There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.
In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.
Boycotts build bestsellers.
And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.
So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.
The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.
Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.
At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.
The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)
At other points, however, the show is badly broken.
And not just for moral reasons.
ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED
With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.
Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”
“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.
The assessment is fairly simple:
- Athletes are dumb and despicable.
- Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
- And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.
While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.
The real problem, though, runs deeper.
While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.
In the view of Trevin Wax (here):
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.
For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.
Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.
To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.
In Wax’s even harsher judgment:
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.
And I’d add: her parents.
While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?
And that’s a dangerous depiction.
THE OTHER HANNAHS
If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.
And we must.
The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.
Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”
Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.
As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.
“I was bullied terribly.”
“I was raped in high school.”
“I thought no one would believe me.”
Or worse yet: “No one did.”
Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.
For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.
They are the ones who deserve an audience.
And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.