Last night I spent six of my dwindling summer hours watching the first half of “13 Reason Why,” the cult Netflix series about a teenager named Hannah who kills herself and then sends a stack of cassette tapes (because she’s, in her words, “old school”) to the kids who were in some way responsible for her suicide.
I hope she also had a set delivered to her own grave.
The dead girl, Hannah, was slut- and body-shamed, betrayed, heartbroken, and abandoned. All of the kids who terrorized her are depicted as simultaneously wrought with guilt and paranoid about being discovered as culprits, which seems pretty realistic considering how fickle and reactive pubescent brains can be. Still, details of each of those teenagers’ lives are scarcely believable and mostly gross stereotypes, as are the school itself, the educators therein, and the parents in the community. All of this compounds to give the show about as much class as, I don’t know, communism?
It supposedly takes place “somewhere in California” but tries so hard to depict Everyday Youth in America that it essentially sanitizes any semblance of true culture or personality out of every character and the very setting itself, unless you include the smart Asian girl with two gay dads, the tough Hispanic gang banger with a good heart, or the multi-ethnic meathead group of basketball boys as symbols of “American Culture.”
Students meet each other at “Monet’s,” which is I guess supposed to be a french cafe but looks like a Starbucks-themed school cafeteria. The barista, who you’re supposed to believe is also a high school student, is a Kat Von D lookalike with an alligator tattoo on her neck and lots of scathing wisdom, as baristas are wont to have.
All of the characters fit comfortably into the American perpetuation of the white patriarchy: The hero is a white heterosexual boy (who was bullied for being gay, of course); the victim a white heterosexual girl (who experiments with her closeted lesbian friend, of course). All of these teenagers are beautiful, wealthy, stylish and savvy – even the ones you’re supposed to believe have challenging lives or live in poverty.
The students’ counselor, a black man, used to work at a school where “kids shot each other in the hallways;” the protagonist’s white, upper-middle-class mom has to decide between her career and her family, and his dad lovingly jokes with his (teenage) son about a hangover, delivering a chummy shoulder punch with a headache-curing smoothie instead of, you know, trying to figure out why his teenage son came home drunk on a Tuesday.
I don’t profess to know everything about the teenagers of 2017, in spite of the fact that I’m immersed in their world for about 75% of my life. Being a teacher, even being a “cool” teacher, doesn’t mean that I am an expert on what children do and don’t do with or to each other. I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes more times than I’ll ever know, and I know that young people face a more complicated and harrowing reality than I did when I was their age a decade or so ago.
I feel that it’s important to share my reactions to this show not because I am a teacher who understands the real life of teenagers, nor because my first name is the same as the dead girl with all the reasons for dying – although her first name, mousy dark hair, and defensive sarcasm aren’t the only similarities between the girl with all the reasons and teenage me.
The fact that I’m alive today makes me hesitant to say I was ever suicidal, but I certainly spent all of my years in the hallways of high school wanting to be invisible in a very obvious way. Kids were mean to me – I remember being called a dyke a few times, and that the rhyme “knick-knack paddy whack Hannah’s got a hairy back” followed me around the cafeteria until I finally just started eating on the floor in the hallway instead. No one ever slut-shamed me, although I think some rumors about a pregnancy may have circulated after I dropped out at the end of sophomore year. But I didn’t hear about those until I was an adult and out of the suicidal woods.
I don’t think I had a harder time than my peers, and I know some friends – male and female – to whom high school was much crueler. But high school was really fucking hard, and I don’t necessarily think any of us makes it out alive. I hardly did, and only truly survived because my mom loved me enough to let me quit but never let me fail.
But my survival wasn’t without pretty some noticeable scars. Literal ones. Before the colorful and dark ink was added to my left arm it was much more obvious exactly how challenging being a teenager was for me.
Fortunately though, I was young before Instagram existed, and when Facebook was still mostly for Harvard students and my one friend who had a college email address, somehow. Snapchat, Twitter, and whatever else didn’t exist. Their inventors were still in middle school, probably.
We didn’t know everything about each other back then, which meant we didn’t feel like everyone needed to know everything about us. And maybe that’s why I made it out alive, or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. I never sat down to write out my however-many reasons why.
Perhaps I’m resentful that this suicidal Hannah is getting all the attention when all I got was a loss of friends and multi-year existential crisis. But that is precisely why we do not need to know a single damn reason of Hannah’s 13; what we need is a discussion of how teenage boys are trained to be predators, teenage minorities are trained to be tokens, teenage girls are trained to be sex objects, and educated, upper-middle-class white people are not the center of the fucking universe.
But who knows? Maybe we’ll get all that in the regretfully imminent second season. I’m sitting that one out; I’m sure there will be plenty shared online for me to get the gist.