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.
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!