“The truth will set you free” – Hannah, & most other characters
- 13 Reason Why‘s first controversy arose in season one as it was criticised for glamorising suicide, as Hannah Baker’s supposed only option after being incessantly bullied and abused by her peers. . While season two focusses more on how Hannah was let down by those around her, the show’s central premise is still based on teenage suicide.
- 13 Reasons could also pose as a triggering threat for vulnerable viewers, and was initially released with no trigger warnings. The series has triggers throughout – including suicide, drugs, abuse, and rape – with only one PSA at the start of the first episode of the second season, informing the audience of the sensitive nature of the show’s themes. When a graphic rape scene occurs in the last episode, it comes without warning for viewers, who have perhaps let their guard down as the court cases are concluded and the students’ lives begin to heal. The one PSA message shown 13 hours of narrative before this violent scene occurs seems insufficient.
- Hannah comes back in season two as a ghostly friend for Clay Jensen, as a figment of his imagination, and a coping mechanism for his grief. However, her smiling presence during turbulent times ridicules the seriousness of the fact that she is actually dead and gone, having killed herself prior to season one. An ongoing presence in the series from beyond the grave trivialises death and the real impact of loss.
- Hannah was failed by the school, her peers, and her parents, but there was no sign that the school had changed its tactics in season two, since Tyler flies off the rails within days of rejoining the school, having been another victim of bullying, verbal and physical abuse, and rape. There is no progress or change for future victims and the cycles repeat themselves, evoking a sense of hopelessness for victims and survivors.
- When Bryce escapes real justice for his crimes of raping at least three of his female peers, the narrative shows how the women’s cases go nowhere. The series attempts to lessen the blow of the failed pursuit of justice, which the characters and season two had chased, with Jess claiming to feel stronger regardless of the unsuccessful outcome.
- The bullying at Liberty High School sees no end or justice for the victims. The narrative neglects to show any discipline of students, anti-bulling talks by teachers and figures of authority, or raising awareness on campus. In fact, the school forbids any mention of Hannah or suicide in season two, turning a blind eye to any current student suffering.
- Every episode of both season one and two has different twists and turns, usually because of a secret of Hannah’s which is revealed at pivotal moments. With all of the dramatic revelations of 13 Reasons, it seems somewhat unbelievable and unrealistic for them to all co-exist in the life of one 17-year-old high school student.
- The “lad/bro/jock” culture of the male sports teams at the school persists throughout, even with Bryce no longer involved come the end of season two. This suggests there is a lack of guidance for the team members to follow from their coach and other teachers. The culture enables toxic masculinity to rule the school, and with Tyler’s attack in S2E13 at the hands of Bryce’s former associates, the toxicity seems more violent than ever, furthering the lack of hope for those it negatively affects.
- The whole show jumps between the then and now of the narrative, showing the effect that different characters had on Hannah’s mental state, for the court case her mother began against the school district. This is interspersed with the present circumstances surrounding continued bullying and scaremongering tactics at the school. Flashback after flashback, 13 Reasons shows how people linger in the past without closure ever being realised for the programme’s audience.
- The show centres on teenagers, when the actual cast is composed of actors in their 20s and 30s. This unrealistic portrayal of teenagers through a cast of adults lessens the full authenticity surrounding supposed “truthful stories about things that young people go through” during high school.
- The dialogue exchanges between teenagers is unrealistic so not only are the “teenagers” portrayed by adults, but their word choice often seems out of character for their onscreen age. Phrases like Chloe telling Tyler to leave her alone by saying “off with you” and a jock telling a group of friends to be “quiet, freaks” evoke a strained speech pattern where expletives and more current insults are overlooked. “Don’t drink it so fast – that’s a one-way trip to barf town”, said Cyrus to Tyler when drinking a homemade cocktail. Including these phrases and dialogue that no one uses in real life within the script furthers the lack of realistic depictions of the true teenage experience.
- While it is important to open up dialogue about adolescent suicide, it is possible to do so without the assistance of graphic rape scenes and extreme bullying which the show depicts. 13 Reasons has been hailed by some as a way of opening up conversations about young people’s struggles, and while it certainly raises awareness through its controversy, it does so at the risk of triggering vulnerable young people and those with mental health problems.
- Is this a realistic representation of an American high school in 2018? Or perhaps is it an exaggerated illustration of events told from contorted teenage perspectives for dramatic and controversial effect. We don’t need a season three to answer these questions.
Several important themes are brought into the equation in season two of 13 Reasons Why, including the Me Too Movement when Jess’ assault case comes to a head in episode 13. As she takes the stand to make a statement to the court, many of the other female characters join her in a montage sequence where they recount moments they have also experienced abuse at the hands of men. So while the main character Hannah is killed off, through her suicide before the first episode, season two comments here on its sexism and abuse against women, in-keeping with the era of post-Weinstein and Time’s Up.
Images – Netflix/Kicked to the Curb/July Moon/Paramount/Anonymous