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Thirteen Sociological Things about 13 Reasons Why

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The story, 13 Reasons Why,  based on a young adult novel, centers on the suicide of a high schooler named Hannah Baker. The premise is that Clay Jensen is given a set of seven old fashioned audio tapes, with Hannah telling the story of one reason for why she committed suicide on each side of tape. Throughout the series, viewers get two perspectives: in one we learn about the months leading up to Hannah’s suicide, and a second narrative in the present day, with the Clay dealing with the aftermath.

The following post contains some spoilers and uses sociological tools to understand the show’s meaning. This post should definitely not be read as a resource on suicide.

Teen communication. Most of the high school classroom scenes are, unsurprisingly, in a Peer Communications class. As texts fly around the classroom, the teacher states: “How can we effectively communicate with peers without emojis?” Hannah, on the class, says: “Mrs. Bradley doesn’t have a clue about what is going in our lives.”

The students still pass notes, but much more of the way students communicate is through technology. A very nice book by comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance, analyzes how technology has changed the way people meet, communicate, and date. Ansari writes that technology has turned young people into “the rudest, flakiest people ever.” He explains how technologies make us less empathetic, more superficial, and paradoxically, less connected with other people. High schoolers need a communication class!

Old media & technology. Technology of all forms plays its role in throughout the show, implicitly and explicitly. There’s a lot of old technology (e.g., Tyler, taking pictures with a film camera; the tapes Hannah speaks into; the search for old tape recorders; a paper map).

Tony tells Clay that making mixtapes is a “lost and essential art” and that tapes are “like voicetexts on the iPhone but with way more style.” Deepening the narrative that older technologies are more “authentic,” Hannah and Clay, who have the most meaningful connection in the show, work at the old-media movie theater. (Of course, new technologies always spark a nostalgia for older media: The very tapes and films these characters swoon over were seen as being inferior to other media and culture, like vinyl and theatre! And although they likely accelerate and intensify bullying, bullying and suicide existed long before smartphones.)

Mixtapes, however, are indeed a lost art: We used to obsess over song order, and the overall story of a tape, sides A and B, etc. Making a mixtape for someone meant that you really, really liked them. I still have a few of mine in a box (somewhere)!

Music. Speaking of mixtapes, I wonder if the music is designed for someone my age, more than for someone in high school or college. The first song is Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” from 1980. (The lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide.) The season is scattered with other songs from my high school life: The Cure’s “Fascination Street” (1989), The Alarm’s “The Stand” (1984), and there’s a cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” (1983).

These songs straight up transport me to back to those awkward years, like songs always do. Why were these songs selected? Well, I am going to guess that the showrunners wanted parents (like me) to be interested in watching the show alongside their high school-aged children, and perhaps to be teleported back to the time that they were in high school. There’s no better way to do that than with music. (No surprise that the music is a key element: 24-year-old popstar Selena Gomez is the executive producer of the show.)

Bullying. The show was a reminder of another student suicide, in the town right next to mine, that drew national attention in 2010. Phoebe Prince was, like Hannah, a new student at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, and was the victim of an online bullying campaign. The state has since established an Anti-Bullying and Cyberbullying lawdesigned to protect adolescents and help schools protect their students. Sociologist C.J. Pascoe notes that, while both boys and girls engage in bullying, there is a clear and under-analyzed issue of masculinity when we think about bullying.

Drugs. Drugs appear to be pretty pervasive in high school culture on the show. This is a somewhat distorted image, since there is a nationwide decline in drug and alcohol abuse among teens, and an increase in awareness of the negative side effects of them. (The New York Times even posits that smartphones are the reason why!)

I suspected that drugs would play a larger role as the season wore on. But the focus seems to be on issues with licit drugs, not illicit ones: Hannah’s family owns a small drug store that is in danger of closing because a massive chain, “Walplex,” moves in. The family store seems to be a more of narrative device (i.e., a venue, like the cafeteria and coffee shop, for characters to interact) than the drugs themselves.

Parents and adults. We see the entire spectrum of adult relationships in the show. There are parents and adults who are surprisingly present and supportive, both before and after Hannah’s death. There are others who are either clueless, absent altogether, or abusive. The thirteenth tape, however, reveals that one adult who should be the last line of defense, school counselor Mr. Porter, is wholly negligent.

The depiction of Mr. Porter in 13 Reasons Why—he ignores the warning signs of suicide and rape when Hannah reached out to him—is particularly damaging. Depicting those who are specifically in roles designed to help as clueless and unsupportive could potentially dissuade viewers from seeking help. Students should know, however, that most school counselors are very well trained on these issues and are mandated reporters, meaning that they are required, by law, to report any information about a person being harmed.

Sexuality: There were a lot of gay characters on the show. There was Hannah’s friend Courtney (who struggles with her sexuality) and her two dads. There was the literary mag editor, Ryan. And then there was Tony. Here is an interesting question on the topic: Why was Tony gay? Did it have to do with establishing him as someone Hannah could trust? He wasn’t a part of the same high school culture, and he was perhaps the least likely to objectify Hannah. On sexuality, more generally, there is a great new book out about hookup culture on college campuses by sociologist Lisa Wade. (Interestingly, in addition to younger generations using less drugs and alcohol, college students are also not having many hookups either!)

Rape. There is a depiction of rape on the show and, although there are far too many points about this to mention, it is important to note that this gets its own number because rape is about power and not sexuality. Here are eight articles on the issue of rape from a sociological perspective.

Cultural consumption. There have been a few think pieces about how Netflix is suited toward our contemporary binge culture and, in fact, is fueling it. It seems like one of the themes of the show is a commentary on the binge consumption of culture that Netflix itself has promoted. At several points, characters express frustration that Clay was listening to the tapes too slowly and that they had listened to all of them in one night.

Suicide. For Émile Durkheim, suicide was a profoundly social phenomenon. In his classic study, Durkheim finds that suicide is the result of an imbalance between two social forces: moral regulation and social integration. Excessively high or low rates of regulation and integration can, he notes, increase the likelihood of suicide. Low social integration and low moral regulation, for example, causes a kind of suicide he calls egoistic (or individualistic) suicide. To oversimplify: other kinds are anomic (i.e., low regulation), altruistic (i.e., high regulation), and fatalistic (i.e., high integration).

Mental Illness. Talking about suicide as a social phenomenon is not, however, to diminish the issue of mental illness. The show barely touches upon it, but mental illness plays a part in up to 90% of suicides, a large percentage being undiagnosed and untreated. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24. There is, however, one character who seems to struggle with mental illness: Skye, the student, barista, and tattooed loner who, we learn engages in self-harm by cutting herself. Clay reaches out to her in the season’s final scenes, having recognized the signs of depression that he had missed with Hannah.

Real life. Some critics say that the show might spark a string of copycat suicides, and research does show that suicidal behaviors can be “contagious.” Scientific American says that, while the depiction of suicide might help those who are struggling, there is mixed evidence that a glamourous fictional production can trigger a wave of suicides. (There may have been one copycat suicide, in Peru.)

In the months after the show first aired there has been a spike of teens being rushed to ERs across the country, and an increase in mental health helpline calls. The show was also, unfortunately, timed with the trial of a young Massachusetts woman for pressuring her boyfriend to commit suicide. One school is trying to ban students talking about the show. In response to feedback, Netflix added contact information at the beginning of each episode, trigger warnings before particular episodes, information for a helpline, and a 30-minute documentary as a resource for viewers.

I should not have been surprised that Netflix would look to capitalize on the success of the show with a second season. I was hoping that it would be a self-contained season but, alas, see #10. Perhaps I’ll write an update of this blog when it comes out.

Posted by W. W. Norton on July 31, 2017 in Jonathan Wynn, Popular Culture and Consumption, Social Problems, Politics, and Social Change