by Alisha Thompson
What happens when someone’s ending creates a new beginning? Recently, Netflix released a new show based on the bestselling novel, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. The show centers around a high school student, Clay Jensen’s (Dylan Minnette), journey as he receives a box of cassette tapes that his friend, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), pre-recorded to detail the reasons why he and 12 other people are responsible for her suicide. Each person must listen to the tapes and send it to the next person in the list; if they fail to follow those rules, a copy of the tapes will become public. Clay is further down the list, which causes many of the previous people to confront him about keeping quiet while he struggles with coming to terms with Hannah’s death.
Jumping off of Hannah’s concept, I’ve compiled a list of reasons why you should (or should not) watch 13 Reasons Why.
To start off the list, I have to strongly emphasize the intensity of some depictions within this show. Suicide is the entire plot of the story; however, I have not seen a show depict it so graphically while still being targeted to teens. In addition, there are scenes involving self-harm, rape, violence, a car accident, stalking, and child abuse. I’m sure I might be missing something, but I want to state that blantly because, for some, extreme imagery can shock someone into understanding the realities of it. On the flip side, I can see how it can be tough to get through some of the episodes. The show did a great job providing disclosures towards especially graphic episodes and handling the dialogue concerning them. However, all I can say is do not take those warnings, or mine, lightly, especially if you or someone you know may become uneasy while watching the above topics.
Despite Clay and Hannah being two white leads, the show is full of actors of colors with six of them being on the tapes, which translates to them being on screen during every episode. The complexity of these characters speaks to the entirety of the show, but I personally loved seeing POC in roles that shift away from stereotypes and place them as critical pieces to the cassette puzzle.
A few examples of these portrayals are Ross Butler as Zach Dempsey, a popular jock with a sensitive side; Alisha Boe as Jessica Davis, an incredible performance as Hannah’s former best friend and critical character to the last half of the show; and, Derek Luke as guidance counselor, Mr. Porter, who is conflicted in his role about Hannah’s death. Personally, I would have liked the chance to see a woman of color play the role of Hannah Baker. Selena Gomez was the initial pick for the role, she later became a producer. Those experiences would finally have a mainstream representation, but the diverse cast can suffice…for now.
Sexism and Microaggressions
I did not see sexism becoming such an integral part of the show, and it handles the topic well. (POSSIBLE SPOILERS!) A Hot/Not list comes out about girls in Clay’s high school. Hannah is on the list in the Hot category and is groped and catcalled from her peers. When she talks to Clay about it, he cannot seem to get why she is upset about the list and its impact. Later on, the list is found by her parents, where Hannah’s dad remarks that it should be a compliment. When Hannah confronts the person that put her on the list, it takes place in the boys’ locker room and the boys react by yelling at her to get out while they cover themselves up. Some of these boys are the ones who sent inappropriate pictures of girls around school and, after Hannah leaves, precede to want to check out cheerleaders. The irony of it all.
At first, I wondered if the show meant to purposefully put scenes like previously mentioned in the show. Towards the end, I figured out that it was one of the show’s purposes. They wanted to speak on the daily life of a teenage girl and, sadly, sexism and harassment are included in that imagery. It’s a sad reality, which I think is their point.
The investigation is pursued by Hannah’s parents, played by Kate Walsh and Brian d’Arcy James, after her death as they try to sue the school for being neglectful when it came to seeing signs of Hannah’s deteriorating mental health. As they search for evidence, the other characters’ paranoia skyrocket as they come under the microscope of both Hannah’s parents and the school. The investigation sits the story into today’s reality, where people are held responsible for others’ suicides. The audience sees the grief and aftermath from the family of someone who commits suicide. A reinforcement for people thinking about suicide to see people grieving over that loss and loved ones of suicidal people can notice the signs that Hannah’s parents missed.
Does the message hold up?
I had the pleasure of both reading the book and watching the show. When I first read the book, it spoke vividly about the culture of bullying and mental health in high school. The show still holds the issue to an unflinching mirror. We don’t have mental health as the focus in many television shows right now. 13RW does have its struggles with dragging out of each tape being an hour long and dwelling on Clay running around town yelling at everyone. This show creates a conversation about the topics it illustrates for its audience. That is a start. I’m not sure if it is the best representation for everyone. I would still love to see a show about a women of color dealing with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues. However, I think it begins a modern conversation about bullying and suicide. (Something I’m still waiting for Melania Trump to start…)
Welp. Those are my 5 reasons to watch (or not watch) the show. I recommend this show to anyone wanting diversity in their current binge watching and/or wants to understand more about mental health. If you have watched the show, let me know thought about anything I talked about.
If you need support or resources, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use their online chat.
Alisha Thompson is a freelance writer in a nomadic state between the Midwest and the East Coast. She is the co-founder of ARTivism Galleries, events dedicated to advocating the importance of art in social spaces. When she’s not writing her opinions about TV or books, she spends her time listening to podcasts and struggling at yoga. If you want to find her feminist rants, you can follow Alisha on Twitter and Instagram at @alishmariet.
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