Over the recent spring break, I binge watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same title. I am not the target audience for this work, but I could not stop watching this story about adolescence, sexual assault, and teenage suicide. The following is a list of five reasons why I, a middle-aged woman, was enthralled with the story:
1. I teach high school social studies
When I returned to work on Monday, I felt myself scanning the faces of the adolescents that I teach in a large suburban high school north of Syracuse, NY. As I was getting through a lesson on the cold war, I began to wonder how many of my students sitting before me had watched the series? At least half of my class? What were their takeaways? Which character(s) were they most like? Which part of the story resonated with them? Who among these classes was suicidal? Were my students like me, did they continue to live with the characters like I was?
Occasionally a film or a book will strike a chord with my students. I had previously heard students discuss Jay Asher’s novel, but I think the movie will have a deeper impact on adolescents — a group that is tremendously visual. The story is slick, a California cool. If a tired old lady like myself felt compelled to binge watch this movie, adolescents will watch this on repeat. A myriad of conversation topics arise from this story — sex, alcohol, drugs, parents, school, sports, cliques — it covers the spectrum of the high school experience.
2. I have had students attempt suicide
Almost every year I hear about a student attempting suicide. Thankfully, I have not known a student to be successful, but every year at least one student whom I have taught attempts to kill them self. The school I teach in has wonderful social workers, counselors, and teachers, but schools are not equipped for mental health issues.
As a classroom teacher, I hear about the suicide attempts with a statement of confidentially. Teachers get bits and pieces of a student’s story. We hear things like: “Jimmy took a shotgun to the gut last night.” “Nicole took a lot of pills.” These students are absent for a time period. They return, and I am supposed to act like nothing occurred. My job is to teach facts, not to counsel. I am completely useless when it comes to my student’s mental health.
As I watched 13 Reasons Why I searched for signs that might be apparent to me in the reality of my teaching. The main character, Hannah Baker, continually showed me that she was so normal. She was interacting in a typical high school. The actress told the audience that there were no signs. There was only silence. Silence is the enemy.
3. I am raising two daughters
The stupid internet went out two nights in a row during the time when I could watch the series without my daughters’ awareness. So, I found myself hiding in my bedroom, the door shut, trying to keep my daughters away, as I finished watching the series. My twelve-year-old daughter was my biggest concern. She had caught me earlier and commented that her fifteen-year-old cousin was watching this. I said, rather abruptly: “You can’t watch this.” I said it so quickly. I had to protect my daughter. It wasn’t just the sex, it was the entire story that made me pucker. I just don’t think she is ready. I am not ready for her to see rape.
“You can’t watch this.”
However, it is not the sexual aspects of the story that bother me as much as the mental health issues. Two students in the story kill themselves and others locate weapons or escape with substances. As I watched the anguish of Hannah Baker’s parents in the film, I connected with their struggles. They were having financial difficulties and marriage problems. They were not “seeing” their daughter. I worried about my own parenting. Am I missing my daughters, especially the oldest? She is entering adolescence. I want to give her freedom. I want her to be independent and competent. I also want to be the wall that she swims to — I want to give her a safe place to rest and restore herself from a hurtful world.
If you are interested in exploring the parental side of this issue, Ijeoma Oluo, in her piece ’13 Reasons Why’ Scared The Shit Out Of Me — And It Should Scare You Too, does a fantastic job of explaining every parent’s worst nightmare.
4. I wanted to compare
I was curious to see if my own high school experience compared to the one portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. It held up. Although I graduated over twenty years ago, the setting of the story is iconic: the American High School. I also remember watching teenage movies in my youth. 13 Reasons Why was reminiscent of Pretty in Pink’s images of rich and poor kids. There were The Breakfast Club similarities with the cliques and the social outcasts. There were also times that I thought about the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, especially in terms of the pressure of sexual interaction.
However, my generation did not have fucking social media, and cell phones equipped with cameras that could instantly message the entire school. Images of our worst choices were not permanently stored for continual humiliation. My generation could escape school. We could go home. Adolescents today are tethered to their phones and are bombarded by drama, images, and a fake sense of intimacy.
5. I am Hannah Baker
And so is every girl. The female teenage body is the most objectified and fantasized image in the world. Every time the picture of Hannah Baker’s underwear peeking out of her skirt was passed around we understand why women are not yet equal. It is portrayed as “boys being boys.” When her ass is grabbed in public and rated the “best” rear end at her high school, nothing about her intellect is celebrated. When the student president reaches up her skirt as she drinks her milkshake, we witness the constant assault to her innocence — any ownership of her sexuality is eroded away. Her vulnerability is so raw that by the time she is raped it almost feels inevitable. As the crime is committed, the camera lingers on her expression — one of complete frozen resignation. Her soul is depleted and the sexual act evokes a scene of a veteran prostitute.
Ultimately, I will watch this movie with my daughters. I am confident that this story will come up in conversations with my students. The degree to which I am disturbed by this work is a positive force for my teaching and parenting. It is a wake-up call for me to see my students and my children in the world in which they need to navigate. Maybe I was not the target audience, but I urge anyone who loves an adolescent to watch this series.
Here is another article about ways teachers can discuss 13 Reasons Why: https://www.weareteachers.com/discussion-questions-13-reasons-why/