Saturday, June 3, 2017

Problematic Literature Part 1: The Value of Thirteen Reasons Why

If you take a look at my classroom bookshelf, one of the first things you’re bound to notice is my set of fifteen copies of Thirteen Reason Why by Jay Asher, front and center. They held up pretty well over the course of the year, considering that the set was handled by forty or fifty students this past school year. Thirteen Reasons Why sits on my shelves along with multiple copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Butter, Monster, and What Happened to Lani Garver. All of these pieces of young adult literature were a part of my diversity studyliterature circles this year, and all of these pieces are what many people would consider “problematic literature.”

It’s safe to say that I have a love of problematic literature.

Before I explain what I mean by that, please allow me to indulge in a slight digression. A former student of mine recently emailed me. Grace was a member of my first Honors English 9 class in my current school district. I put the book Thirteen Reasons Why in her hands freshman year. She even created a fabulous Book in a Bag project over the novel; her project is still sitting in my classroom five years later and it’s one of my favorite pieces of student work to showcase as a quality project. Grace is now an education major. The subject line of her email read “YA Lit + Illness Narratives.” In her email, she explained that she recently compiled a lesson unit that focused specifically on mental illness in YA lit. To quote Grace, “Thinking about not only the purpose of YA lit, but also the power of it raised a lot of questions then about the responsibility associated with writing (specifically to a potentially vulnerable audience) and what happens when the work is problematic at best.” She then explained that her work coincided timeline-wise with the release of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why and all of the discussions that followed the series’ debut. In her email, Grace said, “When I first read 13RW, it was because you suggested it and I really enjoyed it (as much as one can enjoy a book about the aftermath of a suicide?). I hadn't read it since, but was eager to watch the Netflix series (oh gosh, it's really beautifully shot). But then it started to seem really problematic, not only with the graphic nature of certain scenes, but also with the storyline as a whole and the implications woven into it.” She said she then got to thinking about problematic literature and that type of literature still having usefulness when contextualized carefully. Ultimately, she asked if I would be willing to share my thoughts with her on Thirteen Reasons Why, problematic YA literature, and anything else connected to all this.

I’ve been sorting through my thoughts on the Netflix sensation since I first watched it. I was surprised at my emotional response to the show, and I was even more surprised by how it lived on in my head long after I had finished the final episode. I had been working on a blog post with my review of the show as a cathartic means of untangling my own feelings, but then Grace’s email brought up something else that I feel strongly about addressing too, and that is the way problematic literature can be used in the classroom.

Now would be a good time to warn you that there are spoilers for both the novel and Netflix series ahead.

Thirteen Reasons Why – both the novel and the Netflix series – pretty neatly falls into the category of “problematic literature” because of some highly controversial subject matter. Suicide, sexual assault, and bullying are thorny topics on their own, but these issues have been woven into a frightening narrative. An all-around-good-guy receives a box of cassette tapes – recorded by a girl who committed suicide a few weeks prior to the story’s primary timeline – that detail out the thirteen reasons why she killed herself. More specifically, she lays bare the thirteen people she feels are responsible for her death, and those thirteen people are the ones receiving the tapes. That’s where things get ugly – the Blame Game is highly offensive to many people. Hannah’s story (more so in the novel, I think, than in the Netflix series) is mostly one of blame, where she points fingers and tells people what they did or didn’t do that led her to taking her own life. It does seem problematic to show vulnerable teenagers this story of vengeance-after-death, right?

This is the point at which I have a problem with the term “problematic literature.”

Is Hannah’s story problematic? Is it controversial and complicated? Is she a flawed person for not taking responsibility for her own actions – namely her suicide – and instead putting the blame on others? Yes.

Is she really any more flawed, controversial, complicated, or problematic than the average real teenager? No.

Therefore, is it really this piece of literature that is “problematic” or does it go much deeper than that? I think the primary argument for Thirteen Reasons Why being problematic literature is there are Bad People living in a Bad World and Bad Things happen. And honestly, how is this any different from reality? It isn’t the story that’s the problem. The problem is that the story hits too close to home. It is society that is problematic. Thirteen Reasons Why accurately portrays teenagers and the world they live in to serve as a cautionary tale directed at society at large.

Let’s look at the world in which Hannah Baker’s story takes place. For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus specifically on the setting created for the Netflix series, which really only differs in that the book was published in 2007 and the Netflix series aired in 2017. There is a ten-year advancement in time and technology, which is critical in understanding the arguments I am going to make here.

Crestmont is the archetypal small American city – one high school, one movie theatre, one park, a handful of local hangouts, and family-owned businesses slowly being run off by big chain companies. It is a community where kids – mostly middle class, with a smattering of families at the extreme ends of the spectrum – have grown up together, where move-ins like Hannah are a bit of a novelty, and where life gets pretty boring unless you make your own fun. That’s the first problem with Thirteen Reasons Why – Crestmont looks really familiar to a lot of people. It looks like home. So the idea that some truly horrific things – things like all-star school athletes raping drunk teenagers, texting provocative pictures out to the whole school, slitting wrists in bathtubs – could be happening right under our noses makes the adult audience squirm uncomfortably.

The fact of the matter is that this stuff is actually happening in the Crestmonts of America. Look at Steubenville. Look at Maryville. Look at Houston. The situations that play out in Thirteen Reasons Why are all too familiar to teenagers in 2017. They are living it every single day. In a discussion I had with my freshmen, those who had watched the show unanimously agreed that the portrayal of social media, high school parties, and the rumor mill are on point. Let me remind you that I work in a rural high school in Indiana. If it’s happening here, it’s happening everywhere.

The other element of Thirteen Reasons Why that is so unnerving for the audience is the characterization. In the novel, the reader is subject to what is called an “unreliable narrator,” a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. It would be safe to call Hannah an unreliable narrator. In the novel, we only get Hannah’s side of each story (with the exception of Clay’s added commentary). We can’t entirely trust her as a narrator because her credibility has been compromised – she clearly suffers from depression and anxiety at the least, and the fact that she is a human being telling a highly emotional and personal story takes away her integrity. I’m not calling Hannah a liar; I am saying we are only getting part of the story. And again, isn’t this reality? Aren’t we all the unreliable narrators of our stories? You need only look at our social media feeds and photos to see that we are; we tell our stories and paint our lives the way we want them to be seen, for better or for worse. Thirteen Reasons Why is hotly criticized for its hopelessness – it often seems to the audience that Hannah really does not do anything at all to help herself out. But is that the story in Hannah’s mind? Hannah thinks that by reaching out to Mr. Porter, she is taking the necessary steps to get help, although she refuses to meet him halfway or to be vulnerable enough to let him into her mind. Hannah’s parents are rarely mentioned in the context of the novel, often leaving the reader to wonder why she did not reach out to them for help. The Netflix series helps us out here; we see Hannah’s parents as kind, loving, involved, and mired in financial problems. Hannah becomes witness to her parents’ struggle and feels like a burden, a feeling that we can all relate to. The audience can see that Hannah’s parents would have rushed to her aid in half a second if they had known the depths of her struggle, but Hannah couldn’t see that. In that way, another bit of criticism of the show – the total uselessness of the adults in Hannah’s life – is explained. Teenagers often perceive the adults in their lives as useless in their struggles.

One of the things about the Netflix series that I actually liked better than the novel was the thoughtful characterization and the rich backstory provided for the majority of the characters. In the novel, we only get Hannah’s portrayal of each character, and of course they are shown in a bad light. It’s her story, after all. The show, however, does a great job of showing how multi-faceted people are. With the exception of Bryce (who, it is worth mentioning, does not see himself as a bad guy at all), none of the characters are all bad. They either have a redeeming quality or a painful backstory that helps the audience “get it.” Much like real people, fictional characters can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. They can be horribly flawed, they can lie, they can be one-sided, they can knowingly and unknowingly hurt another person, and they can have a skewed perspective on things. I’m not criticizing Jay Asher’s choices, by the way; rather, I am praising the show creators for putting so much thought into these other people, for realizing that real people are not two-dimensional. The characters are relatable. I have encountered all of these kids in my own classroom: Justin, who tries to hide his horrifying home life behind a jock persona; Jessica, who doesn’t know how to cope with her tragedies so she turns to substance abuse; Courtney, who is embarrassed and afraid of who she is, so she leads a double-life.

If you accept my proposal that Thirteen Reasons Why is problematic fiction because it is realistic fiction, the next logical question is, “What’s the point?” What is the point in holding up this mirror to our teenagers and our society? What is the point in “glorifying suicide” by showing that justice can be achieved after death and that “taking your life is a tragic, but highly effective, way of returning the favor and making [the people who hurt you] feel horrible”

It is my belief that Thirteen Reasons Why is written at a cautionary tale, and I don’t think the intended audience is teenagers who are suicidal, suffering from mental health problems, or survivors of assault.

It’s the rest of us. This narrative is for the rest of us, to warn us about the consequences of our actions and our inaction.

So many people believe that the producers of Thirteen Reasons Why were irresponsible because they did not offer solutions to Hannah’s problems or resources during the show for viewers who may be struggling like Hannah or the other teens in the story. To a certain extent, I understand that frustration, but I don’t necessarily think it was irresponsible. I think that those kids were not the target audience for this show. I felt like Netflix made this pretty clear with the show’s TV-MA rating, the content warning before two of the episodes, and the links to suicide prevention resources in the documentary following the series. My only criticisms would be that they should have provided a full-show content warning prior to watching the first episode, and they should have used stronger language in the present warnings. 

Ultimately, though, Thirteen Reasons Why is not a show for rape victims, anyone suffering from mental illness, or people with suicidal tendencies. It is not a story meant to inspire hope or to make someone who is low feel like things will get better. I believe this narrative addresses something different. It addresses modern American society and the way we treat people. It is an investigation of how we behave towards others. It makes us think about the way we monitor people with suicidal tendencies. It makes us examine the kind of pressure we are putting on teenagers. It makes us reconsider sending that text message or writing that post. It forces us to watch the ugly domino effect that our words and actions can have, the disastrous result as a person collapses in on herself. This show is not an easy show to watch. It holds up a magnifying glass to our minor human transgressions that cause others pain, and it puts a powerful spotlight on the greater atrocities people commit and what it feels like to be told to simply "get over it."

I sincerely believe a lot of good has come from the release of this show. It is a painfully honest representation of what teens are dealing with in 2017. The show’s portrayal of technology use, in particular, is alarmingly accurate. Most importantly, this show has started conversation that is long overdue. According to the CDC, suicide is one of the five leading causes of death among people ages 12-19, and it is something we ignore because it is horribly uncomfortable to face. The world is so bad for our teenagers that they would rather die than live in it, yet we won’t talk about it. Do I believe that a person is ultimately responsible for their choice to commit suicide? Absolutely yes. But I think society is not doing these kids any favors by ignoring the issue. I think a lot of people can agree that Thirteen Reasons Why – the novel and the show – has caused them to stop and think about the words they say or the things they do. I think that’s the point: to raise awareness of society’s actions and how we are driving young people to do the unthinkable.

Who should not be watching this show? In my opinion, anyone who is (mentally) younger than thirteen or fourteen years old has no business watching this show, or at the very least watching it unsupervised. Honestly, I feel that anyone under the age of 17 should watch it with supervision or at least with the knowledge that there is a supportive adult nearby to talk to them if they have questions. 

Who should be watching this show? Parents of teenagers should absolutely watch this show. Parents (hopefully) know their kids well enough to know if this is a show their child can handle. If a parent were to ask me if the show is suitable for their child, I would encourage them to watch it (in its entirety... too many people are judging the show off of the first episode or two) and then decide. For what it's worth, I'm also of the opinion that secondary teachers should be watching this show too, especially for the Mr. Porter storyline. When a teacher is successful in building a good relationship with students, there will be students who reach out for help in their time of need. We need to be prepared for those types of conversations, and we need to be careful with what we say and how we respond to these cries for help.

There is tremendous value in Thirteen Reason Why, which is why it is on the shelves in my classroom. This novel does not fit all audience's needs, but it does serve a particular purpose: to warn us about the repercussions of our words and behavior.

So onto the next question: how do we approach problematic literature in the classroom?

Check out Problematic Literature Part 2: Exploring Problematic Literature in the Classroom.