13 Ways '13 Reasons Why' Accurately Portrays Teen Bullying & Why That Terrifies Me As A Parent
When I started watching 13 Reasons Why, the only thing I knew about the show was that it was about teen suicide, and my husband jokingly called it Saved By The Bell Jar. I had no idea the story would trigger so many bad memories of my own teenage years. (If you haven't watched it yet, there are spoilers below). As much as I would like to be able to forget the times I experienced bullying and sexual violence as a teen, it's impossible, and 13 Reasons Why accurately portrays teen bullying in a way that makes that impossibility all the more obvious. As a survivor, the authentic depiction honestly made me want to stop watching. As a parent, however, that same authentic depiction made it way too important for me not to watch.
It's horrifying to imagine my kids experiencing violence like I did when I was young. In many ways, they face challenges that I didn't have to. Smart phones and social media have made things like cyber-bullying, sexting, and revenge porn so easy. However, so many aspects of bullying haven't changed at all since I was a teen, even with the advent of easily accessible technology. Boys still objectify girls and feel entitled to their bodies. People still expect girls to be sexy, but not too sexy. There are still the "cool" kids and the kids who don't fit the so-called "cool" profile. Kids still want to be liked, so they join in on bullying, ignoring how dangerous and detrimental it can be and, instead, pretending everything is normal.
I see parts of myself in Hannah (and in Jessica, Skye, Sheri, and Courtney), and parts of my daughters, too. I survived my teen years, but so many kids don't. According to NPR, the rates of teen suicide are climbing, and it is now the second leading cause of death for teens. That scary fact alone made 13 Reasons Why worth watching, especially if you're a mother.
My life was so much less interesting than the rumors about me made it seem. According to the bathroom walls at school, I was a slut, easy, and pregnant, all before I had ever even kissed someone.
As a result of those rumors, boys thought it was funny to grab my ass or breasts in the hallway. After all, I was a slut, remember? When I would speak up, everyone would laugh. Like Hannah, I felt so helpless and ashamed. It's easy to claim that words don't hurt, but they really do.
Men Feel Privileged & Entitled
The sense of entitlement that boys feel over girls' bodies seriously scares me. It's easy to judge a girl like Hannah, or Jessica, or me, for putting themselves in unsafe positions, drinking too much, or not fighting back, but rape wouldn't happen without rapists, and no one deserves to be raped or victim-blamed.
I teach my kids about bodily autonomy and consent, because I want them to know that no one owns them, and they don't owe anyone affection, attention, or sex, no matter what.
Mean Girls Exist
My teen years would have been way better had it not been for mean girls making my life miserable. As harmful as boys can be, girls can be bullies, too. When Jessica chose her relationships with Alex and Justin over her friendship with Hannah, and when Courtney shames Hannah to protect herself, they become villains of the story, in addition to being victims, themselves.
No One Believes You
Like Hannah, no one believed me when I told them I was sexually assaulted. They either thought that I was making it up, or thought that I regretted having consensual sex. I want my daughters (and sons) to know that I will always believe them no matter what, but struggle to know how to earn their trust.
Girls Are Objectified
Boys at Liberty High seem to view girls as objects to be won, traded, and discarded. I remember distinctly having a boy I liked reject me, only to have his best friend swoop in to comfort me, and then, once we were alone, try to get me to make out with him. I found out later that he had made a deal with his friend to have a turn. I never want my daughters to feel this way. They deserve better.
The girls on the show learn the hard way that girls can't win. You are expected to look sexy, but not too sexy, and to have sex, but not with a lot of different people. Rumors about girls having sex make people whisper and call you a slut. Or if the rumors are about two girls "hooking up" (like Hannah and Courtney), boys automatically assume those girls are up for a threesome, as if a woman's sexuality exists only to please cisgender males.
In contrast, rumors about boys having sex make other boys give them high fives or secretly want to be like them. It's such a double standard.
There Is A Pressure To Fit In
The series really highlighted how intense the pressure to fit in can be. It makes you question who you are, make really bad choices, do things you don't want to do, and even do and say horrible things to other kids. We deal with this already in our home, and our oldest is only 11. It's scary to consider how hard the next few years will be for her.
Sexual Violence & Rape Culture Is Everywhere
As a survivor, although it was hard to process intellectually, I really appreciated that the show portrayed a spectrum of sexual violence that girls experience, from street harassment to sexual assault, which are all harmful, and all pervasive in our culture and high school hallways. Rape is not always stereotypical.
Other Kids Know Assault Exists, But Nobody Talks About It
It's so disturbing to review the past like a Monday morning quarterback, wondering how things might have gone, if only someone had done just one thing differently. The second time I was assaulted, I contemplated ending my life. A boy from school saw me walking home alone, and offered me a ride. I was too ashamed to go home, so he bought me a cup of coffee instead. I didn't tell him what happened, and he never asked, but he probably saved my life.
Your Parents Have No Idea What's Happening
Like Hannah, I was a good kid. My parents didn't have a clue that any of it was happening, and I was too ashamed to tell them.
You Hope Desperately That Things Will Change
I wanted to believe that things would get better. For me, they did. I'm so glad I survived. Like Hannah, I had hope. Fortunately for me, despite everything that happened, that hope was enough.
You Stop Trusting People
It's seriously hard to trust people when your friends seem to become enemies overnight. It was especially hard for me to trust boys and later men, even when they would never touch me without my consent.
It Feels Like Your Life Is Over, Again And Again
13 Reasons Why really did a good job of accurately portraying how overwhelming and intense life can seem when you are a teenager. So accurate that my husband had to stop watching. It is frightening to think about all of the challenges and bumps in the road our kids are likely to experience in the next few years. I hope that I can help them navigate those years and emerge relatively unscathed. Maybe if more parents watch this show, we can eliminate reasons why our kids want to die, when their lives are just beginning. To let them know that things will get better. Trust me, I know.