By Martha Rose Saunders
CN: Bullying, suicide, sexism,
slut-shaming, sexual assault, rape
Adolescent girlhood, bullying and sexual assault are dirty, ugly and poorly understood. When I saw Netflix were making 13 Reasons Why, I desperately hoped it would finally be something that reflected this.
I’d read the novel when I was a teenager and it had resonated deeply. I was bullied and alone, like Hannah, and spending a lot of time thinking about suicide, like Hannah. Unlike Hannah, I didn’t end up going through with it, but that period has left deep wounds in my psyche which are still painful to probe. I badly wanted 13 Reasons Why to be the show so many girls needed it to be – something honest and raw, which socially outcast girls could see themselves and their experiences reflected in. I was disappointed again.
Most criticisms of this show have stated that bullying alone doesn’t cause suicide, or focussed on Hannah’s reaction being selfish or unrepresentative. But this is untrue; whilst the absence of mental health dialogue is a lost opportunity, bullying is, in itself, a major direct cause of suicide. I also agree that Hannah’s actions were unrealistic – but discussing this is unproductive and inconsequential. The suicide and the tapes are fictional plot devices to explore Hannah’s world. It is instead the way the writers create this world, and the characters within it, which lets down teenage girls and removes the opportunity for much needed conversations about their mental wellbeing.
Hannah is high-school perfect. She’s beautiful, clever, and confident – wearing the right clothes, exchanging flirty witticisms with the school jock, invited to all the parties. She’s only a slightly more sophisticated version of the ‘nerds’ in films like John Tucker Must Die or Mean Girls, whose inexplicable low social status is attributed to little more than a pair of fake plastic glasses or slightly less makeup on their otherwise perfect, A-Lister faces.
“As an autistic girl who was ‘weird’ in school and genuinely struggled with the rituals of adolescence, it stings to watch Hannah navigate it all with ease.”
I’m not naive enough to suggest girls like her never get bullied, especially sexually. But 13 Reasons Why is constantly invoking the language of the outcast, the loner, the ‘weirdo’. The girl who doesn’t fit in. As an autistic girl who was always verifiably ‘weird’ and ‘different’ in school and genuinely struggled with the rituals of adolescence, it stings to watch Hannah navigate it all with ease. It reminds every ‘weird’, bullied girl that the most socially unacceptable girl a writer would dare to put onscreen is still a thousand leagues out of our reach.
13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from condemning more conventionally accepted femininity too, though. The narrative constantly distances Hannah from the cheerleaders who are misogynistically disparaged at every opportunity. ‘A cheerleader? I thought you were better than that,’ sneers Sky when Clay takes Sheri for a hot chocolate. Hannah can barely keep the disdain from her voice when she reminds Jessica ‘and then you became a cheerleader,’ as though this was a betrayal in itself. Moreover, Jessica and Sheri, the two main cheerleaders, are black women – whose bodies are already more sexualised and rarely afforded agency; this makes the repeated contrasting with Hannah’s pale, naive ‘purity’ particularly jarring.
The show does give vague lip-service to the problems of victim-blaming, but this is overshadowed by the repeated message that Hannah’s youthful innocence is what makes what happened to her unacceptable. We’re upset by the upskirt shot and sex rumours shared by Justin Foley, because of Hannah’s sweet voice describing nostalgically how it was actually just her first kiss. We’re outraged by the photo of her kissing Courtney because it was actually just a dare that happened on an innocent sleepover – both girls sitting cross-legged on the bed in pale cotton bras and giggling like children.
Whilst many girls’ names appeared on the list, it’s Hannah’s ‘Best Ass’ we’re unsettled by because we know that nobody has actually touched that ass before. It’s crucial to the message of the show, and part of the power of the devastating scene where Bryce shatters her pure image with his assault: Hannah did nothing ‘wrong’. But what if she had? Would we have so much sympathy if Hannah, like most real girls who have been sexually bullied or assaulted, actually had been fingered by Justin, had been bisexual, had actually hooked up with lots of guys? If she’d been a cheerleader, got wasted, got high?
This question is partially answered when Jessica and Hannah are raped by the same man; in contrast to Hannah’s ability to command her narrative even after her death, cheerleader Jessica (who we’ve seen previously turned on, lustful, almost begging for sex as well as drunk and high) doesn’t even know about her rape herself and spins out of control, grasping offscreen to deal with a trauma she can’t even place. Hannah’s decision not to prevent the rape or even tell Jessica about it, only to expose it publicly as the collateral damage of her own story instead of a life-altering trauma in itself, is ironically one of the most unforgivable actions in the show. But it’s never acknowledged as such, further confirming Jessica’s disposability and lack of agency. This disdain for less ‘pure’ girls is littered throughout the show; whilst furious at those who slut-shame Hannah, Clay openly ogles the girl named ‘Best Lips’ on the list in the library as she carefully puts on her lipgloss in the mirror – a gesture undoubtedly meant to separate her from Hannah’s natural wholesomeness.
This thinly veiled misogyny is perhaps inevitable, considering the show’s storytelling is the male gaze made literal. Hannah’s story unfolds through the eyes of the impressively dull Clay. Clay is a bit nerdy and socially awkward, Hannah is beautiful and cool and he reckons she’d never go out with him even though he’s a Nice Guy, so he’s just mean and judgemental about her sexual choices instead. So far, so latently misogynistic. But Hannah’s death gives Clay’s gaze an unprecedented control over our experience of her. Even the flashbacks to when Hannah was alive are told through Clay. The soft fuzzy lens of his infatuation and the way he defines her against his disapproval of other girls is described succinctly in a particularly cliché scene where Clay discusses Hannah with fellow nerd Tyler, who also claims to be ‘in love’ with her. After confirming our suspicions with those tired word ‘girls like that don’t go for guys like us,’ Tyler describes how ‘other girls pose when you put the camera on them… Hannah was just there.’
The show does generally deal well with the harm of bantering jock sexism, but the sympathetic stance in this scene reflects it’s problem with more insidious forms – the ways less obviously sexually aggressive boys still consume girls. Because this is ultimately a show about consuming girls; consuming girls’ bodies, consuming girls’ beauty, consuming girls’ narratives, and consuming girls’ tragedy. The quiet entitlement of Tyler and Clay to watching and fantasising over Hannah’s body. Clay’s sense of ownership over Hannah and her story – he listens at his leisure and repeatedly blatantly disregards her wishes. His ‘revenge’ is enacted more on other men who dared to fancy Hannah than the people who committed the worst crimes. Zach, who made arguably the smallest mistake but dared to ask Hannah out, receives the most of Clay’s aggression. He assumes control of her narrative, his reactions to her flashbacks dominating the screen time and overwriting her own, his obsession with her beauty and innocence replacing any sense of an actual personality in the glimpses of her we see in his memory.
“Hannah’s character is prevented from ever developing a convincing identity free of Clay’s gaze”
The other men may have seen her as a slut, but this airy manic-pixie-dream-girl nothingness that Tyler and Clay’s memories evoke is the other side of the same sexist coin. Clay reacts viciously when Hannah briefly pushes against the charming, not-like-the-other-girls trope she inhabits in his mind by fancying a jock, slut-shaming her. He doesn’t want her to exist in three dimensions any more than the men who reduce her to ‘Best Ass In Class’ do. This entitlement, romanticisation and possession that certain boys feel towards socially outcast, mentally ill or otherwise slightly unconventional girls will be achingly familiar to many lost girls who have thought they found much-needed solace and friendship with a kind, quiet boy, only to have it cruelly revoked when they demonstrated agency or genuine complexity. In 13 Reasons Why, it means Hannah’s character is literally prevented from ever developing a convincing identity free of Clay’s gaze. In real life, it means vulnerable girls attempt to shrink themselves to occupy the impossibly tiny spaces in which men will still accept them.
But there are some things 13 Reasons Why gets right. It attributes a level of lasting trauma and severity to slut-shaming and objectification and links it directly to sexual assault, which is extremely positive and rarely seen. Even with the off dynamics of the bullying and the wasted opportunity for discussion of mental health, the image of a single world completely collapsed by a series of seemingly small and insignificant actions is compelling. I remember standing in pastoral offices in my school many times struggling to vocalise what exactly was happening, realising that each isolated incident I described seemed pathetic, but lacking the ability to articulate the bigger story. 13 Reasons Why goes some way to disentangling the complex webs that govern teenagers’ social lives and showing how devastating those cumulative small incidents can be.
The cast is diverse with a range of ethnicities, sexualities and family backgrounds represented in an organic way which mostly avoids harmful stereotypes. But this mostly just serves to highlight the blandness of the central characters’ narrative, with suggestions of vibrant, under-represented backstories frustratingly pushed aside in favour of watching the tedious Clay have another slightly tense breakfast with his equally uninteresting nuclear family unit. I’d like to see a show which focussed more on Jessica’s narrative about her own rape and the earth-shattering way it was publicly revealed. Or how Justin’s impoverished childhood watching a series of men abuse his mother impacted his dependence on wealthy, perfect, but equally abusive Bryce. Or how ingrained high school homophobia made Courtney prefer to lose a friend and see her harassed than have anyone suspect she fancied girls, and how, to the confusion of the profoundly basic Clay, her fear was made even more acute by the hatred she witnessed growing up with gay dads. These tiny universes that our main narrative brushes against give an otherwise painfully bland show a suggestion of diverse realism, but barely scrape the surface and leave you unsatisfied.
“It becomes the story of a dead girl told through a dull boy”
13 Reasons Why was clearly written to make its topics as accessible and easy to swallow as possible. It is written for people with no experience of the issues it grapples with, failing to represent a complex reality. This produces Hannah Baker; a compound girl, constructed for palatability over texture and realness.
My main feeling finishing the show was just sadness. Teenage girls’ inner worlds are rarely taken seriously, and this show presented as a rare opportunity to explore those worlds in all their messy intricacy; to give a voice to a genuinely weird or unattractive girls, to explore the fraught dynamics of female friendship and sexuality, to flesh out the empty high school stereotypes of frigid geeks and slutty air-headed cheerleaders. This was a chance to present teenage girls as dynamic, alive, multifaceted and unashamedly real. Instead, by trying to appeal to a wider audience, 13 Reasons Why falls victim to the very misogyny it’s trying to warn against. It becomes the story of a dead girl told through a dull boy, whose crush reduces her to a pretty blank slate.
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