“13 Reasons Why” was going to be an emo-teen tale that I could mindlessly watch while trying to be a responsible adult by ironing my work clothes. I had never read the book but had heard the premise ― the now seemingly mandatory inclusion of nostalgia through the use of cassette tapes ― and I was cynically unimpressed. Four hours later, and no clothes ironed, I managed to turn Netflix off. Two days later I had finished the series. I’m pretty sure I cancelled some light plans in order to do so.
“13 Reasons” is so much more than I thought it would be. It offers a deep delve into our sad cultural acceptance of rape and violence, of silence and willful ignorance. It is a harrowing but important story and well executed by the creative team. Flashbacks and mirrored scenes are utilized to make quick connections to the histories of the characters and to lead you through the mysteries of Hannah’s death, but they also work to maximise the feelings of loss and helplessness associated with such traumatic events. We need more shows like “13 Reasons Why”, not just for teens, but for everyone.
Right, there may be spoilers ahead, this is your warning.
This story is told through seven cassette tapes which Hannah recorded before her death. She guides us through the misdeeds of her peers and controls the narrative in this way. The other characters claim she is a liar, an unreliable narrator, but Hannah is the only character with nothing left to lose, nothing left to be taken. Her tapes are powerful, so the listener can pause, they can stop listening (albeit with repercussions organized by Hannah before her death), but they can’t argue with them. They can’t interrupt, change their story, or plead their case. The narrative is Hannah’s alone and for the first time she, a victim, wields the power. She speaks to us in a sarcastic, all-knowing tone ― the wise-cracking girl we see glimpses of in flashbacks, the girl that could have been. The narrative of abuse is hers alone to tell, and it’s not one that can be trifled with.
Further to the refreshing, necessary point of view, rape culture, objectification, and rape are central to the story and these themes are augmented by the show’s narrative structure. Acts of taking a woman’s body and turning it into an object of desire to be grabbed at and owned are shown repeatedly on screen.
The show opens on a party, a local girl, Kat’s, farewell party, which introduces many of our main players including Hannah. Here Kat tells Hannah to stay away from Justin because they have a thing. However Justin has that cheeky bad-boy-with-a-heart grin and soon after Kat and her family have moved Hannah and Justin strike up a flirtation. This is the beginning of Hannah’s spiral out of control. A photo Justin takes of Hannah is shared through the school, a hand is forced upon her leg, she is mocked, groped, stalked, slut-shamed, and finally Hannah is raped. Through one girl’s story, we are brought on a journey from the beginning to the end of rape culture. Every action is played out on Hannah’s body and we are forced to witness the destruction of each act as separate instances, and then the cumulative effect.
This is not an easy watch but what makes it powerful is the elimination of the male gaze throughout the show. When a list praising and criticising girls’ body parts is passed around the class there is no camera lingering over the girls’ bodies. When a pack of boys leer over Hannah because of the list, we see the fear in Hannah’s eyes rather than the boys’ lustful focus. There is no lasting gaze on the upskirt photo of Hannah, instead there is a moment of locking eyes with Hannah, of seeing the realization of what is happening to her. The upset. The shame. We are forced to focus on those emotions. To feel that. We are not given the power of the male gaze through the camera’s lens, rather we are put in her shoes so as to witness a young girl’s spirit being crushed.
By denying the male gaze “13 Reasons” refuses to glamorize rape, it refuses to let you avoid its horror, and allows you to understand the impact it has on the lives of the victims.
During Hannah’s rape, we do not witness penetration or other touches that might make this seem sexy. Instead, we are forced to watch Hannah’s eyes as they lose their lustre, her hands as they tense but then go limp, her face as it presses into the surface uncomfortable and detached. She does not say the word no, but she does not have to for us as an audience to understand the horror that is happening to this young girl. Every motion and lack of is noted on her person and we now see the world as a muted, cold, and dangerous place.
During another rape scene in episode nine, we witness the act from the point of view of three people. Hannah who is unwittingly trapped in the room, frozen in fear; Jess, whose vision is blurred and unsteady from her level of intoxication; and Justin, Jess’ boyfriend, who attempts to stop the rape but is locked out by the rapist, his friend. We do not see the act from the rapist’s point of view, the power he wields over his victim is seen through the eyes of others. We again are forced to feel helpless, scared, traumatized, and never given the view of the perpetrator. By denying the male gaze “13 Reasons” refuses to glamorize rape, it refuses to let you avoid its horror, and allows you to understand the impact it has on the lives of the victims.
Thanks to the smart storytelling, every scene, every microaggression, every attack is felt by the viewer. The series weighed heavy on me but I could not stop watching. It’s brave and unrelenting and should inspire real discussions about the dangers of rape culture, the importance of respecting yourself and others, and recognizing warning signs of suicide or self harm in people in families, schools, and amongst peers.
Far from being the twee teen tale I initially thought it would be, “13 Reasons” is a culturally significant story that unflinchingly points a camera at what many of us choose to ignore in our daily lives. By learning the story through Hannah’s own lived experience, we are forced to understand the perspective of the victim and emotionally deal with it. And from what they set up in the final episode, it looks like it will be more of the same for season two.