First, because I am in no way recommending the new Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why. From beginning to end, the show is saturated in sin, stark and unrelenting—incessant swearing, physical violence, sexual assault, drug use, alcohol abuse, stalking, voyeurism, pornography, bullying, sexual experimentation, rape, verbal abuse of the vilest variety, and a graphic depiction of suicide. “Trigger warnings” don’t do the show justice. Please do not misconstrue my writing about this show as a recommendation for anyone—adult or child—to watch.
Second, because the subject of this show is painfully personal to me. My best friend growing up and next-door-neighbor for several years killed himself when we were 16. I say “killed himself” here because verbs like “took” or “ended” his life soften the blow in ways that do not do justice to the deed. There may be other places where I would write or speak with softer language, but not here, not when I want to warn about a show that depicts suicide in a destructive manner.
Teenage suicide is not a statistic to me. It isn’t something that happened to an acquaintance once upon a time. I never joined in the superficial outpouring of grief for a “fallen classmate” the way some of the students do in 13 Reasons Why. The emotions I feel after 20 years are still profound. My friend’s decision snatched me out of the innocence of childhood and set me face-to-face with the dragon of death in all its ferociousness.
Why write about 13 Reasons Why then? Because several readers asked me to address it, and my middle-school son had friends who were talking about it at school and church. As a writer and a pastor, I feel compelled to step into this space and to issue the strongest warning I can muster about this series. There is a reason why New Zealand has banned anyone younger than 18 from watching the show without a parent, and why Canadian schools are banning students from even discussing the show.
13 Reasons Why is deceptive and destructive.
A Story Arc Toward Suicide
To be fair, it is clear that the people who made this series wanted to convince teenage viewers that actions have consequences, that bullying can hurt others and lead to despair. The show wants people to take certain sins seriously: the objectification of young women, the invasion of privacy, sexual assault and the temptation to cover it up, as well as failing to believe the victim of rape. In order to heighten the seriousness of these sins, 13 Reasons Why shocks the viewer with its gruesome display of high school depravity, and the many forms of guilt and shame that arise in a social media-saturated, sexual revolution-fueled society. When the show delves occasionally into sermonizing, it becomes clear that the writers want young viewers to treat others with respect.
But it is also clear, at least to me and to a growing number of psychologists and mental health experts, that 13 Reasons Why will lead to more suicide, not less. Already, we are hearing warnings from various experts on teen suicide, and we are likely to see a rash of suicide attempts throughout the country.
I am not surprised. 13 Reasons Why is a hopeless show whose story arc climaxes with suicide. Viewers who resonate with the main character, Hannah, will imagine their own journey as moving inexorably to the grave, enticed by a fantasy of revenge against those who’ve disappointed them. In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.
I cannot overstate how destructive this message is.
I cannot overstate how enticing it will be for those who are bullied to imagine a scenario in which they can turn the tables and emotionally destroy their classmates.
Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates. It is not only about physical suicide, but also about emotional murder. Hannah’s revenge has a deadening effect on everyone left behind, even those who, while morally reprehensible, are hardly guilty for her ultimate action.
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that suicide is “the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” I’ve always believed that Chesterton’s remark on suicide is unfair and exaggerated, since most suicides come at the end of significant mental anguish and unrelenting despair, not as a rebellious decision to refuse to see the good in the world.
But after watching 13 Reasons Why, I see Chesterton’s point, because this particular suicide is indeed a “wiping out” of the people who caused her pain. He was wrong to generalize all suicide in this way, but 13 Reasons Why is also wrong to give the impression that teen suicide is driven by a revenge fantasy. It is rare that the emotional desire for revenge drives suicidal thoughts, and to portray suicide in this way is deceptive and dangerous.
Suicide in a Toxic Culture of Shame
Furthermore, despite the show’s intent to raise awareness of how bullying may affect students, many of the self-destructive choices that set the course for this culture of despair are never questioned. It’s as if the show’s producers think we can have all the perceived benefits of the sexual revolution (which blesses any kind of consensual sexual activity) without this leading to the objectification of women. Or as if we can have drugs and alcohol as a mainstay of the teenage years without creating the atmosphere for car accidents, beatings, and rape to flourish in the drunken darkness.
And what about the young girls in our society who have made bad choices on social media or with their friends, whose regrets are at least in part due to their own sinful choices? What do you do when the bullies and haters are, in part, right about the reputation of the girl they mock? Are the guilty girls not worthy of love? Megan Basham writes:
Throughout, the story takes pains to emphasize that Hannah’s reputation as the school slut is wholly manufactured. But what if it wasn’t? What if, as a lonely, hurting girl, she’d actually done some of the things that sully her reputation? Would her suicide be less tragic? Would she be less deserving of . . . love and friendship? By consistently underlining Hannah’s virginity and victimhood, 13 Reasons Why seems to suggest she would.
A Godless World
The outlook of 13 Reasons Why is bleak, even with its moralizing tone. Viewers find nothing transcendent. Nothing outside this present world. No appeal to what is true, good, and beautiful, but merely “my truth” or “your truth” in terms of convenience.
God receives a single mention, and the Catholic Church is described with swearing. Beyond this, there is no beyond. There is only this world. There is only the immediate horizon. No one wrestles with heaven or hell—not even the pale secularized hope of “being in a better place.” The world of 13 Reasons Why is utterly godless, from start to finish, which is why it is also hopeless.
None of the students can find a place for their sins to be atoned for, even though the confession of sin and the desire for relief from guilt comes into view again and again.
- On the passing around of explicit photos, “we are all guilty,” Hannah says. “We all look.”
- On the supposed decency of the “good kids,” Clay says, “maybe there are no good kids.”
- On regret for doing wrong and trying to avoid the consequences, “Someone has to know what we did.”
The teens in 13 Reasons Why are plagued by guilt, and not just because of one girl’s suicide, but also because of the toxicity of a culture that ignores injustice and buries shame under layers of self-preservation. Guilt turns into internal bleeding that pools underneath the skin, with no release until several of the main characters make decisions that lead to literal bloodshed. The wages of sin is death.
13 Reasons Why compounds a problem it is trying to fix, perhaps because it has no eternal solution to offer. For those who have entertained thoughts of suicide or who have friends who know the darkness of this despair, hope remains. But it will not be found on Netflix.
The Church’s Challenge
The challenge for Christians is to take a good look at the message we promote and the culture we create.
Will we be faithful to provide a countervailing message—that our sins are indeed real and that we are indeed guilty, but also that Christ is precious and that his blood was shed so that his life can be ours?
Will the church be an oasis of faith, hope, and love in a world of doubt, despair, and hatred?
In an increasingly judgmental world of social media abuse and bullying, can the church be the place where grace is extended?
Grace—that crazy, powerful, table-turning undeserved favor from God that wins the battle against guilt and shame. Grace, greater than all our sin, even suicide.
Because of grace, there is always hope.