Possible Trigger Warning: For anyone who has or may still be struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, or eating disorders, please be aware that this post will touch on these subjects. Please continue reading only if you feel ready to engage with those topics.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or eating disorders, please contact the resources below:
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
National Eating Disorders Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
Additionally, don’t hesitate to seek out help from a trained professional. There is so much strength in seeking help.
Recently, Netflix has come out with 13 Reasons Why, a mini series based on a book written by Jay Asher, and To the Bone, a movie written and directed by Marti Noxon.
If you haven’t heard of either of these texts, let me explain the controversy surrounding them. 13 Reasons Why tells the story of a teen girl who committed suicide; before doing so, she leaves 13 tapes, each tape identifies a person who, she says, was responsible for her suicide. To the Bone tells the recovery story of a teen girl dealing with anorexia nervosa and her experience in an unconventional treatment facility.
It’s obvious why these texts are at the heart of so much controversy: they deal with sensitive and difficult subjects.
Let me start by saying that both films have problems.
- 13 Reasons Why risks glamorizing the effects of suicide, suggesting to teens that if they take this path, there will be closure and everyone will realize how awful they are/were. Nearly everyone who is on the tape regrets their actions and wishes they had been better to the main character, Hannah Baker. However, this promotes a false narrative about suicide. Not only is it unlikely that everyone will regret their actions, but it also gives an unrealistic expectation of closure for the victim. When someone commits suicide, there is no closure for that person; there is nothing.
- To the Bone demonstrates tricks that those suffering with eating disorders can use. In addition, the recovery process is, in some ways, romanticized in the film: the main character, Ellen, falls in love, her family finally forgives and accepts her, and she finds peace with herself and her family. But not every recovery story can be tied up in a pretty bow; the film ends before we really see the main character starting to recover. Even more alarming, however, is how Lily Collins, the actor who plays Ellen (or Eli), looks throughout the movie. It’s scary to see how thin and sick she looks, and it leads me to question the safety and the risk to her health this role had. Despite the fact that makeup was used for the particularly troubling scenes, it leaves one wondering about the cost of her commitment to the role.
However, there are some things, I thought, each text did well.
- 13 Reasons Why clearly demonstrates how horrific rape and the actual act of suicide are. There are two instances of rape in the mini series, and, I believe, they were effective in demonstrating just how dehumanizing, how victimizing, and how traumatic rape is for the survivor. Additionally, the act of suicide in the mini series, when Hannah cuts her wrists, is horrific to watch. I have seen other movies and TV shows in which suicide takes place, and often, they show the person drifting off to sleep, almost making it seem peaceful. In this show, the effects may be romanticized, but I can’t imagine someone arguing the act is.
- To the Bones does a good job demonstrating the obsessive behaviors linked to the main character’s eating disorder. She has a frightening ‘skill’ for counting calories, and she compulsively checks the width of her arm. Despite my worries for the actress, the visual component, of seeing her body, the bruising, the sullen cheeks, the lanugo, clearly depict the terrible effects an eating disorder has on one’s body. If nothing else, the film may help others determine if someone they love is struggling with an eating disorder.
So why should every teacher watch these texts?
Let me be clear, I am not recommending teachers use these texts in their classroom. I think both of these could be incredibly triggering for students, so I would recommend careful consideration before doing so (that isn’t to say a teacher definitely shouldn’t teach these either).
I am, however, recommending that teachers watch them. Whether we like it or not, our students are watching these texts, and if they don’t have us or their parents to guide them and answer questions, then these texts could have dangerous effects. By watching these texts, teachers are better able to engage in important conversations with students about controversial and sensitive matters. Additionally, if teachers fully understand the content of these texts, they will be better able to know if and when students may need more than someone to engage in conversation with, when they may need serious help.
I was incredibly happy that I watched 13 Reasons Why when it came out because I had students talking about it constantly. It allowed me to partake in important conversations with them. And when I had a student say she was sad and was going to go home and watch the show, I was better able to explain why that was a problematic and dangerous thing to do (and also let others know about this).
The more informed we can be about what our students are watching, especially the texts with more mature and troubling content, the better we can ensure that we are best meeting not only the academic but the social-emotional needs of our students.