For several months in 2017, our teenage students spoke of nothing but Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” In early April, we had a handful of teens who watched this sleeper show. But in what seemed like mere days, all of our teenagers were binging this series — sometimes staying up all night to watch the entire season, which was released all at once. Many teachers and parents were late to pick up on the content — it was just another show that consumed their children’s time — and by May, Netflix was responding to backlash about content by including new trigger warnings.
For those not familiar with this series based on the best-selling books by Jay Asher, the first season focuses on the suicide of fictional Liberty High student Hannah Baker. Hannah left 13 audio cassette tapes identifying the 13 reasons (and the people behind them) why she committed suicide. The final episodes of the season include a graphic depiction of Hannah slicing her wrists in the bathtub and her mother discovering her, in addition to cliffhanger endings: another student attempting suicide (by gun), and yet another student, Tyler, closing a trunk full of guns and ammunition in his room.
The series led to national discussions about censorship, bullying, suicide and rape culture, as sexual assault was a major theme of the season, as well.
Though it was not initially on my radar, I watched the series once I noticed our teens so eagerly engaged by the show. Many parents subsequently chose to watch the first season with their children. I wanted to know what the appeal was and I wanted to be able to respond to students’ and their parents’ questions.
And I was hooked. After one episode I had to watch it all — and in three sittings I did. I was in the minority, but I was a proponent of the series even with all of the controversy. I encouraged the viewing and discussion of the show — and there was entertainment value to boot. I did not feel that it glorified suicide, though it did omit the important conversation around mental health. Still, I was so disturbed by the depiction of Hannah’s suicide that I thought about it at least once each day until the end of the summer. I realized that the series could be particularly distressing for many of our kids because the images stick, and our kids also cannot let them go. We store memories as images; that’s why we are often haunted by memories. I feared that some of our children would feel the need to hurt themselves or mimic the imagery to lessen their distress. At the very least, this would be an important opening to dialogue and discussion for our families.
After completing my viewing of the series — and publicly announcing such — several students came to me to share their suicide ideations and an even greater number of parents reached out to me to address concerns about their children.
This is all a prelude to the release of the second season last month. This time I wanted to get ahead of the teens’ conversation. And I was anxious to learn about the follow-up to the cliffhangers.
Before I share why, here is the revelation for this season: Parents, you NEED to watch this. But whatever you do, DO NOT let your children watch this season.
This season centers on the lawsuit between the school and Hannah’s parents, who charge that the school was negligent and that Hannah’s death could have been prevented. The season follows two main narrative arcs: 1. Almost every female student in the school has been sexually assaulted at some point, specifically by a cabal of the school’s jocks, with Bryce Walker (wealthy, elitist, privileged team captain) as the ringleader and center of the “evil” in the narrative; and 2. Acts of vandalism and violence provide catharsis for those experiencing emotional turmoil, bullying and classism, with a tense buildup to a (thwarted) school shooting in the final episode.
Why should parents watch this? If this is even remotely close to what is going on in our schools, it is terrifying. There are scenes that allude to or depict sexual assault, drug use and the use of guns to “blow off steam.” And these scenes and concepts are the most benign. The most shocking and really traumatic scene features several of the jocks physically assaulting fellow student Tyler (remember the one with the gun collection?) as he returns from wrongly sentenced diversion behavior therapy, pleading peace and begging for mercy. This assault culminates in the graphic depiction of Monty, a student, holding Tyler’s head in a toilet in the school bathroom as he almost drowns, and then anally raping Tyler with a mop handle while two other students pin him down. Later that evening, Tyler is shown crying in his home, reaching behind himself and pulling out a hand covered in blood.
The show depicts a school entity worried about liability and litigation and not the safety and lives of its students. The show portrays students that are hurting and effectively dying right under the watchful but unknowing eye of their parents.
All of this might be good fodder for discussion with our children as well — but then there was a turning point for me. As I watched Tyler’s rape, I found myself hoping that he would exact revenge on the bullies. I, the rabbi, a teacher of children, a pursuer of justice, wished for one student to kill other students. It took my breath away. It shook me to my core. This is not the justice I teach.
Indeed, over the years we have found ourselves rooting for the anti-hero (“The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” etc.). But something this time around just caught me so off-guard that reflecting on it afterwards made me physically ill. And I can’t stop thinking about it.
If I hoped for a school shooting because I followed the narrative so closely, then perhaps other viewers, especially our teens, especially those bullied, are rooting for the massacre as well. And then, God-forbid, this could inspire the viewers to act.
Thirty years ago, “Heathers” was a dark comedy about revenge murders of the cool kids. But that was a satire and a farce about high school. It was a different time and a different America. Twenty years ago, “Jawbreaker” felt eerily similar to “Heathers,” but again, it was a dark comedy. Two months after “Jawbreaker” was released, the Columbine High School massacre occurred. I cannot fathom that either of those films would be produced today, even as comedic commentaries on society.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the adults watching season two of “13 Reasons Why” will be inspired to work collaboratively to change the culture of our schools — to end rape culture; to destigmatize suicide; to help students get the help they need and recognize even the most nuanced and subtle cries for help; to criminalize bullying; to ensure that our institutions of learning are places that foster and grow identity rather than crush it. But I am also not naïve enough to not realize that this will be addictive viewing for kids — if it’s not already. And it will inspire our teens to seek vengeance and take action. But not through the proper channels.
I also realize that when our parents tell their children “no,” the children very well may dismiss the proscription — or worse, have that much stronger a desire to watch the series. Should that happen, our parents need to dialogue with our children about every detail, as graphic and painful as they may be. They need to be at the ready with access to innovative resources like Crisis Text Line, a not-for-profit organization providing free crisis intervention via SMS message. The organization’s services are available 24 hours a day, every day, throughout the U.S. by texting 74174.
This series suggests to our children that our schools, counseling vehicles and court systems will fail them. Why would our children heed any of the provisos before an episode or advice given by www.13reasonswhy.info (now advertised at the end of each episode)? I fear that, for our teens, season two of “13 Reasons Why” will serve as a catalyst for more violence and hate, all under the guise of justice.
The show no longer has any redemption for the victims. It does not have a positive way out for those who are struggling. It just perpetuates pain and despair, implicitly sending the message to kids that there is only hopelessness.
It is our categorical moral obligation as adults to teach children to hope and to provide them with a place of refuge. This does not mean that we need to sugarcoat the proverbial struggles of growing up. But it does mean that if children do not feel that they can come to us when they are hurting, or if they feel that we are actually part of the problem, then, really, letting our kids watch a television show is not the true problem we face. It means we created this show. And we have to do better. Because lives are at stake.