When I was growing up, teenagers spent a considerable amount of their time devising ways of accessing content that was deemed inappropriate for them. In the forgotten days before the internet, watching R-rated movies or acquiring adult magazines (yes, they were magazines) was not as easy as tracking down a streaming link or clicking on “Yes, I swear on everything that I hold dearest that I am indeed eighteen and am perfectly capable of putting an interracial gangbang into context and not forming unrealistic expectations re sexual intercourse and gender roles“. It was an ongoing worry of parents and teachers, that teenagers be kept away from media that was not designed to help and encourage their intellectual and moral development into functioning human beings and upstanding citizens. Those days are long gone, which is neither a good nor a bad thing, it just is. Technology evolves and we have to find new ways of explaining our complex realities to the new humans that we insist on producing. Over the past ten to fifteen years, however, a new phenomenon has emerged – and I am hardly the first to comment on it – that works in the opposite direction.
Target audiences: a brief story of the extinction of adults
Back in 2012, a study from Bowker Market Research, concerned with “Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age”, showed how 55% of the readers of what is commonly termed Young Adult fiction are in fact adults. This is not inherently a bad thing: there are excellent examples of young adult books and anyone who enjoys well-written fiction, myself included, might get pleasure from them. There is, however, a worrying aspect to this growing trend, in that a considerable part of this readership, which appears to include mostly adult women, seems inclined to read and consume exclusively books and media intended for YAs.
This, I can’t help but speculate, might as well be a product as a contributing factor in the disturbing infantilization of society that we are witnessing, which leaves most adults not only unequipped to deal with the complexity of the real world, but also indignant at the prospect of being expected to do so. This issue deserves its own blog post and I will not discuss it further, but I needed this long preamble to introduce the following analysis of the show that has a large number of women in their 30s and 40s (and a negligible number of men) running around on forums and Facebook groups alternatively preaching the mandatory showing of 13 Reasons Why in every high school on the planet or asking for it to be banned because of its nefarious triggering potential. It was only a matter of time, after all, before such market researches as the one linked above produced a change in the material itself. If JK Rowling might have started the Harry Potter saga with the genuine intent of writing for children and teenagers, it is hardly plausible for any YA fiction writer nowadays to claim ignorance to the fact that their readership will comprise a majority of meme-sharing grownups, for whom “adulting” is a verb – and therefore an action that may or may not be performed, rather than a condition resulting from not having died in one’s infancy.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, but it produces pernicious results and 13 Reasons Why is the most obvious so far. A work of fiction that purports to tackle enormously important issues, such as bullying and cyberbullying and their often tragic consequences among teenagers, should not be written with an adult audience in mind. Allow me to make one thing clear: I am referring, in this case, exclusively to the TV show and not to the book on which it was based or the film that preceded it. A work that goes out of its way to titillate and incite certain reactions in adult viewers, does a disservice to its younger audiences, by disregarding their needs entirely. And teaching them to respond emotionally to cheap triggers in the process. I will therefore proceed to list the 13 reasons why I believe that 13 Reasons Why is a spectacularly wasted opportunity
1. Representation: you can be anything you want to be, as long as you’re not ugly
Before watching the show, I had read high praise for its “raw, realistic representation” of teenage angst. Now, I don’t know where those particular reviewers grew up, but their version of reality is not one I have ever encountered, and most definitely not among teenagers. In the suburban high school in which most of the action unfolds, no kid is less than conventionally attractive. Even the nerds and the losers are slender, broad-shouldered, with pleasant faces and cool hairstyles. There are no fat kids, in this hyper-realistic school. Nobody wears braces or has a serious acne problem, none of the main characters even wears glasses. Now, few things in life are certain, and one of them is that adolescence is a dark, disturbing world of violent hormonal changes that make faces erupt with angry pustules, of oily air and sweaty armpits, of boys with embarrassing growths of dark fluff on their upper-lips and self-conscious girls that either bemoan their flat chests or desperately try to cover their newly acquired belly fat with oversized jumpers, of thick lenses and crooked teeth in metal cages and, most of all, of total cluelessness as to what to do with one’s own physical form. In the whole show, two overweight extras manage to snatch a few seconds on camera (with no lines, obviously). One of them even gets to dance with a thin girl at the school party. I can almost hear the director’s voice: “Get me a fat kid there. Pair him up with the hot chick in the dress. There. How’s that for body positivity“. In the whole show there is a grand total of one pimple. Jessica (Alisha Boe) sports it, shortly after Hannah’s death, and it is so conspicuously fake that the director’s cut might as well include someone saying “wait, she is supposed to be upset, let’s make her ugly“. That is also the one occasion in which her hair and makeup are not flawless. At no other time do any of these supposedly ordinary kids sport less than impeccable hair, cool outfits and, in the case of the girls, expertly and tastefully applied makeup.
2. Life is Strange: a déjà vu
I can’t decide whether the whole show’s aesthetics are a complete rip-off of Life is Strange or both products simply draw from the same, tired tropes (for those not in the know: Life is Strange is a videogame. Google it before reading on: this post is long enough as it is and I don’t have time for that particular digression). From the opening credits to the soundtrack, from the Disney-channel-with-Instagram-filters photography to parts of the local geography: it’s one thing to incorporate the odd reference, quite another to appropriate a whole look and feel. After spotting a handful of nods to LiS, it’s hard not to see them everywhere. If you have played at least one episode of Life is Strange, you will have the automatic impulse of trying to control the movements of Hannah on campus. The similarities are eerie and, while it might be argued that a school building looks much like another, I feel that at least the camera movements in said buildings and in a few outdoors scenes should have attempted to disguise the visual inspiration, rather than plagiarise the game entirely. It does not help that actor Brandon Flynn, who plays the tormented Justin Foley, looks remarkably like Nathan Prescott (an evil youth that plays a crucial part in the game), nor that actor Josh Hamilton, in the role of Matt Jensen, has been kitted out in a beard and glasses not unlike those of the sinister Mr Jefferson. Nor, for that matter, that Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) decides, shortly before killing herself, to have her hair cut to a short bob, not unlike that of LiS’ main character Max Caulfield. If the authors were trying to produce a successful YA show that would capture a specific section of adult audiences, after all, there is no better source of inspiration than Life is Strange, the game that made countless grown-ups (of multiple genders) identify with a teenage girl and cry hot tears at the end of each episode (this is not an exaggeration: watch a few gameplays on Youtube). While commercially sound, this particular choice detracts from the “raw, realistic, world-saving” narrative that has been spun around the show. 13 Reasons Why has been carefully designed to press all the right emotional buttons and become a smash hit. And it has not even found an original way of doing it.
3. Speaking of tropes: work-saving hacks for lazy writers
The sheer number of tropes in every scene of every episode makes this show painful to watch. Every trope ever used in any American teen movie since the invention of cheerleaders has been crammed into every episode, with such abandon that it might be said to constitute trope porn. If you are aware of the existence of movies and television in general, I dare you to watch the show for the first time and not guess exactly what will happen from one scene to the next, particularly at times of escalating tension. * Teenager listens to shocking content with headphones on and doesn’t hear mother approaching behind him, mother asks “what are you listening to?”, teenager is startled and replies “nothing. School project“. * Really, writers? Really? In 2017? Is that even legal? The Jensen family scenes, it has to be said, are trope galore. * Father asks son how school was, son expresses surprise at father “showing an interest” in his life. * Mother declares that they should “sit down and have dinner/breakfast like a family“. * “He is keeping secrets!” “He is a teenager! I’d be worried if he weren’t keeping secrets!“. * Boy rides bike while in distress, boy falls off bike. Repeatedly. * Nerd and jock exchange favours: nerd helps jock get better grades, jock helps nerd get girls, nerd had it in him to get girls all along because nerd is “adorable“. * Any time a teenager doesn’t want a parent to intrude on their private lives – which parents ignore entirely, having sprung into existence at the age of 42 – they simply say that what they are doing is “homework” and they will be left alone, because no parent ever smells lies. * Adults can be trusted to react to death and misery by being worried about financial consequences. * No teacher or counsellor has ever undertaken their profession out of a genuine interest for the education of young people and they are, consistently and with no exception, terrible at their job, incompetent, crass, insensitive and about as perceptive as a stuffed racoon. * This particular fault, as a few that will follow, conflate into the show’s main and, in my opinion, unpardonable fault: laziness. I will explain why in paragraph 13. Because, if you sat through 13 hours of cheaply produced dirge, you can keep on reading a little longer.
4. Stereotypes: the characters shopping mall
Wait, aren’t stereotypes more or less the same as tropes? Yes, but since this show is made of little else, I had to divide the relentless stream of platitudes into two categories. Not only every dialogue and interaction is painfully predictable, the characters are also taken straight from a gallery of stereotypes that puts one in mind of Propp’s identification of character types in fairy tales or, to use a contemporary analogy, the vaults from which the Faceless Men pick their temporary identities in Game of Thrones. Tony, the leather-jacket-wearing Latino, is almost never seen without its signature garment, which he religiously wears even over a suit, and his hair is never known to shift from its stiffly greased shape. He is the proud son of Working Class Dad – in his own words “a simple man“. Working Class Dad is gruff but caring and only ever shown elbow-deep in car engines. Because, no matter what tragedy is wrecking your life, “you don’t fuck with another dude’s car“. If working-class-dads go for the tough love shtick, middle-class dads are rarely seen without a mug and a book in their hands, they are considerate, but somewhat detached. Working-class moms do meth, have tattooed, drug-dealing nazis for boyfriends and smoke, while middle-class moms wear high-heels in the house and wake up with perfect hair. Rich parents are not to be seen, because they are holidaying in Aspen, and leave their rich kids to become bullies and rapists by offering them unlimited wealth and no moral guidance. Nerds have pi posters on their walls, listen to old bands and make Star Wars references. Also, they are not good at sports. Jocks, on the other hand, can’t spell. Creepy loners are gangly, have quirky, old-fashioned haircuts and take photographs. A lot of photographs. Dangerous girls wear heavy makeup, have piercings, tattoos and crazy hair and are into tarot reading, but, despite their edgy appearance, they have a heart of gold and mask their pain and fragility with rebellion. Cheerleaders have no interests besides boys and practice. Also, cheerleading is the only sport girls appear to practice. Cool boys have bleached-blond hair and listen to joy division. Boys from poor and troubled families make bad decisions, while boys from incredibly rich families are entitled and arrogant. No character is developed beyond a string of clichés, on which their reactions are built in such a scripted and unoriginal manner that the whole thing might as well have been written by a decently programmed writing bot. And I am not entirely discounting this possibility.
5. Acting and writing: the most embarrassing Netflix show so far?
I simply can’t keep on writing paragraphs of this length for every aspect of this show that I find fault with, so this one is going to be brief. For sheer quality of acting and writing, this show ranks well below the Netflix average. In fact, it may be the worst I have watched so far. With the exception of Langford and Kate Walsh (respectively Hannah and Olivia Baker), the whole cast gives a mediocre performance at best. I am almost sorry to say that Dylan Minnette as Clay Jensen manages to deliver the most cringe-worthy lines in the whole show, but that might not be entirely his fault. Most of the dialogues are clunky and unnatural and I suspect that, even as they were enacting them, the actors might have been painfully aware of the one-dimensional characters they were saddled with.
6. Feeding into the nostalgia myth
This is the last of what we could consider “minor flaws”. I’m about to get into the heavy stuff. One brief mention for the nostalgia myth: ENOUGH. Please. Seriously. “Everything was better in the past”. No. No, it wasn’t. And we have had to endure a decade of ubiquitous affectations of misoneism, whose only accomplishment so far appears to be the thriving market for iPhone cases that look like cassette tapes. Cassette tapes were how we managed to acquire music without paying for it, they were the torrent clients of the 80s and 90s, they were equally detested by the music industry and they were unusable if left in the sun. There’s nothing romantic about it, it’s just technology, which also happens to constitute one of the most highly polluting types of domestic waste in existence. Of course tape is romantic, for the 41 year-old that wrote the book. But please let’s stop glorifying anything that reminds us of how cool it was to be young and selling it to actual young people as “better” than anything they’ll ever have. You’re alright, kids. Just get a decently compressed .aiff and good headphones.
7. If you kill yourself, you will actually save everyone else’s life
I am honestly disturbed by the idea of encouraging teenagers to watch this show. Considering how most adults seem to have trouble identifying as such, I might be weary of showing it to them too. This is every angsty teen’s masturbatory suicide fantasy brought to full orgasmic completion. If you die, everyone (no, not just your friends, EVERYONE, the whole wide Netflix-watching world) will know just what a tragic and beautiful soul you were. Everyone will regret what they did to you for the rest of their lives. If you are lucky, one of those who wronged you might even shoot himself in the head. If you do it properly, if you leave a 13-hour-long suicide note, you will provide evidence for your rapist to be prosecuted, you will help your former friend and fellow-rape victim find the courage to ask for help, you will make the nerdy boy who loved you stop being shy and go talk to the girl he might love after you, you will make your gay schoolmate come out of the closet to her two gay dads (harrowing, I know) and your cheerleading friend face up to her responsibility and report herself to the police. Basically, you will offer the world at large a painful and yet much needed catharsis that will make them all better people. You will be the lamb of god, dying for everybody else’s sin. What are you even doing still living and breathing? Besides, suicide is some lyrical affair that stains the water of your bathtub pink. That’s it, really. Your mother will totally not have to dive into a vat of blood, shit and piss to recover your slippery, lifeless and yet still beautiful body. Tell me again how this is supposed to be educational.
8. Detailed manual for a suicide
You have to hand it to the authors: they have opted for crude realism on one thing. They have shown every kid in the world exactly how anyone who is serious about dying a slow death should slit their wrists. Which, as any suicide prevention group will gladly tell you, is exactly what you should not do (and therefore I will not repeat or describe it). The method of suicide is not only shown, but dwelled upon in voyeuristic detail. We are even treated to an example of how not to slash open your veins, as Skye demonstrates the “weaker” option of cutting superficially across your wrists for some light, non-lethal self-harming.
9. Talking of cutting…
Now this is what you do! This is what you do insteadof killing yourself! Got it, kids? Don’t ask for help, because asking for help will get you nowhere, but by all means self-harm to dull the pain of existing. Because, if you ask grownups, they will just give you meds without even checking that you actually need them or tell you to “move on” after being raped. But cutting? Now that‘s an excellent way to take care of your mental health! Because that’s what you do with the kind of pain that makes existence unbearable: you draw your own blood and keep quiet about it, in the hope that a sensitive nerd might wake up and decide to make your life better at some point. But definitely do not ask for help. Cool girls don’t go to the authorities. Cool girls stick it to the man.
10. Parents? What parents?
You might, by this point, have come to the conclusion that I am a cold-hearted bitch with not an ounce of empathy in her bone-dry soul. Which, of course, I am. And yet, even I almost-but-not-quite shed a tear at one point during the show. Ok, not an actual tear, but I felt a distinctive pang that, were it not for the overwhelmingly bad production, might have made me well up a bit. I felt that pang while watching the immediate aftermath of the suicide scene, with Hannah’s parents discovering her body. This show explores many things in painful detail, through the eyes of a couple of deeply introspective teenagers, but one issue it leaves mostly untapped: parents and their grief. Parents don’t really exist, they are not really people. Their pain is not even to be part of the equation, when deciding whether to kill yourself or not: it is unimportant. They don’t deserve consideration, they don’t really play a part in your life. And when you die, they will fight for you in court, they will not give up in their noble quest to have the truth uncovered. And yet they will never understand you, not really. They were childhood sweethearts, they were popular. They can’t possibly be trusted to understand what it’s like to be tormented. They are too plain and definitely not deep enough. You don’t ask them for help, not even if they desperately want to give it to you. Pity the show stops before we can see their lives unravelling from that point on. The two of them going back home and realising they don’t know how to go on living, then trying to deal with the blackest kind of grief imaginable, getting divorced, never being able to function again, turning to drinking and dying prematurely – and possibly intentionally – from having mixed the wrong meds with the wrong bottle of bourbon. But I get it, no author would want to show all of that uncool suffering. People might get triggered.
11. No means what?
This show has been criticised for showing graphic depictions of rape, which I think is the one unfair bit of criticism hurled at it. Rape, when shown, should never be romanticised, lessened or glorified for the benefit of a storyline. There are appropriate trigger warnings at the beginning of the two episodes in question, so that actual viewer discretion can be applied. For a few minutes, I almost sided with the authors: they were showing rape in its most hideous and sneaky form, when consent is not denied, but it is also not given, simply because the victim is physically or mentally incapacitated. But then they, the authors, proved that they were willing to throw the whole idea of consent under the bus for the sake of their own mediocre narrative. Prior to Jessica’s rape, we learn, Hannah and Clay have come close to having sex. After initially giving consent, Hannah is overwhelmed by memories of how boys have been abusive to her and she withdraws it. Clay, who is the only decent character in the whole show, immediately stops and offers emotional support. He is told to leave, clearly, for three times, to a crescendo that culminates in an unambiguous “Get the fuck out!” And Clay, being the good human that he is, gets the fuck out. That, we go on to find out, is one of the reasons why he is supposed to feel guilty. Because he did not force his own presence on the girl who had repeatedly asked him to go away. Because he did not disregard her request. And because he felt awkward and a little hurt for couple of days afterwards. But mostly because he did not refuse to leave a room where a semi-naked girl had explicitly said she did not want him to stay. No, authors. No. Which, you guessed, means no. Since your obvious intent is to show how consent is important in matters of physical intimacy, you do not get away with telling teenagers that there are circumstances in which it is acceptable to not leave when a partner is distressed by your physical presence. When someone withdraws consent and asks you to leave, you do as Clay did. You gather your things and you get the fuck out.
12. Watch out for the spin-offs
I have debated on points 12 and 13 of this list and I am still unsure as to which is worse. Open endings in tv shows are always a bit of a disappointment, but we are more or less used to them. Which road to you think the spin-offs will take? The 23 reasons why Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) shot himself? Will he live or die? We don’t get to find out, which means there is scope for development. Or will the spin-off show us what Tyler Down (the incongruously handsome Devin Druid) intends to do with the arsenal he is gathering in his room? Will he have his revenge on Liberty High by enacting a new Columbine? And will we be treated to the authors’ pastel-coloured take on mass shootings? Because I do have a feeling that’s a possibility and I believe both issues deserve more respect and better treatment that this particular writing team appears to be capable of.
13. Cheap triggers and unearned emotions
“The only emotion that annoys a poet is cheap emotion, unearned emotion” This beautiful sentence, casually referencing James Joyce’s explanation of sentimentality, is uttered by the poet Edward Lennox Wallace in The Hippopotamus, by Stephen Fry. You should read it, it is a magnificent book and it offers a much needed praise of rational thinking as the supreme act of love. 13 Reasons Why could be aptly described as a tidal wave of cheap, unearned emotions, expertly and intentionally arranged to trigger those who can be triggered violently by certain themes. I have seen a number of good, intelligent people react emotionally or get deeply distressed after having seen the show and promptly telling everyone about it, either to promote it or to discourage others from watching it. Whatever their intent, the result is identical, since many will watch it with the specific intent of testing their own triggers. What the show screams, to me, is “hey, we don’t need to sweat it, we don’t need quality: let’s just stuff it full of triggers, rape, suicide, cutting, bullying and casual references to mental illness and skimp on everything else: the whole of Tumblr will run around shouting omg I’m triggered!” This, I feel, is the most dishonest production I have ever seen, which is why I am furiously typing out a 6-pages essay on it, instead of ignoring it for being mediocre. This is trumped-up pain porn made to elicit a strongly emotional response in good people with deep fears or past trauma as a cheap tool for achieving notoriety. To which I am contributing. Because it works.
Did we need a show on the psychological and social dynamics of bullying and its sometimes lethal consequences? Hell yes, we still do, desperately. What we most definitely did not need was a poorly written, poorly acted, mediocre Disney Channel version of it. Is it all bad? No. I’ll leave you with the show one redeeming feature: it does manage to portray diversity effectively and understatedly, with a variety of ethnicities that are hardly ever remarked upon and a range of non-stereotypical queer characters who do not exist in the story for the sole purpose of being queer. That, at least, they got right.