There are three movies/TV shows I've watched in my lifetime that I have no desire to ever see again. The Stoning of Soraya M., a story of an Iraqi woman wrongfully accused of adultery by her abusive husband, leading to her being stoned in the middle of town. Based on a true story, the cringe-worthy scene of Soraya being stoned put me in a place of unwanted despair. The Passion of the Christ was hard to watch as a Christian, much less as just a human that struggles watching anything that portrays gruesome injustice. The third thing I doubt I'll ever watch again? Netflix's huge hit of 2017 13 Reasons Why.
My desire to not see any of these movies or shows again is not one based on the quality of work. Each is well done for what it is, dealing with heavy story lines. As entertainment goes, they all do what they are intended to do: captivate an audience. But some stories need telling only once to make an impact. Watching the stories in high definition on my modest 39-inch TV hits home even harder than just knowing the plot lines.
13 Reasons Why is unnerving. It's disturbing. It's riddled with infectious drama, and in a sense is a car crash that is impossible to turn away from. The story line comes from a 2007 book by the same name. It follows the story of Hannah Baker, a teenager who has killed herself but before doing so recorded 13 cassette tapes (yes, cassettes) dedicated to each person that aided in her downward spiral towards taking her life. The premise seems a bit far-fetched, but I'm sending out a plea for youth ministers, teachers, social workers, and basically anyone that works with young people: please, please, please take the time to watch this series.
What you're going to hear from many culture critics (especially Christian ones) is that 13 Reasons is vulgar (it is), explicit (it is), and glorifies suicide (it might). All of those critiques are fair, but the concept of the show is one that reaches beyond its own story outside of the camera and into the lives of its viewer. In a completely fictional but still very plausible story, Hannah Baker is a pretty girl with a modest personality. She comes across plain, largely unnoticed by her peers minus a few that she's managed to befriend. But in each episode, something happens that betrays trust she had in one of those friends. Abandonment, cruelty, misguided feelings, casual deceit, and emotional withdrawal all take center stage as separate nails into a teenage coffin. The events in the next to last episode finally push Hanna over the top as the show climaxes with her sexual assault.
With each episode, you get the feeling that this is little more than high drama, set a little too perfectly in a suburban high school where wealthy white kids are in abundance and teachers are portrayed as oddly out-of-touch. But you get a sense of lingering empathy for Hanna (as you should) as the things happening to her pile up in frustrating ways.
The show is aimed at 18-25 year-olds, but the viewing age will dip much lower than that. This is what has many wise adults concerned, especially considering the ultra-heavy content. Profanity is rampant, drug and alcohol abuse is prevalent, and the graphic depictions of rape and suicide are truly difficult to watch. I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone under the age of 18 watches it. But here's the reality: kids are watching it anyway.
This is one of those seminal moments that comes across only a few times a decade. Those who work to impact the lives of young people have an opportunity to reach them where their minds are fresh on the heaviest topics that can surround a teenager's life. The likelihood is that some teens are watching this show and questioning their own identity and self-worth. They're wondering if anyone still sees them as important despite the things they've experienced. They want to know about justice, about true friendship and loyalty, about absolute truth and hollowness. Why would we as a generation of believers desperate to show God's love to young people turn such an opportunity away?
The writer of the series 13 Reasons Why, Nic Sheff, recently told Vanity Fair why he didn't shy away from the book's dark themes in the Netflix series. "When it comes to suicide, I believe the message should be exactly the same. Facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life. I’m proud to be a part of a television series that is forcing us to have these conversations, because silence really does equal death." The show’s writer acknowledges what we must: it’s important to have conversations around the topics the show covers.
There are numerous other think pieces surrounding 13 Reasons out there. Gospel Coalition writer Trevin Wax, for example, calls the show “destructive”. Psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz thinks Netflix needs to pull the show from their listing. A site called “All the Moms” posted a well-thought review here. All these writers are likely correct in their own right. The show can be destructive. Maybe it shouldn’t even be a show to begin with.
But in our binge-watch society where we constantly seek entertainment, shows that enter arenas untouched by many other shows are going to be watched. Especially ones that are geared towards young people.
The Ringer, a popular sports/pop culture site that replaced the now-defunct Grantland site recently published a scathing critique of 13 Reasons Why. I didn’t disagree with what the critic said about the show, but reading the comments proved to be more insightful than anything in the article.
In the comments section are dozens of teenagers or young people in their twenties claiming just how spot on the show is. How the way it depicts the often-understated cruelty of teens is tragically on point, and that those of us that are older simply don’t get it.
To that point, I agree. I’m nearing my 36th birthday. In high school, we didn’t have instant access to others via cell phone. We didn’t have a way to judge one another based on Instagram likes. There were no regrettable Snapchat filters, no cyberbullying, and no blackmailing through unintended pictures taken.
Being a teenager today must be more difficult. To sit back and tell teens that what they’re experiencing isn’t real isn’t just irresponsible, it’s dangerous. 13 Reasons Why is a tragic story. It has no happy ending, no redeemable quality, and does little but leave a dark cloud over your head for hours following the final episode.
But it is doing something important: it is bringing topics to the forefront often shied away from by schools and church leaders. Growing up in youth group, how many discussions do you remember having around the topics of sexual assault or suicide?
I’ll end with this: I don’t recommend any young people watch the show. I would be completely fine with 13 Reasons not even existing. But at some point, we have to recognize what young people are doing. What they’re watching, seeing, and listening to. The trend shows 13 Reasons Why is hugely popular. Far be it from us as Christians to not acknowledge this fact and take hold of the conversations that are already taking place in the halls of local high schools. Because if we can intervene and shed light into the heavy darkness portrayed by the show, we might just be able to save a life. So many people in Hannah Baker’s life passed the opportunity to save hers. Don’t let us in the non-fiction world allow that opportunity to pass us by.