Disruptions: How the Netflix Show ‘13 Reasons Why’ Led to Memes, T-Shirts and Debate

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Disruptions: How the Netflix Show ‘13 Reasons Why’ Led to Memes, T-Shirts and Debate

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In response to “13 Reasons Why,” a 13-episode Netflix show about a high school student who commits suicide, teenage Twitter users are going at each other online, concerned moms are group-texting and follower-hungry Instagrammers and YouTubers are busy creating images and videos to get in on the trend before it’s gone.

Before her suicide, the “13 Reasons Why” protagonist, Hannah Baker (played by the 20-year-old actress Katherine Langford), makes 13 cassette recordings to recount the agonies of her high school life. She then leaves the tapes behind, cataloging the misdeeds of those she finds guilty of ruining her life. “Welcome to your tape,” Hannah says as she reveals her latest antagonist.

That line has become an online catchphrase. It has also introduced teenagers like Daniel Sanchez, 17, to a relic of the analog age.

Earlier this month, Mr. Sanchez was walking through a Walmart near his home in Hayward, Calif., when he spotted a display of cassette tapes, which gave him the sort of big idea he had been hoping for.

For some high school students these days, it is not enough to ask someone to go to the prom. You must do it up big. You must make a “promposal.” Mr. Sanchez is a fan of “13 Reasons Why,” as is his girlfriend, Andrea Cerda, and when he saw those tapes, inspiration struck. He bought about $40 worth of cassettes and paid $24.88 for a tape recorder. “I had to,” he said. “No one really has those things around the house.”

He sat down with the oldfangled equipment and recorded his fondest memories of his times with Ms. Cerda, who is also 17. To make the promposal hang together, Mr. Sanchez made a sign, “13 Reasons Why You Should Go To Prom w/ Me?”

Ms. Cerda appreciated her boyfriend’s gesture so much that she posted photographs of the cassette tapes and the placard on Twitter. “Best promposal ever! #13ReasonsWhy,” she wrote. The post has been retweeted nearly 18,000 times.

Her post ignited a fiery discussion, with some arguing that the promproposal was trivializing a serious issue.

You’re romanticizing suicide and that’s so messed up,” one tweeter posted.

Yes, the suicide of a fictional girl on Netflix get over it,” someone replied.

A third person chimed in: “A fake girl who is representing others! Girl these kids dont and wont understand till they mature.”

Ms. Cerda defended the gesture: “This promposal is not causing any harm, just shutup and get over it.”

The online response took her boyfriend by surprise. “I didn’t anticipate this kind of a reaction,” Mr. Sanchez said. “We didn’t think of the show as about suicide. We thought of it as entertainment. Then I read an article about how the show didn’t do a good job making that clear and that it glorified things. Now I’m thinking about things a little differently.”

The prom took place last weekend, and Ms. Cerda re-upped the promposal tweet with a photo of the couple, in school-dance attire, standing in front of a Mustang, the kind of car driven by one of the characters on the show.

Ms. Cerda, a senior who plans to attend the University of California, Davis, in the fall, said she and her boyfriend were not diminishing the seriousness of depression and suicide. “It’s entertainment,” she said. “It’s a trend. It’s popular. No one really is going to die. It’s a promposal.”

Tank Tops and Slime

“Thirteen Reasons Why” is based on the young-adult novel of the same title by Jay Asher. The actress Selena Gomez and her mother, Mandy Teefey, are among the executive producers. The show falls into the genre of entertainment aimed at adolescents that depicts a mix of partying, cliques, sex, sexual violence and self-harm. But unlike its cultural precursors “ABC Afterschool Specials,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Heathers” and “Cruel Intentions,” the Netflix addition to the canon is, in many cases, watched by young people on phones or laptops without the awareness of their parents.

Despite its weightiness, the show has inspired various jaunty memes. YouTubers have recorded “13 Reasons Why” parody videos. Merchandisers on Etsy are hawking mugs that read “Justice for Hannah” and tank tops printed with the image of a cassette tape, the new vinyl.

Endless threads on teenagers’ Facebook feeds delve into whether Hannah is to blame for her own misery. And it can be a challenge to scroll through social media and not come upon the new dis, “Welcome to your tape.”

For example, this post on Twitter:

Instagram is awash in photos showing fingernails painted blue — the shade Hannah uses to paint numbers on her cassette tapes. (Ms. Gomez flaunted blue-painted nails at the show’s premiere last month.) One post shows nails done up in blue with ornate little designs related to the show. “Blue nails in memory of hannah baker!” the caption reads.

Interactive Feature | blue nails

Video shorts showing homemade slime in various designs are lately all the rage on social media, and a specialist in this subgenre, Brenden Urick, 31, has worked “13 Reasons Why” into her slime-centric Instagram feed, Slimejellies. In a recent video, she shows a heap of slime molded to look like a cassette tape with the number 13 written in blue slime across its surface.

Interactive Feature | slime

Ms. Urick, of Tampa, Fla., said she watched “13 Reasons Why” at the suggestion of her roommate, who heard it was a suspenseful mystery like the “S-Town” podcast series, which they had loved. Although she made a slime video related to the Netflix series, she does not count herself a fan.

“We were hate-bingeing the show,” Ms. Urick said. “I didn’t care for it. I yelled at the TV.”

Interactive Feature | NYT Living Newsletter Get lifestyle news from the Style, Travel and Food sections, from the latest trends to news you can use.

She was annoyed by details she found unrealistic (“Why do 10th graders have so many tattoos?”) and the lack of context for the plight of its protagonist. “It was about misplaced blame,” she said. “There was not much in it about the role of depression and mental illness.”

But to build a sizable Instagram following, Ms. Urick must attract adolescents. As she put it: “There are a huge number of slime accounts there, and the majority of people who seem interested in slime seem younger.”

She included in the caption to her “13 Reasons Why”-related video a suicide-prevention link: “If you or someone you know is in danger, please visit www.13reasonswhy.info to find out more.”

One impassioned online detractor of the show is Joshua Christmas, an 18-year-old high school junior in San Antonio. Given the issues at the heart of “13 Reasons Why,” he found the response, including Mr. Sanchez’s promposal, to be inappropriately lighthearted.

“I doubt they had ill intentions,” Mr. Christmas said of the promposaler, “but suicide is a really serious subject and it doesn’t get talked about in a productive light and this doesn’t help the conversation.”

He added that he himself hadn’t watched the show or read the novel on which it is based, but he has read the character analyses and other discussions on his peers’ Instagram and Twitter feeds.

A Mother-Daughter Talk

The show is also a big topic among parents. Robyn Seiferheld, 44, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., said she first heard about it via a group-text message sent by the mother of a girl who studies dance with Ms. Seiferheld’s 13-year-old daughter, Zoe. The mothers were grappling with whether “13 Reasons Why” was appropriate for their kids.

“I had never heard of it, so I assumed Zoe hadn’t seen it,” Ms. Seiferheld said. “I asked her when she got home from school, and she said: ‘Mom, I’m almost done with the whole series. All my friends watch it, too.’ It just goes to show you how much they do behind our backs.”

Ms. Seiferheld watched it herself so that she could discuss it with her daughter. As an adult who still thinks about a cousin who killed herself when they were both young, Ms. Seiferheld considers the show “very well done,” she said, though too graphic for the young people who are attracted to it.

“Some of it, I’m worried, is glamorizing of suicide, but if Zoe is talking to me about it, it makes me feel better,” said Ms. Seiferheld, who recounted that her daughter sobbed her eyes out after watching the sad and shocking final episode.

Zoe said she was glad her mother saw the show.

“I like talking about it with her,” she said. “Mostly, we talk about the bullying and how some of the characters are really mean for not good reasons or no reason at all, and I don’t understand why. My mom said you have to be careful what you say, because saying one thing you don’t think is a big deal could have big impact on someone’s life.”

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