13 Reasons Why
“13 Reasons Why is diverse, representing the shift shown in the wave of new media featuring multicultural casts.”
Title: 13 Reasons Why
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creator: Brian Yorkey 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Book by Jay Asher 👨🏼🇺🇸, TV scripts by Brian Yorkey 👨🏼🇺🇸 and various (including POC and women)
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
I’ll start with the obvious positives. 13 Reasons Why is a show that demands you watch and pay full attention, because you will come away affected. Through the force of the actors, you’ll feel touched by the show’s core message, which is to be more alert and more aware of the people in your life.
The largest negative of 13 Reasons Why is the conceit that Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has created 13 sides of cassette tapes detailing her first and final year at her new school before killing herself. The conceit holds the viewer emotionally hostage.
It would seem like after all of her recording, Hannah would have realized that she should probably tell her parents about everything that’s happened to her so she can get the help she needs. Hannah and every other kid in this story neglects to tell their parents (or even each other) about anything going on in their lives, which is intensely frustrating. Also, Hannah’s too-cool-for-school narration is infuriating. Hannah sometimes seems to think that suicide is something she can use to make a point and then come back from later.
This goes in line with other reviewers’ irritation with 13 Reasons Why’s handling of mental illness and suicide. Alyse Ruriani writes for The Mighty about how she feels the show not only devalues the gravity of suicide and bullying, but could even make things worse for those who are considering suicide due to the graphic scene featuring Hannah doing just that. Ruriani also writes how the theme of teens not seeking help, plus Hannah only reaching out once to give life “one more try,” perpetuates an idea of there being a point of no return with depression.
As a side note, we potentially see some representation for people on the autism spectrum. The male protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) could be viewed as such, which would bring a new layer to the character and the show. Several times throughout the season, Clay asks about people’s intentions or what they actually mean, which seems to be a signal that Clay sometimes can’t read between the lines. Something that was brought up on Reddit was how Clay mentioned watching the same movies over and over, and repetition of certain actions is also part of ASD.
It should be made clear that 13 Reasons Why is not a show to watch if you are triggered by scenes of rape or suicide, since both are shown in graphic detail. In the case of the two acts of rape in this story, they are shown multiple times in flashbacks or flashfowards leading to the actual act itself.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women feature heavily in 13 Reasons Why and having females talk to each other within the same scene is routine, which is great. There is also a fair bit of diversity among them, including the biracial background of Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) in particular. Most of the female characters are portrayed beyond just being “nice” or “mean.”
However, one girl in particular gets short shrift—Skye Miller (Sosie Bacon). She is often saying how she used to be Clay’s friend in middle school and how Clay failed to continue the friendship once they got to high school. But we never learn about the root of her grudge against Clay. She’s also a goth stereotype ripped from the 1990s, which is surprising even in a show centered on cassette tapes. Skye needed more characterization in order to avoid the pitfall of being a stereotype.
13 Reasons Why is diverse, representing the shift shown in the wave of new media featuring multicultural casts. In particular, actor Ross Butler of British-Dutch and Chinese-Malaysian descent plays Zach Dempsey. Zach is one of the school’s basketball jocks, a role that traditionally doesn’t go to Asian actors. Encouragingly, he isn’t even the only Asian jock but one of several.
Ross Butler is a meaningful actor because this is the second jock he has played in his young career; he was the originating actor for Reggie Mantle on the CW’s Riverdale. Butler left the show because of his role on 13 Reasons Why, but thankfully, Butler has created a precedent on the show for the character; in Season 2 of Riverdale, Reggie will be played by Charles Melton who is half-Korean and half-white, with some Cherokee ancestry.
But back to 13 Reasons Why. Along with Zach, Tony Padilla (Christian Navarro) is one of my favorite characters. Tony is representation for both Latinx and LGBT characters, the latter of which will be discussed a little later on. While Tony is a character that subverts Latinx male stereotypes—he’s a sensitive, gay, hipster-esque guy as opposed to the “Latin Lover” stereotype—Tony is also a character that still acts within other stereotypes such as being a Latinx greaser-type who’s into muscle cars. He’s also a Magical Minority in the sense that he seems infinitely wise and directs Clay’s steps through Clay’s journey within Hannah’s tapes. Even still, the show seems to recognize that they’re playing with fire; towards the end of the first season, Tony reveals his own vulnerabilities to his boyfriend and to Hannah’s parents. Despite all of the caveats, Tony is still one of the more realized characters in the show.
Another notable is Sheri Holland (Ajiona Alexus). In a role reversal similar to Zach and Tony’s characters, Sheri, a black girl, is the Girl Next Door—a cheerleader, model student, and a girl loved by her peers. Again, a role like this usually goes to a white actor, i.e. the roles on Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Gossip Girl, etc. Sheri is also a love interest for Clay.
13 Reasons Why has a fair amount of LGBTQ representation, from Courtney Crimsen (Michele Selene Ang), who struggles with being gay despite being the adopted daughter of two gay men, to Courtney making out with Hannah, to Tony and his two prominent relationships on the show, Ryan Shaver (Tommy Dorfman) and Brad (Henry Zaga).
However, the showcase of LGBTQ characters and relationships doesn’t dive into the weeds, at least not to the extent that the show does with its heterosexual relationships. With Courtney, we learn of why she has problems with her sexuality (she doesn’t want people to think her fathers somehow “made her gay,” as narrow-minded people are wont to think), but Courtney and Hannah’s makeout session is the only same-sex kiss we see, which is interesting...many shows have had a tendency to fetishize two women kissing for male audiences, and within both the show’s storyline (at that point concerning Devin Druid’s Tyler Down, the school photographer, and Hannah’s stalker) and perhaps for the audience, Hannah and Courtney’s relationship seems to fall into that category of existing for the male gaze.
Meanwhile, Tony and his boyfriends never kiss. During his past relationship with Ryan, we see a light flirtation but they never get close (at least not in public). The most emotion we do get from either of them is when Ryan reads a poem clearly inspired by Tony and his car (with the poem laced with euphemisms). During Tony’s current relationship with Brad, we do see Brad finally getting him to open up about Hannah and the tapes, and once Tony exposes his vulnerability, Brad embraces him in a hug. But we never see Tony show any other outward affection (aside from sitting at the coffee shop with Brad or sitting in the library with Ryan).
It seems like the script’s suspicious neutering of Tony was in an effort to keep Tony’s “mysterious” allure. Maybe it was also meant to keep people guessing about why Tony’s been so interested in Clay to begin with (we’re left with a small hint that he could actually have a crush on Clay). But in any event, the effect is one that continues a trend in media to keep a gay guy’s sexuality under wraps.
Mediaversity Grade: 4/5
13 Reasons Why is a show that wants to make a positive difference in the lives of its viewers. But that strong earnestness seems to have been at the expense of actually investigating how certain themes could aggravate the problems the show seeks to remedy. Even still, the strong cast of actors brings you into the story, and it’s their acting that really sells the show, despite its problematic moments.