My 16-year-old daughter’s choice in Netflix viewing leaves a bit to be desired for my taste. Let’s just say that neither the Vampire Diaries nor Pretty Little Liars held my attention for more than a couple 15 minute drop-in viewings. However, her latest recommendation came with a more serious tone than for her typical lazy Sunday binge watches. From the first day 13 Reasons Why was released on Netflix, she had suggested to me repeatedly that this is a show I should watch. “This really might help you with your clients.” She even suggested that we watch it together – whoa. But, until this week, watching the latest teenage drama did not make it on my todo list.
Over the past month, I have had teen-age and almost teen-age clients telling me that they are watching the series and parents asking me my opinion. As a busy working mom, I did what I do when I don’t know something: I Googled it. I read the opinions and reasonings of other mental health professionals and ran with it. “The show has some good talking points, but the fear is that the series glamorizes suicide and is not recommended for teenagers who are suicidal.” Sounds reasonable and it was therefore my point of view.
Earlier this week I was at a league game for a seventh-grade basketball team that I coach. A news team came in to interview some of the teens at the facility and happened to choose some of the girls who play for me. I assumed it was about the spring leagues in Fort Wayne, but rather it was about their opinion of the show “13 Reasons Why”. Seriously? I stood by my Googled opinion and then felt a rush of shame because I personally have not watched the show.
When I got home Tuesday evening, I watched the first episode and I just finished it up this evening. It is Friday. Yes, that is 13 episodes in 4 days. Let’s just say I had a case of insomnia last night and did not have to get up early this morning.
I consciously choose to live with the perspective that everyone is doing the best that they can given their current situation and past experiences. I’ve had more than one person question my choice to view the world this way, but it works for me. This perspective makes forgiveness possible for even the most unforgivable situations. I don’t deny that there are bad things that happen in the world, I simply choose to believe that walking in any individual’s shoes would give an insight into their beliefs and actions.
This series shows individuals who are all guilty in some way, yet shows their vulnerability enough to feel empathy for each person’s situation. Even the “hero” of the story makes mistakes that lead to the inevitable outcome. But, these mistakes are understandable given past traumatic events. Even the “villain” appears to have moments of goodness. Could the absent parents and no real guidance to distinguish what is right and wrong lead to the unforgiveable behavior?
The show at first glance does take on the appearance of a revenge movie, allowing the dead hero to get back at everyone who wronged her with no possibility of recourse. However, the makers of the show did not make the dead hero to be perfect or even innocent and there was no feel-good moment when the bad guys got theirs.
The series had many difficult scenes to watch. I have watched my share of After School Specials as well as various kids’ shows (and adult shows) that have the occasional serious episode about drinking or drugs. Even in late evening shows like Law and Order, the violence, sex, and death are implied. 13 Reasons Why did not imply any of the hard scenes. The violence hurt to watch. The rape scenes left an overall ickiness that interfered with my thoughts for the rest of the day. The suicide scene was nothing short of horrific. Glamour was not the first thought that came to mind when I actually sat down and watched the series.
As difficult as those scenes were to watch, they were absolutely necessary to not make it simply a “cute” revenge story. I remember watching an old movie with my dad and him laughing that the guy got punched in the face multiple times and had a tiny scratch under his eye. This series puts no tiny scratch under the eye when presenting: the effects of alcoholism on appearance (even on teenagers), the health concerns from stress, the true after-effects of being punched repeatedly, what a girl experiences while being raped and how their life is forever changed, and finally the horrors experienced during the physical act and aftermath of suicide. All very hard to watch and anything but glamourous.
I am guilty as a parent of occasionally trivializing high school drama. In my defense, it is usually when I am preoccupied and busy – probably not the best defense. But there is a huge chasm between being an adult and being a teenager in school.
I had to sit through a high school class a few years ago to observe a student. I enjoyed high school and have fond memories, but sitting in a classroom as a middle-aged woman with rules and regulations about every behavior felt like a form of prison. Now, imagine surrounding yourself with people who are hurtful to you emotionally or even physically and not having the power to simply walk away. Add the ubiquity of social media and there is no escape.
Slut shaming is a huge topic in this series. It happens daily in our high schools. However, I am hard pressed to name any of my female clients, friends, or family that have gone through a divorce or a break-up from a long-term relationship that has not experienced the wrath of at least some slut shaming. The difference? As 40-year-olds, we have references that prove that things do get better over time. But, a 16-year-old does not have the same life-time of references that conclude that, “This too shall pass.” 16-year-olds do not have fully developed frontal lobes that allow for advanced reasoning and less impulsive actions. It is much more difficult – from the physical developmental standpoint – to understand the idea that the current situation not only can change, but will change.
As parents, it is imperative that we have these difficult discussions with our children. Our children need to know that they are not alone. Our children need to know that their concerns matter. Our children need to know as difficult as life gets that it really does get better.
Who should watch? My 16-year-old daughter who does not appear to be under any current stress that may lead to suicidal thoughts? Probably okay, but be available for questions and discussion. There are some thought provoking ideas that may help her behaviors and thoughts flow from an empathetic perspective for her fellow high school students. My 11-year-old daughter who removes herself from the living room if she deems the content inappropriate? Probably not. When she even hears the Homeland or House of Cards music she is nowhere near the tv. The language, alcohol, and drug use is rampant throughout the series, but is not the focal point. It is presented as just part of the everyday high school existence. Even if this is the everyday high school experience, I would like to keep my 5th grader innocent a little bit longer.
My definitive answer if your child should watch: maybe yes, maybe no. The bottom line is that parenting is tough and the choices are rarely black or white. My advice: Do the best you can given your current situation and past experiences.
Dr. Judy Guess is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Bryan, Ohio.