I recently watched 13 Reasons Why on Netflix and I feel utterly compelled to write about it.
13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker, a teenager who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of tapes listing the reasons why she made the decision that she did. It is told from the perspective of Clay Jensen, a friend of hers who was in love with her. As he listens to the tapes, he begins to unravel not just the mystery of what happened to his beloved friend, but he also begins to literally unravel as he tries to come to terms with her death and what Hannah sees as the contributing causes.
Clay’s reaction to Hannah’s story is wonderful. Not wonderful as in joyous, but wonderful in its truth. He doesn’t know how to process it, he closes off from his parents (although to be truthful, I probably wouldn’t know how to talk to a mother like that either), he lashes out at the world around him, he takes revenge on those he believes hurt her and he waltzes around in a bit of a stupor lost in his memories a lot. It’s a pretty real reaction to the wreckage of emotions he’s experiencing. Kudos to the kid who played him.
Hannah’s motivation (is motivation the correct word? I feel like this would imply a purpose that I approve of, which I do not), is your typical teenage fare mixed with some very serious things, making for an explosive recipe of hurt. Changes in friendships through betrayal and poor communication, poor relationship choices with douchebag boys, and being the subject of rumours and innuendo, mixed with some intimate photo sharing kick off the first several tapes. Hannah was also stalked by a classmate and had them post pictures of her taken from the privacy of her bedroom, witnesses a rape and does nothing to stop it which eats at her, isn’t sure whether she and her friend accidentally caused an accident that killed a classmate when they knocked over a stop sign and in a particularly horrific scene, was raped by the same guy who raped her friend. All of a sudden these “reasons” which we as adults who survived adolescence may initially see as survivable are intermixed with some seriously fucked up shit that would be difficult for the most well-adjusted adult to come to terms with. Combine all of this with the difficulty teenagers have communicating, not just with adults but with their peers, and that is a lot of secret angst to try and contain.
Interspersed throughout the series are images of Hannah’s parents and the school faculty. Her parents are suing the school, saying that they were responsible as they were aware of a culture of bullying and did nothing to stop it. The effect on them, as people pull away from their store and find it awkward to interact with them, is equally as real. They are broken, lost, looking for whatever links they can to Hannah. They grasp greedily onto Clay and Tony as her friends and desperately pump them for information about Hannah’s school experiences. Scenes are shown of the principal and guidance counsellor visiting the student bathrooms to see graffiti calling students “cumdumpsters” and similar charming epithets which are then promptly painted over. Throughout most of the show it looks like the school faculty are trying their darnedest to instill a sense of plausible deniability to win the lawsuit. Throughout the narrative we also see the reactions of the individuals named in the tapes (and they have all heard them, Tony made sure of it) to Hannah calling them out for their behaviour. Some of them show little remorse, others eventually begin to question themselves once Clay starts actively pursuing them and leading his crusade of revenge and justice. Clay’s reactions kick up a lot of hornets nests and we see the true nature of some of these people.
In the final episode, we find out that Hannah had reached breaking point. She had made her tapes, and decided what she was going to, but decided, hoping for a lifeline, to visit the school counsellor for assistance. I really hated this particular scene as it emphasised for me what I think is one of the biggest problems with our culture – victim blaming. There was a rumour about Hannah that she was “easy”, thanks largely in part to the aforementioned douchebag boyfriend and some photographs that went viral that were completely misconstrued. Actual fact of course, was that Hannah was a virgin. When trying to find the courage to speak the words about being raped by Bryce, the counsellor basically suggests through a series of leading questions that she had sex with a boy and regretted it and “oh well”. There was a girl in visible distress in front of him, afraid to speak about a terrible event, and that was his ‘go-to’ inference. FUCK YOU COUNSELLOR ASSHOLE! Way to make a girl who is suffering immeasurably feel even worthless.
We then see Hannah kill herself. No way to pussyfoot around that one. It was visceral and graphic and unpleasant. I’m not sure whether it did “glorify” suicide as some reviews are suggesting. It was ugly and disturbing and probably a little unnecessary, as we had already established that she had killed herself by “slitting her wrists and bleeding to death in a bathtub” as Clay’s terribly annoying mother so coldly pointed out in response to his father saying a girl in his class had died. Did we need to see the act itself? Likely not.
Once upon a time, I was a teenager. I had no idea who I was, what I liked, who I liked, nothing. I was clueless. Now I know that I spent most of high school lying to myself, about myself, in some kind of deluded haze that had me trying to fit a mould of something I thought I should be rather than who I was. It’s a rite of passage, spending all your time in an existential angst trying to work out what life is all about. It was a shitty time for me, from about grade 6 through to well, graduation. First it was all about being bullied then it was all about boys and god knows that shit never ends well! Point it, it was hard.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a generation where Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, heck even mobile phones and emails, weren’t exactly a thing. The internet came into existence for the general populace around when I was in grade 9. I still remember my first email and it’s glued into my diary (yes, which I miraculously haven’t burned). I did not have photographic or video evidence of any of the dumb things that I did instantly available for my peers to start sharpening their tools for vivisection. There is no denying I did dumb things. I probably did everything on the scale of dumb things you can do as a teenager – especially the things that if people knew about them and became the subject of rumours, innuendo or even worse, had pictorial evidence of them, I would be ended. Nonetheless, rumours still ran around, I was the butt of jokes, the catalyst/instigator of many fights and was involved with soooo much drama (either as a direct cause of my actions, because I was a nosy bitch, or because I was fighting for one of my posse). Never did I have to endure public humiliation on as grand a scale as kids today do where their every indiscretion is catalogued and put on display and bullies can follow you absolutely everywhere through social media.
This show was terrifically well done and really made me think. I recall so very clearly the overwhelming shittiness of being a teenager (and I read my teenage diaries after the season finale, so whelp, yeah overwhelming is the right word!) and I never had to deal with anything half as serious. If social media was a thing back then, there is a very real chance that things would have been totally different and that thought terrifies me. I have friends that would likely not have survived. It is also particularly frightening as the mother of a daughter. I do not know if I am equipped to adequately teach her to protect herself against things like that. Resilience is a wonderful attribute, but very difficult to acquire. My fight or flight response to bullying evolved into a permanent fight response – when someone has a go at me and tries to take me down, instead of falling into a heap I punch things in the face (i.e. punching exes in the face when they cheated on me, when I am told I “can’t” do certain things I say fuck that and do them anyway just to spite people), but this is not a fabulous way to deal with life either. My husband on the other hand literally does not give a shit. I have never met a person who couldn’t care less about people and what they think. I hope like hell that our kid is like him and not me.
Long story short – this was a really well done and interesting look into the world of what it is like being a teenager today. It didn’t pull any punches (even where it probably should have) and very realistically depicted everything going to shit in the aftermath of a suicide. Because it does go to shit.
It makes me indescribably sad that suicide is seen as a viable option, especially so for teenagers. I can’t (literally can’t for confidentiality reasons) describe the things I have seen. Please reach out. The internet, despite me savaging social media, can connect you with people that share your weird and share your struggles. Reach out. There’s always someone out there to listen. High school ends. It won’t be hell forever, I promise.