BreakPoint: The Hopeless World of “13 Reasons”

Toxic Culture, Toxic Consequences

If you haven’t heard of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I guarantee your teens have. Here’s what you need to know about it.

Ten years ago, Jay Asher, a novelist specializing in Young Adult fiction, saw his novel about a high school student who commits suicide become what the New York Times called “a stealthy hit with surprising staying power.” The book eventually reached the top of the Times’ paperback best-seller list.

And ten years later, that novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” was turned into a Netflix series and is a cultural phenomenon.

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve heard about the series. If you’re a parent in a place like Colorado Springs, where literally dozens of teenagers have committed suicide in recent years, you’re probably asking yourself whether the show will only make a bad situation worse.

I’m not certain about the answer to that question. What I am certain about is that it most certainly won’t help. As my colleague Gina Dalfonzo wrote in her superb article at BreakPoint.org, while the creators thought that they were striking a blow against teen suicide, “the limited and flawed worldview they brought to it meant that they were deeply, dangerously wrong.”

“13 Reasons Why” is set two weeks after a high school student named Hannah commits suicide. As Gina writes, “While her fellow students are still creating memorials and taking selfies in front of her locker, a bombshell drops on her friend Clay Jensen . . . A shoebox full of cassette recordings that Hannah created before her death is left with him—recordings addressed to 13 different people whom she says gave her reasons to kill herself.”

Told in a combination of “flashbacks and present-day stories,” Hannah’s tale is set in a depiction of the high school experience that, in Gina’s words, “makes ‘Lord of the Flies’ look like ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ Drugs and alcohol flow freely, bullying and sexual assault are facts of life, an innocent photograph or a few whispers can wreck a reputation, and the person who’s your best friend today could turn on you tomorrow.”

It’s an experience that leaves the viewer wondering “how anyone could survive.”

The answer seems to be “you can’t, unless you’re a sociopath.” Where does this leave non-sociopaths? Certainly not with hope. As Gina points out, nothing presented onscreen gives any reason to believe that the “poisonous atmosphere” can, much less will, get better.

Against this backdrop, Hannah’s carefully-orchestrated suicide-plus-audio-revenge seems like a viable option. In fact, and this is the key flaw of the series, she seems to wield a power in death that she never did in life.

Except, of course, she doesn’t. In real life, the kind of sociopaths and jerks who tormented her in life aren’t going to be too put out by an audio-cassette from the beyond. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face times infinity.

The only person tormented is the one Hannah admired, Clay. And he’s left “haunted by the thought that Hannah died because he was ‘afraid to love her,’” an idea that owes more to the movies than to real-life. In any case, as Gina points out, neither Clay nor his classmates have any “concept of the kind of love that actually does save.”

As Gina correctly concludes, “Troubled kids need and deserve better.” The National Association of School Psychologists agrees, having issued the following statement: “We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

Parents, we need to understand the impact that shows like this can have on our teens. And ultimately, we need to show our children what love really means—and where our hope in life truly lies.

 

Further Reading and Information

The Hopeless World of “13 Reasons”: Toxic Culture, Toxic Consequences

Take the opportunity provided by the media barrage about this series to talk to your children and their friends about the importance of affirming life, not ending it. A life is irreplaceable, and each life is a reflection of the image of God.  Click on the link below to read “’13 Reasons Why’: A World without Hope” by Gina Dalfonzo.

 

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Resources

’13 Reasons Why’: A World without Hope
  • Gina Dalfonzo | BreakPoint.org | May 11, 2017
What Went Wrong With 13 Reasons Why?
  • Sophie Gilbert | The Atlantic | May 4, 2017
"13 Reasons Why" Netflix Series: Considerations for Educators
  • National Association of School Psychologists | 2017
The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers: The Secret to Loving Teens Effectively
  • Gary Chapman | Northfield Publishing | May 2016

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  • Zachary McGowen

    While I totally agree that this show should not be viewed by those not mature enough to handle it (thus the rating of TVMA and the warnings on several of the episodes), I disagree that the show is dangerous itself or that it glamorizes suicide. Rather it is in the negligence of those who watch the show looking for messages that aren’t there. This is not a show that romanticizes suicide from a mature standpoint. It is presented as tragic and horrific. While kids who may be struggling with suicidal tendencies may see it as present as a viable option, they are not the intended audience. The intended audience is for those who may be interacting with others who have suicidal tendencies (which is the majority of us). The kids in this show struggle deeply with Hannah’s actions (if you watch until the end of the season and not merely “proof-text”episodes), and while they all have varying levels of culpability, they are disturbed at their individual roles (save the one whose behavior is the most egregious).

    The message of this show is not one of hopelessness, but rather awareness. Be aware of those around you. Be aware that all our actions have radical consequences. Be aware that the people around us are dealing with sins that run deep and who hurt, and we should be quick to show grace, love, and compassion. The storytelling is complex and not cookie cutter, but so is life. The biblical text is rife with complex storytelling that, if misconstrued and misinterpreted, could be used to advocate a variety of viewpoints contrary to its intention. Christians should watch shows like “13 Reasons Why…” understanding that the world is asking difficult questions, and we should be part of the conversation to listen to hurts and demonstrate the kind of compassion for which a girl like Hannah longs.