Me, I wonder how many parents bothered to read 13 Reasons Why when it just existed as a novel. Written by Jay Asher, it was published 10 years ago, was a No. 1 young-adult bestseller in the United States and has been translated and published in 34 countries. Many, many millions of copies sold.
So it's not as if the story – Hannah Baker, a high-school kid, has died by suicide and left 13 audio cassettes, telling the story of her life and why she killed herself – arrived last week and suddenly got teenagers talking. What did arrive last week was a mystifying fuss about the adaptation that has been streaming on Netflix since March 31.
An elementary school in Edmonton sent an e-mail to the parents of sixth-graders letting them know their students were prohibited from even mentioning the series on school grounds. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board in Ontario used its website to attack the series, alleging, "graphic content related to suicide, glamorization of suicidal behaviour and negative portrayals of helping professionals." Both CBC and CTV have done alarmist stories about the fuss. That is, alarmist about the content of 13 Reasons Why.
There is something pathetic, but illuminating, about the fuss. First, it took a decade before any adult in the school-authority system in Canada noticed that a narrative about teen suicide was enormously popular among teenagers. There is what you might call adult narcissism when it comes to the popular culture for teenagers. If it's not in-your-face, it doesn't exist.
Second, it's really a problem about perceiving fiction and its role. There seems to be a notion abroad in the Canadian school system that all fiction should be therapeutic. There is also a perception that the audience for 13 Reasons Why, both as a novel and a Netflix series, is too dumb and/or insensitive to appreciate the nuance of what is a superb piece of fiction.
13 Reasons Why is an excellent series. A bit drawn-out at times, lingering too long on situations and characters that don't really move the plot along. And that plot is a thriller. The story is about finding out why Hannah killed herself.
Like most good fiction, it has psychological insight and sociological observation. It is a work of fiction that is funny, moving and disturbing. That's why it has won awards and is internationally acclaimed. That's a fact. Another fact, and genuinely disturbing, is the scaremongering about the work.
The organization School Mental Health Assist, which helps school boards in Ontario on mental health, sent a note urging teachers not to use the drama as an educational material: "Use of the Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, as a teaching tool is not recommended. The material is graphic and potentially triggering for vulnerable young people." The series is now routinely described as "controversial" and thundering denunciations abound. A Hamilton Spectator editorial called it "teen-targeted television trauma."
Well, I can guess, as can any thinking adult, what is traumatic for teenagers – being persistently patronized by adults. There is a bizarre assumption that a Netflix adaptation of what is already considered a classic young-adult novel is likely to terrify teenagers and possibly get them thinking about suicide. Because, well, they think a work of fiction is an instruction manual about life. And, while millions of teens have read the book, seeing actors perform the roles can trigger something that the printed word cannot. Because, well, we are a primitive society unaccustomed to the illusion created by moving images, and irrational reactions might ensue.
13 Reasons Why is tough-minded. It's not an easy read or a mindless series. It says high school is tough, but it's not an episode of Degrassi High. At one point, Hannah's voiceover says, "Mostly, boys are assholes. But girls, girls can be evil." You see, Hannah's life, as we see it, turns into a mess for a set of very complicated reasons. Her life spirals out of control. The blame for that is spread around.
But at its end and in its essence, it's a work of intricate fiction. It mocks contemporary adolescent life relentlessly, but with a subtlety that a lot of adults might not recognize. It is not guilty of "glamorization of suicidal behaviour." That phrase is bunkum. The series treats its characters with respect and acknowledges their depth and sophistication. Which is more than those finger-wagging school officials – and CBC and CTV – are doing in their treatment of the audience for 13 Reasons Why.