'13 Reasons Why' Is a Thorny, Thought-Provoking Reworking of the "Dead Girl" Trope

by Jay Bamber

5 May 2017

Netflix's 13 Reasons Why offers up a powerful, if problematic, spin on the teenage melodrama.
13 Reasons Why becomes Clay's story as the series progresses. 
cover art

13 Reasons Why

Cast: Kate Walsh, Katherine Langford, Dylan Minnette

(Netflix)

There’s a long tradition of dead girls being the entry point for television creators to tell their stories and hook an audience. Laura Palmer’s washed-up corpse served as a neat way to churn up the mysteries and horrors of a little town called Twin Peaks. Veronica Mars‘s titular character was spurred by her best friend’s murder to reveal the unchecked privilege and violence hiding underneath the perfect exterior of Neptune, California. The first season of True Detective seemed to take perverse, and much discussed, pleasure in telling the story of a dead woman without paying much consideration to her. The slasher genre is so reliant on the image of the passive female body, that when it doesn’t kill off a woman she’s designated with a special title: “The Final Girl”.

The thing that binds these stories is the fact that, to varying degrees, these women are sidelined in the very stories that are ostensibly about them. It’s into this murky water that Netflix’s extremely popular, and extremely controversial, drama 13 Reasons Why wades. The show has one of those premises that either guarantees a smash-hit or a dumbfounding flop. Shortly after the suicide of his classmate Hannah (Katherine Langford), Clay (Dylan Minnette) receives a mysterious set of tapes that he’s encouraged to listen to. Each tape is narrated by Hannah and charts a specific reason why she chose to kill herself, as well as why the listener is culpable in her tragedy. The tapes have already been passed around various students at Hannah and Clay’s school, making him the second-to-last listener.

It’s certainly an interesting narrative device in so far as it both allows two stories and timelines to run parallel to each other and sheds light on both at the exact same time. One of the strongest elements of the series as a whole is its ability to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information, which makes the story feel deeper with each passing episode and solidifies what seems to be the show’s central thesis: our behaviour can affect other’s lives in ways we can’t predict.  Fittingly, considering the Netflix distribution model, it also makes the series very binge-able; often the term “episodic” is used as derogatorily when talking about television, but here the one-episode-one-reason structure makes for a surprisingly solid foundation. With each passing tape, the audience really does get a deeper sense of Hannah’s interior life and of the circumstances which made her feel that she couldn’t go on living.

This almost plodding resetting of the structure each episode makes the show feel increasingly small as it goes on; the list of characters remains expansive but the focus narrows, which is a neat way of the medium becoming the message. Hannah’s options, at least in her own mind, become fewer and fewer at the same time as the audience sees the mounting obstacles between her and her happiness. It’s a credit to the show’s pacing and performances that it only feels claustrophobic when it’s supposed to, expanding and contracting in response to each character’s vantage point. The audience is forced into the tricky position of both seeing what leads to Hannah’s death and the traumatic consequences of it, making for a sometimes deeply unpleasant experience. Viewers become privy to information that’s denied Hannah, as well as practically every other character; successfully arguing that nobody truly has a solid perspective on their own life or of the unintended consequences of their behaviour, but it ultimately makes for a bruising watch.

In many ways, this taped confessional/suicide note is culturally and thematically important. Unlike the dead women of the show’s mentioned above, Hannah’s voice is, in most, though significantly not all, ways the authorial one. Whilst the show shifts perspectives and necessarily has to take a lot of characters into account, Hannah’s plight is taken seriously, and Hannah’s words are the ones that dictate the flow of the narrative and the viewpoint of the story. It’s an empowering move to have Hannah’s death be both the central mystery and central emotional arc; she’s certainly not someone languishing in a body bag whilst other characters turn her misfortune into the inciting incident of their stories. Hannah is both the diving board and the pool, which isn’t something that can be said for the average victim in a CSI re-run. Hannah gets to speak for herself and imprint her personal thoughts and feelings on the plot that is unfolding, an act which feels especially important considering the shows tacit suggestion that what eventually kills her is society’s readiness to render her voiceless.

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker

Katherine Langford as Hannah Baker

In general, the show is problematic but it does a truly stellar job of constructing dead ends for Hannah, and by proxy many women in her circumstances, to run into. When Hannah is witness to the sexual assault of her former friend, she’s shut down from discussing it, branded a liar by the victim, who was too drunk to remember the incident, and all but ostracised by the wealthy, powerful perpetrator. She’s labeled a slut in school for having sex on a first date, a rumour that isn’t true and that’s given more credence the more she denies it. Hannah is punished by her best friend when her boyfriend puts her on the top of his list of students with good bodies.

Most devastatingly of all, when she becomes the target of rape, she’s forced into the kind of demeaning conversation that occurs every day in the real world; one where the victim has to navigate a maze of humiliating distinctions without differences and turn a blind eye to their own victimhood. Hannah’s backed into a corner, but she doesn’t have the perspective to realise that it’s a corner victims have been pushed into throughout history. In an incredibly well-staged scene, Hannah has a violent reaction to the prospect of consensual sex with Clay, someone she’s falling in love with, because her body has absorbed the big and small sexual traumas that she’s witnessed and received. There’s no viable model, 13 Reasons Why suggests, for her to express her sexuality because the sexuality around her is nefarious. It’s worth noting that every member of the cast is brilliant, but Minnette is exceptional as Clay; moving, smart, and emotionally decisive.

Ultimately, Hannah’s made voiceless because what she has to say will be uncomfortable for the people around her to hear; her pain is a less valuable commodity than their disquiet, making it poignant and instructive that she eventually gets the opportunity to be the dominant voice in her tormentor’s heads.

The system, 13 Reasons Why solidly argues, lets Hannah down with its insidious attitudes towards her body, her choices, and her agency. Langford does an incredible job of demonstrating how Hannah begins to feel more like a problem than a person; it’s a nuanced performance that finds an enormous amount of light and shade, even when the show demands that she be melodramatic.

Unfortunately, it’s a very good performance in search of an equally good role to house it. It’s true that the show successfully and meaningfully draws Hannah’s issues, and how the world responds to them, but the show too frequently, and perhaps damagingly, suggests that Hannah weaponised her own death in order to settle the score in a game that many of her opponents didn’t know they were playing. It makes for queasy television when the central female character’s suicide becomes a catch-all punishment to those people who scorned her, as well as the people who didn’t, and most upsettingly, herself. 

There’s a moment in the show when Hannah, preparing herself to cut her own wrist, imagines what her life may have looked like if things had turned out differently. It’s a generic and clichéd vision of a sweet adolescent relationship with Clay, one in which they go to the prom together and he meets her parents and everything has taken on the vaguely nostalgic glow of a John Hughes movie. As she narrates her idea of what happiness may look like to her Clay imagines it too, caught up in what could have been had he only been aware of Hannah’s internal struggle.

It’s at this point that it’s almost impossible to decipher what exactly Hannah’s suicide is supposed to represent to her or the audience. It’s safe to say that her tapes ruin the lives of the people whom they’re about; in a particularly mean-spirited twist, which doesn’t occur in the novel on which the show is based, one of the subjects of the tape makes him own suicide attempt, but it’s weird to suggest that she wants her suicide to be a destructive force in 13 other people’s lives, and it makes no sense that Hannah presents them all as equally culpable.

Are we really to believe that the boy who published her poem in the school literary magazine, albeit without her permission, is equally to blame for her situation as the man who raped her or the man who advised her not to pursue legal action against the rapist? It’s confusing, and it belittles Hannah in so far as it places her as clueless and perhaps even callous; it doesn’t sit well that Hannah’s suicide isn’t the result of a long battle with depression, or PTSD, or years of trying to wrestle a semblance of happiness from a life gone wrong. Hannah’s suicide amounts to a lashing out, and the ones it truly affects—her parents—aren’t even given the “privilege” to have any kind of insight into Hannah’s emotional life. Many mental health advocates have been quick to point out this isn’t the circumstances of most teen suicide. This attitude to Hannah’s pain makes the case that a person’s mental health is almost entirely dependent on external influences; that a person’s likelihood of killing themselves is subject to the whims of the people around them, even when those people are, at best, ignorant to their power, and at worst, uninterested.

There’s been a lot of talk as to whether the show glamorises suicide; I think this is hard to argue when the suicide scene is rendered in such excruciating shocking, gory, and realistic detail, and the aftermath, thanks in large part to Kate Walsh’s (as Hannah’s mother) genuinely excellent and heartrending performance, is so sincerely upsetting. So, suicide is presented as the worst option, but it’s still presented as a viable one; one that presents the disenfranchised, the bullied, and the victim a sense of power and authority that’s been denied to them in life. It’s even suggested by the propulsive nature of the mystery genre that Hannah’s pain is somehow pleasurable for an audience that’s desperately pressing the “next” button on the remote control.

Hannah’s suicide is difficult to parse out, and it’s impossible to push aside; there’s a reason that the show has become a bonafide social media sensation and a stunning success for Netflix by all measures. It obviously speaks to people, and those people are perhaps seeing themselves reflected in Hannah’s struggle and trying their best to work out what it means that they can identify with it. Yet it feels too easy, to the point of being disingenuous, for the show to suggest that suicide is such a linear process, or a cathartic weapon, or a mathematical equation, or that the emotional fallout will ultimately lead to someone around you having a passionate breakthrough about the need to be kind to others.

That’s what is simultaneously the most disappointing and the most heartening aspect of the series. Hannah’s story becomes, in the end, Clay’s story, and that feels like a big insult to the voiceless people that she’d come to represent. Hannah has to be characterised by her absence, because she was unable to write any resolution to her story, other than her painful and eternal absence from it. It’s a deeply unhappy ending, but one that at least shows the audience that Hannah’s decision is one that she can’t take back, even with the control that recording her tapes afforded her. 13 Reasons Why treats that finality with respect and reverence, but the cumulative impact of her suicide is that Clay will befriend everybody and be more accommodating to the pains of those around him. It’s Clay who gets to take the lessons of Hannah’s tapes and utilise them in a way that improves his life and others; Clay gets, and I recognise that this is oversimplifying the series finale, a quasi-happy ending. Hannah’s painful past becomes an anecdote for Clay to become a better person: a decision that’s painfully misguided but also manipulatively heart-warming on the first watch.

That being said, the show is, in some awful way, representative of reality. Sometimes people, especially young people, do really stupid things that they can’t take back and that they don’t have the necessary emotional language to explain or defend. Being a teenager is the emotional experience of being so far in the woods that they’ve forgotten what trees are, let alone be able to see them. It’s wrong of us to deny those stories, simply because we don’t like what they suggest. The show has proven to be enormously emotionally cathartic for its intended demographic, if the Tumblr posts, tweets, and fan sites are any indication. The show genuinely and artfully shows a world that finds it easier to process a washed-up corpse and dismiss young women’s trauma than actually work through it. It’s infuriating that the narrative decides to turn Clay into a hero in a story that very desperately needed to not have one, but it’s hard to argue with his realisation that everybody simply has to be nicer to each other. It’s a concept that’s actually complex in its simplicity.

13 Reasons Why is problematic, troubling, and imprudent, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important conversation that has to be had. Some Canadian schools have banned discussion of the show on school grounds, which feels like an incredibly strange way to respond to a program about a student whose problem are silenced by her school counselor and friends, and has her feelings dismissed by authority figures. I understand the impulse, however; it’s an incredibly thorny show and one that gets a lot wrong. But it’s also sensitively acted, sympathetic, concerned with the life of teenagers, not patronising, unflinching, and genuinely painful to watch. We may not like it, but we shouldn’t discount it either.

13 Reasons Why

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