Paternalism and the Debate Surrounding Thirteen Reasons Why

Posted May 10, 2017 by Tara Gold in articles, featured, Let's Talk Books /// 7 Comments

In case you missed it, Netflix finally released the long-awaited miniseries for the popular YA novel Thirteen Reasons Why last month, and it’s been taking the internet by storm. On my personal Facebook feed, the first waves of discussion praised the series and how “binge-worthy” the thirteen tape conceit is. Friends were posting vague comments about how important the story is, how eye opening, how cry-worthy. Some had read the book and were gripped by seeing it come to life, and some were experiencing Clay and Hannah’s story for the first time.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

However, the second wave, and the more critical one, soon followed. You know the one I’m talking about — the wave that takes something popular and points out how #problematic it all is. This is when I first started to see parents and educators (most of my friend group) questioning whether the story is harmful to teenagers. The critiques here mostly center around three things. First, there is the (very valid) criticism the suicide scene in the final tape is too graphic and glorifies suicide. Second, there is the criticism that the story irresponsibly fails to give positive information about seeking help. Third, some pointed out that the the film focuses on the external influences Hannah faces (bullying and sexual assault/rape) rather than the internal roots of clinical depression.

While all of these are valid critiques, I am not here today to discuss or dismiss these three points. I believe this has been done ad nauseum by the hive mind of the internet and I have little to add on those angles. I am not a mental health professional, and I have no direct experience with suicidal thoughts, depression, sexual assault, or even bullying. I am not qualified to truly discuss these topics from a mental health standpoint either through professional training or personal experience.

What I do want to talk about is how the rhetoric around this novel hits at something that constantly comes up when discussing adolescent literature: paternalism. Paternalism is “the policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates’ supposed best interest.” In other words, paternalism is protecting adolescents from themselves. I am a staunch advocate for adolescents’ rights to read, and paternalism (in its various forms) is at the root of most challenges to young people’s reading choices. We don’t want them to read about rape, or drugs, or sex, or swear words, or suicide, because we want to protect them.

What is ignored in these conversations, however, are adolescents’ feelings on this topic. Adolescents are autonomous beings. They have thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about the world. They have thoughts, opinions, and questions (so many questions) about rape, and drugs, and sex, and swear words, and suicide. The have questions that go beyond wanting to know the official, didactic, sanitized versions of these real world issues that adults “allow” them to consume. And they often seek empathy for people experiencing these things by reading literature on the topic. They may also be seeking an understanding that they themselves are not alone in going through tough things.

We as a society can sometimes forget that young people can make decisions about what they want to consume. I’m not here to argue that Thirteen Reasons Why is for everyone — far from it. I’m hear to argue that the choice to read it is for everyone. This may be a choice that they discuss with their friends, parents, or teachers before deciding not to read it. I know that for young people who have experienced suicidal thoughts, this book and TV show may be triggering. Teens may not agree with how things were handled, or how they story is told. But that doesn’t mean we should say, “Don’t read this. We know what’s best for you.”

Furthermore, I read a fantastic article from Michelle Falter (guest posting on Dr. Steve Bickmore’s blog) called “Focusing on the Wrong Things” that brought up a related point I hadn’t even considered: there are dozens of other problematic depictions of suicide in adult and classic literature at which we don’t blink an eye. These are the books we read in high school and college English courses that were written for adults, but are now primarily consumed as required reading by adolescents. Is the double suicide in Romeo & Juliet not problematic? How about Edna’s death in The Awakening (one of my favorite novels)? How poetic it is to just walk into the sea and die! The list goes on and on – Ophelia, Anna Karenina, Willy Loman, and Bertha Mason. Look at how pop culture glorifies Thelma and Louise, for goodness sake.

YA literature is held to a very high standard for how it must teach young people the acceptable ways to do things, but young people can see right through this. We need to dial down the paternalistic requirements of how YA should present the world, and instead give it space to reflect the world. As long as we are also having conversations about these reflections and allowing teens to engage in these conversations, they will have the tools they need to make their own decisions about how #problematic books or shows like Thirteen Reasons Why can be.

As always, I am open for discussion on this topic. I would love to hear what you think! Should young people read the book? Should they watch the series? Is it irresponsible or profound? Share your thoughts below!

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7 responses to “Paternalism and the Debate Surrounding Thirteen Reasons Why

  1. Jessica @ Strung out on Books

    I like your perspective about it here. I read Thirteen Reasons Why when I was about fourteen or fifteen and I remember being frustrated with it because it wasn’t something I could relate to. I wasn’t like any of the teenagers portrayed and I was frustrated with their decisions and the things that happened. I’m not sure this book really *showed* me anything new or shed light on anything I wasn’t already aware of, but I agree that it should be everyone’s choice whether to read it or not – everyone will experience this book differently. I feel like as a young teen, mental illness, bullying, sexual assault, and suicide were things I genuinely wanted to learn more about and reading was how I attempted to do that, but this book didn’t really go into the aspects I was curious about, it kind of showed the sort of things I’d already seen or heard in high school or online. Anyway, wonderful post! 🙂

  2. OMG this post!!! THANK YOU!! I so agree a million percent with this. There are a ton of books that I don’t care for the way they portray certain things– example: books that romanticize controlling/possessive dudes. But I would never say that people should be “protected” from them. They’re not for me, and they kind of make me sick, but I’m not going to go on a crusade to protect the kids. Look, as a teen the LAST thing I wanted was some adult telling me what I could handle. Conversations and discussions are fine, but you start banning things and it immediately becomes some forbidden treasure that you bet your ass I’d be watching/reading the first chance I got.

    It’s okay for warnings and dialogue– but we shouldn’t be talking down to teens and telling them what is best for them. That’s so damn condescending and it’s really not going to work.

  3. I’ve read the book a few years back, soon after it was published and found it rather fascinating. It was a good read, to say the least. But since I haven’t seen the Netflix series yet, I can’t really comment on its appropriateness.
    However, since my teenage years are not that long gone, I want to comment on something else. You mention advising teenagers not to read or watch it – usually this comes without any sort of explanation, summed up nicely with:”you’re not allowed to x.” Any adult who sincerely thinks this sentence is going to keep a teenager from doing something, should better think twice. Because these phrases tend to have the opposite effect – they tent to make teenagers want to to something even more. Because forbidden fruit just taste so much better. Rather than just forbid it, adults should clarify and reason why reading or watching something isn’t a good idea. And if they still want to watch or read it – joint them! Do it with them! And afterwards talk about it. Answer their questions and bring up, what has been left out in the book/series. Educating them is key. Plus, in the case of thirteen reasons why, why waste a perfectly good chance to finally talk about sexual assault and suicide? These terrible things should not be swept under the rug. We have to teach the next generation to speak up. And maybe, just maybe, thereby make a difference.

  4. I haven’t seen the Netflix series yet (and probably won’t watch it). But I read the book right after it came it (when I was probably 14-15) and it was one of the most powerful things I’ve read to date. As a teenager, I struggled with depression and I had friends contemplated suicide and acquaintances who attempted it. For me, 13 Reasons Why was a godsend, a great way to explore those feelings. I read it again last year after meeting Jay Asher and, coincidentally, after a childhood friend killed himself. It remained powerful.

    So I’m all for parents and other authority figures remaining aware and talking to teens about what they’re reading, but in general, teens should be able to read even the difficult stuff. It’s an important part of how they learn to deal with hard things. And the whole point of the book is to help teens be more aware and more compassionate toward each other. I don’t really think you can argue with that.

    (And great, great, great point about adult literature and film not being held to the same standards.)

  5. I listened to the audio CD version of Thirteen Reasons Why several years ago and was blown away by it. It felt dark and real and unlike anything I’d ever read before. The school I was working for at the time was focusing on bullying prevention, and the message that our actions (and inactions) have consequences made a lot of sense to me. I haven’t seen the Netflix series yet to see how the book was portrayed on screen, but I was really saddened to hear all the negative feedback. One of the headlines I read was something along the lines of “Being Nice to People Doesn’t Stop Them From Committing Suicide.” Like, seriously?! You don’t want teens to read this book and walk away with the message that whether they mean to or not, they can influence other people’s lives?! There were a lot of poor choices made by characters in the book, but I believe teenagers reading the story can more easily see where things went wrong for Hannah and apply better decision making in their own lives. Jay Asher’s book is just ONE portrayal of suicide, and I know teens are smart enough to realize that not all suicides are like Hannah’s. Just about every book and short story I taught as an English teacher had at least one person dying (Romeo & Juliet, And Then There Were None, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Outsiders, Julius Caesar, The Things They Carried, just to name a few), and never once did parents or students complain that the material was glorifying death. It’s too easy for people to find things that are #problematic without realizing that there are also powerful, positive messages in the books, music, tv shows, and movies that teens consume. The darkness provides the conflict and content to learn from.

  6. I truly, truly appreciate this post Tara! I feel like right now we are living in a world where everything is eventually seen as problematic, and while there are oftentimes valid concerns, it’s turned into a frenzy of people attacking/ignoring/unfollowing those who still choose to consume media that has been deemed problematic, and it’s frustrating to see how narrow minded that mindset is. I haven’t read/watched Thirteen Reasons Why yet, but I’m hoping to soon and while I will definitely think about the content critically, I can’t imagine telling others not to read or watch it.

  7. LOVE this piece! I haven’t read the book, but I did watch the show, and my internal monologue was basically the entire first section of your blog. I was so happy Netflix were addressing bullying, suicide and sexual assault in a TV show, and felt sure they would do it justice. I thought the topics were so important, and initially well handled. However, I started having massive problems with how that show ended up, and while I haven’t outwardly said it (having no young people directly in my life to “control” their viewing), I have felt that if I had the option, I would be concerned and/or would restrict younger audiences from seeing it. For all of the reasons you state, but also because there were times I felt quite sick to my stomach and struggled to watch it/digest it as an adult, and I even asked myself “how would I have reacted to this at 13”? And my answer wasn’t favourable. You have definitely given me food for thought though with the comparisons to the likes of Romeo and Juliet and Thelma and Louise. I hadn’t considered that. R xx

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