In the Spring of 2017, an original Netflix show was released, taking much of the adolescent and college-aged world by storm. That series was 13 Reasons Why.
I think many young folk flocked to watch (or binge on) the 13-episode show due to two reasons: 1) It carries a similar feel to other popular shows teens and college students might enjoy, such as those found on the CW and Freeform. 2) It addresses a very pertinent issue for young people today, mainly suicide.
The Netflix show is based upon the novel by the same name. Before committing suicide, the main character, Hannah Baker, recorded 13 tapes. Each tape lays out a reason why (hence, 13 Reasons Why) she has decided to commit suicide, basically blaming various people and the way they treated her.
I want to take a moment and address the concern that people have raised about watching the show. Yes, I’m a day late and a dollar short. Or a year late and still only a dollar short. Nevertheless, I wanted to put some thoughts together in light of the recent release of Season 2.
There’s a heightened concern over the show because of its somewhat graphic nature. This is centered essentially in its actual depiction of Hannah’s suicide in episode 13, but perhaps also because of the sexually explicit content at times. Writing about the show’s portrayal of Hannah’s suicide, opinion columnist, Mark Henick, who is also a mental health advocate, expressed concern in his CNN article last Spring. He argues:
“Many — myself included — object to the series’ depiction of suicide because it lacks understanding about how to show it on screen safely. And that narrative choice, while an artistic one, is also a potentially devastating setback in the effort to combat a problem which by any conservative estimate is a global health crisis.”
He continues, adding in links to relevant sources:
Numerous credible evidence-based organizations with a firm grasp of the suicide prevention world discourage graphic depictions or discussions of suicide, because, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and others, risk of additional suicides increases when a story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic or graphic headlines or images, and when repeated coverage of that story sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.
These are wise words that should cause us pause.
However, let me also add that there are plenty of people who may not be considering the issues with a level head. For example, this week I caught a segment of a morning show in which the host shared her particular thoughts on 13 Reasons Why. I took a week off work and was waiting on my car to get repaired. The tv was on in the waiting room. I was held captive. I promise!
This particular host is also known for her conservative views (I’d actually argue that I also hold relatively conservative views about life issues). I was angry as I listened to this well-known person spout off her opinions of 13 Reasons Why. Not so much because she actually confessed she had not watched the show. It can be ok to offer judgment statements about things that we know about but have not personally encountered, though we should do so with appropriate care. Rather, what upset me was how her arguments fell well short of anything that seemed reasonable.
In particular, this host talked about how she had kids. If I recall correctly, they were aged 8, 6 and 2. So, basically the same ages as my own. She shared of the danger of kids watching the show and then proceeded to say how she did not want her kids watching it.
I don’t want my 8, 6 and 1.5 year old boys to watch the show either. I mean, that’s common sense, right? And guess what. My kids won’t watch it! Plain and simple. All they know to do is to turn on Netflix and go straight to the Kids profile set up with all kids shows. They don’t want to go to the mommy and daddy profile because it has shows in which they have very little, if any, interest.
Now, yes, once my kids reach 10 or 12, we will need to be a little more clear about expectations, etc. But who in the world expects their toddlers and young elementary kids to turn on 13 Reasons Why?! Come on! But, as she was generally “preaching to the choir,” reasonable arguments weren’t greatly needed.
I share that frustration because it is so painful to watch folk rant about the evils of this or that without ever having engaged with valid points in any sensible way. It was a 3-minute segment with no substance.
However, let’s be honest. There are real challenges to consider when we’re deciding whether or not to watch such a show (or even allow our teenagers to watch such a show). As Henick notes: “. . . risk of additional suicides increases when a story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic or graphic headlines or images, and when repeated coverage of that story sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”
The bolded part highlights the great danger.
Kids who were not thinking about suicide could now all of a sudden see suicide as an option to free themselves from pain, anxiety, depression, being bullied, sexual assault and more.
But, while the premise may be true (risk of increasing suicides), perhaps the answer is not that we somehow put our heads in the sand over the obvious issues. It’s like saying: “If we show programs about drug use, all of a sudden drug use will go up,” or, “If we show programs about racism and terrorism, we will have an abrupt surge in racism and terrorism.”
Perhaps or perhaps not.
In referencing credible sources, in his article, Henick notes the risk of additional sucides, not the actual rise in suicide rates.
But why the increase in possibility?
As noted above, it’s most likely due to the young person being introduced to something they’d never been introduced to before, or at least presented with elements of which they weren’t fully aware.
Oh, so that’s how you can escape through suicide.
Oh, so that’s what ecstasy makes you feel like.
Oh, so that’s what I was feeling toward African-Americans.
Now, of course, Henick (and perhaps even the unnamed morning show host) would argue we should not completely avoid talking about such important issues as suicide (or bullying, sexual assault and other interconnected concerns raised in the show). He is all for addressing the issues. But perhaps we could consider how to wisely navigate the issues of suicide, bullying and sexual assault as it relates to this popular show. Because that’s just it.
All three issues need to be talked about!
And it’s 13 Reasons Why that’s brought the discussion to the table. It’s now in our homes, in our schools, in our text messages, in our conversations over coffee.
You see, we (at least in the church) don’t talk about such issues – drugs, sex, same-sex relationships, mental health issues, , rape, suicide and more. Or, if we do, we have a history of addressing them in such destructive rather than healthy ways.
Perhaps this is why the church is encountering their own #MeToo moment.
So others are talking about the question of suicide (and further related issues) in our stead.
One other problem with the “don’t-watch” approach is that by telling others not to watch the show will invariably pique young people’s interest to turn on the tube and binge on it. This particularly occurs when we say, “Don’t watch it!,” in an overly reactive manner. This has transpired not a few times in the church. (Yes, I’m aware not everyone is over-reactive, including Henick in his article.)
So, do I think we should have watched 13 Reasons Why (or watch it now with the fresh buzz of Season 2’s release)?
I personally believe it’s ok. Of course, we each need to make a choice. There are many who have watched Game of Thrones, but I personally won’t. I did try the first episode, but there was too much sexually explicit content for my own liking.
13 Reasons Why may not be for everyone. Yet, I think we can guard against proclaiming it as some terribly dark show and, perhaps even more, use it as a tool to learn and discuss. I also don’t think we should hold it up as some great step toward mental health stability for young people. I think it may fall somewhere in the middle.
As Henick himself offers, “Should you choose to watch it, please do so with great caution. If you do watch, know your triggers, know your self-care tools, and know who to talk to if you need help.”
I couldn’t agree more.
But here are my personal thoughts about Season 2.
I don’t think it’s worth watching. If you watched Season 1 in order to gain a little insight into the painful realities of teen and young-person culture, there’s no need to watch Season 2. Not because it’s any darker (though, after watching the first two episodes, I did note a proliferate use of the f-word, as well jumping into sexually explicit content from the start). Rather, don’t watch it because it’s honestly not that great.
My guess is that, in line with much of American television, Season 2 was launched more as a money ploy than about making a great show. We’re all tiring of shows that have outstayed their time – 24, Prison Break, Heroes, Once Upon a Time, and others. (And I predict Stranger Things will do the same.) The impact of each of these shows has been lessened because the producers kept milking it for all that they’re not worth.
Know when to stop. It seems the producers of 13 Reasons Why didn’t know. Let’s just hope the series doesn’t spill over into a third season, lest it goes down in the annals of failed series.
For some solid, well-balanced thoughts from a friend of mine, head over to the Sunday Morning Misfit blog.