13 reasons why I hate Netflix’s ‘teen-shock’ shows
13 Reasons Why has been a cult hit for Netflix. Any hope that the show, which revolves around a young person’s suicide, is merely a misguided attempt at awareness-raising gone wrong collapses in the face of the streaming service’s latest teen-shock offering: To the Bone. This film, starring Lily Collins, has been feted by abhorrent pro-anorexia sites for promoting “thinspiration” in its portrayal of an anorexic’s journey. I haven’t seen it all, but I have seen the trailer, and that’s troubling enough.
Ratings at any cost seem to be the way forward for Netflix. If these features were directed at adults, fair enough, but they are aimed at children — and are in danger of manipulating the most acutely suggestible age-group with their provocative sensationalism. Sensitivity is pared to the bone in programmes that are all about notoriety.
Professor Tanya Byron has asked school heads to share their concerns about 13 Reasons Why. I’ve steered clear of doing this so far to deny the show further publicity, but now I have watched it in full I feel obliged to share with you my 13 reasons why you shouldn’t watch it.
- This programme, whatever its statements about awareness-raising, glamorises suicide. The programme has all the polish, allure and compulsion of the most popular US high school dramas. Its heroes and heroines are beautiful, eloquent and slender. Whatever our rational selves might say, they fit entirely into their genre and wrest entirely predictable generic reactions from us. We want those lives and the heightened version of reality they appear to offer.
- The last episode, which presents the suicide itself, is graphic, instructive in its detail and appalling. One producer said of this scene, it is there to show that “suicide should never be an option”. But as The New Yorker trenchantly points out, “it can apparently, be the whole point of a show”.
- The conceit is that the suicide victim, Hannah Baker, has left a pile of J’accuse tapes that are to be heard individually by the friends who let her down. Through flashback and post-suicide voiceover, she is brought back to life. This blurs the lines between dead and alive. Therefore whatever the intention, the finality of suicide, the nothing-beyondness of it, the dreadful waste, the glaring absence is never really shown, or felt by the viewers. So the show both glamorises and minimises the effects of suicide.
- One of the (odder) defences from the writers is that it doesn’t just cover the taboo of suicide; cyberbullying, rape, abuse and alcoholism are also explored, which stops us “as a society shying away from hard topics”. Well, OK, but the exploration is — as we’d expect in this genre — unsubtle, trivialising and thin. Again, I’m with The New Yorker on this: “TV shows giving themselves license to shovel trauma at their audience while assuring their audience that it’s actually healthier this way.”
- The implausibility of the characters’ reactions to dreadful abuse or to being on the edge of existence is glaring.
- Parents in the series are woeful, in both senses. Hannah’s mother in particular is poignantly played in her distress, but the parents’ lack of knowledge, never mind understanding of their children, feels like a dramatic device, rather than credible.
- Likewise the striking absence of siblings.
- If the aim was to get more people talking about the horrors of suicide, I doubt it’s worked. If the aim was to get people talking about the series, I’m quite sure it has. The team from Creators.co — an online writers’ community — say this: “13 Reasons Why teaches us that when there are difficult issues in life we can’t just bury our heads in the sand. It’s better to confront these hard topics head on and start a conversation about them.” Fair enough, but while they pay lip service to the controversy this “handling of teen suicide” has created, they can’t hide their glee in “the staggering success the program has enjoyed”.
- The caution at the opening of each episode offers some guidance, but it is inadequate. This series should be inaccessible to anyone under 18.
- Things may be very different in the US, but surely the portrayal of the school and the three members of staff we see — including a hapless counsellor who appears to double as a university advisor — is entirely unrealistic.
- The characters’ motivations are almost distastefully simplistic and often ludicrous, and everything seems distorted. In order to move to where the writers need their character to be, Hannah Baker is shown to feel sullied beyond all consolation by a list that has her in it as someone with the ”best ass” in the school. Well, OK, this could be upsetting, but what about depicting some resilience in such a situation? Or to paraphrase Tanya Byron, “Stuff happens, get over it!” At other times almost unimaginable trauma seem to elicit muted and very thinly sketched response.
- The New Yorker and others object to the series on dramatic grounds: its 13 hours feel turgid, repetitive and long. I agree, but my concern too is in the dramatic power of its construction. It’s a powerful premise and the hook kept me interested against my better instincts.
- Did I mention the brewing of a teen mass murderer plot for one of the characters? Apparently the realisation of that storyline has been laid up for a possible second series. I fear that too will unravel with all the cheap thrills and ham-fisted sensitivity of the first. This is a show driven entirely by commercial imperatives that cares a great deal more about its viewing figures than its viewers. I am very happy to follow Professor Byron’s advice and preach against this tripe. Fortunately, like The New Yorker, I also have faith in “the ability of teenagers to know bulls**t when they see it”.
Jenny Brown, Headmistress, St Albans High School for Girls
This article appeared in The Times, 9 July 2017