Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why Season 2 ahead. Before 13 Reasons Why even premiered, Mandy Teefey, the show's executive producer alongside her daughter Selena Gomez, knew it would be controversial. "I knew adults were going to be the ones with the bigger problem with [the content of the] show than the kids," she tells me over the phone, "because the kids relate to it." But, that doesn't mean she was prepared for just how controversial the show based off the Jay Asher novel ended up being.
"It surprised me," Teefey says of the criticism the show received from some mental health organizations and professionals for its graphic depiction of suicide. "But it also got a lot of support and let kids know that they can talk about an issue that they probably needed to be talking about."
For Teefey, the controversy had purpose, which made it all worth it. "I like to say good storytelling is the reflection of society," Teefey says. "So it may have caused controversy but it caused one of the biggest, if not the biggest conversations about suicide."
The first season of 13 Reasons Why focused on the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), but it also dealt with other teen issues like gun violence, bullying, depression, and sexual assault. It was portrayed in a way that was honest and often brutal to watch, so much so that Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why includes a disclaimer before each episode warning that some viewers may not want to watch, and points viewers to the website 13ReasonsWhy.Info, which provides access to local helpline numbers and discussion guides.
With all of this at viewers' disposal, the new season of the Netflix series doubles down on these topics in the aftermath of Hannah's death, with a particular emphasis on Jessica's (Alisha Boe) journey to becoming a survivor after being sexually assaulted by Bryce (Justin Prentice). "We’re sticking to our brand," Teefey, who is the founder of Kicked To The Curb Productions, says of the new season. "And as long as we don’t make things gratuitous than we’ve accomplished our goal of creating conversation around social issues."
Once again, though, some of those conversations are controversial ones. Just days after Season 2 started streaming, showrunner Bryan Yorkey defended a brutal sexual assault scene in the finale, which some fans and critics say goes way too far. In a statement to Vulture, Yorkey explained that the graphic scene in which Tyler (Devin Druid) is sodomized by another male student with a mop handle is meant to be "unflinching," and added that it's meant to take away the stigma surrounding male sexual assault. "We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence," Yorkey said.
While Teefey didn't talk about this scene in particular with Bustle, she adds that she stands by Yorkey no matter what. "I trust Yorkey wholeheartedly so I don’t question his creative choices," she says. Speaking as a mother, she adds that she doesn't question another parent's decision to prevent their kids from watching 13 Reasons Why, but thinks adults should watch it for themselves before they judge it.
"I think parents shy away from it because they don’t want to see that this is what their kids go to school and experience," she says. "They don't want to see their kids in any of the characters. Like, 'Has my kid done that? Is that how he really is?' I think it's tough to watch it."
But, Teefey says that's the point. 13 Reasons Why knows these conversations aren't easy and wants to help parents broach these topics with their kids. When Teefey was raising Selena, she says there weren't a lot of teen shows that she could use as a resource in starting to talk to her daughter about drugs. That's why she turned to a television series that she now thinks most will see as an odd choice for a young girl.
"[Selena] watched Intervention a few times and talked about it with me," Teefey says of the A&E reality series about addiction. "But that was pretty much the only learning-lesson show we watched because I couldn’t pull her away from Friends."
13 Reasons Why has managed to pull teens away from Friends, at least for a little while, and gotten them thinking about gun control and sexual assault, which, according to RAINN, high school aged females (16-19) are four times more likely to experience than the general population.
As a survivor of sexual assault and someone who's lost "too many" people in her life to gun violence, including her client Christina Grimmie, The Voice contestant who was shot and killed two years ago by a fan, Teefey thinks showing the sometimes harsh reality of these topics will get young people to speak up and take action. "I just think visually that when you see something and you’re not in it, when you’re outside watching on the box, it brings a different clarity."
Teefey understands that 13 Reasons Why is not easy to watch — and honestly, Season 2, might actually be more difficult. As of now, there's no word if there will be a Season 3, but Teefey has seen firsthand how the show has helped people struggling with addiction, depression, or sexual assault feel less alone.
"Everyone’s going to take something away from [this show] in their own way. So if there's an issue or topic or conversation on 13 Reasons that helps one person, that's a good thing," she says. "Hopefully, it can spark tons [of conversations] because there’s a lot to discuss." Whether you love it or hate it, Teefey wants you to keeping talking about 13 Reasons Why. It's the only way these tough conversations get any easier.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.