by Tonya Larmoyeux
Last week as I temporarily plopped myself at my desk to take attendance, I overheard two students talking about “tape.” Imagine my surprise when I realized several days later that these girls were not talking about the clear, sticky roll sitting by my computer.
“Put that on my tape.” It’s sarcastic lingo that students are saying when they’ve been offended. I’ve heard it a handful of times now, and it’s part of the ever-increasing number of catch-phrases that I am trying to keep up with as a junior high/high school teacher. The students are referencing the new Netflix hit, 13 Reasons Why, and “the tapes” refer to messages a dead girl sent to the people she blamed for her suicide.
Many parents across the country, and many friends in my circle, are wisely choosing to dialogue with their children about this series that has so quickly entered our world and is widely watched by our teens. Some parents are choosing to watch with their kids to glean lessons from the show to impart to their children. I’ve read the author and producer’s and parents’ intent, and I believe with all my heart their intentions are good. However, it’s important to distinguish between intent and outcome. Below are the real-life, observable, experiential, and evidential effects of 13 Reasons Why I have noticed as both a parent and teacher positioned in a public school:
1. The educational value that the TV series provides is overshadowed by the entertainment value. When students come to school, their conversations prove they’ve been enthralled by the show. The chatter is about the characters, the story line, and what happens next. The students are animated as they laugh and talk about how the emotion of the story gripped them. They are talking about the make-out scenes, the gore, the razor blades, the violence.
The values that we are imparting to them individually on our living room couches are not represented when students collectively gather in the school’s hallways. We need to be realistic about what happens when young minds watch things with such intensity, because graphic images are holding their attention and filling their minds multiple times more than our verbal lessons.
2. The lessons from the series are not being implemented by its viewers. Two of the main lessons of 13 Reasons Why is understanding the effects of our actions on other people, and making our world nicer and kinder. At the risk of being overly dramatic, I would think this would send students to their school environment empowered and ready to speak positivity into their peers. In the conversations that I’ve heard, the result is the opposite.
My daughter was sitting by some of her classmates while they detailed the suicide scene in the final episode. Their mere oral description was disturbing to my daughter, and so she asked her peers to please stop talking so vividly about it. Rather than using that moment to self-reflect about their words, they belittled my daughter. They rolled their eyes and were condescending to their “sensitive” companion who didn't want to participate in the conversation. They pressured her to watch a series she communicated clearly she does not care to see. (Eventually she watched a couple of episodes just so she could understand what her friends were talking about.) Unknowingly, my daughter's friends are guilty of the peer pressure and insensitivity so accurately portrayed and discouraged in the show they are in love with.
3. Relatability is overpowering personal responsibility. The storyline is gripping in part because many of us who have been severely wronged identify with Hannah’s struggle. While young minds are finding their problems described, the solutions to life’s hardships offered by the show are not equipping them adequately.
One student at my school told her friend, “If I had a tape, you’d have a side.” The friend was flabbergasted at being told she would be a possible reason for someone wanting to kill herself. The friend, who has not at all bullied or wronged the other student, asked, “Why would I be on your tape?” The student replied in vague, complicated terms that sounded much like the unhealthy thinking of the main character, Hannah.
This emotionally unstable student (I say this because I’ve known and observed her for years) is not thinking about her own personal responsibility to make the world a better place; she is thinking about those who have contributed to her low self-esteem. This girl is relating to the victim mentality, not to the character who at the end of the show wants to love and work harder to reach his friends.
4. Our teens are repeating the advice from a damaged character who causes damage herself. Hannah is the main character, the narrator, and the driving force of the lessons that are to be learned by the series. Everyone would agree that Hannah was severely wronged, but her thought processes about certain events were skewed. Hannah is a problematic “hero” who wasn’t always kind to others (especially Clay), who lacked coping skills, who concentrated more on getting back at those who wronged her than giving to those who loved her. Her tone on the tapes is not based on love, grace and kindness, but on her desire for revenge.
Go online to our teens’ tweets and you’ll see that 90 percent of their direct quotes from the movie are from Hannah. Our teens are being negatively influenced by the very kind of person who needs to be positively influenced. Our young ones are not a generation able to speak life into the mentally disturbed or understand mental health; they are taking life lessons from the mentally disturbed.
The difference between intent and outcome
Years ago, my best friend’s husband met a trucker on the road home from work. It was the trucker’s intent to pass a line of cars and get to a certain location a little faster. The result was a head-on collision that killed a father and husband. The driver's intent was good—to deliver a bunch of goods to their rightful destination in a faster amount of time. The outcome was dangerous and deadly.
In comparing my friend’s tragic accident to the aftermath of 13 Reasons Why, I use the words “dangerous and deadly” on purpose. Regardless of the intent of the creators of this series, we can expect collective outcomes characterized by flippant remarks and copycat behavior. We can expect teens to think long and hard about who has wronged them. We can expect them to take cues from the wrong role models. Our society can expect some unreasonable outcomes that we will one day clearly trace back to 13 Reasons.
Copyright © 2017 by Tonya Larmoyeux. Used with permission.
For more on '13 Reasons Why,' read "'13 Reasons Why' and the Tragedy of Teenage Suicide," by Dave Boehi.