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culture pop culture Theology

A Last Word About “13 Reasons Why”

Since registering my deep concerns with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I’ve been pleased to see more thoughts from others, like Russell Moore and Trevin Wax. Non-Christian therapy and counseling professionals are likewise alarmed, and apparently there’s been enough of a backlash that Netflix has pledged to put more “trigger warnings” into the show. I think the worried response to the series is completely justified, and while it’s probably not realistic to expect Netflix to take more drastic action toward what is undoubtedly a popular and profit-driving product, I don’t think you can spend too much time talking about the dangers of such an empathetic story about a teenage suicide.

I want to say one more word about the show, and more to the point, about why so much fuss is warranted about a stupid television program. For a lot of Christians, a movie or TV show’s worthiness is measured simply in terms of number of cuss words spoken or presence/frequency of sex scenes. If a film or program is loaded with blue language, it’s a bad film or program. If it depicts sexuality, it’s a bad program (I think there’s a nuanced case to make for this, but I digress). If the violence is bloody, it’s a bad program. This is the way most evangelicals, in my experience, consume pop culture: they grind it to its constituent parts and then the parts get evaluated on a scale. If the scale tips over, we’re not consuming it.

I don’t think this is the best and most helpful way to engage art, and, interestingly, “13 Reasons” is an excellent example why. Now, a lot of parents who watch an episode or two of the show will immediately call it out of bounds. The language is explicit and harsh, and there are sexual themes and scenes. I have no issue with disqualifying a show based on those grounds, especially a show clearly marketed to teenagers. No problem then, right?

Hold on. The problem with tackling “13 Reasons” on this kind of level is that this is not the biggest problem with the show. The biggest problem with the show is not the words characters use (some may reason their children hear such harsh language in real life school) or the hookups they have (those can be fast forwarded, after all). The biggest problem with the show is that it is art that shapes its audience at a subconscious level to feel understanding and empathy with taking one’s own life. The power of art is not usually in its constituent elements, but in its whole. Teens who watch “13 Reasons Why” may come away without using those words or hopping into bed with someone, but they may still come away with a grossly distorted view of what suicide is and what happens in its wake. And you can’t mute or fast forward past this.

This is why it’s important to understanding what art is and why it affects us. Art, to use James K.A. Smith’s terminology, is a “pedagogy of desire,” a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation. Movies and TV shows engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.

This means that the art we consume not only can be an instrument of personal and social transformation, but that it simply is, even if the transformation does not seem immediately practical.

“13 Reasons Why” is a jarring reminder to us as evangelical Christians that misunderstanding the power of art–approaching it shallowly, comprehending it incompletely, and talking about it reductively–is a serious mistake. It’s a mistake because our stories shape us above and beyond the level of bad words and bad scenes. If evangelicals don’t try to understand culture on a deeper level, we will allow ourselves to be shaped by stories without even knowing it, and those stories may be PG-rated, but still spiritually destructive.

Regardless where you draw your boundaries, make the effort to engage culture at a deeper level. Ask what story is being told, why is it being told, to whom is it being told, and how is it being told. Probe movies, television, books, and other pop culture artifacts for their meaning, because it is meaning that molds us deeper than the things we can skip with a remote.

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culture pop culture

Sympathy and Suicide

Netflix’s newest original miniseries, 13 Reasons Why, is compelling TV. It’s well-acted and hauntingly written. But while watching it, something bothered me, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. I fear that 13 Reasons Why might be the latest example of how Hollywood hitmakers tend, even unwittingly, to romanticize suicide.

The show is focused on the suicide of high-schooler Hannah. Shaken by her death, her friends and classmates discover that Hannah had recorded 13 audio tapes, discussing various people and incidents that drove her to kill herself. Each episode of the series centers on a the revelations of a particular tape; as the series progresses, secrets of Hannah’s classmates are exposed, and the series ends on a sober note of justice as many classmates and even some school administrators are implicated in Hannah’s death.

Critics have almost universally praised 13 Reasons Why for its intelligent script and mature narrative. It is indeed a well-produced series, and the writers and actors deserve credit for handling such a brutal story with a measure of dignity and hope. But therein lies my concern. While it’s true that teenage bullying, depression and suicide are stories we need to be telling, I fear that 13 Reasons Why may tell a story that, even unwittingly, valorizes a teen’s death.

Hannah is clearly a smart girl. Her quick wit and observational skills clearly outpace most of her peers, especially the boys. The recordings she leaves behind are likewise clever and incisive. Without giving away too much of the plot, let me briefly explain that Hannah’s tapes serve as a crucial instrument of her revenge, a revenge that exposes criminal activity at her school and culminates in a lawsuit. By the end of the series, Hannah, though driven, as we see in flashbacks, to despair by the cruelty of her world, has achieved something very much like a vindication. Her tapes win; her bullies lose.

Poetic justice? Yes. But at what cost? Does Hannah’s posthumous vindication make her decision to kill herself more tragic, or less so?

We need to remind ourselves that art moves us first at a level beyond rational thought, ultimately because art is not about information but about desire. I have no doubt that 13 Reasons Why will be an emotionally compelling experience for many, especially teens. And that is troubles me. It unnerves me to think of a teen, caught in a cycle of abuse and neglect like Hannah, watching this story unfold and desiring the self-sacrificing heroism that they see. While 13 Reasons is engrossing story, it’s also not real life. Suicide is not heroic. Killing oneself is not a strategy for revenge. It is a monumental act of selfishness. Hannah’s friends process her death and her tapes exactly how she expected them to. The empathy that she didn’t feel in life she receives in death.

That’s a fairy tale. And it’s a fairy tale that might have lethal consequences for people struggling to value their life.

Death is not a friend. It’s not a vehicle for your self-actualization. Suicide will not give you a front row seat to watch as your friends and family understand you and love you for the first time. But that’s what happens for Hannah. The filmmakers behind 13 Reasons Why know that Hannah’s death is tragic. They do not rejoice in it. But unfortunately, by giving Hannah a godlike intelligence and an ephemeral sort of control over the unfolding events after her death, the makers of 13 Reasons have told a profoundly wrong and morally confused story. It’s a story that poses a unique threat to audiences who may be considering Hannah’s path, simply to feel the love shown to her.

Because life is immeasurably precious, displaying its worth is immeasurably precarious. The power of stories is their ability to shape our intuitions, our loves, our expectations of the world. Trying to help despairing friends see the value in their life requires more than telling a story of someone like them. It requires sifting through beguiling myths and being honest about our enemy Death. I’m afraid 13 Reasons Why makes this harder, not easier.

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books Christianity culture movies

You Get What You Pay For

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

Categories
culture life movies pop culture

I Miss Blockbuster

I miss Blockbuster.

Hopefully you know what I’m talking about: The video rental megachain that for years was the first place you’d check if you wanted to watch a movie on a slow Friday night. Not long ago a movie was either playing in the cinema, renting out at Blockbuster, or was (for the moment anyway) unwatchable. For years, Blockbuster was the only way to watch a particular movie at home without shelling out for the full cost of the video/DVD (remember when that distinction was a HUGE deal?). If you wanted to watch a movie you didn’t have, you went to Blockbuster.

Oh sure, Blockbuster had competition, in the same way that Wal-Mart has “competition.” Its rival stores would boast either more selection, better pricing, or longer rental times. It didn’t matter, really. Blockbuster was a cultural fixture, an institution as much as a company. If you were renting a movie, you “went to the Blockbuster,” even if technically the words on the building said something else– just like most of the country asks for a Coke even when they just mean soda.

I remember the Blockbuster on Bardstown Road, just 2 minutes from the house I grew up in here in Louisville. I remember Dad and I walking inside trying to find new movies that looked interesting but that we had missed in theaters. I remember the manager of that store mainly because he was a younger looking man who stayed at that same Blockbuster for over 8 years (even as our Blockbuster runs became more sporadic over the years, the manager remained familiar to us, and eventually I just asked him). Eight years at a Blockbuster?

Nowadays, the wooden rows of new hits and old favorites have been replaced by invisible “My List” queues on Netflix and pixelated “Stream Now” buttons on iTunes and Amazon. Blockbuster went out of business a few years ago, squeezed between the emerging technology of instant streaming and the $0 overhead of Redbox. Of course, that’s how business and history go. Instant streaming is too convenient to fire up the car for a Blockbuster run. Redbox is too cheap to justify a 4 dollar, 4 night rental, that required a second trip back to the store. Innovation and technology booted the old ways. That’s how things go.

But there is something to lament here. There is something to lament about the end of a ritual, one that required actually going and being somewhere. To rent a movie once meant going to a store, and seeing other people, possibly someone you knew. It once meant actually leaving the house and seeing people and things and places that reminded you that you weren’t the only person in your city that wanted to watch a movie–or maybe even that particular movie–that night.

Do you think it’s possible we’ve lost that in the Netflix Age? I think so. It seems every cultural recreation has been reduced to its most basic mechanics. “Watching a movie” becomes “streaming a movie,” and in that vocabularly shift we have the loss of things like video stores and the people inside them. “Listening to music” becomes “downloading music” and in that we see the disappearance of things like record stores, and the people inside of those. You see what has happened? Technology has freed us from hassle and expense mainly by freeing us from others.

Maybe that’s why I got nostalgic for Blockbuster. You see, with Netflix, there’s no Bardstown Road store, with a manager of 8 years who probably has some interesting stories. With Spotify, there’s no “Book and Music Exchange,” where I might see that one album from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about but that the mere sight of has brought me back to a particular time in my life. All of that has now been replaced with something called a “Search” form, a one way road to getting exactly what I want without having to deal with anything that might pull my attention elsewhere.

I miss Blockbuster. Of course, if I have a hankering for a kind of Blockbuster experience, I have options. A local “family video” store offers less stock for less price. And of course there’s always Redbox, where a little self-discipline and memory can give me and Emily a $1 movie night. I’m not hurting for choices, and I’m not complaining. I suppose I’m just remembering a ritual from years gone by, a ritual that probably seemed inconvenient and expensive and crowded at the time. Now, it just seems fun.