Last month saw the launch of two unrelated cultural phenomena that enchanted teens and horrified adults: the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino and the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
The frothy, rainbow-swirled beverage was mercifully short-lived; ashes to ICEEs, fluff to fluff. But the controversial television drama lives on as the most-Tweeted-about show of 2017.
13 Reasons Why tells the story of a high school girl who committed suicide by slitting her wrists in a bathtub. But first, she recorded audiotapes detailing why she was ending her life and instructed that these tapes be passed around to the friends and classmates whose particular cruelties stung her so badly — the people “responsible for my death,” as she puts it.
The show has experts crying foul. Schools are advising parents not to let their kids watch it. New Zealand created a whole new rating category for it; those under 18 are forbidden from watching without an adult. Mental-health experts say the series — which depicts the bloody death in horrific, drawn-out detail — glamorizes suicide and could inspire copycats. Netflix met the backlash by adding more warnings to the first episode.
But no one listens to warnings. After all, I was warned when I was young, wild, and fearless that I would one day become a quivering ole scaredy cat, petrified of things like driving in the dark and people with facial piercings and edgy television shows. The latter idea was especially preposterous; I was a staunch defender of authentic self-expression, a vociferous proponent of creative storytelling in all its provocative forms — human costs be damned. If real art doesn’t exist to body-slam us out of our comfort bubbles, then what possible purpose does it serve?
But along comes this must-see teen TV show, and I discover, ahem, that sometime after birthing my oldest child 18 years ago and signing up my youngest for junior high last month, my nerve has shifted. Because here I sit, wringing my hands and biting my nails, outraged and aghast that ratings-horny, small-screen scriptwriters are commanding the rapt attention of suggestible and frequently miserable adolescents as they serve up an incredibly delicious, undeniably dangerous, and utterly disingenuous revenge fantasy: The way to be truly powerful, and to make people feel eternally bad for the way they treated you, is to slice open your radial arteries and bleed out beautifully and tragically — ensuring no one lives happily ever after. The End.
As a parent, that terrifies me — authentic self-expression be damned.
The old me would have argued, this is fiction! It’s no more irresponsible than Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and those freaks are real! Teens are more resilient and mature than we give them credit for — and, hey, maybe escapist entertainment helps them cope!
But this new recruit for the Society of the Skittish is too beaten down by the horrors of modern parenting to engage in debate: “Today’s Pot Four Times Stronger Than Decades Past” … “Why Is Teen Sexting Being Called an Epidemic?” … “Gruesome Spotlight on College Hazing” … “Alarming Rise in Children Hospitalized with Suicidal Thoughts or Actions” … “Future Pandemics Await Us in Melting Polar Ice.” …
Then you see your child try to cut an apple on their lap, with the knife blade facing their stomach — like only a not-resilient or not-mature person would do. So forgive us parents for withholding the benefit of the doubt when it comes to life and death.
As you inch further and further from your own teen years, you lose faith in teens’ abilities to make wise decisions. Wisdom, after all, comes with age. But so does fear, it turns out.
As I sit here hoping I’ve raised kids who can withstand dangers, temptations, and grim, misleading messages, I find I can’t actually recall the sensation of fearlessness if I try. Perhaps one day, when I’m too frightened to drive at night, I’ll question whether my youthful faith and fortitude ever existed at all. Or if they were merely concoctions of my imagination, like so many Unicorn Frappuccinos.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.