I started watching 13 Reasons Why with some apprehension. I have a tendency to get pulled into stories, and sometimes take them too much to heart. Fully aware of this, I had actually decided not to watch the show, but because I heard that many middle schoolers, either ones I work directly with or those in their peer groups, were watching or considering watching this show, I decided it would be worthwhile to be able to talk about it with them.
I’ve seen a lot of articles with polarized opinions about this show. It is either held up as a courageous and very much needed voice on mental health and suicide, or it is condemned as dangerous and harmful. Although I ultimately would strongly discourage younger adolescents from watching 13 Reasons Why and recommend parental presence and engagement with older adolescents who choose to watch it, like most things, I don’t believe determining the value and impact of the show as a whole is as simple as these dichotomized responses would lead us to believe.
I do think that in a sense this show addresses one of the most significant questions an adolescent could be asking: ‘Where can I find hope in this broken world?'”
There are a number of significant things that the show addresses, with sometimes chilling accuracy, that are very much a part of the waters that high schoolers are attempting to navigate. These issues are real, significant, and loom very large in the lives of many adolescents: for example loneliness, bullying, sexual pressure and harassment, and maybe most significantly the added layer that social media and constant access to smart phones brings to each one of these things. The show does an incredible job of portraying what it looks like to feel isolated in a world of connectivity.
The question to me is not whether the issues addressed and questions asked in the show are significant and valuable. They are extremely real and important. The two questions I would raise are 1) does 13 Reasons Why address significant issues in a way that is healthy for adolescents to interact with? and 2) are the answers offered by the show helpful and life giving? The second question is particularly important, because to raise these questions and bring up these issues without offering some real hope may be far more dangerous than helpful. By briefly looking at the outline of the show, we can begin to get a grasp of what questions and answers this story is offering.
At the heart of the story we find Hannah Baker. Although Clay is actually the protagonist, it is through Hannah’s eyes that we see most of the world that the show takes place in. We as the viewer, as much as Clay, are taken on a journey through the final year of Hannah’s life. We watch her move from person to person, searching for friendship, romance, healing, personal expression, and acceptance.
Although there are moments where some of the people on the tapes offer Hannah hope, kindness and even love, ultimately each one lets her down to some degree and harms her, whether through selfishness, carelessness, or outright cruelty. And it is when Hannah finds that there is no one in her life who can save her, and in fact there are people who will use her and mistreat her, she sits down and records her tapes. There is not one person who can be the hope that Hannah Baker needs.
Does 13 Reasons Why address significant issues in a way that is healthy for adolescents to interact with?
I in no way want to minimize or gloss over the horribleness of Hannah’s experiences. The show does not shy away from depicting cyber bullying, rape, cutting, and suicide. We as the viewer see all of this play out in graphic detail that is oftentimes very hard to watch. Unfortunately, these things are part of the reality that high schoolers live in. I don’t disagree that there is value to raising awareness and calling for compassion and action. Producer Selena Gomez, along with several members of the cast, talk about this in a short Behind the Scenes episode. I agree with their desire to educate and empower teens to deal with the tough topics the show addresses.
However, I disagree that a fictional TV drama that most adolescents will watch alone or only with peers is the best way to do this. The mature content coupled with the easy access to any Netflix show means that many, especially younger adolescents, will watch 13 Reasons Why without their parents’ knowledge or permission, closing the door to some of the very people who would be most equipped to help them process the graphic and sobering content of the show.
Although much of Hannah’s experiences raise issues that are important for teens to learn about and grapple with, I strongly believe that a binge-able Netflix show is not the healthiest way to bring them up.
Are the answers offered by the show helpful and life-giving?
This question I have a harder time answering. I do think that in a sense this show addresses one of the most significant questions an adolescent could be asking: Where can I find hope in this broken world? Most teenagers are beginning to understand for the first time that the world is really and truly messed up. They experience and participate in hurt, betrayal and pain. The world they thought they knew in childhood is beginning to feel distant, as they are forced to come face to face with the reality of sin in this world.
Hannah herself has a great deal of optimism and even naiveté at the beginning of the show. But when her rosy view of the world is shattered, she is sent into a tailspin, grasping desperately for something that will restore her hope. I believe that this theme is what resonates so well with the show’s audience. This heartbreaking realization is an experience common to all adolescents in one form or another.
In its truest sense 13 Reasons Why is a coming of age story. Where do we turn for hope in the face of brokenness? Hannah grapples with this question, and shares her journey on the tapes. Each one of the students in the story, possibly with the exception of Bryce, comes face to face with that question in the aftermath of Hannah’s death.
But this is where I believe the show does its audience a huge disservice. The conclusion that we, along with Clay, are supposed to draw is that our best hope is to do better in the way we treat each other. This is ultimately the sentiment behind Hannah’s tapes. She believes that 13 people could have done better, tried harder and if even one of them had, it would have been enough. Try harder, do better, be kinder. That is Hannah’s message. It is extremely troubling that Hannah’s death promotes the idea of suicide as a way to ensure that this message is heard. That is hugely problematic in and of itself.
But the thought that I couldn’t shake after finishing the show was how troublingly inadequate her message is. None of us can be the solution, because it is our sin that is the problem in the first place. To be extremely clear, I do not believe that anyone is responsible for another person’s decision to take their own life, but I do believe that we are responsible for hurting one another. The sin that each one of us has in our hearts creates the hopelessness against which we all struggle, and none of us could ever try hard enough, do well enough, be kind enough to overcome that. Hannah is right. There is nothing in our world capable of restoring her. The brokenness she experiences does lead to death.
There is another story that teaches us that as well. It’s about a man who lived and came face to face with people who harm him through selfishness, carelessness and outright cruelty. He dies at their hands. But his story doesn’t end with death because he conquers it. And because of him and his resurrection, each one of us has hope when we come up against the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of our own hearts.
None of us can offer each other that kind of hope, no matter how hard we try to do better. We will always let each other down. To look for hope anywhere other than Christ will ultimately lead to our destruction, and it is only in him that any of us can find hope and redemption in the face of the pain found in this world.