As I’m writing this, I’m literally shook. SO.MANY EMOTIONS. I just finished 13 Reasons Why (a show that’s on Netflix) and my mind is racing. I honestly think that it’s the most important show on TV right now and it’s sheer depth and breadth had me flawed- where has this show been all this time?!
Centred around teenager Hannah Baker’s suicide, 13 Reasons Why tells the story of her demise through a series of tapes she left to explain what led her to her decision. The series is beautifully executed, never gratuitous and constantly triggering- but the story covers so much more than just teenage suicide. Here are 13 ways the series covered other important issues, and warning: there are MANY spoilers ahead and this post is VERY long hehe!
Violence, sexual assault and objectification represent the biggest issues for the female characters in 13 Reasons, however I felt rape needed it’s own bullet point as it resonated with me the most. Both Hannah and Jessica are raped by Bryce at parties- If you’ve watched Beyond the Reasons, you will have heard Creator Brian Yorkey talk about the fact that the rape scene shots lingered on the victim’s faces to make the audience feel uncomfortable. The scenes were powerful, sickening and stressful to see, but essential in highlighting an ordeal that so many women go through. The importance in addressing the shame of being a victim of rape was so key- the confidence it takes to not only speak up and tell people what happened takes great courage, and to be faced with the perpetrator in school as a young person can understandably seem too much to bear.
Bullying takes so many forms, but with the growth of social media and the powerful role it plays in young people’s lives, it’s ugly side is evident. For a teenager now, the school dynamic doesn’t end when the bell rings. Their friends can text them directly, their bullies can harass them anonymously, they can falsify their lives or their feelings. Bullying becomes more intimate, more concentrated and ultimately more damaging. It’s important to note that the characters who predominantly use modern technology are the most disconnected and damaged- Justin constantly looks to his friends for help when he has trouble at home by texting and calling and Zach is able to see his distress but is able to ignore him from afar. In contrast Tony has a soft spot for cassette tapes which Hannah ends up using, of course.
It’s super vital that we don’t forget the parents when it comes to 13 Reasons. I noticed so many things about them in the series so I’m going to try and condense it! The first thing I noticed was that every young person had a completely different home life. Clay had supportive, affluent parents. Hannah had supportive parents who were struggling with their failing business. Justin’s mother was an addict who prioritised her turbulent relationship while Alex had a real disconnect with his police officer father, referring to him as ‘Sir’. This made for complex and realistic dynamics, from Hannah’s struggles to try and please or not let her parents down, to Alex’s speeding to get attention from his dad. At so many points I found myself squealing “Just tell your parents how you feel!” at the screen but at the end of the day, when you’re a teenager you don’t. You constantly think they’ll never quite understand, or that maybe they’ll make it worse, or that it’s not worth it- but it really is- I’ve learnt going into my 20s that their unconditional love is like no other.
Can we just talk about Tony for a minute please? His friendship and duty knows no bounds and the audience welcomes the reprieve of his supportive friendship and his dedication towards keeping Hannah’s wishes is to be commended. Even when he goes against her to let her parents know the true story behind her death, he is only doing it to help others.
- DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Violence although often seen predominantly between the male characters in the school environment, becomes most triggering in the domestic forms. Justin’s mother’s boyfriend is seen acting violently towards him, at one point choking him against a wall before throwing him out and making him homeless. More often than not, the people who are abused end up being the abusers themselves, with Justin seen pushing Jessica and dragging her off in one scene. Note that Alex’s dad is a stoic and hard man, only seen praising his son when he finds out he got into a bloody fight at school- now that’s messed up.
- SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Known as a sign of wider problems in a person’s life, substance abuse is interwoven perfectly into 13 Reasons. Seen first through Justin’s alcoholic mother who he has to look out for, we then see his girlfriend Jessica slowly start relying on alcohol to cope with her underlying depression after being raped at a party (by Justin then Bryce). This might be the English Lit student in me, but I felt like bottles were so significant throughout the series- from Clay’s initial acceptance into the boy’s friendship group after he downs a bottle, to Jessica stealing vodka from Justin’s mum’s stash, to the former finally pouring all her alcohol down the sink as a symbol she was ready to vocalise her unhappiness.
When you’re a teenager, friendship is literally everything. I remember being about 13 and writing a list of friends to make sure I had a substantial amount. They’re the people you look up to, are influenced by and they can sometimes even shape you. The series represents three types of friends- the artificial ones purely for show, the intense, short period friendships and the solid, supportive friendships. The first is represented by the basketball boys- take Justin and Zach’s relationship for instance. Paper-thin, no support and little communication. The second friendship is seen time and time by Hannah, who trusts a number of girls far too easily- especially Courtney and Jessica. The third friendship is a rare one, displayed by Tony towards Clay, who is constantly there for him- a Jiminy Cricket if you like.
I really admired the approach towards sexuality in 13 Reasons, on so many levels. I feel like sometimes we like to assume that it’s 2017 and that it’s all good to just come out and tell friends and family you’re gay- like there is instant acceptance. The show challenged those thoughts and took you through the difficulties of Courtney, who had two openly gay fathers but didn’t want to make their lives harder by coming out, or get judged herself for her sexuality- she even goes to the lengths of spreading a rumour about her and Hannah having a threesome in order to throw her classmates off the scent. I also loved the scene when Tony tells Clay he’s gay- even though we’ve seen Tony’s boyfriend the elusive Brad a number of times, I really enjoyed the nonchalance of the conversation and the fact that Clay was oblivious- it’s all about not defining someone’s being by their sexuality. They are who they are.
- THE SILENT WITNESS
I’ve always been told that if you’re witnessing something awful and not telling anyone, it’s just as bad as doing that awful thing yourself. While I think it’s a little extreme, it does speak to the idea behind 13 Reasons Why. Clay irritated me a lot in the first five or six episodes, purely because I felt he had SO many opportunities to speak up for Hannah, or defend her physically, yet he didn’t. I soon came to the realisation that he just didn’t realise the severity- and he certainly redeems himself. From the named classmates on the tapes bandying together to stay quiet about Hannah’s ordeal, to the school seemingly unwilling to investigate Baker’s death, the show highlighted that it isn’t what you say, it’s what you don’t say that causes the biggest impact.
- THE DEATH OF THE SMALL BUSINESS
A smaller theme, but an important one nonetheless I feel. Hannah’s parents’ small pharmacy-come-convenience store is struggling to survive under the pressure of a superstore opening nearby, with competitive prices sending their customers elsewhere. Their money issues not only put Hannah under more strain and worry, but it emphasises the impact of capitalism and I couldn’t help but find the symbolism (if you’ll humour my English Lit brain again!)- the large, conglomerate stores were like the basketball boys- empty, soulless shells while the small, convenience stores represented individual, special gems like Hannah and Clay- deeper with more emotions. Unique souls that might not shout the loudest.
Obviously the saddest thing about Hannah’s death is that it was very preventable. When Mr Davis tells Clay there’s nothing they could have done to stop her going what she did, it’s Clay who stops him in his tracks and makes him think when he says ” we could have tried”. None of the young people ever look to their school teachers or parents for advice and guidance, they’re just on their own with themselves to guide each other blindly. Hannah needed someone to tell her that the sadness she felt wouldn’t last, and she’d have so many amazing things to come- it made me feel so desperate for those who feel as alone as that.
From episode one, the show is a blame game. You’re instantly sucked in with the whole “who dunn’it?”, who was responsible for this suicide? Taking responsibility is a constant struggle for some characters in the show, and for others it takes time to develop. Remorse is most notably shown by Alex, who constantly tries to get the basketball boys to see the part they’ve played- his eventual guilt and own unhappiness in life sadly leads to his own suicide at the end of the series. I found that Hannah found it really easy to pass ownership of her sadness onto a number of the characters in the beginning (which was merited) , but became more honest and more accepting of her own faults towards the end. Clay is the most significant when it comes to accountability- he is constantly in search of his role in Hannah’s death and even though she never accuses him, he is still convinced he’s accountable and takes measures to avenge.
- YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN SOMEONE’S LIFE
When Clay first said this line, I was like YASSSSS! This phrase is something my mum has always taught me, and it’s something that’s made me value the importance of empathy. Everyone acts a certain way for a reason, and even if someone isn’t treating you the way you deserve, there’s more often than not something going on with them. It’s all about stopping that impulse to instantly judge, and attempting to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s a powerful thing.
And so ends my extremely long post on 13 Reasons Why! It’s had me thinking so many things and I just wanna give you a little clap if you’ve gotten through this all!!
What were your thoughts on the issues they raised?