209. How to See What “13 Reasons Why” Wants to Show Us

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I spent my weekend holding back tears on multiple occasions and letting them flow on others. On Friday afternoon I had finished watching the controversial Netflix Series 13 Reasons Why. Its brutally honest portrayal of the horrors that people suffer in our sexually dysfunctional culture has been haunting me ever since.

For those who aren’t in the know, the National Association of School Psychologists offers this accurate summary and appropriate warning:

The trending Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on a young adult novel of the same name, … revolves around 17-year-old Hannah Baker, who takes her own life and leaves behind audio recordings for 13 people who she says in some way were part of why she killed herself. Each tape recounts painful events in which one or more of the 13 individuals played a role.

Producers for the show say they hope the series can help those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide. However, the series, which many teenagers are binge watching without adult guidance and support, is raising concerns from suicide prevention experts about the potential risks posed by the sensationalized treatment of youth suicide. The series graphically depicts a suicide death and addresses in wrenching detail a number of difficult topics, such as bullying, rape, drunk driving, and slut shaming. The series also highlights the consequences of teenagers witnessing assaults and bullying (i.e., bystanders) and not taking action to address the situation (e.g., not speaking out against the incident, not telling an adult about the incident).

We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help. Hannah’s parents are also unaware of the events that lead to her suicide death. [See their full statement, including links to resources for those at risk, here.]

I found the graphic nature of several scenes deeply, deeply disturbing – in the same kind of way that I found watching the scourging scene in The Passion of the Christ so deeply disturbing: it is horrifying to see what people suffer. That, I believe, was precisely the point of the filmmakers. They want to put in the light what real people suffer every day in a culture of sexual objectification. This series is sounding an alarm, shouting from the rooftops: “Don’t turn a blind eye! This is what’s really happening!

In one of the final and most poignant scenes of the whole series, Tyler, the school’s deeply disturbed yearbook photographer, hangs photos in his darkroom of the students we have come to know over 13 hours of compelling, artful storytelling. In the background we hear Angel Olsen’s song “Windows” hauntingly asking …

Why can’t you see?

Why can’t you see?

Why can’t you see?

Are you blind?

Are you blind?

Are you blind?

Are you dead already?

After “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38), the second thing Christ says in the Gospel of John is, “Come and see” (Jn 1:39). A more accurate translation is, “Come and become a seer” or “Come and become one who sees.” Christ wants to open our eyes to the real glory of what a human being is and what every human being is destined for – and it’s revealed through the theology of our bodies, through the “great mystery” of human sexuality. But this vision of glory always passes through our willingness to see and, in our own way, share in the true sorrows and sufferings of humanity, which so often come via ignorance of the true meaning of our sexuality and/or failure to live it.

By putting these real horrors in the light, 13 Reasons Why is pleading with us to see our young people in the midst of their pain and questions and search for meaning – to enter into the agony of it; to taste it ourselves. We mustn’t keep the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length, says Pope Francis. We must be willing to touch others’ wounds – if they grant us the honor of doing so – with tenderness. We must be willing to “soil our shoes” and take on “the smell of the sheep,” to go out in to the margins where people feel unloved and rejected.

It’s a grace truly to see and to share in the sufferings of others. It’s a grace we must be willing to pray for, and to accept.

I understand the controversy surrounding this show, and I’m certainly not offering a blanket recommendation for everyone to watch it. What concerns me is that a certain indignation about the sinfulness portrayed in the series may be keeping people from opening their eyes. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to Simon the Pharisee after being scandalized at seeing a “sinful woman” kissing Jesus’ feet: “Simon, do you see this woman?” (Lk 7:44).

Like Christ, this compelling story offers a just indictment of our blindness, and no one is off the hook: friends, classmates, parents, counselors, teachers, school administrators are all called to task for their failures to see Hannah in her pain. I understand why people are protesting the graphic nature of some of the scenes, but I think at least part of the backlash the series is receiving is related to its just indictment of our blindness. Right as the school counselor begins examining his own role in the tragedy, we hear the closing lyrics of the above quoted song …

            What’s so wrong with the light?

            What’s so wrong with the light?

There’s no doubt about it: 13 Reasons Why is disturbingly dark. Still, as Saint John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (10). As Clay, one of Hannah’s closest friends, concludes after a painfully honest look at the events that lead to her suicide: “It has to get better – the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow.”

There it is – the cry for redemption!

For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the HeartWatch the trailer below.

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Image: Netflix.