April 5, 2017
By Gabriela Thur de Koos
Warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD
It was released less than a week ago and already thousands are raving about Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix. And for good reason. The young adult novel adaptation attempts, and in my opinion succeeds, in depicting the story of a girl driven to suicide with as much honesty and authenticity as possible. Hannah Baker, a 17 year old girl, is a victim of rumors and slut-shaming at her school which eventually prompts her to take her own life, left with no hope that her situation will improve. Before she dies, she records a set of cassette tapes documenting all the reasons that led her to suicide.
In the beginning, these incidents Hannah describes appear isolated and I’m sure some people unfamiliar with the book thought to themselves- she killed herself over a foolish rumor? But as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that it wasn’t the rumors- it was the fact that her new reputation as a slut somehow gave her peers permission to treat her like she was an object. They treated her like she was an easy target to satisfy their own personal desires. Hannah no longer felt seen and like she didn’t matter. Savannah Brown’s spoken poem “Hi, I’m a slut” does a fantastic job describing the kind of slut-shaming Hannah faces as a direct result of the rumors.
My favorite aspect of the series was the complex storylines woven through each episode that were not in the book. Oftentimes in book adaptations, the source material goes into much more intricate detail about the characters and their storylines. In this case, however, the 13 episode series goes to great lengths to tell not only Hannah’s story but Justin’s, Jessica’s, and Alex’s, and other. It adds to the authenticity because in high school, it is difficult to see right from wrong sometimes because we’ve grown up and gotten to know many of our peers. Their friends defend them no matter what because they share a history. On the other hand, many peers judge others because they know nothing about each other except for the rumors.
Justin, tape 1 side A, has a drug addict mother and constantly finds himself with no home after fighting with his mother’s boyfriend. Yes, he began the downward spiral of Hannah’s reputation and yes, he allowed for that indecent photo of Hannah to circulate the school. But what Hannah didn’t know, as well as the audience, is that he was in the midst of his own internal struggle. We desperately want to shame Justin for allowing Bryce to spread the photo. And while he deserves that shame, the Netflix series goes to great lengths to provide understanding of why Justin does what he does. In his eyes, Bryce is the guy that has always been there for him- has provided a shelter when he needed it, shoes when he couldn’t afford them, etc. While Justin’s actions, including allowing Bryce to rape Jessica, are unacceptable, he is no stock character with a two-dimensional background. Like many teenagers, his story is complex and his mistakes, though wrong, are explicable.
Thirteen Reasons Why aims to create a discussion and promote progress in how we treat each other. Frankly, Hannah is a biased narrator and it is important to acknowledge that the only way to learn from her peers’ mistakes it to gather understanding of the people who hurt her. They tell teens to look for understanding before jumping to conclusions through not only showing the truth behind Hannah’s story but the truth behind the people we had been told by Hannah to judge according to her own truth.
Alright, the uncomfortable part. Hannah’s rape, I’m sure everyone can agree when I say this- it was hard to watch. Though difficult to watch, and keep my lunch down, it was arguably the most important scene in the entire series. The writers made sure that this scene, specifically, was done correctly. It wasn’t going to be censored or treated delicately. The incident was faced head-on because rape isn’t pretty and it shouldn’t be handled with kid gloves. Though this series is aimed for teens, this horrendous scene was specifically filmed to be uncomfortable and disgusting. It was distinctly written in the script to stay on Hannah’s face longer than is comfortable. Hannah notes that Bryce “broke [her] soul” and it’s clear on her face the moment it happens. You see the her eyes go empty and her soul slowly leave her body. Many rape victims describe becoming frozen in the moment and wanting to cry out for help but unable to do so. That’s exactly what you see in Hannah’s eyes the moment Bryce pushes her down.
The rape scene was a direct message from the writers to the audience. Something that is not discussed often when talking about rape is that sexual predators are often acquaintances. These are people you know and sometimes even trust. Bryce seemed like a nice enough guy. He took care of Justin when he needed help and helped out Tyler when he was being harassed. Frankly, Justin just seemed like a meathead jock who wasn’t worth any attention. But his true colors slowly progress throughout the series. He sexually harasses Hannah in a convenience store and spreads the picture of her around the school. We underestimated Bryce. In the real world, it is sometimes hard to distinguish those to be wary of because of people like Bryce. He’s a nice guy. But he’s not a good guy.
Can we briefly talk about Jeff? What a guy. Honestly, Jeff was my favorite part of the series. In the midst of such an intense story, Jeff provided a brief reprieve from such dark talk of suicide and guilt. He reminded us of who Clay was. Clay Jensen is a 17-year-old teenage guy who had a crush on a girl that killed herself. Clay cared a lot for Hannah when she felt like there was no one there for her. Hearing Hannah tell all these stories about how people had to do with her death, Jeff gave us a break in his endeavors to help Clay get the girl. He didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t try to sleep with Hannah. He didn’t judge Hannah for her reputation or Clay for liking her. Jeff was just a nice guy who tried to help Clay out a little. That’s all. And he died. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a good guy in the story without an ulterior motive. It really did suck that he died because of someone else’s mistake.
I think it’s important to note when a series gets it really right. Representation is hard to come by in Hollywood and many minority groups feel exploited and stereotyped in this industry. In their efforts to display an authentic and authentic story, the Thirteen Reasons Why made sure to include a diverse cast representative of a typical high school population. There were multiple gay characters. And not just gay, open and proud gay characters such as Ryan and Tony. Asians and African-Americans were definitely prominent main characters who weren’t placed in hackneyed, cliché roles.
The way the series addressed how the tapes affected each person involved was interesting because it included aspects not always discussed. And it really makes you think did this series really have a resolved ending? Alex shot himself, ending the series in critical condition, exhibiting the less common fact that many people who commit suicide knew someone else who committed suicide. Furthermore, Tyler’s story opened the pathway to another problem very present in today’s society. While the others on the tape worked together to keep the tapes a secret, they excluded Tyler because they felt his actions were especially deplorable. But it went further than that. He was harassed, and bullied himself. The other threw rocks at his window and constantly told him what a piece of crap he is. Even Clay, who is said to be a kind and good guy, acts out in anger and releases an embarrassing picture of Tyler to the whole school. And like the consequences Tyler faced for his actions as a Peeping Tom, the series leaves us with another reminder that ALL actions have consequences, displaying Tyler’s VERY unsettling amount of weapons and ammunitions. He was bullied himself throughout the series, and though many had their reasons, that does not excuse the fact that Tyler is a human being who was deeply affected by how he was being treated. It reiterates what Hannah says in her story that our actions, however small, can accumulate and lead others into dark places.
But the series also shows growth- Clay reaches out to someone in the end. Throughout this story, Clay represents the audience hearing these tapes for the first time and learning things as we learn it. Clay represents what the author hopes we will do as a result of reading/watching his work. And what the series does differently is establish that Hannah’s perspective is simply not enough to get the message through. Thought she tells no lies, Hannah only sees her truth. She doesn’t know what circumstances Justin has been raised with or exactly what Courtney’s reasoning for being closeted it. Unlike her peers who jumped to conclusions about her, we as a generation have to learn to understand that everyone is complex and be aware of those retreating back into themselves as a result of the troubles they face everyday either at school, at home, or anywhere else
all photo stills are the rightful property of Netflix.