If you have a teenager in your house you have probably heard whispers or rumblings about the Spring show on Netflix that has captured the attention of high school students, parents, schools, & psychologists across the country. It is based on the book of the same name, chronicling the days after a girl killed herself after a litany of abuses she underwent from her classmates & others she trusted. This is a tragic enough story - a young girl felt she had no other option but to take her own life because of the pain afflicted on her by others. This is where they show begins...
But the rest of the series details a "gift" she leaves for the 13 people who were at the center of her decision to commit suicide - tapes that explains the "why" to those who were complicit in the abuse - either from bullying, rape, or simply doing nothing when it became clear she was having problems.
The TV show is graphic - both in its portrayal of rape and suicide. The show is vulgar in its dialogue. The show in some sense portrays many of the realities and struggles that high school students face - often because of bullying and abuse by their peers. In many ways the show opens up dialogue about things that often do not get discussed. Suicide is unfortunately all to common among young people - many have followed through on it - many more have considered it or attempted it. Because of this reality many believe that "13 Reasons Why" is the right show to begin an important dialogue at the right time with students & parents alike.
But I think the show is dangerous & the dialogue it begins might lead to answers & conclusion that are counter intuitive to the problem of teen suicide in our culture and provide no lasting hope for those who feel they have no other option but to kill themselves. There are two great reviews of the show by Christian commentators - Russell D Moore writes on on his blog; so does the Gospel Coalition.
My own teenage daughter came home asking about the show that her peers were talking about. My wife watched the entire show with her - spending time talking about themes, concerns, & problems with the content and portrayal. I watched two episodes myself. My concerns about the show are this.
1) It appears suicide is being used as an attempt at Revenge to those who have wronged the main character. Through the tape, she is getting justice, as each persons listens to it, comes to grips with their role in her death. In a sense, this could make suicide more palatable to some - people are causing pain, the pain won't stop, so I will inflict pain on them from the grave. She kills them emotionally. I feel this will actually lead to more suicide not less.
2) It makes the main character look like a martyr: she is fighting a larger evil than suicide - bullying. Her death leads to a greater good so to speak. This is why I think so many think this show is a good conversation starter on this subject. But it appears that essentially - the main character becomes the bull after she takes her own life - bullying her classmates & peers with accusations of guilt (some real, some may not be). The bullied becomes the bullier.
3) It makes suicide seem like the best answer to the problem. Was suicide & the subsequent tapes the only way to reconcile what has happened to this girl? Does it make anything better? Well for the girl - we get to see this alternate reality - almost as if her life carries on in a "galaxy far far away". But lets be honest - the girl is dead. She is not going to haunt anyone. She gets no second chance when her friends realize they are complicit role in all this. There is no second time line she goes on living with joy - she is gone. All the appearances we see of her can make us forget that she is no longer alive. The main character feels justified in both her actions to take her life and to leave the tape - but she never gets to see their response to all this, she is never vindicated - all this leave is more unresolved pain upon pain.
4) There is no hope presented. Once the students all feel guilty - once they all listen to the tape - once the parents burry their daughter - then what. No resolution is offered. No hope is presented. No answer to the problem of guilt, suffering, pain, abuse, or depression. In a lot of ways, great questions may be raised but he audience is left to figure out what the answers to those questions are. Even if everyone in the show recognizes their guilt - then what.
I don't recommend the show. But I do know that there will certainly be some curiosity from both parents and teens alike - Even my own daughter said the show was so real to her own high school experience. A few suggestions for you if you are already allowing your teen to watch the show or thinking about it. a) this show is not for those under the age of 16. we live in a culture where we always assume our children are more mature than everyone else and even if a movie says PG-13 our 6 year old can handle it - we often let our kids grow up too soon by exposing them to things they are not ready to see or hear in their youthfulness. there are far more productive ways to talk about bullying, abuse, sexuality, and suicide with your teen than this show. it is graphic and vulgar and will not help in most cases. b) if you are going to allow your older teen to watch the show - watch every episode with them - at the end of each episode talk about what you saw, heard or felt. Direct your teen to issues of morality and holiness. Ask how the gospel speaks to what is mentioned in the show . Explain how the gospel provides hope for the guilty, sick, abused and depressed. Talk about how the lead characters actions are simply instilling more pain - on her peers, parents, or strangers. c) ask your teens to be honest with you about things they experience - bullying, abuse or other forms of pain. tell them you are ready to listen and to understand - that you are there to help and that suicide does not help anything but only compounds the pain on those left behind.
Finally - remind your children that all sins - including bullying, abuse, sexual, and even suicide - remind us of our guilt before God and that only hope for anyone is the precious blood of Jesus shed on the cross - he took our guilt and paid for it completely so that even our darkest past sins can be atoned for. Remind them that Jesus (and the church) is an "oasis of faith, hope and love in a world of doubt, despair and hatred." To be people that extend grace to others - even those who have hurt them - showing the love and forgiveness of Christ to their peers.