A wake-up call for all the Hannah Bakers, a tape that tells ‘It’s okay to be how she was, but it’s not okay to do what she did.’ when the first season is over. A siren that blares ‘It’s now or never, so be there for each other before it’s over.’ at the end of season two. A photo frame that shows ‘Bygones are bygones, but we are our brother’s keeper.’ wraps up the third season. The fourth season rings a bell or two when a group of high schoolers ends their eventful journey, reminding their avid watchers that ‘not every full stop is a full stop.’ both literally and metaphorically.
13 Reasons Why is a wholesome package, more or less like a prism that scatters a single society into a spectrum of different shades and shadow lengths. Like a polyglot, this one show speaks a dozen tongues. Every show has its pros and cons, but the bar is higher when it comes to a series like this that deals with sensitive and fragile topics such as abuse, sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide. So, contrary to the hype this might’ve evoked in you, I’m going to give you 13 reasons why not to watch 13 Reasons Why!
1. Suicide and Self-harm
The series begins with and is based on the premise of the suicide of a cheerful, sensitive high schooler Hannah Baker who leaves 13 tapes behind her, with recordings addressed to each of the thirteen people who are reasons behind her pulling the trigger to end it all for good. The portrayal of something as disturbing as suicide in graphic detail yielded severe scrutiny and criticism for the series. Although the intention behind it would’ve been to let the audience know that there is more to life than the worst roundabouts and that ending life is not a solution but would only cause more problems, the air of self-harm that pervades almost all episodes of the show along with Alex Standall’s suicide attempt had a counter effect on the very objective of the show.
2. Social media and privacy
Characters like Tyler Down, Marcus Cole and Justin Foley are used as representatives of whom we call, in modern day lingo – stalkers, creeps, perverts. The borderline between personal space and social space, between private and public and the consequences that even the most insignificant actions can have on the breacher and the breached are very well drawn through various incidents that surface in the show. While it educates the viewer on certain dos and don’ts, it also leaves an eyebrow raised when some characters resort to expose the privacy of others just to give them a taste of their own medicine. What’s it but one more life in the mire? What’s the point?
3. Bullying and toxic masculinity
It’s a fun fact that the show has just two to three female characters as opposed to thirteen male characters in the beginning and for every protagonist lost on the way, there’s a replacement in the consequent seasons, the ratio of representation doesn’t increase with the increasing seasons either. Some consider it to be metaphoric of the predominance of the all-pervasive masculinity throughout the show. Of all these men, not all are gentlemen. A lion’s share of them are part of the school baseball team ‘Liberty Tigers’ and they’re shown to be aggressive machos whose toxic masculinity is epitomized in the ‘clubhouse’ next to the ground, where they abuse young girls. Most of them, like Bryce Walker and Montgomery de la Cruz not only substandardize their female counterparts but also endeavour in bullying and harassing (mentally and physically) boys as well.
4. Rape culture
This series received both appreciations for taking a step ahead to address a hot potato such as rape and sexual assault, and criticism for not handling a topic as fragile as this without ample sensitivity. There is graphic portrayal of rape more than once in the course of the show. It not only triggers the trauma of people who have been vulnerable or victimized before but leaves every viewer disturbed to some extent. Apart from its potential to impact the viewers, the aftercare for rape victims in the show is deplorable. The rapists get away with their grave acts and take the management and law in their hands using monetary influence. The victims are silenced in multiple ways – sometimes because of the societal system that isn’t always welcome, sometimes because of the fear of stigma and shame, sometimes because of further assault from their abusers. This could’ve been dealt better by empowering them with more agency, using social institutions to aid their recuperation.
The extent of violence and the expansive range of the modes of the same in the show is, hands down, horrendous. Excluding self-harm, the show also features a lot of violence meted out on high school kids by their own classmates and schoolmates. The tension and friction on screen is palpable and the display of violence in some of the scenes are actually gross. At some points, it was barely believable that teenagers so young could be capable of emanating such brutal violence. Of the makers of this show wanted to make a statement regarding the lack of innocence and the omnipotence of corrupted youngsters who violate each other, they are successful but it surely provokes in every viewer a question of exaggeration – Ain’t this all a little too hyped up, or how could seventeen year olds be so superfluously violent?
Abuse, its manifestations and life-altering implications are dealt with a tinge of realism in the series, in fact it has done justice to this theme by taking a multifaceted approach to it. Sexual abuse, substance abuse, psychological abuse and physical abuse are all covered through different characters and their stories. Those like Bryce Walker and Montgomery de la Cruz are exemplified as propagators of sexual abuse; Justin Foley is seen to be fighting his addiction juggling between family and rehab; Hannah Baker, Clay Jenson, Jessica Davis and many more are on the long list of those who were mentally abused. This series hits the nail on the head when it conveys that abuse and its longstanding trauma might lead to grave decisions from where there’s no comeback. It has taken a revolutionary leap with its attempts to show sexual harassment of and among men, and this surely makes the show stand out.
Sexuality is explored in its entirety in this series. Homosexuality is embraced in a warm and respectful manner, with an honest and transparent portrayal of its intricacies, the stigma and stereotypes the society attaches to them. Throughout the four seasons, half a dozen characters who are of homosexual orientation are given important roles and are quite vocal in their dialogues and developments all through the series. The social stigma and prejudice homosexuality is met with in the social world is portrayed quite vividly.
8. Slut shaming and victim blaming
The slut shaming faced by few of the female protagonists are pitiable. Be it the girl whose photos were leaked, the one who was groped at the store, the one who was raped, the one who chose to end her life or the one who hid the horror within. Be it all of them who, along with their identities, were taken for granted. The scene where nude mannequins with the word ‘slut’ written on them in red were hung up outside Jessica Davis’s house was alarming, and unbelievable. The series also takes a dig at the infamous ‘She asked for it.’ attitude which is as pervasive as rape culture is today. However, it is ironic that just like most series and movies this series too celebrated the hookup culture, but it failed to put at peace something like the shaming culture that was, in a way, a by-product of the former. This, along with the victim blaming that is unleashed on many of the lead roles, makes the series an ultimate trigger puller for those who have been there before.
9. Friendship and betrayal
Friendship is a theme that follows the show from its start to the end. The bunch of high schoolers and their friendships makes the viewer wonder why exactly everything in the show is messed up, including something as simple and beautiful as friendship. The line between friendships and relationships are quite dicey and the instability of both sells off the image that nothing is of importance to those teenagers, not even their friendship. Rather skewed versions of friendship come and go throughout – victims befriend each other on the premise of their victimhood, friends take advantage of the other, abuse and misuse all in the name of friendship, being alibis in doing heinous acts etc. Betrayals and breakups of both friendships and relationships pop up then and now in the show, like mushrooms in the rain. It gives the viewer a hazy picture of what good healthy friendships could look like, and at the same time, it does the reverse in making the show enjoyable.
10. Parents and elders
The roles of family and elders in their children’s lives are looked at from different angles in this show. Elders and school in-charges who are overpowered by the politics of money and muscle, and parents who go beyond their morals for their son’s sake, who despise a child because of his homosexuality, who cover up for their child’s mistake, who are self-obsessed that they do not pay enough attention and parents who either involve too much or too less. No two parental patterns coincide, but a majority of them are on the same page when it comes to standing up for their children. While this pretext might seem to be something good, fortunately or unfortunately, it plays a role in protecting unhealthy behaviours in these teens, which pulls the reins of injustice for other children and subject their mental health to a downfall. In other words, it is capable of misleading the viewers to do anything and yet expect their parents to have their back.
Nepotism and the ‘rule of the rich’ in the place of ‘rule of the righteous’ looms all over the show like a shadow. From the rapist who is protected by the school management to the captain of the home team to the innocent boy who was framed and came out of trial with a clean chit, nepotism is personified mainly through one character while there are others who enjoy significant shares of nepotism. As is always, this gets in the way of the growth of others who are not so privileged and denies them the justice they deserve. Indulgent viewers who relates with the nepotism products get the false assurance that they’re capable of getting away with anything. On the other hand, those who have already been through a decent amount of victimization in the hands of the privileged tend to feel more vulnerable and hopeless, eventually.
The show, albeit its constant thrive to endorse positive mental health and wellbeing, like a sandcastle that leaves a pit in it’s making, has the reverse impact. Revenge is the main motive that drives the characters and their developments, while it should’ve ideally been help, hope, and healing. The aftercare that should be followed post any type of trauma takes a back seat, instead of hurt and hate take control of the gears. This does nothing but set into action a chain of events that cause trauma and more trauma. The ‘teeth for teeth and claw for a claw’ attitude affects the viewers as much as the characters rather than effecting.
13. Glorification of the notorious
It’s a fact as clear as the morning sky that nobody is born bad. People might become wise or vice with time and experience, but that isn’t reason enough to annul the damage done or justify the act whatsoever right? It challenges the notion of ‘everyone deserves a second chance’ by showing the amount of irreversible pain and irreplaceable loss that a not-so-good, or rather a notorious person has inflicted. But, there are two characters that the show uses in its attempts to convey these truths to the viewers, sadly like so many other reasons, this fails too. The viewers end up sympathizing with the notorious brats and singing them a heartfelt requiem, no mention of names here to spare you spoilers. That doesn’t make any sense does it, making it seem like any bad things done will be undone and pardoned with time?
13 Reasons Why sure does ruffle a lot of feathers, churn a few guts and leave some stones turned. But on a side note, it exposes and challenges the system while channelling its way through your psyche and empowering it at the same time. In spite of the slack, I must say that one of the most underrated and overlooked features of this show is that it leaves room for hope. Through its complex plot and complicated characters, with their pressures and problems, 13 Reasons Why is relatable on different levels. They turn against each other every now and then, but at the end of the day, they turn to each other – a refuge, a home, a friend and most importantly – hope is what they seek and find in each other. This faith in hope and humanity that is often amiss in today’s wild goose chase is what gives the show a mass appeal despite dark undertones.
That said, I’m sure if you’ve watched the series you’ve had a good or maybe not-so-good few minutes of recap and remembrances now, and if you haven’t, you’ve got enough motivation to pull an all-nighter and binge on this show. Or not. As is known, this show might not be right for you, given the amount of graphic violence which includes rape and suicide scenes. Hence, for optimum viewing, kindly ensure parental involvement or the presence of a responsible adult.