Since the launch of “13 Reasons Why” on March 31st, many viewers, organizations, and parents have voiced their concern about the new Netflix show. In 13 episodes, we learn through cassette tapes why Hannah, a high school student, has committed suicide. Obviously, this is an extremely sensitive topic, because tragically it hits very close to home for many students. There has been much controversy about the series because experts say that romanticizing and showing a suicide in detail can lead to an increase in suicides.
The show certainly starts a discussion among those who are watching the program. The debates at our office have been focused on the interpersonal violence that is portrayed in “13 Reasons Why”, and it’s quite a list: hazing, stalking, shaming, revenge porn, cyber harassment, sexual assault, and rape. On top of that: lack of bystander intervention and lack of support.
Clearly in this show that high school is not a walk in the park for students, dealing with issues from grades, social pressures to fit in, and relationships to struggling to come out, being targeted by bullying and experiencing domestic violence. Everyone appears to be part of this silent, but blatant hierarchy, and those at the top are seemingly invincible. And whether we like it or not, the program is right about one thing: those at the top often get away with things. Though we see emotional breakdowns of people involved in the two rapes, the rapist himself is indifferent, refusing to see the part his actions played in this tragedy. It is tough to watch, but unfortunately, in most real life cases this is true.
As a society we have an obligation to do something about this. Take accusations seriously, believe and support survivors, punish the perpetrator instead of the victim, and take actions to prevent any kind of violence. Actions from parents such as educating our children about respect and consent. Schools can enhance this by providing sexual violence prevention education.
We, at Catharsis Productions perform most of our programs for college students and military audiences. We are often asked: “why don’t you perform at high schools?” Good question: why don’t we? The truth is, we have tried, believe me. One part is that schools are underfunded and generally do not have the budget to bring in live programs. The other reason, more concerning to this discussion is: many high schools are hesitant to teach their students about consent. Sexual Education is often still taught by preaching “Don’t have sex.”, or focusing on STI’s and pregnancy prevention. And it’s often the parents who don’t want their children to be exposed to the larger discussion. What is a healthy sexual relationship (whether long lasting, or for one night)? What is consent? How do we give and GET consent? How do we treat each other with respect? And what can bystanders do to intervene and help?
It’s exactly these discussions that we need to have at an early stage. Hoping teenagers won’t drink, or be sexually active simply doesn’t suffice. They are out there in the real world, and it doesn’t get more real than high school. This is often a young person's first contact with alcohol and any form of sexual behavior.
One takeaway we can all agree on from 13 Reasons Why is that this is the time to jump in and teach the rules of respectful and responsible behavior. If we can have ‘real talk’ with high school students or even at an earlier stage, then we—and more importantly THEY—can create a better society. The positive consequences would not only be seen in high schools but in their years to come, during college, throughout their careers and the relationships they’ll have for the rest of their lives.