I began watching 13 Reasons Why (co-produced by Selena Gomez and originally based on a book by author Jay Asher) two days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to*. Going into this, I knew briefly that the show featured themes of high-school bullying, rape and teen-suicide.
An excerpt from the show’s Netflix page reads:
After a teenage girl’s perplexing suicide, a classmate receives a series of tapes that unravel the mystery of her tragic choice.
[13 Reasons Why] Follows teenager Clay Jensen, in his quest to uncover the story behind his classmate and crush, Hannah, and her decision to end her life.
Honestly, I was so not ready for this series. My heart was not ready. As I watched, anger, hurt and confusion set in. Why? Because the road Hannah Baker had been down looked so familiar to me. Because I wanted to jump through my screen and help Hannah. She tried, tried again, opened her heart and her soul to people she thought she was safe around. And when she ultimately realised she was not, she gave up trying, and gave up on life. As someone who self-harmed, as someone with friends who also attempted suicide, everything hit home.
I Thought About The People Involved
…As fleeting as those friendships were; but I’ll get into that later. In any new place, meeting people and forming friendships is beyond normal. Who wants to spend 8 hours a day in a place where they know no one, talk to no one and feel absolutely alone? Hannah was happy when she formed friendships; whether it was with Jessica, Courtney or Alex. She was at her happiest right before her best friend moved away and had to change schools.
Who eventually became her ‘ex-friends’
The norm seems to be people walking away from ‘friends’ when someone else cooler, prettier, etc shows up. Maybe it’s all part of the teenage ‘identity’ crisis that we face? You want to identify with the ‘greats’ so sometimes an old friend isn’t quite good enough?
The Popular Kids
Zach, Justin, Bryce, Sheri, Jessica, Marcus. They seemed to have piled on the most pressure on Hannah. Whether it was the boys and the pictures, Bryce (we know all that he did) and the other boys’ total immaturity; the trend seemed to be that everyone let so many things slide because the ‘cool kids’ were involved. And the not-so-popular kids (Tyler, anyone? Alex too, to an extent) especially, were reluctant to speak up about so many things.
As high-schoolers, as teens, as young people, it seems like we’re always afraid of something or someone. Whether we want to admit it or not. My suggestion? Stop being so afraid to stand up and stand out. Stop being afraid to say no. Stop being afraid to look or sound different because you don’t want to draw attention to yourself or be beaten up or laughed at. ‘Cause guess what? The people you’re afraid of displeasing, they’re afraid of something too.
Ryan; writer of the school’s magazine & member of the poetry club
Hannah found a ‘safe space’ (no really, that’s what one of the poetry club’s members called it) for self-expression. Or so she thought. We only found out later in the tapes that Hannah had a love for poetry and I honestly felt a relief for her that she’d found something of a ‘tribe’. A place at school where she could share her love for writing around other people who equally shared that love.
I write poetry myself, and like Hannah I have dozens of notebooks and journals full of them that I wouldn’t show a soul.
That vulnerability was a lot for her. Being vulnerable is a lot for any person who had previously been open with others and later regretted it. I get the feeling that the pages of Hannah’s notebooks & journals where she wrote, that was the true safe-space. In the end, Hannah felt uneasy, paranoid and nervous in the school halls and pretty much everywhere her peers were. The poetry club was an escape from that ‘walking on eggshells’ feeling. At least it was for awhile, before she lost that safety thanks to Ryan.
Hannah’s crush, Clay Jensen
Clay. The awkward yet sweet guy that secretly likes Hannah but doesn’t quite know what to do with his feelings. What stood out to me was that Clay had experienced bullying himself; when rumors were started years back that he was gay (us socially-awkward-around-the-opposite-sex teens tend to get that). Regardless, Clay’s awkwardness or shyness made it difficult for him to really communicate with Hannah how he felt. He said it himself, he was ‘afraid to love her’.
The school & school officials
Teachers, principals, school ‘counselors’. They never quite ‘get it’ do they? In way too many cases, they try but it’s never enough. It never seems genuine. In Tape 13, Hannah decides to try one final time to see if anyone would care enough to stop her from making her decision. She goes to the school counselor. Also, what really upset me was that he didn’t quite counsel her; at times he alluded to the fact that maybe she asked for what had happened to her (Bryce raping her) and even suggested she just ‘move on’. Y’know, ‘get over it!’.
I Reflected…and I Can Relate
Clay was scared to tell Hannah how he felt. Hannah was afraid of telling Clay how she felt. Also, Hannah was afraid of sharing her poetry with people. Jessica was afraid of not fitting in, and of people finding out about her rape. So much so that she totally blocked it out of her psyche. Courtney was afraid people would find out she was gay (and fell into a serious case of denial). Zach was afraid to be his true self around the boys. He was afraid of not being the ‘perfect jock’. Justin’s mother was afraid (and unwilling) to stand up to this boyfriend of hers. Sheri was afraid of people finding out about the stop-sign accident. It seems that everyone was afraid of or insecure about something.
Hannah’s final decision to end her life was due to her frustration. Then there was Justin, who was frustrated with his home situation and looking back, I honestly can’t be surprised by how he ‘acted out’. Tyler was frustrated with how the boys treated him. After Hannah’s death, everyone seemed frustrated by the fact that they all had a part to play, and didn’t want the authorities finding out.
The possibility itself is scary. It’s why Hannah felt betrayed when her poetry was taken from her book and shared with the ENTIRE school. Then, there was Jessica, who pushed the rape so far in her mind that she convinced herself she wasn’t raped. Same with Courtney, Justin (took him ages to admit he was struggling at home), Zach. Deep down, I think Clay was afraid of drawing attention to himself. He watched so many things happen to Hannah at school. All he could give her was the confused ‘wtf’ look as she passed him in the hallway or in the classroom.
The possibility of harm (real or even imagined) is enough to paralyse us. From speaking up, from showing up, from being honest, from liking what we like, from being open about what we don’t like.
When you’re afraid, frustrated and feeling vulnerable, nothing puts the final nail in the coffin like feeling alone. Hannah’s parents had no clue what was going on (maybe we hide too much from our parents?). The school didn’t know either, and never seemed to have answers. The counselor made her rape seem almost trivial and didn’t come after her when she left the office. No one stopped Hannah, and that’s what she was waiting and hoping for. Someone to stop the madness, stop the fear in her head. Stop her to say ‘hey I understand’.
Fear, frustration, vulnerability. All these issues are relatable and we all feel them at some point. Some are just better at hiding it than others. Or better at hiding it for longer periods. I’d say I had a tug-of-war with moments where I hid mine well and other times when I didn’t.
Then there are people around us who are genuinely oblivious to the things we struggle with. The series 13 Reasons Why speaks to not only the giants facing teens and young people in general, but the fact that they too often go unseen and unchecked. Sadly, when that happens, too many times it ends in tragedy.
Feeling afraid, frustrated, unseen, unheard and unchecked on can be too much for some. I thank the producers of 13 Reasons Why for showing us that it’s okay and it’s necessary to fight those feelings. It may save a life.
But Wait, Update!
I decided to also do a video ‘review’ of the series, where I go a bit more in-depth for those who’d rather watch than read (also, for my YouTube subscribers & viewers in general). It’s a tad long (yeah this show really meant all the things to me) so grab some popcorn! (In all honesty though, the video flies by pretty quickly; don’t let the 26 scare you?.)
Thanks for watching, if you do! I appreciate you!
(* Trigger warning – the series graphically features themes of rape, self-harm, suicide).