‘13 Reasons Why’: Addressing the Controversy as a Critic — and a Parent

Courtesy of Netflix

Today my job and my life intersected in a way they never have before. But I suppose I should have seen it coming.

My son is a freshman in high school, and his school just sent out a note about “13 Reasons Why.”

Seeing that email pop up was not all that shocking, given that many educators and school counselors are grappling with what to tell parents and students about the Netflix drama. In “13 Reasons Why,” which is based on a book of the same name, a young woman commits suicide, and the drama also depicts rape, assault and many instances of bullying. Almost all of the core characters are high school students.

The weird thing was, at the very moment the school’s note arrived, my Variety colleagues and I were discussing the fact that Netflix has appended additional content notices to the show. And I’d just been conversing — again — on Twitter with viewers who had strong responses to the show, or who wondered what I thought of it.

I’ve gotten a lot of queries and feedback about “13 Reasons Why,” and I’ve written about the show quite a bit. And yet, in some ways, I feel I’ve still just scratched the surface. There’s a lot going on when it comes to “13 Reasons Why”: complex mental health issues, how suicide is depicted, rape culture, bullying in schools, and whether “13 Reasons” is simply a good show or not (for what it’s worth, I think it is). The ongoing debate about all these topics is actually welcome, and, in this case, it’s perfectly appropriate for schools to join in.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: A lot of kids watch shows that their parents have no idea they’re watching. It’s a scary reality, but it’s reality. Whatever parents or educators say or do about “13 Reasons Why,” there’s a reasonable chance that young people might see it anyway.

Speaking as a former teen who went out of her way to overdo things I was theoretically forbidden from doing, I think that attempts to ban “13 Reasons Why” are probably bound to misfire. Of course, schools are within their rights to ban all kinds of non-scholastic content on school grounds — I have no problem with that.

But asking kids to not talk about “13 Reasons Why”? You might as well ban hormones and backpacks. Kids are already talking about it. The point is, how do adults — educators, parents, anyone else who loves teens — no matter how frustrating they can be — join the conversation?

It would be great if every teen who watched the show in secret had an adult or a responsible friend that they could talk to about it, especially if that teen is struggling with depression, anxiety, and despair. It’s my very strong hope that that’s the case. As I noted in this recent dialogue about the show, “13 Reasons Why” is spurring conversations about bullying, depression, and suicide. Based on anecdotal evidence, those conversations are desperately needed in certain quarters.

Whatever you think of the show — and I respect that there are a wide range of responses to it — I think part of the reasons kids are watching “13 Reasons Why” is because, in a world where we’re practically drowning in content, there are not all that many realistic depictions of surviving assault, experiencing depression, and going through the kind of casual but devastating public shaming that can take place now that so much of kids’ lives are online. Kids have to survive a much tougher world than the one I came up in — that’s one of the few things I can say with certainty.

There are shows that occasionally go to these wells, but many programs set in high schools put a gloss on the bigger, thornier issues and shy away from delving deeply into the harder topics. They might gingerly walk up to tough subjects now and then, but the focus nearly always snaps back to love triangles and mean teachers. I’m a huge fan of escapism, but kids grappling with heavy stuff don’t often see themselves depicted in scripted stories designed for mass consumption.

And yet, through friends, or in their own experiences, many teens are experiencing trauma related to rape, assault, bullying, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, even the most caring adults can be unaware of how common or damaging these things can be. Pop culture made by well-meaning adults can come off as just as oblivious.

So I see why kids are watching this show, with or without permission. And I can see why parents are afraid of it. No one wants to be like Hannah’s parents, who are caring and essentially kind, but don’t see the slow-motion disaster taking place in front of them.

So what’s the answer to the question: Should high schoolers watch this show?

There is no one-size-fits-all reply. Just offering my two cents as a parent, rather than a critic, I can’t see a scenario in which the show would be appropriate for those 12 or younger. Even 13 and 14 may be pushing it.

But as you can already tell, the answer to that question is highly individualized. I can no more answer that question for other parents than I can return to high school myself. Parents know their own kids best — at least that’s the hope.

If parents ask their children not to watch — or want them to only watch it with a parent — I absolutely respect that response. I also understand the impulses of parents who choose to sample the show on their own, then decide whether or not it’s right for their kid(s). That’s my general response to folks who ask — watch it for yourself, then decide.

But if teens have watched “13 Reasons Why,” with or without permission. … Well, just ask them if they have. Hope they’re willing to be honest. If they’ve seen it, and they’re willing to be honest about their responses and emotions, be prepared to listen to whatever comes up.

One of the scenes from the show that has stayed with me the longest arrives toward the end of the season. Hannah visits a school guidance counselor; she holds it together, but it’s obvious that she’s in great pain. The counselor says things that are meant to indicate that he wants to hear her story. But in many ways, he makes it clear to her that the true extent of what she wants to talk about is something she should keep to herself. When it comes right down to it, he doesn’t really want to hear what she has to say.

He more or less provides an object lesson in how to shut down a young person in pain. If people, especially high schoolers, want to talk about this show, all I can hope is that the adults around him do better than that.

Perhaps it’s best if I let the professionals take it from here. To quote from the school email I got today: “If your child has already viewed the series, sit down with him/her and speak openly about what the series meant. Talk about the alternatives to suicide when feeling sad, anxious, and overwhelmed with the stress of life. These conversations are crucial as your student navigates both their feelings and the complex issues introduced in the series.”

And then the weekly school newsletter listed a series of resources. Here they are.