High School Trauma as Edutainment: A Teenager’s and Her Dad’s Responses to “13 Reasons Why”

(Dad’s note:  I’m proud beyond words to share writing space this week with my daughter, Liz Spitznas.  Liz brings her own particular talents to this review.  As a high school senior, she was a winner of a health science writing competition both regionally and statewide, and heads to the national finals this week.  Liz will be starting college in the fall, and plans to apply her considerable intelligence and empathy to majoring in psychology, with a minor in English.

I’ll be back at the end of Liz’s review to add a few comments, from a dad and psychiatrist’s perspective.  For now, I’ll just add a SPOILER ALERT:  this review assumes the reader has watched the entire season of “13 Reasons Why.”)

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If you are or if you know a teenager, then you’ve probably heard of the TV show 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix Original production that is massively popular among high schoolers. My peers and I find it relatable due to its setting and characters, and it’s extremely intriguing to see a teenager’s perspective on life and its tragedies. Personally, I have watched it three times, and each time I picked up something new. Despite the many positives of the show, there were some aspects that irked me and that I thought were faulty. So what makes 13 Reasons Why so intriguing, and what should have been different about it?

13 Reasons Why is set in a suburban town, in autumn 2017. Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a junior at Liberty High, has committed suicide and left behind audiotapes that describe the reasons for her death, most of these reasons being her fellow students. Hannah exacts revenge on the people mentioned on the tapes by instructing them to listen to all of the tapes.  If they refuse, she has enlisted another student at Liberty High, Tony Padilla (Christian Navarro), to release a second set to the public.

Ten students have already listened to the tapes, and the show revolves around Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and his experience in listening to them.  Each episode comprises one side of a tape and centers around a character and the offense committed by them against Hannah.  For instance, in the first episode (“Tape 1, Side A”), Justin (Brandon Flynn) takes a photo up Hannah’s skirt and passes it around.

In subsequent episodes, Hannah goes on a date with Marcus (Steven Silver), who harasses her and calls her easy. Hannah denies Zach (Ross Butler) when he asks her out; in revenge, he ruins her class project. Clay and Hannah make out at a party, but Hannah has flashbacks of her bad experiences with boys and lashes out, causing Clay to leave. Justin does nothing to prevent his friend Bryce (Justin Prentice) from raping Jessica (Alisha Boe) at the same party, which Hannah witnesses. Sheri (Ajiona Alexus) gives Hannah a ride home from the party, but accidentally runs over a stop sign; the fallen sign causes the death of another student.

In “Tape 6, Side B,” the second to last episode, Hannah goes to another party and is raped by Bryce.  On the final side, she turns to Mr. Porter (Derek Luke), the school counselor, for help after the rape, and he does nothing to aid her.

Throughout the show, the audience learns how Hannah perceived certain events through flashbacks, and through other characters’ perspectives. Several of the characters, including the protagonist Clay, demonstrate some character development. Many plot twists occur, and vivid scenes such as rape, violence, and suicide are openly portrayed.

There were six reasons why I found this show so intriguing. First, the camera work and lighting were excellent. During dramatic scenes such as Hannah’s rape, the camera focuses not just on a close-up of Hannah’s face, but it also plays on her hands, which at first are clenched, but slowly relax as she gives up her struggle. The lighting and color scheme have an interesting pattern, as it is a cold blue when Clay is listening to the tapes in the present, but the flashbacks are a brighter orange. This suggests that everything was better for Clay when Hannah was alive, and contributes to the mood of the scenes.

The soundtrack was also enjoyable throughout the show.  Refreshingly distinctive tracks such as Lord Huron’s “The Night We Met” and Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” enhance the melancholic mood of 13 Reasons Why.

The acting itself was phenomenal. What was most impressive to me was Prentice’s portrayal of Bryce. The demands of portraying such a despicable character must have been difficult and make him quite a skillful actor. I also enjoyed Minnette’s acting, as his character Clay was required to show some of the greatest emotional range in the series. He does an excellent job of representing a geeky yet sensitive boy, obviously impacted by the events around him.

One of the best aspects of 13 Reasons Why was the way rape was portrayed. It is featured in a very brutal, in-your-face manner that captures the audience’s attention. The anguish of the characters being raped is evident through the acting skills of Boe and Langford. Their distressed shouts and grappling actions make it seem so believable. Rape is shown without restraint in this show, which is impressive. This is also a good lesson that anyone could be a rapist, even the captain of the football team. I like that they depict it so openly; it gives an important message to viewers on the atrocity of rape.

There were plot twists at several moments that grab and surprise the audience. The biggest plot twist was the student dying after Sheri knocks over a stop sign. Viewers get to know this character, and the reveal of his death is unexpected. Another shocking scene occurs when the subject and events of the thirteenth tape are revealed. The fact that an adult, let alone a school counselor, could be a cause of a teenager’s suicide astonished me.

These plot twists contribute to my final reason for enjoying the show: although it is slow, each episode entices the viewer and keeps them engrossed in the story. The setup of the show, with most of the characters being subjects of Hannah’s tapes, allows for the audience to get to know and to sympathize with a few of them. Many of the characters have emotional backstories that cause viewers to pity them. There is an especially potent moment where Hannah’s parents walk in on her after she committed suicide. Once viewers get invested in 13 Reasons Why, they start connecting with the characters and empathizing with them.

Even though the show definitely has its strong points, there were several reasons why my appreciation for it is diminished. The first reason is Hannah herself. I don’t think that Langford did a bad job portraying her character; there were just aspects of Hannah that annoyed me.

Most distressingly, she pushes away two students who were actually trying to help her. Zach was attempting to make her feel better after the incident with Marcus, and she rejected him. At the first party, when she is making out with Clay and has flashbacks, she tells him to leave and he does.  For some reason, though, she blames him for it in his tape because he did not come back for her. He didn’t know that he was supposed to come back for her because she told him to leave!

The other characters that irk me are Clay’s parents. Clay’s mother is trying much too hard to be involved in her son’s life, insisting that he keep his door open throughout the day, and constantly questioning where he is going, what he is doing, and even what he is thinking. Clay’s father is a little better, as he allows Clay to do his own thing every once in a while, but still enforces the mother’s rule of keeping the door open.

There were two plot holes I discovered when I watched 13 Reasons Why for the third time. One occurs on the night that Bryce rapes her, when Hannah makes a list of all the people who have done her wrong. Even though Mr. Porter hasn’t yet dismissed Hannah’s pleas for help after the rape, his name is on the list. If his tape doesn’t occur until after she writes the list, then why is he on it? This must have been something that the show producers overlooked.

The other plot hole also has to do with the list. Tony doesn’t appear to have harmed Hannah (in fact, he actually helps her several times), so why is his name on the list of people who harmed her? Maybe these plot holes will be answered in the second season, which is set to come out in 2018.

Another negative aspect of the TV show is the portrayal of Hannah’s suicide. The whole point of the show is to display what depression and suicidal thoughts look like, and there are warnings at the beginning of the episodes with a suicide hotline number on the screen. Yet the way the show portrays Hannah killing herself makes suicide seem majestic and beautiful. This could potentially steer ambivalent and distressed viewers towards suicide as an acceptable option.

For example, a 23 year old recently killed himself in the same manner as Hannah, leaving behind tapes blaming his friends and family. This is devastating and appalling. Hannah’s suicide looked painful, yes, but at the end she gracefully lay in a bathtub while bleeding and appeared to be very peaceful. Suicide should not have been depicted this way, especially on a popular television show. I am very disappointed and angry with the way 13 Reasons Why portrayed suicide.

Weighing the positives of the show against the negatives, I’d have to say that overall I enjoyed 13 Reasons Why, to a point. I definitely think the portrayal of suicide was wrong, but the storyline and characters (some of them) were quite likeable. The aesthetic is incredible as well, but I am still annoyed by the plot holes. I’d have to give this TV show a 3/5, but by virtue of its watchability, I will probably view it a fourth time in the future.

(If you or someone you know are contemplating suicide, please call: 1-800-273-8255. They are available 24 hours every day, and provide free, confidential support)

Dad is back again.  Can I be forgiven for repeating how grateful and proud I am to have my daughter’s perspective here?  Especially for a television show that chronicles teen life, it’s invaluable to add a young adult’s point of view.  And despite (and probably to some degree, because of) the numerous professional warnings about this particular program, it’s being widely watched by teens.

I agree almost completely with Liz’s stylistic assessment of “13 Reasons Why.”  The producers were able to recruit a Hollywood Who’s Who to direct episodes, including Jessica Yu (“Ping Pong Playa”), Gregg Araki (“Mysterious Skin”), and Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”).  Notwithstanding their idiosyncratic approaches to their individual films, for “13 Reasons Why” they united to create the effective “before and after” aesthetic that plays out across the entire season.

However, I disagree with Liz on two points.  First, I consider the irritating flaws in Hannah and Clay’s parents to be strengths rather than deficiencies of characterization.  The way Hannah pulls then pushes Clay away from her is plausible behavior for someone who suffered betrayal and even trauma in her prior romantic attachments.  Likewise, Clay’s mom and dad may earn a place in the hall of shame for compelling their son to keep his bedroom door open, but they won’t be the last parental units whose boundary establishment leaves much to be desired.

More substantially, I perceived that the show’s aesthetic unforgivably prettied up Hannah’s rape.  The romantic blue of the swimming pool, coupled with the quick cuts to Hannah’s clothing and skin, made her violation sexy in both mine and my wife’s estimation.

On the other hand, I concur 100% with Liz on her assessment of suicide’s depiction in “13 Reasons Why.”  As a psychiatrist, I feel the concerns of the National Association of School Psychologists (see link, above) about the perils of suicide contagion related to this show are fully warranted. 

Additionally, the entire premise of the program, that other people are the “reasons why” a depressed individual commits suicide, is flawed at its core.  The act of self-murder is almost always a desperately irrational one.  I fear that ascribing blame – as this show manifestly does – could add weight to the burden of guilt that real-life family and friends of suicide victims already carry.

Still worse, the last two episodes hint that a Columbine-type event could be in the offing at Liberty High, which I suspect will be a significant part of the story in Season 2.  Though the boy plotting the mass shooting is profoundly disturbed, here again the danger of contagion is agonizingly real. 

I’m sure the creators of “13 Reasons Why” were well-intentioned, wanting viewers (like their main protagonist Clay) to be more attuned to the possible consequences of their actions to vulnerable souls around them.  This makes it sadly ironic that the harm perpetrated by this program will likely outweigh the good.  Fellow parents, if your kids have watched this show, please see it yourself so you can discuss it intelligently with them. 

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