*******Trigger warning: Assault, rape and suicide**********
‘13 Reasons Why‘ (2017) is an incredibly important show. Its tale is haunting, horrifying and real, one that we should all watch and use as a reference in our daily lives. It’s received high praise from critics and viewers alike, along with some serious criticism as to how it’s graphic nature and sexual violence is portrayed. I had read reviews before watching it myself and much of the criticism it received was directed at the inaccessibility of its message. Surely the shows themes of bullying, harassment, privilege and secrecy would have served teenagers better seeing as though they are the ones dealing with these issues (either directly or indirectly) on a daily basis while being less able to identify and thus cope with what is happening. The rating for the show addresses the violence and graphic scenes which makes it unsuitable for young viewers so it’s a shame for this younger viewership that have nothing quite like this to identify with.
Another flaw with the show comes with the fact that it somewhat glorifies suicide. Whether you believe it does or not (I didn’t see any portrayal of glory: the horror it left her parents feeling, the gut wrenching suicide itself, the weeks it torture and upset that she felt, it was impressively heart breaking) shouldn’t detract from the shows messages.
The praise comes heavy though. The issues portrayed and the difficulties surrounding bullying and (sexual) harassment are harsh criticism of real life. The sexualisation of teenage girls, the often hard to manoeuvre roads between slut and frigid. The importance of reputation. The rating of girls bodies and behaviours as jokes and fun. If you’ve gone through your life without ever having dealt with any of the shows major themes you are either incredibly lucky or a white man.
I Liked the show. I found it hard to take in at times but overall it’s a story that should be heard. Whether you close your eyes for those hard times or you force yourself to watch, hopefully something in it resonates or enlightens. One pretty big thing stuck out for me though and actually slightly took away from the impact of it. Probably less significant than other criticism but still, hopefully, worth unpacking and addressing.
The main protagonist, Clay Jensin, is a young teenage boy who’s on a quest to figure out why a good friend of his, Hannah Baker, killed herself. He does this through tapes which she made and left for each of the people she holds responsible. They all hear the tapes and leave them for the next in line. They all know they are to blame and they each try to come to terms or flat out deny the fact.
Clay struggles from the start to hear the voice of his friend articulate her horrors, her insecurities, her bullying all the while pointing her fingers at schoolmates he knows and sees everyday. The people she accuses had various roles in her ultimate demise ranging from back stabbing friendships, peeping tom behaviour, lying about physical contact and full on sexual assault.
Each episode centers around a particular person, and their individual roles in her downfall. Throughout, Clay tries to understand why he is included in these tapes, after all he appears to be a friendly, nice boy who has genuine feelings for someone he considers a friend. What could he have done? Well, I was convinced I knew that answer and the more I watched the more confident I became. I knew why he was on those tapes.
Many of the smaller (but equally important and traumatic) interactions Hannah described happened in public, mostly during school. These include things like having her reputation questioned, being rated the best Butt in the school, having rumors spread about her promiscuity, the offhanded statements from boys and girls alike in school. Clay was there for most of it watching, being a silent bystander. He watched and even took part when boys were being mean to her, sexualizing her, slut shaming her, and ultimately being incredibly sexist in their views and treatment of her. Clay took advantage of a peeping toms picture of Hannah kissing another girl. He made offensive remarks about her sex life (which, again, was all lies) because he was upset by it.
Once in a while Hannah catches him watching how she is being treated. His wry smile says ‘shit, your having a bad day’, but ultimately offers no comfort or support whatsoever. After the first encounter like this I was 100% sure he was on those tapes because of his inaction. He watched as she was openly hurt and offended by classmates. He watched as she was catcalled walking to class. He watched as she was bullied for something she didn’t do. He watched and took part in the list of the schools best butts, breasts, kisser etc which gave Hannah the prestigious title of best Ass. He watched for most of it, and did nothing.
He never stepped in to defend her when boys were aggressive and offensive. He never supported her, offered her any comfort. He never told the jocks to go fuck themselves and leave her alone. And I thought, yeah, this is a good message. Bystanders should step in. If you see someone being sexually harassed you should support them so they feel confident enough to defend themselves. If you see someone having racist insults thrown at them, you step in and protect them. If you see someone being abused for being gay, trans or non binary, you step the fuck up and do something. What you don’t do is nothing, because that is exactly what makes this behaviour acceptable. That’s what makes the perpetrators feel safe enough to do it in the first place, they shouldn’t be protected, the victims of such should. The message would have been a strong one, had it gone down that way.
I sincerely thought that’s why Clay was on the tapes, although he never directly took part (safe for masturbating to the picture of her kissing another girl and taking part in the rating of girls) in her bullying, harassment and assault, he indirectly helped it happen and continue to happen by not stepping up and doing something about it. And then it came to his tape. And I was genuinely insulted and upset. Instead of calling Clay out for being a neutral bystander to her troubles, she practically apologizes for telling him to leave during a emotional breakdown she experiences. She tells him “Clay, you aren’t every other guy. You’re different. You’re good and kind and decent”. But what she didn’t say was “Clay, you could have helped. You could have said something, you could have been there”. And to me that’s severely disappointing, to have missed out on a really powerful message to men of all ages, and people in general. And instead of that message what we get is the opposite. You were a nice guy, thank you for being in my life and watching as people hurt me to the point of actual suicide, and being attracted to me but never acting on it, and being sort of there for me but not really at all. Thanks.
The message was more like #niceguysdonothing, and apparently that’s OK. And although Clay kind of, almost comes to this conclusion through the tapes and re-imagines what he should have said to her after she has her breakdown in front of him, its never completely addressed, which is disappointing. Clay does end up being the hero by not keeping quiet after finishing the tapes, he helps her parents understand what has happened by giving them a copy. He gets her rapist to admit it on tape. He makes sure everyone on the tapes takes responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, being a hero after the fact didn’t help Hannah.
The show could have been much stronger had this been given any sort of focus. It is still a fantastic story with lots to be taken away from it, but, it just could have been so, so much more.