Thoughts on Thirteen Reasons Why

Last week I gave Thirteen Reasons Why a try on Netflix, after noticing it was listed on the audio described selections page. It took two days to finish the whole season, and a few days to let it sink in, allowing time for reflections.

What I liked about the series: the music selections was great. And it is always refreshing when more difficult ideas are active parts of movies or tv series. Such as disabilities, or in this case, mental health issues and problems in culture that no one usually talks about.

Highschool drama has never been my cup of tea, neither in books, movies, tv, or real life. But this time it seemed curious enough to observe the differences between the high school culture in USA and Europe. And there were and are quite a few differences, being aware of which might make it easier to now understand some locals better here. I’ll get to the differences in a bit.

Lots of the characters in the show were interesting, that is, they all had their obvious issues. Clay, the protagonist who listens to the thirteen tapes Hannah, the girl who killed herself, had recorded, blaming others for her issues, is likable, shy and quite introvert. There’s a huge difference in how the male and female characters act and think in the show, showing me how the gender differences are much greater here, and so cultural. Many of the guys who are popular are into sports and are in the school’s sports teams. With that and affluent homes they seem to be able to get away with a lot, including rapes that no one wants to report. The female characters seem to play less of active roles, but at least many of the most female drama issues I’ve seen happen in the real life didn’t occur in the show. It’s easy to pick the least likable characters, and they are purely a personal choice. Mine would include Courtney – big on lying and hiding her true gay self, trying to keep with appearances, unstable, and a vocal member in activities like student honor board where group think is not only tolerated but encouraged too. Hannah’s mum is another interesting character: even when Hannah was around, in the flashbacks, she is always stuck up in her own world, not noticing how her mood changes, actual words and behaviors affect those around her, including her husband and Hannah. In all the parents in the show, mums seem to be helicoptering and obsessive asking their children for their emotional status updates and whereabouts constantly. Is that what is supposed to happen in normal, awkward daily conversations in American families with teenagers, or is it the parents acting weird after deaths in the school? The parents also obviously seem rather uncomfortable around Hannah’s mum, not only for her issues and their feeling of their children’s immortality but also the lawsuit she has against the school.

There is really a lot about the culture in the show. Girls are expected to behave in certain ways to be popular, while obsessing over their “easiness” reputation. Boys can act more freely and do inappropriate things as “boys will always be boys”, and when a popular sports player gets accused of rape… I mean they don’t. Because it is somehow allowable. When I went to high school, internet wasn’t really a thing quite yet then, and neither were smartphones with porn and revenge porn pictures spread in group chats. Popular kids had parties, teens got drunk, awkward sexuality explorations were had like now, but at least there was less of a risk of anyone’s acting dumb while drunk ending in the internet forever. I would also add a big chunk about communication styles under the “cultural differences” section. When Hannah tries to communicate to the councelor about an inappropriate event, she never actually says what happened. Trying to just keep cool and act like a mildly depressed teenager is not the best method to communicate you need assistance, so maybe… dunno, learn to actually say what you mean. Of course it will sound horrendous if you’ll have to say “I was assaulted by X”, “I think I was raped”, “I don’t know what happened because I was drunk unconscious at the party”. But if any of those things are what will have happened, say the appropriate thing and don’t just assume others can or should be able to mindread you.

In one episode Hannah and Clay are enjoying some private time. Then Hannah starts screaming Clay to “Stop it!” and “get out of here! Leave me alone!”. When Clay does as Hannah aggressively asks, that apparently is also wrong to her standards. So if you ask a guy to stop it, and he stops it… he is still supposed to read your mind? If you wanted him to stay and do something else, how about say it? When your words and style of “how you said it” all scream (literally) to leave you alone, how and why are you expecting any different outcomes? Or even worse, when you ask for the guy you care about to stop it, not meaning it, and not even bother communicating with a guy you absolutely don’t want to do a thing to stop it but just silently let it all happen. I don’t quite understand how that is supposed to work, so maybe this communication style difference is among those “cultural issues”. If you ask X to stop what they are doing and leave you alone, with all nonverbal cues showing supporting cues (that is, “leave me alone”), and a person does what is asked, they complied with your request. Don’t expect mindreading. Even weirder: in my high school we never had communication lessons. In the series the topic was one of Hannah’s favorites. So how can you study communication, have grown up in a culture where oral communication, debates and reading between lines for nonverbal communication are such big things and not learn to communicate more clearly when it matters?

Drunk driving is present in the show, and fortunately to also show that it’s not without consequences. Substance abuse (although not very credibly), groupthink in many various forms, the fear of lawsuits, and parents’ obsessions over their teens’ showing any possible signs of depression. Those fit in the theme, and the mood of the show is gloomy enough for the aftermath of a classmate’s suicide. It probably also will leave you angry at Hannah for her blaming everyone else for her issues and taking an easy way out. I’m sure lots of emotional reactions for the show are expected. Other than the ones I can articulate so far (anger at Hannah, her mum, and a few jerks in the show; frustration as how big a deal groupthink adherence is instead of anyone doing anything). Didn’t quite have a proper emotional connection to the show I guess.

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