Warning: Spoilers for Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why.
Trigger warning: Discussion of sexual assault and suicide.
Despite focusing part of my masters in young adult literature, I never read Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about other than the involvement of high school and death. Before the Netflix series came out, however, I became more acquainted with the work. I came in knowing the general premise: Hannah Baker (played in the show by Katherine Langford) sends her peers tapes documenting how they contributed to her suicide.
This premise made me uncomfortable from the beginning. I tried going into the show with an open mind, but I dislike the idea of a story that’s about getting revenge through suicide. Especially a story that’s meant for young adults. I think that it can very easily become at least problematic, and, at worst, damaging. As I watched the show, my apprehensions and suspicions were confirmed.
13 Reasons Why deals heavily in damaging tropes. While characters may say things like “it gets better,” the show is unable to escape from superficial examination of suicide and sexual assault. YA literature tends to have a hard time dealing with depression and suicide, and, although some manage to deal with these issues in a thoughtful way, books often fall into one of two categories: suicide glorification/romanticization or a novel-length PSA. The show manages to do both, with the latter being all of the final episode of the season. The task of making a show that teenagers can relate to that deals with suicide is a big, complicated undertaking, and the series showed that the people involved do not have the finesse to pull off such a project.
The show made it clear that it did not understand suicide when it used an attempt as a cheap plot device to make a cliff-hanger for a possible second season. 13 Reasons Why dealt with this in an inadequate and disappointing way. For a show that praises itself for dealing with the issue of suicide, it certainly seemed like Alex’s attempt was nothing more than the writers attempting to squeeze a second season out of a show that was already about three episodes too long. Even the inclusion of this plot was sloppy, as it was only mentioned at the end of two episodes: first, to build suspense and make the audience wonder which of the several characters who had access to a gun made the attempt, and to set up for a possible second season.
Hannah often comes across as a manic pixie dream girl. She is imagined from Clay’s perspective, so she’s idealized. To Clay, she was quirky and pretty and relatable, and, for whatever reason, she liked him. There are some instances where Hannah becomes more real, but, for most of the show, she is only a general characterization of the quirky, sarcastic sad girl, free from nuance or original character design. It is hinted that Hannah is not a reliable narrator and she is often accused of being dramatic during flashbacks (despite being portrayed as fairly reserved), but Clay refuses to acknowledge this, so the show also refuses to acknowledge it. As a result, Hannah becomes beautifully tragic to Clay: too good for high school and him. He preserves and improves her memory and allows her tapes to rewrite his reality: accepting that he has done a horrible thing even with no evidence to suggest he has. This could have been an interesting subplot and development for Clay’s character, but it was simply never addressed. Questioning Hannah did not have to include invalidating her struggle or implying that her suicide was simply “for attention” as the other characters occasionally claimed, which is my only guess as to why it was never mentioned. Still, the audience has to wonder if the show-runners were even aware of Hannah’s falseness or if they simply chose to not address it.
I will give the show credit that it genuinely tries to flesh out its other characters. Bryce is the only character who is made out to be entirely an asshole that the audience should have no sympathy for. I’ll accept that a single character has no redeeming qualities. However, I dislike how the show portrayed Clay. For most of the show, the characters insist that they can’t judge them until he listens to his own tape. He stresses about this, particularly when another character tells him that he is directly responsible for Hannah’s death, but then, when he hears his own tape, it is nothing like the others. The tape consists of Hannah praising him for “not being like other boys” and examining her own complicated issues with entering into a consensual sexual relationship after dealing with sexual harassment. Like many other things in the show, the lead-up was a cheap ploy that lead to a disappointing ending. There was no reason in the reality of the series for the characters to accuse him of hypocrisy when he did not contribute to Hannah’s torment. Additionally, Clay’s treatment of Tyler was something that should have been dealt with and examined during the course of the show.
The creators of this show spoke at length in the Netflix special interview about their process in dealing with the sexual harassment and assault that Hannah, Courtney, and Jessica face. However, these interviews and the show leave out one very important character: Tyler. The show condemns Tyler for his actions (as it should), but praises Clay for doing the same to Tyler. Tyler mentions being pantsed in the hallway and bathroom at a few more points during the show, but this is never examined in any significant way. Even the rest of the teenagers on the tapes, who have banded together with this as the common factor, ostracize him from their group. This culminates in a very cliche ending and another attempt to set up for a second season with Tyler revealing to the audience that he is collecting weapons and ammunition and has a hit-list of the others on Hannah’s tapes (with the exception of Alex, who half-heartedly defended him once in the hallway).
Tyler’s gender is, of course, significant in examining his subplot. He started out as a peeping tom, and, since he was weird, the others responded to his invasion of Hannah’s privacy by throwing rocks at his window as per Hannah’s instructions (though nothing was done to Bryce even though he raped both Hannah and Jessica). It’s also the only additional punishment Hannah gives a character other than the guilt of knowing they were a reason why she was driven to suicide. Clay, rather than follow Hannah’s instructions, begins to go rogue. However, instead of deviating from the cycle of emotional torment, he escalates the situation by taking nude photos of Tyler and distributing them around school.
Clay examines his own prejudices instilled in him by rape culture in other points in the show without ever addressing this incident. Perhaps this is a plot that was intended to be “saved” for season two, but the problem with a show like this is that the show cannot and should not wait that long to address major issues. It’s both lazy and leads to more problems. It was disappointing that the show could not acknowledge that a character was sexually harassed by the show’s protagonist and later assaulted as a result. After Tyler’s tape, the show compares Tyler and Clay rather than comparing Tyler and Hannah. This unwillingness to acknowledge victims based on their gender is entrenched in rape culture. Netflix is an extremely popular platform, and the show was clearly taking a stance against rape culture, but this particular subplot was at the very least a missed opportunity to start a discussion. What it actually is, however, is a denial of male victims of sexual assault and harassment.
The show put a lot of thought into their portrayal of rape. Although I think this can be triggering for some viewers, it felt more graphic than it actually was. The focus on the victim rather than the act was uncomfortable but necessary. This draws the audience in. A horrible act is happening, but it is one step removed, as it is for Hannah when she disassociates. The audience cannot escape from seeing Hannah just as Hannah, in that moment, cannot escape her situation.
However, including the suicide was exactly the wrong move. I am a firm believer that YA literature and media should not shy away from topics that young adults deal with. Still, including her suicide was overly graphic, harmful, and unnecessary. The only thing the show gets right is that suicides impact loved ones more than the victim knows. It is so much more impactful to see Mr. Porter face Clay’s description of Hannah’s suicide or Hannah’s mother finding her body than it is actually seeing Hannah do this. Unlike in the above example, rather than focus on the effects, it focuses far too much on the act itself. For viewers struggling with suicidal thoughts, this is a particularly damaging scene.
13 Reasons Why already justifies Hannah’s suicide (as much as this act can be justified) by having her revenge succeed. Hannah is present for at least half of the show. This is where the plot becomes problematic. The characters talk about Hannah being gone, but, for the audience, she isn’t. In chronological order, Hannah doesn’t get to see the others regret how they treated her or change their thinking. She’s just gone. However, through flashbacks and dream sequences, she is always present and able to interact with the events as they happen (even if she is just a memory). The show can’t pick a perspective. It would have worked if it focused on Clay’s experiences with Hannah’s death or Hannah’s experiences with depression and rape culture. This simply isn’t a situation where “both” is an option. Hannah must be completely gone to sympathize with Clay, and Clay and the others must not understand what Hannah is really dealing with to sympathize with Hannah.
As it stands, by trying to include too much, the show fails to do much of anything. The show lulls from episode 6 to about episode 10, but that is the least of its problems. Ultimately, by never letting Hannah go and keeping (mostly) the same plot as the book, Hannah is able to exact revenge on her tormentors. This makes a problem to which her suicide was a solution. That is a horrible message to have, regardless of audience.