I don't typically write about television. Sure, like any true Parks and Recreation fan, I have a poster of Leslie Knope upon which I wrote What Would Leslie Knope Do, signed by my old roommate and myself. But, I don't usually write about TV. Film often strikes me as more worthwhile and artistic, while TV seems to be merely entertaining (not to say that things that exist primarily to be entertaining are in any way bad or not worth any attention, I just don't usually feel like writing about them).
But 13 Reasons Why, the new show on Netflix based on a book by the same title, is not entertainment, and had a surprisingly strong impact on me, so write about it I must.
First, there is a litany of trigger warnings--definitely for the show, and possibly for this post. Trigger warnings include:
- Rape/sexual assault/sexual harassment
- Physical violence/physical abuse
- Alcohol abuse
Second, I want to address some of the problems I saw in this show before delving into the personal reactions I experienced.
The show graphically depicts rape and suicide. I oppose depicting rape graphically--it is horrifying and unnecessary and can be incredibly triggering. As for depicting suicide, besides being disturbing I worry about the effects it might have on viewers who are already suicidal. I have no expertise on suicide prevention, but it seems like dangerous territory.
To the show's credit, preceding the episodes containing these graphic events were warnings. However, I think overall the show was pretty disturbing and triggering, and probably should have had general warnings throughout.
This is not a show everyone should watch. While I appreciated the accurate depictions of rape culture, misogyny, bullying, and how smaller hurts can grow into giant inescapable hurts, this show is likely too much for many people. It has so many triggers and questionable depictions of horrific events thus should be watched with caution.
The timing for me watching this show was interesting--I recently received an invite to my ten-year high school reunion, as well as an invite to have a reunion with my primary group of friends from high school. High school for me was pretty neutral. I had some good times, knew some good people, had some great teachers. It wasn't a thoroughly exciting time--I never understood the high-school-is-the-best-time-of-your-life mentality, and having moved on from it don't really look upon it with nostalgia or longing.
Junior high, on the other hand, was terrible. I think watching 13 Reasons Why, while also having various invites that thrust me back in time, forced me to really think about high school and junior high in ways I hadn't in a long time.
Junior high started out OK, but at some point devolved into a fairly typical yet utterly painful living hell. I'm not sure what happened, and I don't harbor any blame or anger towards the folks from junior high. But it has been a long time since I addressed that pain, and watching heinous bullying on TV made me realize that I never truly addressed in it the first place--I simply got through it, adopting social fears and unhealthy communication habits along the way.
In my perspective, one day I had friends and the following day I did not. Other than the hell that is junior high that probably all of us faced in one way or another, I don't know what shifted. All I know is there were times when I walked down the halls and said hi to people and they looked at me before looking away and ignoring me. I remember a handful of rumors about myself and recognizing even then that for every rumor that got back to me, there were likely more I never heard. I remember having a birthday party where no one showed up. I remember an intrinsic and overwhelming loneliness, and feeling like there was nothing for me in that wretched building. I even considered transferring to a new school to see if a fresh start would help. Were it not for a few select teachers and a few good people, I probably would have transferred.
There were a few people who helped me stay afloat. In eighth grade, I had a group of people who were there and seemed to not care about the new trend of shunning me. Nonetheless, I never felt I could really talk about what was happening--that loneliness still existed. That's not to say it was their fault--when you find yourself the subject of rumors and are ostracized, it is easy to fold into yourself and not take advantage of the people who might be there for you if you could just be vulnerable enough to let them.
Looking back from an adult perspective I can see a few other people who could have been there for me, too. But at the time, there's no way I could have reached out to them--it just didn't compute. I saw this in 13 Reasons Why. Hannah was sure Clay had begun to hate her, but as viewers you know he completely high school in love with her. But when you're in a state of loneliness like that you can't see and you don't trust.
High school was different--I had friends and if there were any rumors that followed me from junior high I was unaware. I focused on writing and dancing and healing, however I can see a direct line from my junior high experiences to the way I interacted with people in high school.
A few months ago I reached out to one of my high school friends and asked her what her experience was with me in high school--I was on a mission of self-growth and reflection. She said she always enjoyed my company and appreciated my ability to just be Tamsen, but remembered that I never talked about my problems or disclosed the identity of any guy I was crushing on. I remember this, too. I remember wanting to talk to people about my problems--especially this friend because my perception of her was always that she loved and accepted people for whomever they were. But I never could talk about my problems or the guys I liked. I lost the ability to open up or be vulnerable and feared that by talking about the things that were hard for me I would drive people away, and I couldn't stand the idea of that.
I know now that--especially with the above friend--that notion was ridiculous. She is just the kind of person to be there and love you, but I couldn't see it after junior high taught me about gossip and lies and rumors and shunning. I felt it was better to keep people at arms length and keep them around then to risk bringing them closer only to be abandoned.
And it didn't help that often in high school I felt that some of the people surrounding me only kept me around because they found me to be an amusing oddity. I can't say for sure if this is how people felt, but I remember feeling that way nonetheless. If one feels that way it is unlikely one will make an effort to form stronger and more meaningful connections.
Why does all this matter now and why does sharing it seem necessary after watching 13 Reasons Why? In part it is because the show really took me back to those years. I was never suicidal and maintained a certain level of hope even when it seemed utterly dark--but still I could relate in many ways. When Hannah describes in one of her tapes the various kinds of loneliness, it was like she was talking to my adolescent self in a way that I only wish I could have conveyed when I was younger. And what is more, the reality of bullying in all its forms is real, constant, and dangerous. Of course not everyone who is bullied will be suicidal, but those hurts linger.
In my desire to further address the memories and pains from my youth, I also want to extend the hand of peace and friendship. One of the themes at the end of the series is that you never really know what someone else is going through--this is true. But it's vital to remember that whatever it is you're going through, it doesn't justify the unkindness that people are capable of.
One TV show and one blog post won't put an end to bullying or rape or abuse, but maybe it can start the wheels turning in people's minds. Maybe if individuals who make up our communities begin to realize that every action we take has an impact on our surroundings and others, we can simply do better--there's never a better time than now to send good out into the world.