Having just finished watching Thirteen Reasons Why, (I know, it’s taken me long enough) I thought it was about time I joined the debate. Hannah’s story is basically an allegory for the reasons a person might have to end their life, bringing to a point small things that to an outside eye might seem insignificant. In terms of reception, the show seems to have facilitated the emergence of two very clear sides, it’s messages proving to be fiercely divisive. In some cases, people have noticed a pretty chasmic gap between intent and affect, while in others people are feeling immense gratitude towards the shows creators for contributing to an important conversation.
For one thing, suicide aside, this show has taken representation seriously, avoiding the popular TV narrative of ‘the token minority’- chuck in a stereotypically flamboyant homosexual, a few ethnic minorities wearing their ethnicity like a ‘we’re inclusive’ badge, and call it progressive. LGBTQ+ characters in this show are portrayed without any song and dance being made about their sexuality- Tony is inconspicuously but proudly gay, and Courtney’s gay dad’s are just her parents. Race and sexuality is not a last minute garnish to force a direction of characterisation that just doesn’t make sense, but are part of these characters at their essence while not being their defining feature. This goes for the depiction of teen life as well- these teenagers are three dimensional, multi-faceted characters, not easy archetypes that fit into the boxes previous television writers might have confined them to.
The overarching message of the show is that we need to be more aware of our influence on other people- we need to be kinder to others. Are we really so far gone as a society that we need a TV show to tell us to be nicer to people? Both the content of the show and it’s reception have presented a pretty bleak view of humanity, but it’s important for popular media to provoke a degree of self-realisation in it’s consumers. Thirteen Reasons Why encourages viewers to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that they are not perfect, and that they have the potential to do real damage to someone- a truth that there is no harm in remembering.
Another positive would be the shows commentary on teenage misogyny- highlighting the normalised high school behaviour and exploring it’s effects and nuances. Things that are initially dismissed as ‘no big deal’ in the show, just as they would be in real life, are then shown to have lasting power over a person, again, just as they do in real life. It starts to take seriously what popular culture never does, the inner workings and feelings of sexualised teenage girls. If one 17 year old boy watches this show and thinks twice before sending a girls shirtless picture to a mate, or stops before judging a girl on the basis of her promiscuity, then the show has succeeded on some level.
Whilst the condemnation of this everyday sexism is great, the shows version of feminism is half hearted. I mean, surely we are past the “I’m not like other girls” feminist directive? Apparently not. Hannah is repeatedly distanced from more conventionally accepted definitions of femininity, even angry at Jessica for becoming a cheerleader, suggesting that this might have been the source of their problems. Clay can’t even take Cheri, a cheerleader (god forbid), for hot chocolate without getting sneered at by Sky. Even the exposé on slut shaming starts positive until you realise that we feel bad for Hannah because she didn’t actually do any of the things she is being shamed for- she actually is innocent, so the rumours are unjust. What if she actually had done the things Justin suggests? Would that have made it any less unfair? In a more serious turn, it’s uncomfortable that Jessica’s rape is only revealed to her in terms of Hannah’s suicide. They are raped by the same man, yet Hannah is able to take agency and expose it on her terms, presenting what happened to Jessica as just another reason she killed herself- having not been able to prevent it, or tell her friend. Because Jessica is sexually active, even promiscuous, does it give her any less of a right to ownership over her own trauma?
Suicide is scarily presented as a kind of resolution, as a means to an end, as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good- a harmful rhetoric that is simply untrue. Hannah does not get resolution for her suffering, the audience does. I think it all lies in Clays response to “You can’t love someone back to life.” – “You can try.” It’s upsettingly simplistic- you definitely can’t love someone back to life. Suicide is permanent, and this cold reality is often forgotten with Hannah’s continuous presence in the show. In the fictional universe Thirteen Reasons Why has created, Hannah can live on and achieve some kind of resolution through her tapes, when in reality, her story would have been much more final.
The idea of blame, a fragile concept anyway, is also weirdly approached-Tony tells Clay he killed Hannah baker and Clay says “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her.” Hannah says in her tape to Clay that when he kissed her she saw the potential for her life to be happy again, feeding into a pretty warped narrative that romantic love and companionship is something to depend on. Clays entire tape, and perhaps even the the tapes as a whole, perpetuates the idea that people are the reasons for a persons mental illness. Yes, everyone needs a support system, but I can’t buy into the fact that by being her boyfriend Clay could have saved Hannah’s life. It makes mental illness too one dimensional and fickle, and completely incompatible with real life issues of mental health, not to mention feeds into the idea that a girl can’t be single and happy.
The directness is something a lot of people have had a problem with. I’m all for artistic integrity and it undoubtedly takes artistic courage to portray things as awful as rape and suicide with such a heartbreaking degree of transparency, but viewers have called the necessity of the explicit representation into question. Is it helpful for viewers to see such horrors with their own eyes? In some ways, no, it’s verging on gratuitous. But in other ways, it does exactly what the fictional character of Hannah Baker wanted- it makes the struggle of those who have been through the same thing seem even more real, and more accessible to those of us lucky enough to have never felt that way.
So yes, the show has divided opinion, but division is important- it highlights the significance of the conversation and what it means to people. We always talk about the redemptive potential of art, and that’s what you’ve got to consider watching this show. Despite the fact that it has clearly caused upset, and is by no means faultless, it has added necessary fuel to an important conversation about the relationship between teenage depression, high school dynamics and suicide. If the show gets people talking about this kind of stuff, surely it is a victory for mental health, shedding light on the taboo and the uncomfortable. It is so hard to watch- perhaps that’s a good thing and perhaps it’s too much, but it’s definitely got people talking, and I can’t see how that is a bad thing.