13 reasons to watch 13 Reasons Why (Review)

I’ve been sitting on this for a bit, mostly because the social media attention surrounding Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is rather fascinating.

For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, 13 Reasons Why is an adaptation of the novel by the same name, which follows Clay, a high school boy, on the terrible journey through the reasons why his love interest committed suicide.Hannah’s story, her truth, is told in her own words through cassette tapes that each focus on a friend, acquaintance, or adult whom she considered a contributor in some way to how she got to that point.

1) The series itself is well done. From a purely technical perspective, I found all the kids in particular to be good actors, and the story moved along well. I skimmed the book at B&N the other day, and I have to say the series was better, although some of the episodes were hard to watch so it took me a week or so to watch them all – needed breaks.

2) It reminds us that we have NO FUCKING IDEA what’s actually going on in anyone’s life. That’s a terrifying thing to have so baldly depicted; I imagine it’s both easy and comforting to think you know exactly what your kid is doing or experiencing. I think the stark reminder is valuable.

3) The ‘heroine’ isn’t a romanticized figure. Hannah is just as flawed and fucked up as the rest of her circle, and it shows. She makes good and bad choices. She’s sometimes selfish, overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, and wants to be “good” but makes mistakes that eat at her.  She’s closed off, she keeps secrets, and she’s unable to cope or open up enough to let out any of what’s building up inside.

4) The ‘hero’ also isn’t romanticized, but at first he THINKS he is. I loved Clay’s journey from confused horror (that he’d be one of the receivers of the tapes themselves), to working through the idea that he has no insight into his classmates’ lives and his ultimate acceptance not only of what she’d done but also how he needs to be more mindful of how he treats others afterward.

5) Bullying and Cyber Bullying. The terrible effects of mob-mentality bullying, not only for Hannah but also many of the subjects in her tapes, are starkly evident. Equally evident is the lengths to which people will go to avoid being the target, even if it means participating or knowingly standing by when shit goes down. It’s easy to say “why didn’t s/he just stand up for him/herself or that other person”, but I thought they did a fantastic job of showing a variety of personalities: some strong, some not, and how even the strongest can be eroded over time without some support.

6) Sex. Drugs. Drinking. If you don’t think any of that happens in teenage life, you’re just stupid. What I loved about this show is that none of that was depicted in a glorifying way – in fact, they were shown as series of bad choices resulting in being out of control and self-destructive.

7) Sexual harassment, slut shaming, and BOTH rape scenes (which do come with trigger warnings before the episodes, regardless what you may have heard). The nonstop casual sexual harassment and accepted as “boys will be boys” attitude by the school administration is, (and I say this from my personal experience I still vividly remember 20 some years after high school), absolutely accurate: ass grabbing, a barrage of comments, stalking, assumptions that Hannah was ‘easy’ (a word I loathe in describing a woman’s sexuality but I use here because it was specifically used in the show), the administration’s obliviousness (perfectly portrayed when the principal had to ask the counselor what the term “cum dumpster” meant, since it was on the girl’s bathroom wall). Ugh.

The two rape scenes are terrible in their accuracy and commonality, and really well shot (NOT gratuitously sexual or violent, yet horrifying and so difficult to watch). Because consent is impossible to give when you’re incapacitated, and fighting back isn’t every girl’s instinctual response – sometimes, freezing in fear is all she can do. And you know what? Kudos to the producers/director for the treatment of each of those scenes.

As an aside, one of the big critical arguments about this show is “but why is it always about rape, and why does it have to be a teenager getting raped”? How about: because you can probably count on one hand the number of women you know who HAVEN’T been sexually assaulted or outright raped in their lifetime. And most of us who were in some way or another assaulted? Yeah…a lot of that shit happens in middle or high school. THAT’S MOTHERFUCKING WHY.  I am seriously over this bullshit do-gooder whitewashing of rape from all art, media, and public venue under the guise of “talking about it makes it worse.”

Not talking about it makes it worse. Not recognizing it as a major conscious and subconscious contributing factor to a woman’s life is just another way to silence us, because even those lucky few who haven’t been physically assaulted have likely been verbally assaulted. Because women grow up learning how to not get raped – it’s in advice given to us by self defense experts, by our mothers, by police, by the media, by each other: don’t wear that. Keep a key between your fingers in your hand when you’re walking to your car. Park in lit areas. Go to the bar/bathroom/public in groups. Don’t lead him on. Don’t make him angry by saying no the wrong way.

NOT TALKING about it, sweeping it under the rug as “that doesn’t happen in high school” or “why make her get raped, it’s so typical” is utterly idiotic. It’s typical because it happens all the goddamned time.

8) Rape aftermath. Accurate. Awful. Not only for the girls’, which is self-destructive and terrible and numb and a ringing endorsement for talking to girls and women about getting help after an attack, the show also touches on the guilt the boys who loved them clearly felt for being unable to protect them and how they deal with that (positively and negatively).
And the bro-code and breakdown of the clique as the weight of protecting the perpetrator becomes more than some of the boys to bear.
And the lack of real help when a girl does talk about what happened.
And the way it changes her forever.

9) Adults. I suspect part of the sting of this show when parents watch it is the very clear implication that signs were there, but none of the adults in her life really paid attention. It’s true that she didn’t say anything – she kept dangerous and damaging secrets, and interestingly that’s ALSO depicted as a bad choice. She didn’t talk to her parents, to her teachers, to her friends. When she does finally try to talk to a school counselor and is told, BY THE ADULT SHE’S SUPPOSED TO TALK TO when terrible things happen, that if she didn’t clearly say “no” and won’t name the perpetrator all he can tell her to do is get over it. Every goddamned adult needs to watch that episode. He doesn’t refer her to a rape counselor or mental health professional, he doesn’t recognize the apathy as a sign, he doesn’t report anything to her parents or the police or even his own principal: he doesn’t do anything to help her at all.

10) Depression vs Giving Up. The girl in this show wasn’t classically depressed in the often-portrayed way, and the word “depressed” never comes up. Even in the flashbacks, there is no clear downward spiral of depression culminating in such a terrible decision. She becomes convinced she’s worthless, that she’s unloveable and incapable of any “normal” relationship. Then, she reaches a place when the will and desire to live is absent, a moment she recognizes where she doesn’t care anymore about anything or anyone and is completely done. Part of the shock and horror of suicide is the lack of indicators, and this show fucking NAILED that horror. 

11) The Suicide scene. I feel like calling out every single person who says “don’t watch this show, it glorifies suicide as a viable option” and slapping them for commenting on something they CLEARLY didn’t actually watch.  This is not romanticized in any way – it’s depicted as horrible, physically painful, emotionally broken, and utterly awful. FYI, it is relatively bloody for a moment, unbelievably difficult to see. I cried multiple times in this episode (which does contain a clear trigger warning).

12) Survivors’ emotions. If anyone actually watches the final episode and sees the moment her parents find her, I truly can’t understand this idea that suicide is glorified as an option. The whole series is about the pain she leaves behind. Clay, Hannah’s parents, the others on the tapes, the others in school, the others’ parents…everyone dealt with a myriad of emotional fallout in the aftermath. I liked that the full range of emotion and coping mechanisms (some positive, some self-destructive) appeared, sometimes in the same character over time.

13) Discussion. Suicide, rape, bullying/harassment, depression, anxiety, death…they’re so often glossed over, ignored, or quieted in effort to “protect” people from harsh reality. 13 Reasons Why was done specifically as an unflinching look at the darknesses in a teen’s life that led to suicide and its aftermath, and if nothing in any of the episodes sparks some discussion, among adults and/or teens, I don’t have any idea what would. It’s so easy to dismiss what a teen is going through as unreasonable drama, but when you live in a microcosm and your long-term thinking isn’t fully developed (as multiple psychologists indicate that part of the brain isn’t fully developed until 25 or so), “for right now” seems like “forever”.

The point of 13 Reasons Why is to bring it all into the light, to talk about it, to find common ground about it so maybe suicide doesn’t seem like a good choice. To talk about rape and consent. To talk about learning to take a step back from the current emotional state and remember that it won’t always be this bad, that things can get better, that it’s ok to NOT be perfect. To offer resources if someone doesn’t feel comfortable talking to their loved ones (if you watch the behind the scenes, the producers, directors, and actors DO discuss the whys behind some of their choices and refer to a site that will find you local resources. http://www.13reasonswhy.info/#usa).

I watched the final episode again last night and thought about suicide (as a topic, not a possible course of action) for a very long time. I was pretty heavily bullied in middle/high school, and at some point my parents must have noticed I was off because I will always remember my dad saying, bluntly and out of the blue one day: no matter how bad something is suicide is never an option: it leaves everyone behind you devastated (a comment that worked for me because I feel more responsibility to others than to myself, so pulling the “it’s selfish” card worked…I realize it may not work for everyone), and it robs you of finding out the good things waiting for you. EVERYTHING PASSES. EVERYTHING. All you have to do is hang on. 

I’ve been on the edge of that same dead-inside moment a couple of times in my life – talking about it with Dad when I was a teenager stuck with me.

Find a way to talk about the bad stuff, the dark stuff, the uncomfortable stuff. It matters. 

“There is nothing about this show that’s polite.” – 13 Reasons Why – Behind the Scenes

“It has to get better. The way we treat each other. It has to get better somehow.” – Clay

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