“13 Reasons Why” was a book, ten years later it was made into a series on Netflix. The Netflix series has reinvigorated the perennial topic of teen suicide. It has been both criticized and praised in a variety of discussion boards, major platform articles, and reddit threads, for everything from its visual aesthetic to its dialog. Most of the discussions focus on whether or not it glorifies self-destruction sufficiently to inspire or inhibit the behavior in others, or if it presents a realistic example of high school life and the daily trials of the average student at all. Unfortunately most of the articles I’ve read, and the brief video following the first season on Netflix, focus on Hannah and her alienation and whether that was justified. I think this misses some fundamental sub-texts to the way it portrays both suicide and teenagers and deserves closer scrutiny.
First, in all honesty I did not enjoy the series. It was well shot, and the acting was good, but before I’ve fully settled into the second episode one fact is stark, the average age of the actors (depending on how one defines the ‘central cast’) is 23. The oldest actor, Ross Butler who plays Zach, tops out at 27. Zach is also a high school senior during the bulk of the show, making his character roughly a decade younger. I was immediately reminded of a bit of trivia I recalled from the production notes of “Dawson’s Creek”. During most filming the actor James Van Der Beek, in the titular role of Dawson, had to shave twice daily to maintain the illusion the 21-year-old actor was accurately representing his own 6 year younger character.
I’m loathe to think it, but perhaps this makes the more horrific sex scenes somehow a bit more palatable. I suppose it would be even more difficult to see a 17-year-old literally molest a 15-year-old, than a woman in her 20s being battered and raped. It also hides something more pervasive and insipid, something people who don’t work regularly with teens don’t discuss nearly enough. Devin Druid’s character Tyler is played by the youngest actor at 19. That’s important because he is quite directly body-shamed for his pre-pubescent musculature and under-developed frame. Certainly it is an integral plot device, but literally the only character with an actual high school body is the only one who is openly mocked for being weak and tiny. In fact, his weakness and tinyness is part of why he’s in the story, he has to compensate for it by forever lurking. So the double whammy of sexualizing the under-age because they’re actually not, and viciously installing a sense of self-loathing in any 15 year old who doesn’t look like a 25 year old with a personal trainer.
Another device I did not see much discussed but alienated me immediately was the near instant deployment of a host of character tropes served no purpose. Though the book hardly mentions race the two Asian students are over-achieving scholastically, one with a tiger mom and the other with two gay dads (the two gay dads, incidentally, are also tropes where one father says something terribly provocative and the other immediately chides him for not being enlightened).
The primary non-black and non-white character is of indistinct Central American origin, replete with muscle car, tattoos, slicked back hair, permanent leather jacket, an unknown number of ‘cousins’ and ‘brothers’ who we only meet when they are thoroughly beating some random person for saying bad things about his sister, there’s even a handy Spanish quote from his mother about how you should always eat before embarking on an adventure. He’s a Latin Fonzie.
The central gay character (the homosexuality of several other characters is only discussed or revealed in retrospect) is a thin, WASPish blonde poet who won’t stop talking about how he’s an artist. Hannah, the suicide at the center of the drama, receives a shiny black Jeep Grand Cherokee for prom but we know she’s not as wealthy as the others due to some dialog about how it’s not this year’s model and there was some re-financing involved. No exaggeration, it’s not the most expensive car driven by the supposed mostly jobless teenagers by several orders of magnitude.
The quote floating in my mind through the bulk of the first six episodes was something coming from my own generation’s reflections on the film “16 Candles”. We eventually realized we were supposed to feel sorry for a girl who lived in a four bedroom home in California and gets everything she always wanted for her birthday. In fact, “16 Candles” is apt, she wants to date the SportsBall guy, the main non-white is a racist stereotype, the skinny geeky guy is a letch who ‘steals’ a piece of the lead female’s sexuality…
Sure, “Candles” did not age well, it’s hackneyed bordering on absurdist today, but at the time I knew several people who identified with it directly regardless of having absolutely nothing in common with anyone in the film. In fact, the ‘brat pack’ movies collectively had such an effect on my generation there’s an entire throw-away scene in the show “Archer” where the characters debate which of them is which character from “The Breakfast Club”. The writers of “Archer” are my age. Those films had a profound influence on my generation regardless of their accuracy or intelligence or thoughtful observation of actual ‘real life’.
Meaning, ultimately, I take “13 Reasons Why” seriously, but not the way I think I’m supposed to. If we examine the performers of the ‘brat pack’ today, several never recovered and at least one is dead from rampant drug abuse. Their idealized lives and appearance was an impossible standard to maintain even for themselves, and the characters they portrayed became such a standard they shaped everything from “Saved By The Bell” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire”. What we now treat as the fashions and fictions of the late 80s and early 90s was a series of clichés fed to us through supposedly profound films claiming to take our lives and our passions seriously. They did not, they were quite cynical but none-the-less eventually pervasive.
Ultimately the intentions of Selena Gomez or Katherine Langford in bringing ‘real life’ to screen may be genuine but they are irrelevant. The moment it became a commercial vehicle it became a mechanism for shaping rather than being shaped by the people viewing it. I don’t know anyone who lived in “WeHo”, I’ve never driven the 405, but I can tell you one of the most expensive zip code in Hollywood, as can most of my friends, even if we never watched the show.
Which brings me to my first frustration with “13 Reasons Why”. As a story it was well crafted, its tension has been discussed at length either as a sign of its profundity or as a inexpert device which partially glorifies the eventual titular suicide (which verifies not merely the tension’s presence but its power over the narrative). Unfortunately, by having such a significant conclusion and overall theme, much of the mundane tricks used to get the viewer there are glossed over, quietly incorporated into “Well of course his mother stands that way, she’s Asian!” Thing is, 17-year-olds look 17 not 27, this isn’t real. Of course, that’s also the immediate excuse for worming out of any critique, ‘The story and message overrides the filler’. What filler…? It’s how several of the characters interact and meet their intertwined fates. It’s not just meaningless back-stories. It’s story, all of it.
The second frustration I have with “13 Reasons Why” is the supposed glorification of suicide hides a more important consideration. There’s a whole lot of blogspace out there debating the glory, I feel no need to rehash whether or not the show endorses suicide. Watch the show or google the question. Experts along with laymen have weighed in. I don’t personally care if one sees locking a camera on a girl slitting her wrists in a bathtub as glorification.
It didn’t make suicide look fun. It certainly didn’t spare a clear view of how it destroys friends, families, and communities, both emotionally and physically. Trouble is, it’s already the focus of the whole show. While plenty have asked if Hannah was lonely enough, or if she was distraught enough, or if those particular people deserved to be on the tapes, those questions are already embedded in the story. I have seen almost no discussion of what suicide she’s performing. Discussion of ‘type’ leads directly into how we handle suicide as a whole and this one in particular.
Emile Durkheim, in 1897, decided to statistically analyze suicide. What he produced was a primary template for Sociological analysis still relevant today, and forced reevaluating what we mean when we discuss suicide which has still not been fully fleshed out in popular culture. Durkheim attempted a ‘first principles’ analysis, he began with the simple definition of “Suicide” as ‘causing your own death’ and then gathered the stats on everybody who’d died by their own actions. What he found was there were several types of suicide, which he named. The suicide we tend to think of, one where we are faceless and irrelevant, where we have no actual identity and killing ourselves is less work than staying alive, he called it “anomie”, it’s from the same word we get ‘anonymous’.
[Before I go on I should say, I am not suggesting Durkheim’s list was perfect. His method was flawed and his conclusions were sometimes fallacious. BUT, he provided simply ‘killing yourself’ does not mean the same thing as ‘hopelessness’, there are types.]
A soldier throwing themselves on a grenade isn’t anonymous. A suicide bomber doesn’t feel ‘anonymous’, they feel empowered by their religion or their government and suicide is right there in the name. The often cited ‘lone wolf’ attackers who plan a form of death-by-cop after a spree frequently feel extremely integrated into the hate groups spawning them, or they at least feel superior to their victims. They certainly don’t feel ‘anonymous’ if their numerous letters, videos, and manifestos are any indication. Angry, but definitely not anonymous…
So too is Hannah not ‘anonymous’. She talks to Clay almost daily, she goes to parties where literally everyone knows her name. The ‘anonymous’ kid in the story is Tyler. Behind his camera he sees everybody, a few hate him, most have no idea he exists. Even the others on the tapes refuse him. They know they’re equally or significantly more responsible for driving Hannah to her decision, but they still don’t want to be associated with Tyler. They’re all in it together, except Tyler. Tyler is utterly anonymous.
His loneliness isn’t a loneliness the audience wants to contemplate, possibly because we all knew someone like Tyler in school. Someone nobody was friends with but then neither were we. Instead, he is shoehorned into the role of a glorified internet troll (so much so he has a throw-away line about the “Illuminati” being real). He’s that line from Casablanca ‘I’d despise you if I gave you any thought.’ For my own sake he’s possibly the most one-dimensional character in the show next to Skye.
Listening to Tyler’s testimony in the deposition is painful specifically because he discusses being regularly bullied in a way that would be obvious to any administrator, and everyone including his parents are shocked by what he says. These are the same parents who’ve had to deal with what’s been happening to his room because of the tapes? Seriously, this kid is ignored by literally everyone. What disappointed me about his characterization is they had to give him some reason to be worthy of a tape. So he is gets a terrible role and a terrible act ultimately making no sense. Absolutely, in the story arc, what he does is wrong (not to forget illegal). Trouble is, how he is portrayed outside of his primary reason for inclusion [trying to avoid spoilers], his behavior, is completely wrong. I don’t mean he’s too ‘sweet’. I mean literally, clinically his behavior does not represent how people who do what he did behave.
Bryce exhibits all the behaviors. Tyler doesn’t do anything approaching Bryce by a long way. Kevin does several (especially the milkshake scene), and Tyler’s definitely not Kevin. The fact Druid is able to draw some measure of pathos to his character is a tribute to his acting, not the writing and certainly not as an accurate portrayal of what to look for in a kid who’s headed the direction his character is going.
More importantly, his ‘being discovered’ is laughable. I don’t expect the producers, let alone most people reading this article, to be too bothered with the difference between interline transfer and shutters, but for anyone who knows anything about cameras the spine of his ‘crime’ is gibberish. Either he was using a telephoto lens or he wasn’t. If he was, the Infamous Photo of his story should have been so sharp there would be no question who the subjects were. If not, he was standing too far away to hear his camera unless it was the size of a dinner plate.
While it’s convenient to shrug such details off as irrelevant, they’re discussed at length, repeatedly, in several episodes. He talks about how expensive his cameras are, he talks about how much he loves shooting on film even though the Infamous Photo is digital, his bedroom is festooned with camera equipment… This wasn’t some silly oversight, it’s story construction, whole sections of narrative hinge on that shutter and those cameras. Yet, much like Hannah’s ability to find the only unidirectional mic on the planet that doesn’t pick up every stray phone ringer in a busy principal’s office, if Tyler’s shutter is so loud he’s running the risk of amputating his finger, we’ve broken suspension of disbelief for anyone who’s ever shot on film. If he’s such a photography aficionado that oversight is yet another plot device shoe-horning the unbelievable into ‘reality’ setting truth.
It’s not meaningless technical trivia. Either we’re talking about warning signs or we’re not, either it’s realistic or it’s not. Now every parent, or friend, with a kid who likes photography just got a little more paranoid for absolutely no reason. Now girls all over the country think you can ‘hear’ that sort of thing: a loud, crisp, clear, physical warning. Instead of an extremely identifiable cluster of behaviors which are much more important but not nearly so dramatically convenient.
Or how about Clay…? He exhibits literally all of the warning signs the school counselor warns about in his Power Point presentation: sudden dramatic changes in behavior, changes in friends, changes in school…
In three days Clay starts coming home with head trauma, spending all night with a boy he’s never talked about and barely knows, and skips three classes. His mother, a litigator who takes copious notes during the counselor’s presentation (so much so it is commented on by another parent). Somehow doesn’t worry too much that according to the Power Point she just saw Clay is about ten seconds from shooting himself in the head. How is mom and the counselor whose Power Point it was so blasé about his bizarre behavior? Which is precisely my overarching frustration with the way suicide is being discussed surrounding this show. Hannah isn’t a ‘lonely’ suicide waiting to happen, but by all appearances most everyone else we meet is. We’re just not supposed to care.
We don’t care because Tyler is an evil troll, or Alex is an insensitive jerk… But we also don’t care because there’s something larger going on. Clay is going through a monomythic ‘Hero’s Journey‘, including a Supreme Ordeal, where he risks his life but allowing him catharsis to no longer fear death, and a Resurrection following a Final Confrontation. Alex is ‘lonely’ too, he is alone in his honesty in all the meetings in the gymnasium or ‘the Den’, alone in the high school before the tapes and thus the reason he joined the jocks he secretly hates, and eventually he is just utterly alone.
Again we’re supposed to blame him because of a stupid act of petty vengeance, one which he regrets to the end of his life (maybe…). An act the other characters admit paled in comparison to literally any of the other acts by any of the other ‘reasons’ apart from Clay’s. But if this is a morality play Alex has to become the conscience of the group, getting stomach pains when they start going too far to prove they are working that which is unseemly. The only way that works is if he’s a villain, so he can be the excuse for others to find the light and also seek redemption. The symbolism became a bit too much for me to take when I realized the gymnasium where the basketball games occur and where much of the plotting against Clay occurs between the villains, and where Alex’s stomach pains become most intense, and where several key plot points pivot generally, is called “The Lion’s Den”. The Lion’s Den also happens to be the location where the Biblical prophet Daniel was almost torn apart, but was spared because of his righteousness. Oh come on now… Is this a story about teen suicide or a Tennyson poem?
For me, that’s really where this whole thing turns. I know it looks like I’m over-analyzing, but go back and watch “16 Candles” some time. Ask any 35-year-old Asian what nickname they were assaulted with in high school. Horrible, laughably idiotic caricatures of real people become standardized extremely easily when they’re on such an accessible medium with even remotely relatable characters people are sympathetic to. These stupid details become norms specifically by repetition, and they prove disturbingly tenacious. It is through the subtle moments of this show, not the big stuff, some truly powerful shit is being laid down I’m not seeing very many people flesh out.
Which brings me to my final frustration with “13 Reasons Why”, or rather with how it’s being discussed. Hannah’s suicide isn’t actually a suicide, she’s a plot device. The key to the Hero’s Journey is atonement through learning the price of sacrifice. Clay’s final speech to the school counselor explains everything, it’s about Clay. Hannah is able to enact her revenge fantasy because she is demonstrably not alone. She has Clay to eventually become a Hero starting as her Vengeance, she has Tony to be ‘The Mentor’ and ‘The Protector of the Secret’ (also Hero’s Journey standards) to aid Clay on the Journey, she has at least 9 other people to send tapes to and provide Clay the lessons he will need for the final Confrontation. Hannah herself is “The Call To Adventure”, hell there’s even a handy-dandy map.
I see an emo-band backed, diffuse light filmed, beautiful people acted, “Lord of the Rings” being presented under the cloak of discussing something as painful, as gut-wrenchingly awful, as loneliness induced suicide. Sound familiar…? It should, only this time Bella can’t get pregnant now that she’s lost all that blood. I see what I’m being told is the story of a young high school student, their life in ruins, their reputation in tatters, so utterly alone and alienated and abused by everyone, they can think of no exit but the most extreme. But I know what that kid looks like, and Tyler doesn’t die. It’s the popular chick who just got a new car. Maybe it’s easier to portray a girl as killing herself, as too emotional to endure. It would aggravate me no end if that’s why Hannah’s getting all this blog time, not just the cliché but because teen boys commit suicide often enough to warrant consideration which certainly is not talked about much. Plus, I know just as many girls who do what Tyler did, Facebook and Instigram know no gender…
My point is, we’re not actually considering the suicide we think we’re considering. If we’re going to talk about the ‘reality’ of this morality play and why it’s resonating with teens, then let’s look at what’s actually there. To identify Hannah’s suicide, consider the tapes themselves as artifacts, as well as each individual tape’s content. If we end as she did on tape 13, her suicide becomes what Durkheim called ‘altruistic’: “Sacrifice of one’s life to save or benefit others, for the good of the group, or to preserve the traditions and honor of a society. It is always intentional. It is sometimes planned and willingly entered into.” Hannah’s the sacrificial victim liberating the others from their cocoons, especially Jessica. Hannah willingly kills herself rather than reveal her and Jessica’s shared shame. Right at that point, that revelation, “13 Reasons Why” stopped being a show presenting the grim reality of teen suicide and helping people to learn what it looks like from the inside, and became a weird sort of low-theater “Romeo & Juliet” reinterp.
I don’t like “13 Reasons Why” the series. Not for the visually stunning suicide, not because it presents suicide as a form of revenge, not because it found some pretty good actors to breathe life into a fairly stilted script, but because I work with at-risk teens. This isn’t real, it’s a fiction, it’s a run-of-the-mill redemption story. By trying to find the next Hannah, by trying to find the pin to put back in the grenade, you have to look past Tony, and Jessica, and Zach, and sure as shit Tyler and Alex.
Consider those kids for a second. Tony nearly destroys himself, and a family that trusts him, just to keep a promise. Jessica is lied to by literally everyone in her life except the one person who up and left on her, Tyler’s only acknowledgement of his existence to his peers is either as a weird and possibly ‘psycho’ irritant or a pathetic emaciated non-human boy-thing. Alex is so desperate for anyone outside the circle to take notice of anything going on in his life he gets himself bludgeoned in front of half the school.
You have to see every single one of those kids as nothing but plot for the show to work. Clay’s journey and Hannah’s motives are too important to tarry on any one else for too long. You have to care about Hannah, not the horses getting us to girl on the tracks. Moreover, while we’re wondering how to find the next Hannah, make her change her mind, we’re letting in some pretty nasty stereotypes with no need to be there because they’re just the spots on the horses, giving them pattern so you can tell them apart. I don’t think that’s fair to any of them, and it’s certainly not fair to any kid who sees more of Tyler in themselves than Hannah. If you want to find something profound in “13 Reasons Why” start there, look at the bits you’re being told aren’t important.