13 Reasons Why & Prestige TV: Who’s the audience?

The following discusses graphic depictions of rape and suicide, including methods and details of the latter.

I’ve avoided writing a post about 13 Reasons Why because there are SO MANY THINGS that can be said, so many that have covered it, and every time I think about it too much I kind of combust into a ball of frustration. But alas, with the ridiculous yet unfortunately unsurprising news that it’s coming back for a second season (I was glad they were using TV to adapt books, but with the renewal of this and The Handmaid’s Tale, my trust has been betrayed), I thought I’d give it a shot.

So, since I’m fascinated by the evolution of TV, I read Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised near the end of last year (and failed to blog about it), which covers the early 2000s rise of prestige TV and the changing landscape of television. And, well, I’d been running out of things to watch so I’ve actually been watching (American) shows from this century now–Mad Men, Legion, and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few. I also took a class this past semester about the intersection of business and the cultural industries, and we talked a lot about the changes in TV. Prestige TV has been on my brain, as well as on my newsfeeds and podcasts.

Because of that, 13 Reasons Why was suddenly everywhere. The TV critics I followed were covering it, which kind of surprised me because they usually don’t bother with teen TV shows. Of course, 13RW is a Netflix property–that at least gives it a status as “might as well watch” in many circles (though A Series of Unfortunate Events–which was SO GOOD, by the way, and very postmodern and smart–didn’t drum up as much critic-talk). I should note I’d been aware of the book, as I was a teen when it was popular, but never picked it up because my only real interest in it came from wanting to read YA staples, and I was skeptical of the concept of having concrete “reasons” to commit suicide.

darn poster
Poster says “Based on the bestselling mystery” and seems to place her in an enigmatic position very unlike “girl who committed suicide” should.

Prestige TV is kind of an arbitrary monkier. It’s usually for those shows produced with an eye on the critics rather than the commercial, and as such doesn’t cave as much to advertisers and is more likely to be found on subscription services or some cable channels–usually, HBO, FX, AMC, Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, Amazon, Starz. It tends to take more narrative and content risks to challenge the audiences and show critics TV isn’t dumb and inferior to film like you used to think it was. A lot of these series are about white male antiheros and aimed toward the middle class white male demographic to boot–though they’ve been diversifying more recently. And because of the aforementioned outlets–particularly subscription services, which don’t rely on advertisers–these shows tend to tackle more mature themes and show more sex and violence. 13 Reasons Why certainly capture critiques, contained a lot of f-bombs and graphic content, and seemed to be marketed as a dark mystery/thriller.

Meanwhile, there’s young adult (YA) literature, the age market category that the novel 13 Reasons Why belongs to, and for good reason; “issue novels” and novels that contain and/or address various identities and struggles are common in YA. YA gets a bad rap, often seen as “silly vampire novels” or “dystopian novels” or love stories, which not only is a) part of our problem of looking down upon all things teenage girl, and b) completely discounts the range within YA, especially recently. (The 13 Reasons Why cast and crew has fallen into this trap, too.)  From someone who’s actively followed the YA community from the perspectives of a reader, teacher, and writer, I’ll certainly say that it’s not just teens who love YA, and hopefully good books are enjoyable to adults as well. But most authors I’ve read about or listened to keep their target audience in mind–not in a didactic way, but in a “I wish I had this book as a teen and I want to help teens understand themselves in some way.” And, regardless of how it was executed (and I’m rather skeptical of it), 13 Reasons Why’s subject matter fits right in to that.

The dissonance? The Netflix adaptation carries a TV-MA rating, likely due to language and the graphic portrayal of rape and suicide in late episodes. That’s pretty consistent with prestige TV. But it’s also targeted at teenagers, with kids as young as 12 watching it–and while I’ll be the first to admit teens can watch above the recommended age level, one has to wonder if this is really for teens why it isn’t rated TV-14. The MA rating also makes it harder for it to be screened in teen spaces like schools, which seems so contradictory to the defense that this is a good show to be a “conversation starter.” Unfortunately, not all teens have trustworthy and knowledgeable adults in their lives to discuss this with.

The graphic sexual assault and suicide scenes (and the show’s overall revenge theme) have drawn criticism from mental health professionals who are concerned about is impact on suicidal teens and suicide contagion, prompting Netflix to recently add more specific trigger warnings. This is all within good reason–the concept of triggers originates from the mental health world, after all, and for those suffering trauma from sexual assault or experiencing thoughts of self harm or suicide, graphic scenes (especially without warning) can have a very adverse affect upon mental health. One of the show’s writers, Nick Sheff, explained in an op-ed why he fought to include the suicide scene: he once heard a woman explain the complications that resaulted from her suicide attempt (via pill-taking), the memory of which saved him later when he considered taking his own life. With all respect to Mr. Sheff, he’s not really comparing apples to apples: a suicide attempt is very different from showing a successful suicide. And interestingly, in the book 13 Reasons Why, Hannah doesn’t slit her wrists and bleed out as shown in the show–she overdosed on pills. Why change that aspect if not to show something more graphic from an outside perspective?

Of course, the graphic scenes have also been well-received by critics for its artistic value, once again highlighting that dissonance between the critics’ value of graphic TV and its supposed target audience. (But, also, does all socially important content need to be graphic to be effective? I wonder sometimes.)

So, considering its viewer-unfriendliness to the suicidal and sexual assault surviors, is 13 Reasons Why really meant for the audience it claims to help: suffering teenagers who should reach out for help?

Or is it more for the “mainstream,” focused instead on the bullying issue and how you should be nice to people?

(Or may its storyline suggest that suicide can serve as successful revenge?)

The answer is, of course, varied upon the individual. I just think all of this should be considered, and it brings up some interesting commentary on where we sit with TV today.

One final note: I’ve been troubled by some of the discussions I’ve seen about whether the show shows that suicide is the right “choice” or not, the idea of people to blame and reasons why for committing suicide, and a recurring screencap/quote/gif I see that seems to suggest that Clay could have saved Hannah’s life if he’d told her he loved her. All of these seem to treat suicidal individuals as completely rational beings, which is contrary to how depression, trauma, and mental illness in general works. It’s no one’s fault, and every time I see the comment of “how could someone watch this and think suicide is the right choice?” I can’t help but feel they’re really saying it’s a choice and placing blame upon the suicidal for a decision they can’t possibly comprehend, and that isn’t helping. As humans, we like for things to make sense, but not all of our brains work the same way. You can tell someone you love them, but that doesn’t mean their brain will believe you. It isn’t your fault and it isn’t their fault.

Of course, 13 Reasons Why apparently never talks about mental health, whether it’s depression or PTSD (common in rape survivors). That’s a topic I’m not going to go into now, but let me just say that I don’t want to see this show (or the book, if it has the same omissions) referred to as “tackling mental health topics” or on a list of stories about mental health or suicide. It should not be the show/book about suicide, nevermind mental health.

And a couple sidenotes…

  • Naturally, the show became memefied (with even Netflix taking part), including as a promposal. I’ve found this extremely unsettling considering the cassette tapes represent a suicide notes with details of bullying and rape. That is not funny.
  • Brian Yorkey adapted the series, and I knew him previously as the book and lyric writer (with Tom Kitt composing) of Next to Normal (a Pulitzer Prize winner) and If/Then, two of my favorite musicals. Researching 13RW has made me reconsider Next to Normal a little bit, which is also about mental illness–although much more explicitly, focusing on a bipolar woman and her family. Apparently, the duo started it as a critique of mental health treatments of bipolar disorder (mostly electroshock therapy), which could be very frustrating if research with actual and various bipolar women was not conducted. However, I think the final version is much more concerned with the effect on the family and her relationship to them that it avoids these problems to have a lot of heart. Here’s the awesome Tony Awards performance, if you’re curious.
  • This article about teens’ experience was also worth listening to, although of course, your mileage may vary.

 

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Reviews: Still Life with Tornado and Finding Perfect

Well, it turns out getting a camera is more complicated than I thought, so my foray into videos has come to a standstill. So, I return to some traditional blogging to tell you about two October releases that I’d been looking forward to (and lived up to my expectations)! (Also, yes, this is quite late. I failed at working blogging into my schedule this semester, but now I have more ideas and creativity that things are looking better.)

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

still-life-with-tornadoOne of the reasons why I love A.S. King’s novels so much is that they feel a bit like stumbling across a file folder of collected information and piecing it all together. In Still Life with Tornado, we mostly follow the perspective of sixteen-year-old Sarah as she stops attending school and runs into versions of herself from the past and future. Slipped throughout this narrative are excerpts from a family vacation seven years previously–which led to a rift between Sarah’s brother and the rest of the family and which Sarah doesn’t quite remember–and diary-like narratives from Sarah’s mother about her relationship with her husband. The different story threads weave together to reveal the troubles in Sarah’s family as Sarah herself learns, bringing about an inevitable confrontation.

I don’t think Still Life with Tornado is one of my favorite of King’s novels, but it was a ride that kept me engaged and gave me plenty to think about. The cycle of abuse and its effects on everyone involved is explored in a heartbreakingly realistic way. Sarah may first come across as a little annoying, as she’s so disdainful toward anything that isn’t “original” and is worked up over something that she is so embarassed of being a small issue that she doesn’t tell us for a while, but this is only the surface level of her character. She’s from a troubled household with repressed memories and the career path she loves is in danger. She’s lost, and we come to understand her as she lets some of her guard down. This is important. Kids may seem “difficult,” but what are they burying inside? So King unabashadly takes on a seemingly frustrating character to reveal her true self that she has been hiding from even herself, and every page is worth it.

Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz

finding-perfectOne of my most anticipated middle grade books of the year, Finding Perfect follows a 12-year-old girl named Molly as her OCD worsens while she concocts a plan for her mother (who left for Canada after a separate) to come and visit her if she wins a poetry slam competition.

As evidenced by the acknowledgements, Swartz did a lot of research when writing this novel, and that shows. It’s very informative,  immersing the reader in Molly’s world of even numbers divisible by 4, right sides, and more. It’s important in this society where “I’m so OCD” is a thing kids (and adults!) say WAY too much that we see Molly organizing her glass figurines and using perfect pencils alongside the profound anxiety she feels concerning her brother’s health when that order is disrupted, as well as her other obsessions. I really do hope that realistic portrayals of OCD like this help kids understand what it REALLY is. Finding Perfect even touches on the treatment Molly recieves once diagnosed, though I do not recall the option/addition/aspect (because it’s rarely used alone) of medication being mentioned.

Another thing I really liked: Molly goes to the Internet for answers when she is worried about her compulsions, as all curious kids do in the 21st century.

But Finding Perfect isn’t just about OCD. Molly’s relationship with her best friend, Hannah, stumbles at times, as does her relationships with her father and her siblings. She has to confront her optimistic image of her mother, too. Family, friends, and personal identity–it all comes together here, as they do for so many adolescents as they figure out who they are and where they belong in the world. It’s lovely.

Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Publisher: Dial Books

Publication: Date: May 10, 2016

Genre: Young adult contemporary

highly illogical behaviorSixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.

Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But is ambition alone enough to get her in?

Enter Solomon.

Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa steps into his world, along with her charming boyfriend, Clark, and soon the three form an unexpected bond. But, as Lisa learns more about Sol and he and Clark grow closer and closer, the walls they’ve built around themselves start to collapse and their friendships threaten to do the same.

I first heard about Highly Illogical Behavior in a piece that connected its upcoming release with John Corey Whaley’s personal experience with anxiety, and so I was inevitably interested in a YA story concerning mental health written with a personal perspective. It wasn’t among my most anticipated titles, though, and I ended up picking it up from the library because I was interested in reviewing it because, honestly, the premise isn’t that great. The idea of “fixing” someone with a mental illness isn’t okay, but the back of the book seemed to suggest that this would be subverted, and I like myself some satire. But…well, days after finishing it, I’m still conflicted. In general, I just feel like this book wasn’t for me on multiple levels.

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Waiting on Wednesday: Some Kind of Happiness by Clare Legrand

Waiting on Wednesday

some kind of happinessThis might not be a feature I’ll do every week, but there are a lot of books I’m excited about that haven’t been released yet.

Today’s pick is Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand, which comes out on Tuesday! I’ve got it preordered and I can’t wait to dive into it when it arrives.

This is one of the many 2016 releases that I became interested in based off its synopsis rather than hype (though it has gotten good reviews so far), so here is that blurb:

THINGS FINLEY HART DOESN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT

• Her parents, who are having problems. (But they pretend like they’re not.)
• Being sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer.
• Never having met said grandparents.
• Her blue days—when life feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This happens a lot.)

Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones.

With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself.

Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.

A middle grade book about mental health and escaping through imagination and fiction?

amy big yes

This book was made for me, basically. It’s especially relevant as I have been working on a middle grade book that discusses anxiety, and it’s difficult to strike the balance between character and plot, and light and darkness.