I had a Spring Break! It was good!
Over my Spring Break, I had a lot of time to watch television, so I did. Besides One Punch Man, I also watched the second part of The Get Down (it’s like five solid hours of musical!) and the teen drama 13 Reasons Why. I was skeptical of enjoying 13 Reasons Why when I first saw it advertised on Netflix since it’s unapologetically a show about teenagers being teenagers. My day job revolves around interacting with teens, so you would think that I’d take a pass on something that purported to be about the people that I work with.
What convinced me to give 13 Reasons Why a chance was a comment I saw on Twitter saying that the show seemed to have borrowed heavily from the aesthetic of Life is Strange. I loved Life is Strange so much when I first played it a couple years ago (and I’ve been replaying it gradually in these waning months of the school year), so I took this comparison to be good enough to give the show a chance. In the end I found that there are some stylistic similarities between the two stories insofar as they are both about teenagers dealing with the messed up things that teenagers do to one another and they both rely heavily on a curated soundtrack to communicate moods and feelings the characters are experiencing throughout the respective stories. It’s mostly a superficial aesthetic similarity that’s in vogue as a way of signalling to audiences, “This is about teenage feels and stuff!” That isn’t meant to be derogatory though; I dig the aesthetic mightily, particularly in the case of Life is Strange‘s Pacific Northwest flavor.
But I’m trying to discuss 13 Reasons Why, so let’s get into that. For anyone who hasn’t heard of or seen the show, 13 Reasons Why is a series about a group of high school students who are dealing with the fallout of a classmate’s suicide. The girl who commits suicide, Hannah Baker, records a set of tapes addressed to the people who gave her thirteen reasons to kill herself, and she has a friend, Tony, arrange for all of the people on the tapes to listen to them. It’s meant as a way of making the recipients of the tapes, who are all guilty of bullying Hannah in some fashion, understand their own culpability in her death. In actuality, it leads to a lot of chaotic fallout that might have been avoidable with a more measured approach to seeking justice for Hannah. While I’d argue that Hannah is the true protagonist of the series, the character whose perspective we follow is Clay Jensen, a boy who was friends with and had a romantic interest in Hannah. Inasmuch as this is Hannah’s story about how she was driven to suicide, it’s also Clay’s story about how he learns to believe the women he knows when they tell him something is wrong.
There are plenty of points for criticizing 13 Reasons Why for centering a white boy in a story that’s so heavily invested in exploring the effects of bullying and sexual assault in a high school setting. I think the end effect could have been much stronger if instead of following Clay’s epiphany in the wake of Hannah’s death, we had instead focused on the character of Jessica, a Black-white biracial girl who has many similar experiences to Hannah but who responds in a markedly different way. Unfortunately, this was not the decision that the author of the original novel or the creators of the show made, so we have to live with what’s given us. For what it’s worth, when you account for the problematic elements inherent in a male-centered story about how girls are treated, 13 Reasons Why does about as much right in being sensitive to the issues it’s addressing as it possibly can. Given that the book’s author, Jay Asher, is a white guy, it’s fair to recognize that his own experience likely limits his ability to tell an effective story about someone with a significantly different background. The fact that the town where the story takes place is apparently a diversity utopia with a multitude of skin colors and sexual orientations but no significantly divergent cultural identities (except for Justin, all of the kids read as upper middle class, and beyond Tony’s occasional Spanish and nods to his family’s Catholicism, everyone appears highly assimilated into white suburban culture) gives testament to this limitation.
Setting aside the intersectional criticisms, one aspect of this show that I found particularly fascinating was the depiction of the high school. The adults who are in charge of Liberty High strike me as some really incompetent educators (what guidance counselor hears a kid complain about being pantsed in the hallway and dismisses it because he had to deal with gun violence at his previous school?); as a high school teacher who works with high school teachers, I can attest to the fact that we’re generally not a clueless lot that have no clue what’s going on with our students. Everyone who works in education is generally paranoid about missing signals that any given student needs help, so we try to be as attentive as possible. It’s a regular conversation with students not to joke about suicidal ideation or bullying because that stuff is serious business. These jokers on 13 Reasons Why are an embarrassment to the profession.
Having said all of that, I can offer this in the way of recommendation for 13 Reasons Why: if you’re a white guy who has an interest in learning some feminism 101 concepts, you could do worse than watching this series and paying attention to how Clay develops over the course of the show. By its end, he at least has learned a lot about how he could have been better support for Hannah. With everyone else, I’m not so sure.