A Few Reasons Why 13 Reasons Why Should Have Dug a Little Deeper Into Some Serious Issues

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Includes major spoilers for the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

“It has to get better,” says Clay Jensen in the final episode of 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel of the same name. “The way we treat each other and look out for each other… It has to get better somehow.”

That’s a bit vague for a moral of a series about a teenage girl’s experiences with bullying, sexual assault, and eventual suicide. Sure, too specific a resolution and you risk coming across as dismissive or condescending towards complex social issues. But while it’s true that there are no easy answers, the questions themselves are harder than this series dares to think, despite its good intentions.

13 Reasons Why takes place in two timelines. In the present, Hannah Baker has recently committed suicide and Clay Jensen finds himself in possession of 13 tapes she recorded explaining the reasons why she did what she did. The second timeline is a representation of the past, as narrated by Hannah through her tapes. The tapes show Clay and the audience how a boy, Justin, surreptitiously takes an up-the-dress photo of Hannah that he then sent around to everyone in school. They explain how the boys groped her and ogled her while the girls used and rejected her. They show how another boy used his camera to stalk her outside her own bedroom window. Even sweet Clay, who pines after her from day one, makes a cutting comment about it “being better to wait sometimes” when he gets the photo from Justin. Worst of all, Hannah is the silent witness to a rape not long before being raped herself. When Hannah goes to the guidance counselor for help, he fails to take heed of the many red flags she waves under his nose, and Hannah, feeling truly alone, takes her own life.

Clearly there’s a lot to unpack here. And there’s even more when you take into account the diversity of the extended main cast and the characters’ varied sexual orientations. 13 Reasons Why is aware that teenagers come in many different packages, and it is also aware of privilege, misogyny, and rape culture. But it recognizes these issues at only a surface level, and therein lies the problem which takes the show from understandably flawed to frustratingly misguided.

Take the rapist. Conveniently enough, there’s just the one: Bryce, the rich kid slash star athlete who attacks Hannah’s former-friend Jessica, and later forces himself on Hannah. He’s so cartoonishly evil and such an obvious villain that it’s hard to believe the show doesn’t bother to subvert your expectations.

On the one hand, there are plenty of real-life adult men like Bryce—let alone real-life teenage boys—and they still have a horrifyingly easy time getting away with sexual assault. But on the other hand, if you want to make a show about the kinds of violence we don’t acknowledge in our society, why not make Justin one of the rapists? Why not get into the nitty gritty of a boy raping his girlfriend when she’s drunk, traumatizing her, and genuinely not understanding what he’s done wrong because he doesn’t understand how consent works? Why does Justin, who literally allows Bryce to rape his passed-out girlfriend, get to be so cleanly redeemed?

There are some areas where the show tries not to let its characters off so easy, particularly Clay. Clay apologizes to Hannah for his slut-shaming comment, admitting that he was angry and jealous and shouldn’t have said it. But shouldn’t we talk about why Clay’s gut reaction was to lash out at Hannah when, if she had wanted to hook up with him, he wouldn’t have been so concerned with “waiting”? Being jealous and upset when your crush doesn’t notice you is one thing, but he didn’t come up with those cruel words in a vacuum. Clay didn’t just say something rude or callous in a moment of emotional rawness; his reaction was molded and shaped by his culturally curated ideas of what girls should do with their bodies and when and with whom. It’s great that he apologizes and that his love scene with Hannah demonstrates enthusiastic consent, but it’s disingenuous to skate over the ancient power structures that dictate the forms teenage torture can take.

This may seem a bit nitpicky, but after most critics have pointed out how drawn out this series was, how it lagged in the middle, it’s hard not to wish they’d use some of that time to explore more about human nature, going further than “kids should be nicer to each other.” It doesn’t even get into mental illness more than Hannah’s mother making a throwaway comment that she didn’t realize Hannah was depressed, which is maddening considering this is a show about teenage suicide. Of course, not every person who commits suicide experiences mental illness, but at least statistically speaking some of Hannah’s classmates surely do. At best the series puts the issue of mental illness aside, but at worst it suggests that being nice to someone will cure their depression. Surely it will take more than Clay’s show of friendship at the end to help Skye with her self-harm issues?

The most troubling example of the slippery slope of simplicity on 13 Reasons Why is Tyler Down, the boy who stalked Hannah and took intimate pictures of her without her knowledge or consent. Tyler is also subjected to violent bullying himself. Towards the end of the series, we see that he has a number of guns and ammunition hidden under the false bottom of a trunk, implying that he may be planning some kind of mass murder. If the whole point of the show is “we need to treat each other better,” are we meant to conclude that the victims of school shootings are responsible for creating their murderers?

I don’t think the showrunners are making such a statement purposefully, but I do think they wanted to humble viewers without asking them to think too hard. Tyler felt he was entitled to Hannah’s body, so much so that he thought nothing of asking her out when she confronted him about taking pictures of her. Isn’t it true that toxic masculinity has a little something to do both with how Tyler bullied Hannah and how he was bullied himself? Or is that a conversation for season two?

There are a lot of things that 13 Reasons Why does very well. It is excellently cast and beautifully directed. I particularly appreciated how the show explored how far we still have to go in order to help LGBTQIA kids feel comfortable about coming out, how Hannah’s character had agency despite being dead the entire time, and how pointed that consensual almost-sex scene felt.

But when you make a better series you earn the honor of being held to higher standards, and the showrunners make no bones about their own lofty goals in the half hour epilogue where the cast and creative team speak to the issues. They wanted to take their audience seriously enough (whether or not that choice was warranted deserves its own essay) to show the rapes and suicide in all their grisly horror, but they didn’t take themselves seriously enough to look at the bigger picture. iPhones didn’t invent bigotry, they just made it easier to see and weaponize. There have always been so very many reasons why, so many that counting them rather misses the point.

(image: Netflix)

Chelsea Ennen holds a master’s in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture from King’s College London. Her writing has appeared on The Female Gaze, The Tempest, and HelloGiggles and she is a book critic for Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. She is the Entertainment Editor at The Tempest, and the Fiction Editor at the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. Follow her on Twitter (@ChelseaEnnen) for updates on her creative work and inane pop culture commentary.

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