As many anticipate a release date for the second season of hit Netflix drama “13 Reasons Why,” one conservative Christian organization is lobbying for Netflix to pull it from production altogether.
The American Family Association (AFA), founded in 1977, has stated goals of “restrain[ing] evil by exposing the world of darkness” and “motivat[ing] people to take a stand on cultural and moral issues” by sending out mobilizing emails, promoting boycotts, and lobbying. While the organization typically associates with conservative politicians and causes, it says its opposition to “13 Reasons Why” is decidedly non-partisan.
The Netflix original show, based on a 2007 novel of the same name by Jay Asher, tells the story of a high school student Hannah Baker’s suicide, revolving around thirteen recordings the girl left behind for her peers, explaining how they were implicated in why she took her life.
The show was a runaway hit, ultimately becoming Twitter’s most-talked-about show of 2017. Critical reception was mixed, with a number of high-profile mental health professionals and organizations expressing serious reservations about the show’s depiction of Hannah’s suicide as “inevitable” and the potential for the show to spur “copycat behavior and self-harm among vulnerable students.”
For “13 Reasons Why” editor Nic Sheff, who says he once struggled with suicidal thoughts himself, the series’ frank dealing with issues of bullying and depression among teens can serve as an opportunity to start important conversations with young people about mental health. So too, he told Vanity Fair, can the show’s graphic depiction of suicide help shatter “the myth and mystique” of ending one’s life, revealing the “ultimate reality” of the act’s “horror.”
“Facing these issues head-on—talking about them, being open about them—will always be our best defense against losing another life,” Sheff said.
The AFA, however, expressed its concern that the show “glamorizes” suicide. Rebecca Davis, editor of AFA news arm The Stand, says she became convinced the show was harmful for teens when she received a letter from the family of Anna Bright, a 14-year-old who committed suicide two weeks after binge-watching “13 Reasons Why.” Bright’s family, in an interview for AFA, noted that police investigating the scene told them that Anna appeared to have staged her suicide based off the show.
“To portray suicide, first of all, as an option, is not a good thing,” said Anna’s mother, Patrice Bright. “To portray it graphically, where you can actually see and get that image in your head—it leaves you vulnerable to the enemy’s attack, which I think it definitely did for our daughter.”
Joseph Bright, Anna’s father, added, “I really feel in my heart, in all my soul, that that show contributed to her passing.”
While there is no one unified Christian stance on suicide, many self-designated “pro-family” conservative Christian organizations—including Focus on the Family, with whom AFA has partnered—understand suicide as a “sin”—perhaps an “unforgivable” one. Patrice Bright, who identifies as a Christian, said she believes that the portrayal of suicide on television locks in images that “the Devil can use at any point in time when we’re at our most vulnerable.”
Other religious organizations have expressed similar concerns to AFA’s. Muslim blogger Afrah Mansour argued that a 19 percent spike in Google searches about suicide in the two weeks after the show’s release indicates that “13 Reasons Why” romanticizes suicide and, indeed, makes suicide seem like a more tangible option for young people struggling with depression.
Some faith groups, on the other hand, have encouraged parents and teachers to engage with young people about “13 Reasons Why,” using the show’s popularity as an opportunity to check in with them about their mental health and their relationships at school. Betsy Stone and Michelle Shapiro Abraham wrote for ReformJudaism.org that parents can reinforce their child’s decision not to watch the show as a “good, healthy choice,” but can also engage the questions raised by the show if their child does choose to watch it.
“Like biblical stories we prefer not to read or talk about, 13 Reasons Why forces us to confront the reality of difficult things in our world and invites us to have much needed conversations about how to deal with them,” Stone and Abraham wrote. “Let’s use this as an opportunity to support our teens by opening the conversation.”
The AFA’s campaign against “13 Reasons Why” includes a petition asking Netflix to remove the first season of the show from its site and to cancel its second season. The petition currently has over 50,000 signatures. Netflix has not responded to AFA’s outreach to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings asking for a meeting to discuss their concerns about the show.
“13 Reasons Why” is rated TV-MA, a rating that suggests a program’s content “may be unsuitable for children under 17.” Last month, a year after the first season’s release, Netflix added a warning video that will play before each season of “13 Reasons Why,” with actors from the show suggesting that young people struggling with issues of “tough, real world issues” like “sexual assault, substance abuse, and suicide” may want to ask a trusted adult to watch the show with them, or avoid watching the show altogether.
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: 13 Reasons Why Logo. Photo by Thagner Mateus, from Wikimedia Commons.