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A Balanced Perspective: 13 Reasons Why

Critics were chomping at the bit when Netflix premiered their latest original series, 13 Reasons Why. For those who haven’t seen it, 13 Reasons Why is a TV adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult novel. The main character, Clay Jensen, receives a box of tapes recorded by his friend, Hannah Baker, who recently committed suicide. Each episode walks the audience through one of Hannah’s tapes, one of the 13 reasons why she ended her life. Throughout the series, Clay wrestles with fear, sorrow, grief, and the ever so popular, guilt. The show is a raw representation of the damaging effects of bullying, sexual assault, and silence in today’s youth.

Critics claim that the show glamorizes teen suicide and mental illness. Many say that the show was irresponsible to depict a serious matter like teen suicide with such indiscretion. Advocates claim that the show is shining a light on the issue, allowing for space to address and prevent suicide in an unfiltered way.

So which is it? Is 13 Reason Why an irresponsible glamorization of teen suicide? Or is it a helpful illustration, exposing a carnivorous social epidemic? It’s both. (I think it’s worth mentioning that I read the book years ago and have watched the series, so I draw these conclusions based on a collective perception of both.)

First let’s talk about the dangers of 13 Reasons Why.

1. The glamorization of teen suicide – The rise of suicide awareness has ironically also led to a rise in suicide. Last year, the New York Times reported that suicide in the U.S. was the highest it had been in 30 years. How is that possible? Well, with so many people being recruited to support “the cause,” there is an identity forming. Victims are celebrated and supported, and with the praise of survivors and victims comes envy from the outside. In order to be a “part of the club,” young people have to become depressed, self-injurers, suicidal, self-harmers.

It’s a paradox – by creating a safe place for those who truly suffer, we have created new sufferers. As a result, not only do those who merely adopt the identity risk their own lives, but the original sufferers no longer feel that the cause is genuine.

As I mentioned, the Netflix series depicts a lot of graphic scenes of traumatic experiences, including a vivid scene of Hannah’s suicide. Most experiences of that nature are not resolved so quickly. But as a TV series, it has to end. That leaves the viewer with the perception that these very serious issues are not as damaging as they really are. Someone who suffers from these traumas would most likely need intensive therapy for many years. Therapy is not glamorous. Grief is not glamorous. But Hollywood is. Is that the producers’ fault? Not necessarily. They made a genuine effort to illuminate a real social matter, but they had to work within the nature of their industry. While it’s still dangerous, and parents especially need to be aware of the content in this show in order to protect their children if need be, the responsibility is as much on the viewer as it is on the producers. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Irresponsible interpretation – With content this serious, we have to watch responsibly. Just as the legal ability to consume alcohol doesn’t stop someone from driving drunk, the ability to watch a TV show doesn’t stop someone from misinterpreting its context and intentions. In my opinion, this is the biggest danger of 13 Reasons Why.

It is extremely easy to view this show and internalize it. But when we do that, we’re missing the entire point. The point of the show isn’t to identify with Hannah Baker, but to identify with Clay, as someone who is alive today. While I’m sure we can all relate to Hannah’s character in one way or another, we have to discern how we relate to her. If we identify with her need to reach out for help, then we’re identifying responsibly with her character. However, if we’re identifying and acting on her character as a victim with no way out, that is not responsible. That is putting blinders on and neglecting the other factors that the producers lay out right in front of us in the other characters and plot points.

When viewed from a selfish perspective, the show is a justification for suicide, no doubt. That’s the danger. But it was never meant to be viewed selfishly. It was meant to be viewed selflessly, as a humbling reminder of our finite life and our responsibility to one another. Unfortunately, the producers cannot determine the viewer’s perspective and they still bear the responsibility of how the show will be perceived.

3. The Blame-Game – The whole concept of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah reserves one tape for each person that has wronged her. Her reasons aren’t abstract, they’re people. Characters are exposed for their misdeeds and ultimately the viewer determines that there are no good guys. Even the protagonists have their flaws unmasked. The problem is in the revenge attitude that Hannah has in her tapes. Revenge is not noble, especially via suicide. The reality is that people are sinful. They make mistakes and they overlook many things. The show’s awareness of that is not condemnable. That awareness only becomes a danger when it is not complimented by the good in people and when responsibility is misplaced.

Again, it is easy to internalize the show and decide that Hannah’s friends could have saved her. They could have been nicer. They could have been more aware. They could have done something. But Hannah’s choice was just that, Hannah’s. Ultimately, it is not her friends’ responsibility to keep her from killing herself. We are responsible for how we treat people, but it is unfair to put one’s life in another’s hands. The show gives a skewed view of salvation and the power to change someone else’s mental circumstances.

I acknowledge that the purpose of Jay Asher’s novel and the purpose of the TV series is to encourage society to be aware and to be a friend – we never know what is truly going on with another person, and our actions do carry weight. I think that point is well received if and when the show is viewed responsibly. If not, it could be fatal.

Now let’s talk about the qualities of 13 Reasons Why

(All of my points moving forward are stated under the assumption that the show is being viewed responsibly.)

1. The bold approach – The series is obviously pushing an agenda of suicide awareness. When viewed responsibly, 13 Reasons Why is an effective campaign precisely because it is so bold. There aren’t many resources that would illuminate this issue as up-close and personal as this series did. If the issue were watered down, critics would have a problem with that too. There really is no way to win against a determined critic. If the show is approached with objective, sensible interest in the matter, there is a ton to gain.

I respond to this series as a (for the most part) stable adult, and as I write this I am reminded of the ways that our stability can blind us to the realities of the younger generation. We certainly can’t ignore that when approaching this show – it is extremely circumstantial. Some may decide that they aren’t ready for a graphic display of suicide. That’s okay. That’s responsible.

I’m sure the producers knew the risk of portraying this sensitive topic in such a bright light. There is nowhere to hide in that final scene. That storyboard meeting must have been tense while making the decision to explicitly disclose the details of Hannah’s death. For some viewers, it waves a red flag. But for some, that risk is exactly what made the show so powerful.

There are two different types of viewers that I want to differentiate between. There are viewers who look ‘at’ the beam, and those who look ‘along’ the beam. In his essay, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” C.S. Lewis compares the experience of looking at a beam of light shining through the cracks in a woodshed to the experience of stepping into the light and viewing the world that it illuminates.(1) The former is a picture of contemplative thought – the observation and analysis – the first type of viewer. The latter is a picture of enjoyment thought – the philosophical and transcendent reception of art - the second type of viewer.

There is poise in the show’s character, a fiery determination that could easily be overlooked but that is potent to the one who views it “along the beam.” Intensity like that is nearly impossible to capture on screen, and when done right, it transcends the barrier between man and machine and reaches right into the soul.

2. Realistic human qualities – One of the reasons why the show is so popular is the fact that the characters are portrayed honestly. All the facades are exposed and the flaws unmasked, even in the adult characters. There isn’t one character that is an ideal human being. That tells the audience that they can trust the characters to be genuine representations of real-life people. That makes the resolution much more effective. The uncertainty is a true reflection of our human condition and when those characters find the light, it’s a true human victory.

Also, the show didn’t cast 6-foot tall, 25-year-old models to play high schoolers. That is a little besides the point, but it does help the realism…

3. Genuine stance on the issue – Finally, 13 Reasons Why displays a genuine concern for those suffering with thoughts of suicide and depression. Taking viewer interpretation aside, it’s undeniable that the makers of this show did not intend for this tragedy to be glamorized. That was our fault. When viewed through the writers’ lens, I see a show full of realistic characters, scenes of true sorrow, and a purpose-driven message.

We can pull it apart all we want, but it doesn’t change their hearts in making it. Intention isn’t everything, but it is certainly worth something. Perhaps the response to the show is yet another cause that needs attention. It’s obvious that there is a lot of responsibility in presenting art to the world. It’s vital for filmmakers to use discernment and discretion when making their art, keeping in mind every type of person that could be seeing the final product and taking their platform seriously. At the same time, it is vital for us as an audience to look along the beam and use our own discernment when viewing material like this or when allowing our children view it. I wouldn't suggest implementing hard rules for your kids, that only tempts their curiosity. But instead, let's keep communication open and allow everyone to interact with their emotions and reasons freely. We have to be wise with the media we allow into our minds and our hearts. Honest art is made to reflect truth in one way or the other – it is our responsibility as humans, viewers or producers, to uphold the integrity of the truth.

So, is 13 Reasons Why a worthy investment? I can't say for sure. I don't have kids - So I admit to having a hole in my perspective. However, I was a kid in a toxic high school environment, and this book brought a lot of understanding into my heart at the time so that later I could begin to heal. That has to count for something...

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed”, (New York: Inspirational Press).

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