Originally published here.
Netflix’s newest series feels like a bit of a departure for the streaming service. Based on Jay Asher’s novel, 13 Reasons Why squarely targets the young adult crowd, a demographic only incidentally served until now. Netflix Original Series generally fall toward older or younger viewers – those late teens are tricky customers, and until now, their best option has been to watch any of the CW or Freeform series that have made their way onto Netflix months after their original run.
I love young adult television. Here at FYA I’ve dedicated years to writing about series like Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. I live for Buffy and Veronica Mars. My more recent obsessions include Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars. There’s something powerful about a coming-of-age television series, a piece of fiction that takes the time to grow with its characters and its intended audience (which, I freely admit, is no longer me, and hasn’t been for about two decades).
All of this is to say that I should be in the bag for 13 Reasons Why. But I found it a series I could not binge, and had to slowly watch over the course of a couple of weeks. In many ways it feels younger than its predecessors, despite its nostalgia-friendly nods to cassette tapes, ’68 Mustangs, poppy covers of Joy Division ballads and brilliant stunt-casting like My So-Called Life‘s Wilson Cruz. 13 Reasons Why loves the ’80s (and ’60s, and ’90s), but it lacks the maturity to capture the attention of anyone born in that decade.
And, sure, that should be okay. This is, after all, a show for kids. But it deals with terribly adult issues – suicide, rape, abuse – in a childish way. It’s irresponsible, but it thinks it’s being responsible. There’s a little of the dangerous to 13 Reasons Why, this freewheeling marriage of juvenile and adult. Everyone says “fuck” and we see plenty of bare butts, but also these are kids. Just kids.
Here’s the deal: Hannah Baker (a really great Katherine Langford, newly discovered and sure to take off) has killed herself, and she’s made 13 cassette tape recordings, each side a different reason she decided to take her own life. The reasons are all people: bullies at her school, former friends, former flames. The tapes have been passed around to most of her tormenters, and now they’re in the hands of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a nice, quiet kid who was in love with Hannah. As Dylan tries to understand why Hannah was driven to suicide, and how he contributed to her pain, the rest of Hannah’s reasons team up to keep the story from getting out.
The very premise is troubling. Hannah’s tapes are vindictive, but okay, she was treated terribly by her classmates and deserves to have her say. The trouble is in the way these tapes glamorize Hannah’s death and validate her decision. The thing about suicide is that after you’re gone, you no longer get to be heard. That’s an important deterrent for depressed teens, who feel invisible and unheard in school. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign is a great example of something these teens need to hear – that if they can just survive high school, they will get the chance to be heard, to express themselves to people who will understand and accept them. Hannah goes out in a blaze of glory, bringing remorse and reckoning to everyone who hurt her. In a way, 13 Reasons Why is saying that suicide is the answer, if all you want is for the boy who raped you to be brought to justice, the friend who abandoned you to feel bad about it, the boy you have a crush on to regret never taking a chance on loving you.
And then there are the rape scenes, plural. 13 Reasons Why features two of the most brutally upsetting rape scenes I’ve had to sit through in quite some time. Of course, girls are raped by jocks in high school. It happens, and no one believes them, or they never even find it within themselves to tell. That happens, just like teen suicide happens. But like Hannah’s suicide scene – graphic and specific and extended – we have to ask what these scenes, in and of themselves, serve. Or more importantly, who they serve. The problem isn’t the existence of the storyline, but the execution of it. Who is this for, I wanted to ask 13 Reasons Why again and again. Who are you trying to speak to?
Of course, the point of 13 Reasons Why is a sweet, if simple, one. Don’t bully. Be kind to your classmates. If it seems like something’s wrong, ask them. Be there for them. Don’t ignore them, or walk away, or find someone less complicated to hang out with. There’s nothing wrong with that message, and it’s one that kids will always need to hear. And there’s a lot of other good here, too. 13 Reasons Why features a remarkably diverse cast with a casual, matter-of-fact approach to teen sexuality and queer identity. It acknowledges the depth of grief teens are capable of feeling, the painful and angry and confusing mourning process after losing a friend. The performances are terrific – Langford and Minnette, especially, and Kate Walsh is extraordinary as Hannah’s mom. And the show has a refreshing lack of male gaze – those bare butts mentioned above, in fact, belong to dudes, and the rape scenes, though dreadful, are certainly not played to titillate. It sucks that this is still a noteworthy disclaimer in this day and age, but it is.
But, with all of those qualities working in its favor, 13 Reasons Why still doesn’t work. What’s the difference here between, for instance, Riverdale and Sweet/Vicious, two recent YA series dealing with death and rape in a way that feels far less capricious? A huge part of it has to be the heightened, genre element of those series. Teens watching Riverdale understand that this is a fantasy, a Lynchian comic book take on issues they face every day, whereas the more grounded 13 Reasons Why almost acts as a manual – a disconcertingly doable manual – for teen rape and suicide. But more to the point, there’s a level of agency for the characters of Riverdale and Sweet/Vicious. They’re survivors of trauma and tragedy, just like 13 Reasons Why, but they make their own decisions, live their own lives, forge their own futures. Hannah and Clay are will-o’-the-wisps, floating from bad scene to bad scene until Hannah can take no more, and Clay rides (not drives) off into the sunset with no hint of what the future holds for him, no idea whether it will, in fact, get better.