I was one of those kids who read YA books, lots of them. It was almost sad when they were no longer suitable for my age! And I still reread some fragments or books I first approached on that period of my life. Why? I think with their arguably simplified realities they connect easily with readers (and viewers in this case) at an emotional level. Kids with your name or age, at times stereotypes at times very well defined characters, made you think about serious stuff. I mean, I have never tried any speed, amphetamines or ecstasy, but I knew their effects well before I knew where to buy them. I am not sure if this will horrify any parents, but the truth is topics such as drugs, sex, suicide, alcohol are a present or absent part of a teenager’s life. As terrifying as this sounds, the more scary thing is to ignore these facts. Ignoring those temptations/dangers is what starts the communication problem. At a young age if you don’t have any older brother or friend who has your best interest at heart you may end up doing really stupid things, so will your kids.
Other issues also have a great effect in teenagers; I’ll give you two powerful ones: appearances and bullying. They are both exceptionally well depicted in 13 Reasons Why. The wish to belong pushes most characters into pretending they have done something intentionally (when they haven’t). Courtney or Marcus seem to repeat to themselves the mantra: “I need to stay part of the group of the cool kids, my principles don’t matter.” As young adults, we discover an array of possibilities about people’s behaviour: right, wrong and anything in between. Some always seem to be on edge and push boundaries, try their luck. I think the edgy teens can be divided into two groups: the popular and the wish-they-were popular kids. The popular ones, well you know them all, in my school they were the wealthy kids, those who lived in some particular areas in town. In 13 Reasons Why they are the athletes (Justin, Bryce, Zack), who are treated as divinities and make the mere mortals feel out of place just by walking down a corridor. The second group is the one of the kids who try to belong, and somehow, no matter how pretty, funny and charming they might be the mass doesn’t seem to accept them. Unfortunately here is where the suicidal kids fit, your Hannahs. There is another group formed by the kids who hope for this particular time of their life to end soonish enough and for these silly rules to fade away as they become adults. The let-this-be-over-soon group, your Clays.
I have read, prior to watching the show, some reviews of 13 Reasons Why in which the series has been accused of being very irresponsible TV right, left and centre. As if by portraying teenage issues they were manufacturing them. As many YA oriented products it does have in common the mentioned simplified reality, there is nothing else but what is happening to the characters, no historical period, no social issues... And everything feels so final, so dramatic. Perhaps this simplification doesn’t make it suitable for an adult audience, who sees it as a manual for all the things a teen could do wrong.
You will be happy to hear I have never been involved in a knife fight and I read The Outsiders (Susan E. Hinton, 1983) more than once, almost obsessively. I mean, I shiver at the thought of seeing any act of violence up close. I have never stalked or followed anyone to figure out what their deal was and Veronica Mars was (still is) one of my favourite shows of all time. I have never attempted suicide or felt depressed but one the books I reread the most in my teenage years was Pupila de Águila (Eagle’s Pupil; Alfredo Gómez Cerdá, 1989) a noir novel about a girl with a sad family past also linked to suicide and the way she meets a troublesome kid who does not feel all that willing to live. I have never ever tried ecstasy or any synthetic drugs, but I read avidly
Going back to the tearing-apart reviews, the common complaint is that the show romanticises suicide. I don’t think so, Hannah gets to tell her story, but I don’t think it escapes to anyone, not even young adults, that she is gone forever. She misses many opportunities to join that let-this-be-over-soon group (she seems to have too much self-awareness to become one of the popular kids…) and living her own life.
And yes, I get the tone Hannah talks to her piers is arrogant, almost self-righteous, but we learn to wait and listen before judging as the show moves forward. We start the show thinking the tapes are a silly spoiled girl’s cry for attention, but soon discover the frustrations and terrifying effects of bullying and of being objectified. As Hannah says, “you have never been a girl”. In a time of self-discovery, being defined by someone else’s opinion can be harmful and leave a mark for life. And yes, this sounds like as enunciated by a drama queen, but the truth is we are all dramatic, intense and feel very strongly about most things when we are teenagers, even if we don’t show it in our wardrobe and make up choices. The issues we survive seem to be designed to last forever.
13 Reasons… does a good job portraying high school life. We all have experienced the magnetism of a party and how we are cool just by walking into one. There is no doubt the sexual assault is a disturbing occurrence in the show as it is suicide. Both are experiences we can’t come back from as the same person or come back, period. Teens are not zombies, they want to do, feel and live things, most of them new to them, but teen life does not put them in a bubble, it makes them more fragile. We see anxiety, abuse at home and trouble accepting sexual orientation. If we are disturbed by the idea of choosing a career at 17, guess what the dealings with those problems can cause to a teen.
I enjoyed the (dark) dose of sense of humour, the irony. Also the small dose of nostalgia served with the soundtrack. I was amused by the wink to the old media, even if Hannah goes for tapes just to make things awkward, not with the spirit of a vinyl’s collector. But as she says at the beginning social media makes everything worse, or makes it grow exponentially. Here is a technology we did not have in our teens, yes I am old, a kind of progress which will make even of helicopter parenting a real challenge.
13 Reasons Why is like a teen’s mix tape. It has cheesy and cool stuff in it. It may sound overplayed, I mean we all got sick of the “keep listening”. Its pace lacks balance, even though in theory its structure could work well on TV. It becomes more watchable and moreish from episode 5 or 6, perhaps because we give more credit to the gone-girl’s claims. Watching from the sidelines may seem a coward approach to high school. However, waiting for a more inviting environment to show who you really are makes sense. Freedom is waiting on the other side.
Perhaps my only problem with the show is the fact that in real life the probability of a knight in a white horse (or a bike) taking revenge on those who wrong you after you are gone is thin. Dying does not guarantee you the last word, only living does.