13 Reasons Why

We Are Having the Wrong Conversation on 13 Reasons Why

If you haven't heard of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why then you can pat yourself on the back for somehow managing to avoid pop culture. That being said it is worth some discussion because of its popularity.

13 Reasons Why is the most discussed and tweeted about show on Netflix and unsurprisingly is one of the most popular shows that teenagers are watching.  

Pro tip for parents:   If you think because you don't have Netflix or good parental controls your teenagers or children can't watch this show let me refer you to this article about  1/3 of the people that watch Netflix don't actually pay for it because of password sharing. Which means if they have access to any device with internet and a friends password they can watch this show or any show for that matter on Netflix.

There has been much ink spilled by parents and therapists about the dangers and the graphic nature of this show. If you haven't seen or heard of the program the basic premise is a teenage girl commits suicide and leaves behinds tapes explaining why she did it. The tapes are tied to her classmates and their behaviors that brought her emotionally to the place where she would make this choice. There is a depiction of sexual assault and suicide in the show and it hits on a lot of other very heavy things that teenagers and adults experience. 

I am not going to encourage you to watch it or not to watch it. What I want you to know is that people are watching it and people are discussing it. People are discussing if the show encourages suicide or discourages it. People are discussing if cases of sexual assault are being adequately addressed in our culture, and there is continued and ongoing discussion about the realities of bullying and high school. What isn't being discussed is the meta-narrative of the show or the common theme that comes up in every context of the show. 

The common theme is one of violence, power, and control. This is the thing that people aren't in uproar about. It is easy to be offended at sensationalized suicide or sexual assault because that is something that for many of us can be kept at arms length. However, when you start to look at the themes of violence, power, and control it throws everything that seems to define our culture into question. People are appalled at the depictions in this show but I feel it serves as a mirror into which many are unwilling to look. 

The teenagers in the story are all competing for social standing in some way. Some validation in their identity and in order to feel validated it comes at the cost of others. The character that committed suicide is even using the tapes and her story as sort of a power play to control and push the characters posthumously in some sort of twisted sense of justice. 

Parent's reel at the loss and lack of control over their own children and wonder what happened. In many cases parents are just completely oblivious or absent. Two side plots develop along side the suicide story that pit a big corporate pharmacy against a local small business and a family who has lost control against a negligent school administration in a lawsuit. The parents of the student who committed suicide are grasping for straws as they try to salvage some meaning from the pain that they are experiencing. The whole series is a train wreck of pain, loss, and unraveling. 

I can't really say anyone SHOULD or SHOULD not watch this. I personally do not find it any more offensive than modern day politics, church politics, lyrics to most popular music, so many things in the news etc. What makes this stand out more is the storytelling and the visuals. It depicts a reality that we all should already be aware of but a reality that gets lost in all the noise. What is interesting to me is that is takes something so strong to get people to discuss these things. I happen to believe it takes something so strong because the show is who we are as a culture. The issues in many ways are so ubiquitous that it takes something to jar us awake.

This is where the conversation takes the wrong turn however. Instead of talking about the larger issues that are looming around us we make it about the TV show. It is easier this way. 

As a student of marriage and family therapy, as a pastor, as a father, and as a broken human being I know and understand the want for power and control. To have others do what I want them to do. To be louder and smarter than the other people in the room. It is what you see played out in politics. Somehow we feel if our side wins then we are in control and it is freedom but a freedom that comes at the expense sometimes of the other 49%. Let's not pretend it isn't about being right. The way our kids hear us talk about the other 49% or the ideas of others or other people in general. The way we caricature people and issues. It begins to create and contribute to this environment that carries into how we respond to one another.  To call 13 Reasons Why irresponsible or over the top I feel requires that we recognize just how over the top and irresponsible everything in general has gotten in our culture. Are there risks to youth watching this ... yes... but the risks are there now. Maybe we just don't see them because they aren't over the top and clamoring for our attention.   

It seems like they’re bored or something. Like the only thing they even have in common anymore is me. Parents always think we don’t pick up on that stuff. Like not only do they not see me, they don’t see me seeing them.
— Hannah Baker, Character from 13 Reasons Why


Maybe we don't see a lot of things. 



The apostle Paul said:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
— Ephesians 6:10-12

I think sometimes we miss some important things in this text and skip to what the armor looks like instead of what we are defending ourselves against. Notice how Paul talks about rulers, authorities, and powers in this dark world. He talks about this because we aren't to be people who seek power and control. Our victories are supposed to be in Christ. In the economy of God there is only one authority.  This is why suicide isn't a good thing. This is why pretty much everything in this show isn't a good thing. It shows us what it looks like when we are trying to win. We find ourselves grasping for things that won't last and are trying to salvage what images we think we have built up for ourselves. When we think this way the most valid response we can come up with is violence too ourselves or to others. 

The conversation in Christian homes should be why are we trying to be in power and have power when we have Christ? What does our identity in Christ look like? When we do mess up ... what is next? 

There were multiple times in this I just thought ... all they need is someone to confess to. They all just need to hear that they are loved and forgiven. We all need to hear that. More than we realize. When we know we are loved and forgiven then we don't feel the need to fight. Instead we find real freedom and are simply free to love and forgive others. 

I think it is time for a slightly different discussion.