13 Reasons Why Not: Candid Thoughts on the Hit Netflix Series, 13 Reasons Why
By Veronika Lynch
DAP’s Outreach and Education department came together virtually to discuss the impact of 13 Reasons Why on youth, and what messaging the show is communicating to its audience. It quickly became clear- there is a lot to unpack. Sexual assault, substance abuse and suicide – and that’s just the first season! For parents and educators, the show caused concern over the graphic depictions of rape and suicide, making them wonder “am I doing enough?” Teens expressed relief on finally having an accurate portrayal of their reality of violence. Now that the show has ended, with the characters forever changed by the death of Hanna Baker, what did we learn?
There are major themes that stood out during our conversation: sexual assault, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health, the role of parents and friendship. Each theme played a key part in Hannah’s decision to commit suicide and had a huge impact on the lives of those she left behind. 13 Reasons Why tackles sexual assault, and its prevalence among teenagers, in ways that are difficult to watch. The show highlights the ways that toxic masculinity in high schools feeds into rape culture, and as a result, excuses sexual violence while victim blaming. Not only does the show portray the most frequent form of sexual assault, male against female in season one (Bryce Walker raping both Hannah Baker and Jessica Davis), but it also includes an extremely violent sexual assault at the hands of one boy to another in the second season (Montgomery De La Cruz assaulting Tyler Downs). The male victim’s assault added another layer of complexity regarding how victims are seen and treated in schools, and forces viewers to recognize the brutality of rape.
Where do we go from here? After watching the violation of multiple characters and their struggle to cope with this trauma, it’s easy to feel hopeless for a healing opportunity. This is why Jessica’s storyline is one to be proud of. She was raped at her own house party while passed out in her room after drinking. Her rape is witnessed by Hannah, who is also assaulted by the same man. Although they didn’t share their experiences with each other, Jessica is able to turn her traumatic experience into activism, and empowerment of others who have experienced a similar trauma. Jessica is an example of the complexities of healing, but also, that it is possible
The other themes, substance abuse and mental health, exemplify the importance of a solid support system, and how without one, the struggle is so much greater. Trauma has a permanent effect on our brains and how we process emotions. For some, it is easier to numb those feelings through drugs and alcohol. Others may fall into patterns of abuse themselves in an attempt to reclaim the power and control they lost. Justin Foley, Jessica’s on again, off again partner, turns to drugs as his coping mechanism. Other than his friends at school, Justin does not have a strong support system due to absent and abusive parents. We can also presume drugs help Justin deal with the guilt he feels after letting Bryce into Jessica’s room during her party, resulting in her rape. He struggles with his addiction and turns to drastic measures to survive because his home life is non-existent. Justin’s storyline is heartbreaking and complicated, but it calls attention to the truth of teen drug addiction. By the end of the series he finds support and family in Clay Jensen.
The role of parents in 13 Reasons Why and it’s young viewers’ lives, teaches us that no matter how mature or put together a teenager may appear, nothing can replace the support of family. It is important for parents to keep an open mind with shows such as 13 Reasons Why to understand what teenagers experience and how they cope. We cannot afford to undervalue the growing pains and lasting effects of trauma during adolescence. Having open and honest conversations with our teenagers without judgment can help alleviate possible years of pain. So, whether you love or hate the series, use it as an opportunity to learn and grow to be a more empathetic and supportive educator, parent or friend.