Eleven Reasons Why Watching “Thirteen Reasons Why” was a Bad Life Choice

Netflix dropped Season 2 of Thirteen Reasons Why first thing Friday morning. As a teacher and parent of teens, I consume a lot of cultural artifacts that target this age group to help me understand interests and references (and… well, I have a lifelong love of teen culture, and would likely be consuming it regardless). I teach English, so conversations about media consumption are frequent. It being a long weekend here, I decided to engage in a marathon viewing of the season. Having read the book and watched Season 1, I knew the content would include graphic descriptions (and depictions) of sexual violence, suicide, and gun violence, so my self-care strategy was to watch the thirteen episodes in two sittings to give my brain and heart a bit of a break.

Gentle reader, this was not a successful strategy.

This post will be overflowing with spoilers. It will also include deeply personal reflections on the impact of the season on me. If you’re in a place where reading about sexual assault, drug- and alcohol-facilitated sexual assault, suicide, and rape culture in general will cause you harm, this may not be the post for you (and THIS IS NOT THE SHOW FOR YOU). Honour where you are, and proceed with caution.

Okay. Here are eleven reasons why watching this season of Thirteen Reasons Why was not an example of me living my best life:

1. I try to avoid consuming cultural creations by people who have histories of performing acts of sexual violence. I do weigh out the pros and cons before making a final choice in consumption, and sometimes, as in this case, I choose to watch so I know what I may have to address with my own children or my students.

What does this have to do with Thirteen Reasons? In February of this year, it came to public attention that Jay Asher, the author of the YA novel on which the series is based, was accused of sexual harassment and expelled from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

(btw, no, I have no intention of using the word “allegedly” in this piece. It’s a documented fact he was accused, and I’ve said absolutely nothing defamatory here.)

2. On a good day, I am wary of consuming texts created by men in which girls and women are raped. Is that unfair? Maybe. But it isn’t generally women who use sexual assault as a plot device, or as a reason for why a female character is broken or hypersexual, or otherwise affected. Not all men do this (yeah, I did just write that), but they are far MORE likely to use this as a plot device than women writers do.

So, men writing rape is generally a no. Men with personal histories of sexual violence writing rape? Shoulda been a hard pass.

3. The graphic depictions of rape and suicide in Season 1 were brutal. They left me in a very hard place when I watched, and while I recognized that the second season would not likely be any less overwhelming, I told myself I’d be okay because I knew what to expect. I need to start questioning my self-talk.

There is a horrifically violent rape scene at about the 37-minute mark in episode 13. I had sought out spoilers to find out exactly why so many people were saying DO NOT WATCH THE MIDDLE OF EPISODE 13, and I’m so grateful I did. It was hard enough to see the other depictions and descriptions throughout the season, but I was able to save myself from the scene in which Tyler is brutally beaten and raped in a school washroom.

4. This scene for which I intentionally removed my headphones and minimized the window was justified in the after show as being essential for viewers to empathize with Tyler. This is bullshit, and says a lot about what we think about how empathy works. We do not need to see people be beaten and raped in order to believe it happened. Do not quote “radical empathy” to me like you know what you’re talking about. RADICAL EMPATHY is feeling for and with someone REGARDLESS OF SHARED OR RELATABLE EXPERIENCE. Radical empathy is about understanding that the visual depiction of some experiences is not worth the tangible harm those depictions will (not may, will) cause viewers.

5. Twenty-four years ago this week, I was raped. It was my grad night, I was drunk, we were in a hotel room, and it was a friend (not my date).   I had blacked out and not remembered anything between saying, “I’m not having sex with you because we don’t have any condoms” to waking up sore and naked in the bed, being judged by other friends for my etiquette faux-pas of “having sex” in a shared hotel room. It took almost a year for the memories of that night to finally come back (and all at once, at that. Thanks, unconscious. Thanks a lot).

Watching depictions of drunk and unconscious teenage girls being raped by people they trust will always be a hard thing for me.

6. This past weekend was also my high school reunion. I did not attend, for a number of reasons. I’ve been trying to understand my apprehension about attending such an event, and it was only in watching this season that it clicked: the reunion the same week as that anniversary was too much for my generally very-okay-with-things self to process. That Liberty High’s mascot is also the Tigers was one more thing that made this watch incredibly triggering. It’s the little things, you know? The little tiny details that you’d never imagine would set you off, and yet here we are.

7. The collusion of the school staff in enabling this behaviour is super super accurate for too many. I’m nowhere NEAR the only person who was sexually harassed by a teacher in high school, a teacher who, to my knowledge, is still an active teacher, at that same school. Watching teachers shield each other and their preferred students from accountability will always push my buttons.

8. Tangent related to 7 and not explicitly addressed in the series, I’m nowhere near the only person who was dress-coded by staff members for how my body filled my clothes, which, in case this is unclear, is itself a form of sexual harassment. When adults call out children and youth for their appearance, they are doing so after having sexualized those young people. This isn’t new, and it isn’t over.

9. The content warnings were not enough. Putting warnings at the beginning of an episode is not enough. If you MUST include these incredibly graphic depictions in a show targeting teens, you MUST ALSO STOP THE ACTION ADD A MORE IMMEDIATE CONTENT WARNING. Because of the nature of Netflix, we don’t have commercials to create expected pauses. You need to pretend there’s a damn commercial, and you need to REWARN your audience and let them prepare for what comes next, or fast-forward, or walk away. You need to build in that choice.

10. EVEN IF IT’S REALISTIC, having no on-screen adult address Hannah’s suicide and Alex’s attempt because of a fear of “suicide contagion” INCREASES THE RISK OF REAL-WORLD SUICIDE CONTAGION. Embed the message that there are supports. Embed the message that youth vulnerability to their peer’s actions is a risk, and that you’re looking out for them. Be explicit in supporting the characters through their grief and loss, somehow. It may not make as “good television,” but it is a far more ethically responsible choice.

11. While I get the affluenza associated with rapists getting off (in all aspects) is totally a thing in the real world, and that athletic teams’ culture of rape and collusion is also so so real, that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. And the lip service the coach (WHO FACILITATED THE RAPE OF SEVERAL TEEN GIRLS BY HIS BASEBALL TEAM, and it’s implied he too was part of this culture when he was a student) paid to “consent education” in the locker room was just. so. offensive. to watch.

So.

If you’ve watched Season 2 and have feelings, I hear you.

If you were thinking about watching and have decided not to, I respect that.

If you’re going to watch it now to see how you feel about it, I get you.

If you have children or students who have watched it (and you might), and they’re a little off this week, check in with them. Let them know you’re there for them – whether you are comfortable having those conversations yourself, or connecting them with someone who has more resources to support them.

And if you need those resources yourself? Yeah.

Yeah.

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