About a month ago as I finished watching The Iron Fist, a Netflix original, a Netflix ad popped up enticing me to watch 13 Reasons Why. Honestly, I was planning to blow right by the ad, but I had seen several Facebook posts of young people I know watching the show and I know my daughter had read some of the book, so I read the synopsis and hit the play button.
Little did I know 13 Reasons Why would remind me of the many reasons why I strongly disliked school growing up but more importantly it reminded me of the attempted suicides of those close to me. Thankfully they were unsuccessful and are enjoying life now.
**** Spoiler Alerts****
“This Is Your Tape”
13 Reasons Why is the story of what leads Hannah Baker to commit suicide. The show opens with Hannah being remembered by the students of her high school and Clay Jensen is entranced by a memorial at Hannah’s locker when he is confronted by Justin, another student telling him “your not so innocent.” As the show moves along we discover Clay (a love interest of Hannah’s) has been given 13 cassette tapes which are intended to be passed to 13 individuals, messages from Hannah explaining how they had a hand in her decision to kill herself, with the tag line “this is your tape.” The rest of the episodes track the story of Hannah through Clay listening to the tapes as we are given flashbacks of the events of Hannah’s life, Clay struggles as he listens and continues living life with those who are on the tapes.
What 13 Reasons Why does well is display the impact of words and actions on someone’s life. Throughout the show we see the bullying, sexual harassment, cyber-bullying, rape and just downright cruelty people can display towards each other. Compound that with this happening to you day after day and we can see how this can lead a person into depression and into a dark place. I am not sure what everyone else’s high school experience was, but this show reminded me of all the reasons why I hated high school and was desperate to leave. Unfortunately this is the experience of students in our world.
Some may think that this is an adult show in a teen world. Projecting teens going through adult issues. The drugs, drinking, sex and parties were going on when I was in high school. I had my first beer when I was 12 and smoked pot when I was 13 and so were many of the kids I was hanging around with. Several of my friends in high school got pregnant in their teen years. Unfortunately this is the world many teens live in now and 13 Reasons Why does a good job pointing this out.
The social ills in our society have a profound impact on people’s lives who sometimes do not know how to process what is happening or why it is happening. Something that starts as a simple rumor has the potential to explode and have atomic impacts on someone’s life. Which can lead someone into isolation and build walls, which Hannah and others do in the show. So when someone reaches out it must be taken seriously, handled with care and they must be received with love.
One of the closing scenes of the show is Clay walking out of the counselor’s office and he says “it has to get better” and the counselor ask what does and Clay says “the way we treat each other.” When Jesus walked the earth he said “do to others what you want them to do to you” (Matt7:12) this is not just good advice. The creator of the universe created the whole person, God knows the psychological impact of bullying, harassment, gossipping and the many other sins we commit against each other.
I also think the show did a decent job explaining the chaos, hurt and confusion which many are left with in the aftermath of a suicide. Parents, friends and others are left in shock and wondering what went wrong? How could I have helped? What should I have done different? Even the way the show ends with many unanswered questions is a touch of real life.
Unfortunately, the good that can be sifted in 13 Reasons Why is covered with a worldview which is dangerous to those watching. Sometimes I don’t think we realize the impact TV, music and books have in shaping and discipling the way we think about the world. If we are not careful we conform to the worldview we are watching, listening to or reading.
In 13 Reasons Why we hear several students respond to what Hannah describes in the tape as “her truth,” that she was seeing things through a different lens. When they say that is her truth that is not my truth, they are not talking about subjective feelings or things which can be understood in multiple ways. The students are referring to Hannah’s description of rape, theft, bullying and harassment, these things are not subjective they are facts.
In a relativistic society, where everyone has their own version of truth, what gets lost is the actual truth. Instead of right and wrong being clear, all we are left with is shades of gray.
I also think individual responsibility gets lost in the show. I understand that words and actions impact others, but at the same time the show leaves you feeling that these people killed Hannah. While Hannah was confused, hurt and depressed, she made a decision to take her life. While her life was crumbling around her she made one of the biggest decisions of her life at a moment when she was the most confused.
Which leads me to add a qualifier, people who have been harassed and abused, are sometimes eager for situations to get better, they take unnecessary risks. Throughout the show you my think, why does Hannah continue to put herself in bad situations? There is an extreme and many times an unhealthy longing to be loved, accepted by peers and yet at the same time, the same person has a low view of self or in the words of the book “my confidence went down”. When these two are coupled, it is a recipe for disaster and clouds decision making.
Which leads me to the idea that suicide is an escape. I don’t think the show glamorizes suicide but I do think it teaches us to think of it as a way of escape. Many who struggle with suicide are wanting the struggle to end, they are wanting to move from the depths of despair to something different, from feeling bad to stopping the way they feel. Which is what Hannah was doing, which is what those who attempted suicide when I was growing up were trying to do. The danger 13 Reasons Why poses is that it could influence others to view suicide as an escape route. This isn’t just my concern, a Christian concern this is the concern of the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today and many others.
While the production and acting in the show, in my opinion, are excellent. Each episode left you wanting to know what happens next. I understand what the producers were after and the uncomfortable feeling they wanted to create. I understand they are trying to open the door to conversation about rape and suicide. Yet the two rape scenes, which I really didn’t watch because of the warning my daughter gave me, and the depiction of Hannah killing herself are explicit and dangerous.
Specifically the suicide is explicit and organized in a step by step fashion which causes the concern that maybe we have just provided a suicidal person step by step instructions on how to kill themselves. Brooke Law, a mental health provider points out in her review some research from ReportingOnSuicide.org and says,
ReportingOnSuicide.org created recommendations as a guideline for the media on how to safely report on suicide. Research shows us that how suicide is reported has an impact on the public health of society. According to ReportingOnSuicide.org:
- Don’t sensationalize the suicide
- Don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one
- Don’t describe the suicide method
- Report suicide as a public health issue
- Don’t speculate why the person might have done it
- Don’t quote or interview police or first responders about the causes of suicide
- Describe the suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself” rather than “committed suicide”
- Don’t glamorize suicide
Brooke points out 13 Reasons Why breaks everyone of those rules.
There Is Hope
In the past, when families consumed media they did it together because there was only one TV or radio. Now in the 21st century there is 3-4 TV’s in the house, on top of that we consume media on our phones, laptops and tablets. My concern is that children and youth will watch 13 Reasons Why without parents speaking to their kids about the world being displayed through the show.
As I said earlier, my daughter read part of the book and we watched most of the show together. Which led to some great conversations about life, death and decisions. Now I am not going to tell you go watch this show with your families, there is plenty of other media choices which are family friendly, but my hope is that parents get involved in the world of children. My hope is that parents become the biggest influence in the lives of their children. We need parents to become the greatest discipler in the lives of their children.
My greatest hope is that people who are hurting because of this sin infested world is that they find hope in the eyes of a savior who loves them, Jesus. There is good news for those who are depressed, there is hope for those who are poor and broken emotionally because of life, there is liberty for those held captive by the prisons of their mind or the prisons others have tried to enclose around you. There’s a new identity, a new security and a new hope available to you through the Gospel of Jesus.
As believers we need to be holding out hope in this broken world. Displaying the love of Christ and proclaiming the Lord’s favour. Sometimes a true friendship is one step among many out of depression, into hope and to Christ.
Some Other Resources