Like everyone else in the world, I recently started watching 13 Reasons Why. I have not finished the entire show yet, so I cannot give an official reaction of the whole series (it is like a book–I can’t tell you if Edna Pontiller’s walk into the ocean in The Awakening was selfish or a beautiful submission to her individual desires until I’ve read the whole book). Some people say it glamorizes suicide, others say they are glad to be talking about this often swept under the rug topic; some say Hannah is dramatic, others say bullying with social media is a problem; some say they like Tony as a characters, others say he is flat and confusing. I can’t answer those questions, but what I do think, before we banter back and forth about the validity and necessity of the show, is we must first solve here, is whether T.V. reflects our own reality (so, we live, and then T.V. shows our living), or whether we learn from T.V. (so, we watch T.V., and then bring that into our real lives).
The first one works like this: something happens in everyday life, and T.V. showcases that. For example, one of my favorite episodes of Modern Family is called, “Mother’s Day”. At the beginning of the episode, Claire barrels proudly into the kitchen to display all of the ill placed and haphazard Mother’s Day gifts her children have ever given her (this includes a T-Shirt with her kids’ hand prints in a humorous place). If I am going with the argument that T.V. reflects reality, then I would say that the writer’s probably experienced a similar situation in their own lives, and threw it on T.V. for the viewer to relate to; the real experience comes first, and then T.V. adapts to show that reality. Or, in a show such as, 13 Reasons Why, in real life, kids do sending embarrassing pictures of each other around in large group messages, and so T.V. picks up that scenario in order to accurately portray reality.
Under this philosophy of T.V. reflecting reality, we might say that T.V. offers us a sense of catharsis and validation for our otherwise chaotic lives; when I watch a character getting upset about an unfair boss, that reflects my own reality, and validates my feelings; when I watch a character crying when she gets asked to prom, then I give myself allowance to cry when that happens to me, too; when a character finds himself in a potentially awkward blind date situation and wants to call an Uber to escape, it reminds me of my own awkward blind date, and I feel better knowing that is a common, shared experience (and that I’m just not weird).
The second argument (T.V. teaches reality) looks like this: I watch something like Leave It to Beaver, where June Cleaver is in charge of the domestic sphere, Ward is in charge of the economic and political spheres, and I adapt my own marriage to mimic that. Or, I watch a police procedural, such as The Wire, The Shield, Castle, I see that policemen are brutal, immoral, drug-dealing, violent, wife-beaters, and I take that perception the next time I get pulled over. Or, I watch T.V., like Gossip Girl or even 13 Reasons Why, and I see all of these instances where a “popular girl” takes a picture of me, photo shops it, shows it to my face, and then everyone laughs at me, in front of me. If I am thinking that T.V. teaches reality, then I believe that this scenario would actually happen in real life, and therefore, it might encourage me to feel fearful or act differently in real life situations (ie it might prevent me from wanting to take risks, or to speak my opinion, or to wear something, or be involved in something, because, based on the conditioning from T.V. and the scenes I learn from, I might fear someone would be mean to me.
In my own personal experience, however, I have learned that people may say things behind your back, but they never say things to your face, so that fear we carry with us that is conditioned from T.V. is actually unrealistic. For example, this last week, I had a questionable freckle burnt off, which resulted in a really nice blister on my nose–totally noticeable–but yet, no one said anything to me about it. If I am going with the T.V. teaches reality argument, and I think about all the episodes of Lizzy McGuire or Boy Meets World where the main character has an embarrassing blemish, spends the entire episode trying to failingly cover it up, and then gets laughed at by the whole school, then I might be super self-conscious of my own blemish, because I don’t want that to happen to me. But, based on my experiences, T.V. does not teach or reflect reality, because people don’t actually ever say anything to your face.
Interestingly enough, the conversations I’ve had with teenagers regarding the show suggest that, while they agree the show is glamorizing suicide, they do feel they have the ability to discern the differences between what they see on T.V, and what they experience in their own lives–and I think this is where we, as teachers, mentors, and parents–should continue focusing our energy. Suicide certainly is an important issue, and the rates are certainly rising, and I think there are other also relevant issues that teenagers today deal with that stem from this blend between T.V. and reality experience–bullying, anxiety, talking back to parents, hyper romanticized relationships, video games and violence, teenage pregnancy, racism, etc.
I believe that, if we teach our kids to critically think, it won’t necessarily matter what kind of content they immerse themselves in, because they will effectively be able to pull apart T.V. and reality, and they will effectively be able to understand why a T.V. show made certain decisions (for example, one kid mentioned that, in order to maintain interest and make money, a T.V. show must include cliffhangers and secrets to be uncovered–if I can understand that as a rhetorical move to make money, then I would understand why Hannah would have so many awful things happen to her–kind of like a Holden Caufield–and I might disconnect myself from her experiences–because, while I may get bullied myself a time or two, Hannah’s experience is not reflective of mine (and therefore mine should not reach those same conclusions), because, in order for the show to be successful, Hannah must accumulate all the problems teenagers could ever face in order to maintain viewership–and ultimately, profits. Or, if I understand that a show has a limited budget, and that is why in Mad Men, everyone is having affairs with each other, then I don’t have those expectations when I enter an office seating, because I understand, in order for an affair to have an effect, the viewers must have some kind of relationship with the character before and after it happens).