“13 Reasons Why” The Good, The Bad, The Shocking
Netflix is constantly changing what shows we can watch, and what movies are available for our viewing pleasure, but one show has come to the surface, is stirring up a lot of conversation, and has countless viewing hours within the short month that it has been available on Netflix. That show is “13 Reasons Why”. The show is based on the 2007 book that carried the same title.
The storyline, if you are not familiar but have heard all the conversations, walks through the suicide of a young girl named Hannah Baker, who after a series of different events in her life decided to take her own life. However, before committing suicide she records a series of tapes consist of the 13 reasons behind her decision. The 13 reasons happen to be people in her high school who get the tapes and as they listen the part that they played becomes clear.
You may have students who have watched this show, or may be asking you to watch this show. Maybe you watched it personally and are unsure what to do with it. Or maybe you are wondering how to engage your children in conversation due to what they have seen. Or you may just be unaware of what is actually in the show, and want to learn so you can be made aware as to what your kids potentially are watching. Whatever it is, I want to, as best as I can, provide a depiction of what the show provides that is positive, but also what it may promote that is harmful, and discuss how a show like this can deeply affect the mind of a young person.
So, let’s start with the positives. What ’13 Reasons Why’ provides is a very raw, and interesting commentary into the life of a teenager, a life I am not too far removed from, but is constantly changing as each year passes. So what it allows, for us that are removed from high school memories, is an in depth look into what high school culture is like, and the day-to-day world our students are navigating. And based on conversations that I have had with students during my time in youth ministry, ‘13 Reasons Why’ seems to nail the world that teenagers deal with. From cyber bullying, crude jokes made about them, the popularity contests, and people being alienated simply because they may have different interests, or just be latecomers to a school group with cliques already formed. Along with the accurate depiction of school life, we also get the main point of the series brought to our attention right from the first episode when we find out about the tapes. Our actions, and how we interact with each other, well, it matters. Even the little things that we may assume are harmless, the passing comments, the jokes, the ‘hot list’ that is passed around; how we treat each other can deeply impact people in ways we may not understand. That ultimately is a major point of this series that it is trying to educate us on, whether we are a bully, or a bystander. The ways we act, or maybe lack action, can affect people, and so we have to be cautious of it. I would agree with this point. In fact, as I write this I am in the process of preparing for a message to talk to our students about how scripture calls us to be unified, to be a family that cares for each other and our actions are a big part of that. So I can get behind the importance of education young people that treating people unfairly, bullying, cyber bullying, sexual harassment, all of those things are unacceptable ways of behaving.
The second piece that this show has allowed us to do is have open conversation around things like suicide, a long sensitive topic. And, not just have conversation, but get some education and be aware of the actions of people who may be deeply struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Suicide has been hidden for years because of the shame that has followed it when brought up in conversation, but what this series has done is sparked conversation about suicide, and allowed their friends to rally around them as they wrestle through it. Although it may not be helpful for kids wrestling with depression and suicidal thoughts, but we will get there. So I am thankful that culture has decided that this is a problem that needs to be talked about and brought into the light. Mental illness is real, and doesn’t respect anyone. We don’t know who it may be wrestling with it and so we need to have a place where we can talk about it openly, without shame. I think ’13 Reasons Why’ has helped bring a massive issue forward to begin to be taken even more seriously than it has been. I am thankful for that.
But this show is not all positive, there are some underlying things that are promoted within the show that can be extremely harmful, especially when it comes to teenagers and their brain development stage and how they process.
The first thing that this show does is promote a suicide revenge fantasy. Hannah in the 13 tapes she leaves behind talks about how people ruined her life. In one episode she claims to have had a stalker who took pictures of her, and now everyone who is listening to the tapes are smashing the windows of this boy’s house, even pictures of him naked being taken and floated around the school. So what we find is that further bullying ensues, and Hannah, who was bullied herself, now wants revenge in her death, and uses other people to do it. This becomes a nasty circle of not actually changing how people act and changing their actions to create a more positive experience for people, but rather, the target simply just changes to each other, and the attacks continue. So although the point of the show is to provoke thoughts in how we treat people, Hannah in the tapes is further promoting revenge.
The next part is that it never addresses how to deal with mental health. In fact, it seems to glorify suicide as an action, and encourages people not to deal with their mental health with their families or counselors or speak up against it. It simply seems to point the finger at everyone else for the mental health of Hannah, and doesn’t show that there is a way for her to find her own voice in the matter. This too, is extremely problematic for people who may be wrestling with this. In fact, if there are young people who are dealing with this, after watching this show they may think ‘this is an easy way out’ or ‘this is a way to get the attention I have always wanted.’ Many experts are speaking out against this show because of what is called ‘suicide contagion’. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year olds, and what studies are showing is that people who are exposed to suicide, whether it be in reality, or through media, it can actually increase suicidal behaviors within people. The Canadian Medical Association Journal studied a class of 12 and 13 year olds and who were exposed to a suicide and studied that those students were 5 times more likely to have suicidal tendencies because of the exposure. This is causing great concern among experts, schools, and youth ministries.
Lastly, a major piece in this show is the graphic content, if you are not aware. The show is rated TV-MA, the MA standing for ‘Mature Audience’, and this is because of a lot of curse words, but even more so this show has two graphic rape scenes of female students, as well as the last episode of the show graphically shows Hannah slitting her wrists and bleeding to death. Part of it I believe is for shock factor, our culture loves to be on the edge of what can shock us next, but the other part is they want it to seem real for people to understand that it is a wrestle, and suicide is not a peaceful passing. All that being said, students are still going through serious brain development and have a hard time processing this type of material. So although I understand the reasoning behind the graphic scene, it still is that, graphic.
All this to say, the show has sparked serious controversy, there are people on both sides of the conversation, those who think it is a helpful tool, and brings to light a serious issue, I would not argue that. But there are also people who think there is tremendous harm that could come with this, especially for those dealing with mental illness; I also would not argue that. This is where discernment plays a large role in how we engage with culture. Not just a show like this, but with all shows we watch, or the movies we entertain. What we open ourselves to can deeply affect us, both positively, but also negatively if we aren’t careful about what we let in to our sub conscious.
So the big question, should your student watch? Should you watch it? I would answer that question this way. I wouldn’t let a student watch it themselves, and without accountability to a conversation afterward to have open dialogue around the series as a whole. Now, if you decide to not let your teenager watch it, I would not disagree with that. I think there are other ways to educate our teenagers on this topic. But if you do, put down ground rules, that you would watch it together and have open dialogue around it. And if you know your student has already watched it, be bold, and talk about it. Open communication is one of the biggest things we need to have with our teenagers. They need to know there is an open line of communication no matter how tough the subject we may have to deal with them.
And, I am open to any and all further conversations regarding this topic, or any other concerns you may have. I am here to partner with you.