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13 Reasons Why: 'Drama is actually a good place for young people to explore tough themes'

We have to give teen viewers some credit for knowing the difference between truth and fiction, right and wrong, safe and dangerous, writes Lorraine Courtney.

Lorraine Courtney Freelance journalist

THE KIDS MIGHT be far from alright in 2017, but with television more engaged with their reality than ever, teen dramas like Riverdale and BBC3 thriller Clique are only getting better at tapping into the dark world facing Generation Z.

There’s also 13 Reasons Why, the 13-episode drama, structured around the narrative of a girl explaining posthumously why she killed herself.

The initial positive buzz around the show has been engulfed by accusations that the show glamorises suicide, that it’s irresponsible and could contribute to a cluster effect that leads vulnerable teens—the show’s primary demographic—to take their lives.

Possible negative effects

The National Suicide Research Foundation has prepared a briefing document for the media on the series and have asked that any coverage of the Netflix series in Irish newspapers should take into account the possible negative impact the series might have on young people, in particular those who are vulnerable and currently thinking about suicide.

Before the show came out, executive producer, Selena Gomez, explained in an Instagram post:

What 13 Reasons Why has represented was an authentic story of what every kid deals with in everyday life. The pressure, the unrealistic expectations of what they believe they should be. Whether you have read this book or not, it’s a story of what every kid does and will continue to go through, unless we keep talking about it. People are hurting and deserve to be heard.

She added: “I hope@13reasonswhy can enlighten people to what words mean when you say them.”

The plot

13 Reasons follows a group of high school students as they piece together a story as it is described on a series of tapes, by a girl called Hannah, who died by suicide. On the tapes, she recalls how classmates sexually harassed her in school hallways, spread rumours and objectified her and other girls at the school.

In two of the episodes, things escalate horribly. Hannah sees a friend, who had blacked out, being raped at a party by a football player. Hannah is later raped by him at a party, too.

So, the show portrays a young person who, ignored and treated badly in life, finds a powerful voice in death. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that it is not a smart message. Indeed, the under-running message that she could have been saved by kindness is ridiculously simplistic.

Topics we aren’t talking about

13 Reasons might not be perfect, but it does bring up some important topics that we simply aren’t talking about enough. These things are an important part of the teen experience.

That makes them not only valid to  about, but actually things that need to be explored. Because this stuff happens. These are things young people will experience and have to form views about.

Hannah’s suicide taken out of the conversation, it opens up an important discussion of bullying. While bullying does not directly cause suicide, the series dives into how important it is to treat one another with kindness. It stresses that we don’t know what someone else is dealing with or what their mental state is, and that, yes, sometimes those “little things” really do add up into enormous pain.

Give teen viewers some credit

I understand why 13 Reasons Why is challenging material — and I am not saying that everyone should watch it, or that it’s in any way an authority on mental health or suicide.

However, in the midst of the criticism, I think it’s important to remember what 13 Reasons Why does right — and that’s starting a dialogue about the topics we simply don’t talk about openly and enough.

We have to give teen viewers some credit for knowing the difference between truth and fiction, right and wrong, safe and dangerous. Arguably, drama is actually a good place for young people to explore tough themes and to undergo vicarious rites of passage. And not just through a filter made from vampires or a science fiction dystopia.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance writer.

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About the author:

Lorraine Courtney  / Freelance journalist

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