Sunday, April 23, 2017

4 Reasonable Concerns about 13 Reasons Why

Last week as I temporarily plopped myself at my desk to take attendance, I overheard two students talking about tape.  Imagine my surprise when I realized several days later, these girls were not talking about the clear, sticky roll sitting by my computer.  

“Put that on my tape.”

It’s sarcastic lingo that students will say when they’ve been offended. I’ve heard it a handful of times now, and it’s part of the ever-increasing amount of catch-phrases that I as a jr. high/high school teacher am trying to keep up with. The students are referencing the new Netflix hit, “13 Reasons Why”, and “the tapes” are referring to the reasons someone might want to kill themselves.

Several parents across the states, and many friends in my circle, are wisely choosing to dialogue with their children about this series that has so quickly entered our world and is widely watched by our teens.  Some parents are choosing to watch with their kids to glean from the show the lessons to impart to their children.  I’ve read the author and producer’s and parents’ intent, and I believe with all my heart their intentions are good. However, it’s important to distinguish  between intent and outcome. Below are the real-life, observable, experiential, evidential effects of “13 Reasons Why” I have noticed as both a parent and teacher positioned in a public school:

  1. The educational value that the movie provides is overshadowed by the entertainment value.
When students come to school, their conversations prove they’ve been enthralled by the show.  The chatter is about the characters, the story line, and what happens next.  The students are animated as they laugh and talk about how the emotion of the movie gripped them.  They are talking about the make-out scenes, the gore, razorblades, the violence.  The values that we are imparting to them individually on our living room couches are not represented when students collectively gather in the school’s hallways. We need to be realistic about what happens when young minds watch things with such intensity because graphic images are holding their attention and filling their minds multiple times more than our verbal lessons.  

2.  The lessons from the film are not being implemented by the series’ followers.
One of the main lessons and final conclusions of “13 Reasons Why” is to understand the effects of our actions on other people, and make our world nicer and kinder.  At the risk of being over dramatic, I would think this would send students to their school environment empowered and ready to speak positivity into their peers.  In the conversations that I’ve heard, the result is the opposite.

My daughter was sitting by some of her classmates while they detailed the suicide scene.  The mere oral description was disturbing to my daughter, and so she asked her peers to please stop talking so vividly about the death.  Instead of the classmates using that moment to self-reflect about their words, they belittled their friend.  They rolled their eyes and were condescending to their “sensitive” companion who didn't want to participate in the conversation. They pressured her to watch a series she communicated clearly she does not care to see. (Eventually she watched a couple of episodes just so she could understand what her friends were talking about.)  Unknowingly, my daughter's friends are guilty of the peer pressure so accurately described and discouraged in the show they are in love with.

3.  Relatability is overpowering personal responsibility.  
The storyline is in part gripping because many of us who have been severely wronged identify with Hannah’s struggle.  While young minds are finding their problems described, they are not adequately equipped by the movie’s solutions to life’s hardships.  One student at my school told her friend, “If I had a tape, you’d have a side.”  The friend was flabbergasted by being told she would be a possible reason for someone wanting to kill herself. The friend who has not at all bullied or wronged the other student asked “Why would I be on your tape?”  The student replied in vague, complicated terms that sounded much like the unhealthy thinking of the main character Hannah.  The emotionally unstable friend (I say this because I’ve known and observed her for years) is not thinking about her own personal responsibility to make the world a better place--she is thinking about those who have contributed to her low self-esteem. This girl is relating to the victim mentality, not to the character who at the end of the show wants to love and work harder to reach his friends.

4. Our teens are repeating the advice from the character that caused the most damage.
Hannah is the main character, the narrator, and the driving force of the lessons that are to be learned by the series.  Everyone would agree that Hannah was severely wronged, but her thought-processes about certain events were skewed.  Hannah is a problematic “hero” who wasn’t always kind to others (especially Clay), who lacked coping skills, who concentrated more on getting back those who wronged her than giving to those who loved her, and whose tone throughout the tapes was not conducted in love, grace and kindness, but in revenge.  Go online to our teens tweets and you’ll see that 90% of the direct quotes from the movie were said by Hannah.  Our teens are being negatively influenced by the very kind of person who needs to be positively influenced. Our young ones are not a generation able to speak life into the mentally disturbed or understand mental health, they are taking life lessons from the mentally disturbed.

Years ago, my best friend’s husband met a trucker on the road home from work. It was the trucker’s intent to pass a line of cars and get to a certain location a little faster.  The result was a head on collision that killed a father and husband. The driver's intent was good—to deliver a bunch of goods to their rightful destination in a faster amount of time.  The outcome was dangerous and deadly. In comparing my friend’s tragic accident to the aftermath of “13 Reasons Why”, I use the words deadly and dangerous on purpose.  Regardless of an intent for an individual, we can expect collective results characterized by flippant remarks and copycat behavior. We can expect teens to think long and hard about who has wronged them. We can expect them to take cues from the wrong role models. Our society can expect some unreasonable results that we will one day clearly trace back to 13 reasons.