veritas exquirere

Editorial: ’13 Reasons Why’ interpretations may vary

Editor’s note: “13 Reasons Why,” in which Hannah Baker records 13 accusatory tapes for the people who incite her suicide, has gained great popularity — and notoriety — since release. Our board couldn’t agree on a singular take, so here are five.

Remember the cruelty

Those moments in film when we endure the process of death with our protagonist — they tend to be emotionally cathartic moments; they punctuate a noble life.

Not so with Hannah Baker. Recall, with me, the moment of Hannah’s suicide.

We saw none of the usual Hollywood tropes in this scene. There was no poetic sacrifice for the good of the cause; there were no wistful flashbacks or yearns for more time. We saw a young girl, only seconds ago stricken with terror, who by her own hand now lies limp and motionless.

Our faces contorted and our breaths short — our eyes, perhaps, sealed quite shut — we contemplate the gravity of what we’ve just witnessed. Or, we would, if the show allowed us some quiet time to reflect. In “13 Reasons Why,” the audience instead gets a small taste of the social-unraveling following a suicide, free at last from the silly revenge-plot story arch.

The show forces its audience to come to terms with the cruelty of Hannah’s actions … If exposing that cruelty won’t deter suicide, I’m not sure what will.”

The horror of a bathtub overflowing with blood comes juxtaposed with the mundane: an unwary mother complains of flooding the house. As the door opens, the audience can almost feel the wave of shock running down her body.

It’s all the more unsettling when the mom doesn’t cry; she doesn’t shriek or wail, either; she cradles the lifeless body, her hands plunging into the pool of her very daughter’s blood. “Come on, honey, it’s okay. … Come on, baby. Hannah? … Oh, sweetheart.”

When the father comes in, the mom’s voice slips into a low growl: “Don’t touch me,” she said.  “Just. Call. 9-1-1.”

It was no mistake that this entire interaction takes place eye-level to Hannah’s body, almost from the girl’s perspective. Hannah, through her suicide, twisted a knife right into her mother’s gut; the viewer, looking through Hannah’s eyes, might as well have done the same.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the power of “13 Reasons Why.” The show forces its audience to come to terms with the cruelty of Hannah’s actions: No matter the mental state of the viewer, a mother’s feral cry will not be misinterpreted.

If exposing that cruelty won’t deter suicide, I’m not sure what will.

Embrace the blame

“13 Reasons Why” details how humans respond when we’re accused — and it’s ugly. The finale leaves us with a suicide attempt, a runaway minor, an active shooter, a lying counselor and a caustic lawsuit. Hannah Baker wanted to hurl blame, and when she did, that blame reverberated through her community, prompting a new collapse with every tape.

I encountered this unraveling of self first when I sat through the series, and next when I spoke about it with students. The series made adults — my tribe — look like idiots. Each episode unearthed some new stupidity, and each bumbling parent or teacher was a pulsing finger jabbed in my face: Adults are to blame. I am to blame.

Instead of wagging our fingers and tongues, may we be the better adults and ask a hard question of ourselves and our kids over a frothing mug of cocoa: What is true about how this series depicts the relationship between adults and teenagers, and what could we do to make it better?”

The accusation enraged me, and in my fragility I too began to point fingers. My first seething response to a student who suggested that she had had a similar experience with adults was to argue with her. Surely she, not I, not my tribe, was wrong. Blame turned me into a teacher I don’t want to be — one who destroys relationships rather than protects them.

Instead of wagging our fingers and tongues, may we be the better adults and ask a hard question of ourselves and our kids over a frothing mug of cocoa: What is true about how this series depicts the relationship between adults and teenagers, and what could we do to make it better?

For me, this conversation begins with embracing my share of the blame. When have I, in moments of annoyance, exhaustion, apathy or assumption hastily reacted to a student’s question? When have I raised metaphoric fists in response to a student’s complaint? The relationship requires mutual effort, I know — but have I chosen always to invest mine?

May we for our students model confessing, listening, seeking, connecting. May we not collapse beneath the blame.

Respect the medium

The premise of “13 Reasons Why” is one of the show’s predominant flaws; it is, after all, uncomfortably intricate. The 13 cassette tapes, the map demarcated by X’s and stars, are fundamentally unrepresentative of suicidal behavior.

So “13 Reasons Why” is by no means a superb representation of this vulnerable demographic; essentially, it’s fed nothing but scraps to an audience starving for comprehension of a very incomprehensible situation. But with the newspaper op-eds, the heated Instagram fights and even the email distributed to our parents that this single Netflix sensation has generated — these scraps are a good start.

There would be no email from the counselors, no indicators of teenaged depression broadcast to the school. There would be no shame, no onset of guilt upon a casual wisecrack from a peer about rape, or suicide.”

Unfortunately, people — especially teenagers — must be entertained before they are informed. Think of all the times students have complained of a boring teacher and their soul-deadening lectures, and ultimately, how little they learned from the class. Here, the same logic applies.

Had “13 Reasons Why” been a documentary and not a riveting (albeit unrealistic) drama, then its viewership would inevitably decline. There would be no email from the counselors, no indicators of teenaged depression broadcast to the school. There would be no shame, no onset of guilt upon a casual wisecrack from a peer about rape, or suicide.

There would be nothing. That’s always worse than something, no matter how small.

I’m not ignoring nor defending the show’s misconstrued tale of a suicidal teenaged girl. I’m not averting my eyes from the grotesque, irresponsible scene in its finale.

But I accept what I’m given. And I say that what I’m given is good enough.

When you’re dejected and ignored, misunderstood and stigmatized, treated recklessly and unfairly, there will always be a good enough. There simply has to be.

Harness the good

Welcome to your tape, “13 Reasons Why.”

You romanticize suicide, glamorize death and offer one huge post-mortem revenge fantasy with the intent to guilt everyone who contributed to the death of Hannah Baker, one high school girl whose life went horribly wrong.

You present suicide as an attractive way for a person to “get even” with those who hurt her, or more of one big elaborate game to make their lives just a living mess.  

The apparent power Hannah Baker receives after taking her own life gives teenagers an inaccurate depiction of the power she has over the people in her life after she commits suicide.  After a student takes her own life, she is no longer living and does not receive an immense amount of power to dictate the feelings of those who once shared her life.  

The distorted version of power Hannah Baker has, which appears to occur after the grave, does not exist.”

Of course, everyone close with her feels a certain pang of guilt, but the extreme control Hannah Baker had over the group of students and former classmates creates a false hope for those who wish to “get even” with those who did them wrong at some point in their life. You depict a society where suicide is a form of revenge best served cold, but it is definitely not a society I would like to live in.

The real power we hold before we reach our grave can be used to hurt or to heal those around us. The distorted version of power Hannah Baker has, which appears to occur after the grave, does not exist. Furthermore, you present a Hannah Baker who uses her power to hurt, rather than create space for deeper friendships to form. You present a society of teens who use power to drag those around them down.

In contrast, I strongly encourage your viewers to use the power they have for good, because it only lasts so long.

Finish the conversation

Hannah’s story was a conversation starter. Let’s be careful not to start the wrong one, though.

We must know now that kids need to feel understood. Someone could have prevented her death, anyone. Instead, those characters feel the guilt of causing the death of a 17-year-old. They say no one should have to bear this burden, that they couldn’t possibly know what was going on in her life, that they shouldn’t feel guilty. But they should.

It doesn’t matter if they didn’t mean for this outcome. It happened. Actions have consequences. What you say and do to a person does matter. Because it’s not just you; it’s you and a million other things all at once.

This show speaks to how we’ve failed each other … We have a responsibility to be better for each other.”

One last try. Hannah gave life one last try. Because after a series of events that made her feel like she had no way out, she saw a flicker of light. But even that flicker diminished. Because when she sought out help, when she sought a way out, her last try failed her.

“13 Reasons Why” doesn’t accurately depict high school life, but it does — very graphically — show us that actions have consequences.

It’s no secret. Students suffer from depression and have seriously considered suicide; we know them. Perhaps we’re one of them.

This show speaks to how we’ve failed each other. For Hannah, her last try led her to a counselor. For you, your last try may be a counselor, teacher, friend, sibling, parent. Regardless of our roles, we have a responsibility to be better for each other.

My point? The show started a conversation that we need to finish. Clay said it best: “It has to get better.” So be nice, supportive and — to the best of your ability — the one that keeps someone’s flicker of light going.

They need it.

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