Wednesday, April 19, 2017

You Need to be In The Room

It seems like everyone is talking about the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why.

Originally a New York Times Young Adult Bestseller written by Jay Adams, the Netflix series adaptation of the book has gained critical acclaim and mixed reception about its treatment of teenage suicide.  

The story is about Hannah Baker, a young girl subjected to ruthless bullying and abuse by her peers.  This leads to her decision to end her life, but before she does, Hannah makes a series of recordings aimed at the people in her life that have hurt her.  These become her thirteen reasons.  The series explores how these recordings impact those left behind.   

The series is raw - not the kind of stuff for pre-teens (or, in my opinion, even young teenagers).  It seems more like a series for young adults and professionals who work with students.  

The storylines are layered with the deep introspection of a dead teenage girl and how the people in her life deal with guilt.  The series visits the issue of blame repeatedly (and heavy-handedly).  

Clay wrestles with his silence . . . should he have spoken up more?
    "You could have stopped it and I could have and a dozen other people . . . we all killed Hannah."

Or is it Courtney, who threw Hannah under the bus to hide her sexuality?
    "Its on you because she thought you were her friend and you sent one more [person] in her direction just to cover the fact that you are gay.”

It should fall on Bryce, the one who raped her, but he is disturbingly cold-hearted.
    "You made it open season on Hannah Baker."

We meet the people in her life that share the blame.  However, the series seems to argue that the real blame is to be put on our culture - a world in which young people ruthlessly hurt each other while adults, consumed with their own dramatically vapid lives, stand at a distance and watch it happen.

At one point, the camera sweeps over pictures of Hannah with Angel Olsen's haunting song Windows playing softly:

Why can't you see
Are you blind?
Are you dead already?
Are you alright?

It is a pretty intense series . . .

To be fair, subject matter like this should be intense.  We operate in a cultural system where our young people and their hurt lives live below the adult radar.  The savage way that students bully and abuse each other needs the serious attention that a series like this gives.

And the producers of the show have voiced their intent to portray suicide as a non-option:

“We wanted to do it in a way where it was honest, and we wanted to make something that can hopefully help people, because suicide should never, ever, be an option,” (1)

Co-producer Biran Yorkey said, "we worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing, in any way, worthwhile about suicide." (2)

But has this series inadvertently made suicide a tempting idea to younger viewers who don't understand the subtlety of the series' depiction of guilt?  

Have we made suicide imaginable in the vengeful way in which each recording causes a different character to examine their own culpability?  At times it feels like, "we did this to her" which I fear could empower younger viewers to see this as a possible path to take to make a point. 

Dan Reidenberg, the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, shares this concern saying that "The way things are portrayed in the media does have an effect on the way suicides can happen. This is particularly true for young people that are very vulnerable and at risk of suicide."  (3)

The real question is, "where are the parents?"  

Not just in the story, but in real life.  No kid should be watching this without a parent nearby to help them answer the questions this series raises.  Each episode asks questions about self-worth, hurt, love, hate and how to deal with fear and anger during the hardest time of adjustment in our lives.

You should be in the room.

We need to remind each other that kids are watching this and they need to hear the calm and reassuring perspective of an adult.  In all of its emotional realism, Thirteen Reasons rarely reminds the viewer that no one makes someone else decide to end their lives.  Not only do young ones need to hear that they are not to blame for something like this, but also that suicide will not get you the justice you are seeking.

Thirteen Reasons raises some good questions but parents need to be there for the answers.

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