I’m a Middle School English Teacher and I Have a Problem With “13 Reasons Why”

My students love the novel and the new show on Netflix. I’m not so sure about it.

My Problem With 13 Reasons Why

Chances are, if you work with teenagers, by now you’ve heard about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Based on the novel by Jay Asher, the show is about a teenage girl who commits suicide, leaving behind a series of cassette tapes for various people explaining why they are responsible for her death.  Full disclosure: I’ve read the book but not watched the show, but I hear it’s the same story played out by lots of attractive young people.

I’m an English teacher, and I believe that stories not only reflect who we are as people, but that they have the power to shape who we become. And, at the risk of sounding like a book-burning zealot or, at best, a Ms. Stephanie Crawford, our young people are especially vulnerable to the messages they receive. So I think this show is incredibly important, and I’m conflicted about the message it’s giving my kids.

I’ve seen a lot of kids who are fans of the show reflecting on their own actions, which is amazing. The novel/show makes the point that the way we treat others has consequences, and all of us have the power to do serious psychological damage. No matter how often teachers and administrators and counselors preach that message, it never seems to get through, so I’m grateful to Netflix for bringing it home to my kids.

I think this show has the power to actually reduce bullying, and I’ve seen a real increase in kids standing up for each other when other kids are mean. There’s also the fact that now a lot of my kids know what a cassette tape is, making me feel slightly less ancient when I reference anything from the 80s and 90s.

I do want my students to see that their words are powerful, and that they have an effect on others. But I also have a real problem with the idea that these 13 people are to blame for the fictional Hannah Baker’s suicide. Because in the end, I think that Hannah’s suicide comes down to one person; Hannah herself.

I think there’s an element of personal responsibility that’s lost in the novel’s eagerness to pin blame on those who have mistreated her. (I’m not advocating the demonization of those who commit suicide. Depression is often a fatal illness. It’s the idea that she had to kill herself because people were mean to her that gives me pause.)

Telling teenagers that they are completely responsible for the mental welfare—and the survival—of all their classmates is maybe a bit much to put on the shoulders of 13-year-olds. We absolutely need to teach them to treat others decently. But teaching them that they should be nice because otherwise someone might kill themselves, seems a little heavy handed.

That’s not my biggest problem with the show, however. My main concern is the fact that it posits suicide as the ultimate “eff you” to all the people you leave behind. Hannah uses suicide as a weapon of revenge, an “I’ll show them” that is astonishingly effective.

This message terrifies me. Teenagers are often angry and almost always impulsive. Teachers have already seen an epidemic of self-harm because kids see it as a way to show that they are angry or in pain. I truly worry that, if my kids believe that suicide is an effective way to get their point across, we’ll see an increase in suicide attempts. God knows, enough kids come up with that idea on their own. They don’t need Netflix showing them how well it works.

If 13 Reasons Why can encourage my kids to pick up a book and read, awesome. If it has the added benefit of decreasing bullying, then that’s amazing. But my classes will be having some serious conversations about the messages it sends regarding suicide and personal responsibility.

Posted by Elizabeth Peyton

I teach at a small urban middle school for refugee and immigrant kids. I spend all day with the most challenging, hilarious, exhausting group of people I can imagine, and I'm extremely grateful for it!

2 Comments

  1. I have not read the book, but I have watched some of the Netflix series. I also worry that it further glamorizes suicide by making the main character have fashion-model looks, a sharp, incisive wit, and just generally be a totally cool teenager, who somehow manages to seem in control even when she is being bullied. She becomes the character everyone watching the show wants to be, which might further romanticize what she did. I think the viewer is going to identify with Hannah and not with her peers…

  2. As a high school English teacher, I have to disagree on some of the things you stated. I have read AND watched the story. I do not believe that Jay Asher (nor the TV show) intended or even conveyed that suicide was a revenge tactic. I feel that those who see it that way missed the point of the novel (show) entirely. Yes, it was Hannah’s ultimate decision; yes, Hannah is responsible for her death. However, we are kidding ourselves if we do not believe that our actions and words towards others do not play a part (and hold some responsibility). She did not blame them for her taking the razor to her wrist. Hannah informed those 13 people how their actions impacted her life in such a negative manner in hopes of them not doing that to another person. Bullies should be held accountable when young people feel they don’t have any way out other than suicide. Do I believe they should be prosecuted? Not sure; that depends on the extent of the harassment. I feel you DID demonize those who commit suicide while attempting to reduce the magnitude of other people’s words and actions towards those who are hurting. When we lose a young person to suicide, we all should be held responsible – especially those in the human services fields (like teachers and counselors).

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