhere to turn.
13 Reasons Why addresses these issues in what seems like a violent and shocking way. But our children, our students, and the youth in our society are not protected from such violent and shocking events. They are already experiencing this. And the series gives them someone to identify with, and offers resources where they can receive help, should they identify with those who are being bullied, assaulted, or raped, and those who are considering death by suicide.
The honest address of common experience is not too dark and damaging for the young people around you. It is an opportunity to feel heard and understood. It is an opportunity to feel normal, in a society that wants to insist that this violence isn’t normal.
- “Counselors” are against youth watching the show.
This is an annoying argument, because there might be some truth to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good advice. There have been several people who are school counselors or mental illness “experts” or social workers who have come out with statements or articles that offer their opinion of 13 Reasons Why. Some of them say that watching these events can trigger or encourage negative behaviors.
This is partially true. Watching events that you have experienced can trigger symptoms. This doesn’t always happen, however, and it isn’t always a terrible thing. Being in a controlled environment, knowing your own triggers, and being aware of the content ahead of time can all limit the triggering effects of viewing such events.
13 Reasons Why has very clear trigger warnings before each episode that will portray events that have the potential to harm those who identify closely with such events. When we were watching the show, one such warning prompted my daughter to ask me if I wanted to watch. She knew that it might be a difficult thing for me to see. But I watched. And I was very glad that I watched, even though it was a very challenging scene.
I later commented on a Facebook post that was basically a “counselor response” to the show. I said that it was the most real and honest depiction of the event that I had ever witnessed. I found watching the characters go through such events healing and validating, not triggering.
Some people will find these episodes and these images difficult. Some people shouldn’t watch, if they are concerned about triggers. But, for many who are survivors of such events, this is a show that offers an extremely honest view and allows you to connect to your own pain, your own struggle, and your own healing. Will all teens be ready to address these issues with such realistic and graphic images? No. But will many of us, as survivors, finally feel heard and understood and supported by seeing such clear and unrestrained images? Yes.
“Counselors”, as a blanket statement, could include school officials who haven’t had psychological training, really bad advisors (like the first “counselor” I had as an adult, who told me it wasn’t the fault of my abuser that he abused me, but that “curiosity” is normal), or excellent mental health care providers. And these people are not knowledgeable regarding every case that might crop up. There are numerous ways to connect with the material, and while one person might have a bad reaction to things, another might find it healing—as I did. The point here is that there is no one appropriate or “correct” approach to content like that in 13 Reasons Why. The best way to consider viewing is on a case by case basis, with the survivor being the one whose voice is heard and the survivor being the one who chooses to watch or not watch.
The most triggering movie that I ever watched was Captain Phillips. It didn’t have any trigger warnings. And it wasn’t about abuse or rape. I saw (spoiler alert) Tom Hanks step onto a vessel that was rescuing him. As he did, he—in an amazing performance—exhibited signs of trauma, because he had just suffered a significant trauma. I began to weep and shake and shudder. Seeing him show the shock and dissociation that PTSD sufferers go through, I was feeling all that the character was feeling. It was awful. And I may never watch it again, but even with the triggering and the awful feelings, that scene was an opportunity for me to acknowledge and make some sort of peace with my own suffering.
There is no way to know for certain what will and what will not trigger or affect a person. But since bullying, sexual and physical assaults, and rape all have a common thread of taking away the autonomy of the victim, allowing each person to decide and be in control of what they choose to view and not view is important.
I’m not a “counselor”. I’m a survivor. So, I haven’t gotten a degree in psychology. But what I do know is that autonomy and identification and validation are essential to healing and coping and overcoming events like those depicted in 13 Reasons Why. A stranger who claims to have superior knowledge because of a few classes is not necessarily a help, because telling survivors what they can and cannot do, or see, or hear, or cope with can be a retraumatizing event. We need autonomy. We need to decide on our own. And we need to cope with the support of others, not the demands of others.
- The show glorifies suicide.
I honestly can’t understand this argument against 13 Reasons Why. I can’t understand how someone could watch such terrible events unfolding and think to themselves, “Wow, I think I should do that. That is awesome!”
If you are suicidal, please seek help. If you are not currently experiencing suicidal ideation, but have in the past, consider the trigger warnings and make an informed decision regarding whether or not you wish to view the show. (Again, you deserve autonomy and get to choose the media to which you are exposed.)
That being said, the depiction of suicide in this show is horrible, violent, sickening, and shocking. It is intentionally so. The producers worked very closely with several medical professionals in their decision-making about how to best portray this event. And it was intentionally depicted, and intentionally made very difficult to view, because it is a horrible thing.
I’ve heard some people say that the show could make kids think that suicide is a good way to get revenge on the people who hurt you. I cannot comprehend how they come to that conclusion.
It is obvious that the main character is suffering from major depression, dissociation, flat affect, and more. And the “suicide note” she leaves behind is deliberately affecting for those who harmed her. However, every suicide note offers reasons why the one who died by suicide did so. Often, those who are left behind to read that note feel guilt, remorse, and a sense that they failed the one who died. It makes sense to feel that they failed the one who died, because after the life has been taken, you see the signs that you passed over when the person was alive. You find the truth later. You can’t always see the pain until the pain has become too much for the bearer of that pain to carry.
Hannah, the one who dies in the show, is hiding her pain as often as possible. And there are good reasons for her to do so. Earlier, I said that I pretended to be all sorts of things, because the admission that I was suffering from dark and dangerous suicidal thoughts was not something that I felt anyone would understand or accept. I hid my pain. I still do.
This combination of glossing over slights and hiding pain and suffering creates a perfect storm of struggle. And the one who is struggling often feels alone in that struggle.
The depiction of suicide in this show is precipitated by all sorts of expressions and depictions of the pain that is being hidden and the opportunities missed for others to see that pain. And it is the “note” recorded on 13 tapes that shows us all of that. Suicide is an escape from pain. Suicide is not an act of revenge. Sometimes there may be an element of “I’ll show them” thought in the planning stages of suicidal ideation. But that occurs largely because the one who dies by suicide has sought to express their pain on multiple occasions and has not been heard, not because there is a deliberate desire to harm those left behind. Those left behind are completely cut off in the mind of the one who is considering suicide. They don’t seem to be able to feel at all, because they can’t see your pain.
Suicide isn’t logical. Suicide isn’t vengeful. Suicide is the thing that you turn to when there is no other place to turn. Hannah had at least 13 reasons to feel cut off from and ignored by her community. She had at least 13 burdens to carry. And that weight became too much to bear.
Watching her bear that pain, and watching her end her life because she could no longer carry the weight doesn’t glorify the act. It makes the act sad and avoidable and gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch. There is no glory in this show. None. There is no glory in that escape. None. There is no glory in her pain, or in the way she slowly but certainly breaks down completely, and loses the will to live. None.
If you imagine that young people will watch this show and want to follow in the footsteps of Hannah, you should probably do a bit more research on suicide and suicide prevention. Because it isn’t the act of death by suicide that you should be most concerned with. You should be most concerned with the 13 reasons that brought Hannah to that point of desperation. You should be most concerned with changing the behaviors and eliminating the threats that caused her to reach that point. Suicide is terrible, but it isn’t really the point of the show. The point is the reasons. The point is that there were numerous events that should never have happened. The point is the ways that her pain was caused and compounded and collected. The point is not the suicide. The point is the many opportunities to care about others, instead of inflicting pain and violence, that were missed. And focusing on those things can actually create change and reduce the incidence of suicide—not inspire more people to die by suicide.
- 13 Reasons Why is not for the vulnerable.
Another argument that I am confused by, as a survivor of abuses, is the idea that those who are “vulnerable” shouldn’t be exposed to the series.
I’m not certain what the definition of vulnerable, in the minds of others, might be. It is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm”. And in my opinion, those who are most susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm are the ones who will most identify with, and find validation and acceptance in, 13 Reasons Why.
Hannah is susceptible. But so is almost every other character in the book/show! There are so many instances of bullying, abuse, rape, denial of harmful actions, misrepresentation, image ruining, slut-shaming, and more that it is amazing that they are all able to fit into one story. There are numerous people who are suffering harm at the hands of others within the storyline. There are numerous vulnerable people.
I identify with Hannah. But I also identify with Clay, with Tony, Jessica, Alex, and Olivia. They all have particular vulnerabilities, and they all experience suffering of some sort throughout the series.
I’ve already expressed how the choices about viewing triggering events should be left in the hands of the victims of abuse. This includes those who are vulnerable. Because if you are vulnerable, you have likely already experienced the things that are expressed in the episodes of this show. If you are at risk, you are likely already suffering in some way. And identifying with the characters in this show can offer much-needed validation of those sufferings and those vulnerabilities. Connecting with a character can bring comfort and can offer perspective that isn’t always available to us as individuals within these situations.
One of the immense strengths of the show is that we see it unfold from the perspective of Clay, as well as from the perspective of Hannah. And because we see it unfold from multiple perspectives, we can also gain multiple insights, alongside the characters in the tale. When you are living in a state of vulnerability, or suffering, or abuse, it can be very difficult to see things from varying perspectives. One perspective begins to shove out all other ways of thinking about the events. We get tunnel vision. This show lets those who are vulnerable, who are suffering, who are suicidal, who are being bullied, who have been assaulted or raped, look at the events unfolding from the outside, and allows us to gain perspective. This is a good thing!
For those who have never experienced these events, I can see why you would want to seek to protect the vulnerable from difficult images and serious events. But because we are vulnerable, we are likely already experiencing these things, and already feeling unprotected. Allowing us to connect with these characters, and watch them navigate these horrors can be healing, and can offer us support. Fictions of this type, which are so close to our own experience, can be healing and helpful, and not just damaging or dangerous. You may not know how much the vulnerable need this connection. You may be unaware that they need these characters to connect with and find validation.
- The show is so hopeless.
I’ve heard many say that this show isn’t good because it is hopeless. It doesn’t have a happy ending. The pain doesn’t go away, and there isn’t any resolution.
If you are a person who thinks this show can’t be helpful because it doesn’t resolve the pain of the characters, then I encourage you to consider the life of a survivor of these events.
There is no resolution.
I was sexually assaulted in childhood. I’m almost 43 years old. Nothing has changed. I’m still suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I’m still in therapy. I’m still on medication. My abuser still sits across from me at the dinner table, on occasion. I haven’t spoken to my ex-husband or ex-boyfriend who were violently abusive in many years, but their words still harm me at times. I’m still aware of the ways that the neighbors and classmates and people in my community harmed me, and then blamed me for that harm. I’m still an addict. I’m still incapable of positive romantic relationships. I’m still a loner, in many ways. And I’m chronically ill in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life.
There is no resolution.
Life isn’t a story. And if it were, it wouldn’t be a fairytale. Fictions can resolve into nice little packages with happy endings, but life, and especially a life of vulnerability and suffering and abuse, doesn’t resolve in those ways.
The story is hopeless, except for Clay’s assertion near the end of the series that “this needs to change”. The only hope is the fact that we need to begin to treat one another better, and to stop patterns of behavior that harm and break people. The only hope is that those watching from the outside of this story, the viewers at home with their eyes glued to this drama, would understand the purpose of telling this tale—that we, the audience, need to take up that gauntlet and fight to change the way we treat one another. We, the audience, are responsible for creating hope and affecting change and stopping these horrors from being acted out in real life.
My life is not filled with hope. My life has not resolved into a neat little box of rainbow’s-end happiness. My life is still filled with burdens that are difficult to bear.
A happy ending wouldn’t make 13 Reasons Why a better story. A happy ending, filled with hope, wouldn’t inspire us toward change. It would reinforce the idea that the pain goes away, and the effects aren’t all that bad, and we can ignore these injustices and let them resolve.
These injustices won’t resolve. And the victims of this violence won’t have fairytale transformations. The only way we get a happy ending is if we stop avoiding this pain, and stop insisting that we aren’t responsible to and for one another in our communities and in our world, and stop ignoring the ways that others are being harmed in every moment, and make the way we act and think and live better. The only way we get a happy ending is by our own actions.
Because 13 Reasons Why is a critique of what we currently do and what we currently allow. It is meant to give power to the young and vulnerable, and to affirm their circumstances are an injustice, and to demand that we do better at protecting one another. This show is designed to teach us to stop physical and emotional attack or harm. This show is pointing out our failures, and begging us to fix what is wrong in the way we treat one another. This show is the truth we don’t want to see and acknowledge.
But refusing to see and acknowledge the truth helps none of us, so I encourage you to watch 13 Reasons Why, to cope with the horrific, graphic truth, and to acknowledge that up to this point, many of us have been a part of the problem. Then, and only then, can we move forward and find and support effective solutions.
As long as some can abuse others without repercussions, we are not yet finding those solutions. As long as some can abuse others, we are not allowed a happy ending.
Face the truth. Watch Hannah Baker die. Watch her community reel and spin out of control as they deal with the truths that her 13 reasons expose. And then make certain that you aren’t letting this happen in your own community.
Stop injustice. Validate suffering. Heal wounds. Listen to the victims. Punish the perpetrators of violence. And work toward a better world for all of us.