Warning: Spoilers and sensitive topics (rape and suicide) ahead.
Last week I finished watching 13 Reasons Why (I want to read the book it was based on, but I have to order it from England, so waiting on that). Overall I thought it was a great series, which was surprising. I expected to be annoyed by it. After all, it seems most people are annoyed with it. But I was impressed with the things it brought up in a straightforward, unapologetic way. What really surprises and annoys me though, is the way that so many people seemed to miss these blatant, obvious social conversations.
The Show Is Not About Suicide
Maybe I am missing something here, but to me it feels like the rest of the world is. It seems like everyone is discussing the suicide aspect of the show- whether it should have been shown, whether it promotes suicide, whether it is considered pornography of revenge (which is different than revenge porn)… but the suicide is not the main discussion of the show. It is the vehicle- the catalyst- for the main discussion. That’s right- the suicide, which the show seems to be about- is not the primary conflict.
The show is about bullying, the toxic culture in high school, and very specifically- male sexual entitlement. The suicide is a method to expose and examine these issues, not the issue itself. And yet, almost all of the critiques of the show I have read focus solely on suicide and whether or not it should be shown on television (Is netflix considered television?).
I have to ask why people aren’t discussing the rapes in the show. Why they are not discussing sexual assault. Why they are not discussing the ways that “good guys” are funneled into a culture that objectifies and discredits women. It seems, like always, it is far easier to judge the girl’s actions and critique a female as “overreacting” rather than actually take a hard look at a culture of masculinity that demands boys humiliate girls to prove themselves. This is just mind boggling, because the show seems to point out this very effect and yet, when critiquing the show, we fall into the same trap.
She Was Mentally Ill Is Not An Excuse
I posted about this on facebook the other day, but I’ll say it again here. Was Hannah suffering from depression and/or PTSD? Most likely. Who would not suffer from one of these after all of the terrible things that happen to her? But people seem to want to point out that “only mentally ill people kill themselves,” and focus on the fact that she was mentally ill. This allows them to take the blame off of the social aspects of the show and put it onto the character- her suicide was caused by her own internal failings, not the situations around her. Bullshit.
Some mental illnesses are not lifelong internal, chemical issues. Some are reactions to specific environmental factors. So yes, let’s talk about getting mental help for rape survivors or for other people who suffer trauma, but we also need to look at the causes of these mental illnesses- the clear social causes- and come up with ideas to create a culture where the initial traumatizing event would not occur in the first place.
Think of it as washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Our social actions can have repercussions on the mental health of those around us. Mental health is not a 100% internal, genetic, set-in-stone-from-birth thing.
Having a Male Protagonist Is an Interesting Choice
I understand the reasons for having a male protagonist. The author of the book was a male and has a male perspective. But it creates an interesting dynamic. I read several articles where they praise 13 Reasons Why for going beyond the tired dead-girl as a catalyst trope. They say that the series gives a voice and agency to the dead girl. In a way it does. But let’s not forget that the real protagonist is still Clay. He is the one who is still alive and actually has agency. Any agency that Hannah has through her tapes is actually through a male- Tony- enforcing her wishes. The fact that a gay male is a female’s pathway to agency is not lost on me.
The series shows, over and over, that males are the gatekeepers of reality and whether something is considered worthwhile. The scene where Jessica’s rape is finally recognized as real is especially poignant. Jessica is the sole woman in a group of maybe ten boys. It is only when a boy recognizes the rape that anyone else takes it seriously. And even in that moment, no one cares about Jessica or her reactions (because she is “overreacting”), they only care about the boy who broke the boy-code.
Because Clay is the love-interest and never did anything wrong, we are supposed to accept him as Hannah’s champion. But I think it is really important to question what would have happened if Hannah’s champion had been a girl. Or had been herself. We saw what happened in the final episode when Hannah tried to champion herself. No one listened. The system was set up to ignore her suffering- to discount it as inconsequential. It is only a male’s suffering (Clay’s reaction to her suffering) that is taken seriously.
It Really Makes Me Think About the Conversations Teens Are Ready to Have
Through all of this, there is the underlying debate of how much teens can handle. Whether teens can watch a show about suicide and rape. Whether a show like this does more harm than good. There is the idea that teens will copy it.
Let me say this- teens are not stupid, and they are not protected. They don’t get these ideas from movies and shows. It is something that is so deeply embedded in our culture that they are already living it. I started cutting when I was in 6th grade. I’m fairly certain I had never seen a show that romanced cutting before that. I was lucky, my high school was fairly tame. But there was still sex and drugs and blurry lines of sexual consent.
But I have worked with junior high and high school students who were going through issues like this. And they need the vocabulary to talk about it. Otherwise, things will never change.