13 reasons why I love ‘13 Reasons Why’

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A young person, having barely experienced life long enough to understand that social structures are not everything and that ’this too shall pass’, can find it impossible to surmount the self-degrading impact of bullying.

Bullying can have a lasting effect on a victim’s psyche. Especially when the victim is a child. | U.S. Air Force illustration by Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter

If you spent enough and more time on the Internet like I do (mostly because it’s an occupational hazard), you would be no stranger to the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which was released in March last year. If you are one of those rare exceptions who hasn’t heard of or seen the series, here’s the TL;DR version: based on the eponymous book by Jay Asher, the show revolves around the suicide of high-school student Hannah Baker and a series of audio cassette tapes containing the reasons for her decision (recorded by Hannah) makes its way to her classmate and friend Clay Jensen, who forms the narrative of the series.

 

 

If you have seen the series but haven’t done a Google search on it, the show has caused a global storm with hundreds (or possibly thousands) of both positive and negative opinion pieces, critiques, social media posts and mental health experts weighing in on it. Now, Netflix has released the trailer for the show’s second season, which is set to premiere on May 18.

I was fashionably late to the party, so to speak. I saw the show in May last year (a little over a month after its release) and spent two months after that reading some of the many pieces written about it. I have had discussions with people about it and urged them to watch the series.

However, what I haven’t told most people is why the show hit so close to home and made me cry and shut down more than a few times while watching it. Watching the show made me realise how similar the American high-school environment shown and described in 13 Reasons Why is to the real-life environment in Indian schools in urban and metropolitan areas of the country, ones that cater to children from middle class and upper-middle-class families.

Hero or zero?

This environment I speak of (and fervently abhor, as you will soon discover) lays great emphasis on the notions of ‘survival of the fittest’ and being desirable and popular. And because this is Indian society we are talking about, being a girl meant that you had a lot more at stake.

You had to excel academically, have a spate of extra-curricular successes or just simply possess the ability to blend in with the popular folk (usually based on your looks). I fit in nowhere in these categories during my time in school.

The rise of social media in the early 21st century did not make things easier. It quickly seeped into the lives of teenagers and young adults, who use it to their hearts’ content and mostly with malicious intent. The buzzword for this time period is ‘rumours’. Rumours are thrown around like corn in a popping machine. These rumours were created by the popular folk and started with the onset of puberty. But why? Was it because they felt like they had to undermine others to retain their popularity? Was it because their insecurities overtook their rationality? This was sociopathic behaviour among students.

 

Approaching teachers or parents about being bullied was never a good idea, because you’d have to hear that it was probably your own fault and that you “were asking for it”. If it was a teacher you were speaking to, you were told to ignore all this and concentrate on your studies, or you wouldn’t get into a good college. If you told a parent, you were told to ignore all this and concentrate on your studies, or you wouldn’t get into a good college. You’d possibly be grounded too, because shouldn’t you be staying away from boys at this age?

If you were lucky, you could spend your teen years in obscurity, minding your own business and staying away from the eyeline of the popular folk. I wasn’t given that choice.

All the reasons why my school was like Liberty High

13 Reasons Why is modelled on this very environment described above. Without realising it, Asher and the showrunners shed light on an issue that affects young people all over the world, including India. I went into the show not knowing what to expect. But it changed me.

As the show ebbed on, I found myself empathising with — and eventually crying for and with — Hannah Baker. I was seething with anger. Not at the show, not at Hannah, not at myself. It was at the kids who were callous enough to impact me and my self-esteem at such an early age. A girl I knew in school, who faced similar experiences, said (and I quote) that her church was the only place she didn’t feel like she “wasn’t some freak”. Freak; the word that defined our entire existence.

While Liberty High (the school where the series takes place) is a public school, it’s no stranger to the privilege which dominated my school — I was sent to an Indian school in Dubai, which was attended by upper-class children whose families could afford to let them go out and spend money often and had a Western education planned for them. And there I was, a self-aware middle-class kid lost in a sea of privileged brats. These popular kids had money to flaunt, went out to malls and restaurants with their friends and were able to date whomever they wanted to.

 

 

I started growing breasts when I was 10; I got my period when I was 11. When I was 12, a girl in my class spread a rumour that I didn’t wear a bra and that my boobs bounced about. The truth? I’d been wearing bras since I was 10. It made me feel disgusting. I hated my boobs for that reason and I contemplated breast reduction surgery many times, just to not get bullied by people. To have to consider such a life-altering decision at such a young age is not something any teenager should have to face.

When I was 13, a boy in my grade spread a rumour that I was a transgender person. While this may seem harmless and nothing to be offended about from the perspective of the knowledge we possess today, I was referred to by a derogatory word used to describe transgender people in India.

I was no stranger to acne and frizzy hair either, and my acne scars caused such deep pockmarks that they could be mistaken for craters. If I liked a boy, I would get called a stalker, simply because I would attempt to use Facebook to understand the likes and dislikes of the boy I was interested in. The boy in question would be subjected to teasing by his peers. How could such an ugly and weird girl like boys? It was like an ugly branding and you’d carry that scar throughout school.

Even after graduating school, I remember a horrible instance where a select group of the popular kids ganged up on me to embarrass me in the comments of a Facebook status.

And that’s where my struggle with depression comes from.

Why Indian teenagers need to be supervised

I barely had anything to be happy about during this time. My studies suffered, my relationship with my parents, and it felt like the entire world was against me. Many nights, I would cry myself to sleep, wondering why I was born the way I was.

Why didn’t I get an allowance? Why did I look this ugly? Why was I not successful at anything?

Suicide was not off the table. The scene where Hannah sits in the bathtub and slits her wrists is a scenario I considered more than a few times. Jumping off the terrace? Check.

Stepping into rushing traffic? Check. Swallowing a massive amount of pills? Check. I suffered, day in and day out, not being able to communicate with anybody or having any confidence in myself.

There are Indian teenagers out there now, loads of them, suffering just like Hannah and I did. Maybe they have scarring acne and excessive body hair. Maybe they just can’t grasp academic concepts. Maybe they have been the victim of cyber-bullying. Maybe they are on a mission to make the lives of other kids miserable.

 

Whatever it may be, parents need to be more invested in the lives of their adolescent and teenage children. Ask them about bullies. Speak to said bullies’ parents and be firm on the fact that your child doesn’t lie. Don’t ground them or punish them for poor grades or crushes. If they’re doing something objectionable on social media or being subjected to it, handle it in a way that doesn’t scar them for life.

If your child wants to switch schools because they can’t cope, do it. Consider sending them to a shrink if they’ve been through stuff they can’t handle. If your child is a bully, they may need to be counselled too.

Ask your child how they’re feeling and what they’re doing. It helps and it matters, because Hannah Baker’s story is not just fiction.

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