Spoiler and Trigger Warning: This post contains spoilers for the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. It also discusses suicide, rape, sexual assault and mental health issues.
I watch a lot of television. Marathoning a new show is one of my favourite things to do. I always find a show with characters I relate to and storylines that move me emotionally will draw me in without a doubt. But nothing could prepare me for 13 Reasons Why.
I am sure you have all heard of this show by now but for the few that are still somehow oblivious, here is a brief synopsis. 13 Reasons Why is a new Netflix series which is based on the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. It focuses on the aftermath of the suicide of a girl named Hannah Baker. Hannah leaves behind 13 tapes explaining the reasons that led to her taking her own life. There are 13 tapes for 13 people. The story is mainly shown from the perspective of Clay Jensen, a boy who had a crush on Hannah and the subject of one of the tapes. I am not great at summarising but there is a trailer here which explains better.
13 Reasons Why is such a fantastic feminist show that I actually have very few criticisms. It shows the prominence of rape culture and the struggles facing teenage girls today. For those who don’t know, the definition of rape culture is “a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse”. A lot of people do not even realise that rape culture exists because the majority of the time it is extremely subtle. 13 Reasons Why provides an excellent demonstration of what rape culture is. They show how the “smaller” incidents, such as comparing girls physical attributes and spreading sexual rumours to taint a girls reputation can be damaging. It also has two very graphic rape scenes which although extremely uncomfortable to watch were excellently executed to show the traumatic nature of the attacks.
Clay is an excellent character with a terrific story arc. He starts the show as “the nice guy” who is unaware of how he subtly participates in rape culture; judging Hannah for the sexual rumours that have spread around the school. Through listening to the tape, he becomes Hannah’s advocate and the only person willing to fight the schools double standards. He is every person who has had a feminist awakening. His scene with Mr Porter, the school counsellor, in the final episode is poignant and moving. When Porter tells Clay “You can’t love someone back to life”, Clay replies “You can try”. It made me sob uncontrollably. Clay cemented himself as my favourite male character in any tv show by the end of the series.
Hannah, oh Hannah. Hannah’s arc is so incredibly tragic and haunting. When Hannah first appears she is bright, funny and happy. Throughout the series, she transforms into a shy, unsure and insecure girl after several incidents including both witnessing and being subjected to a sexual assault. When she asked for help, she was failed by the person whose job was to protect her. When she confides in Mr Porter about being raped by an older boy, he reacts terribly, essentially both slut shaming Hannah and also telling her to “let it go”.
The supporting characters’ are so complex and thought provoking; Alex, Justin and Jessica in particular. Having two characters who identify as gay without it defining them is progressive and the show should receive high praise for this and also for the line “Clay, you do know I’m gay right?” (Tony for the win!).
Many people have criticised the show for glamourising suicide, the graphic scenes of sexual assault and showing Hannah’s suicide in full. I would assume that these criticisms come from people who have not seen the show. Hannah’s suicide is in no way romanticised; she dies alone in a very painful way. Following this, we see Hannah’s devastated parents finding her body in the bathtub. There is no possible way someone could watch these traumatic scenes and think there was anything romantic or glamorous about it.
The critics have misunderstood the reasons behind the show. Although the show deals with suicide and sexual assault, it is not designed for survivors. It is designed for those people who are oblivious to rape culture. It is for those people who see themselves in the 13 people on the tapes. It is to show people in general, that your actions have consequences. And it is also for the same people to show them not one person or one action is responsible for someone else’s actions (Well except one in Hannah’s case, Bryce was a piece of shit). It was Hannah’s choice and no-one else. There is no blame but each and every person featured on Hannah’s tape (with the exception of one) is responsible for a part of Hannah’s journey to that decision.
A mental health society has recently criticised the show for not mentioning mental health by name. The thing is, I am not entirely sure that Hannah had mental health issues. She went through something so traumatic and her suicide was in response to this specific event in my opinion. I don’t think this is entirely a fair criticism as the show is not about mental health as I explained previously.
13 Reasons Why is a highly progressive piece of television which shows the realities of suicide and sexual assault. It does not shy away from the grittiness and delivers the storylines with the weight needed. The characters all feel well fleshed out and flawed. You will both love and hate Hannah, Clay, Tony and several of the other supporting characters. It has affected me profoundly and I firmly believe that it should be shown in every secondary / high school so that kids can understand the gravity their actions can have.