13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix on March 31. Like many of my fellow television lovers, I spent my weekend watching in abject horror as Clay Jensen worked his way through Hannah Baker’s tapes, imagining in vivid detail every terrible thing that led her to the decision to take her own life. If you’ve heard anything about the series, it’s probably about how well 13 Reasons Why depicts the awful things that happen to teenagers on a far-too-frequent basis. Those critics are all right. Maybe you’ve heard praise for stars Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford. You should believe the hype. But while I would absolutely recommend watching 13 Reasons Why for reasons beyond my capability to describe any better than all of those other writers, we also need to talk about what happens when a male-dominated creative team takes on the pain of young women.
Following episode 5’s opening nightmare sequence, 13 Reasons Why dropped this bomb:
Mostly, boys are assholes. But girls? Girls can be evil.
Admittedly, my first reaction to that line, especially in the context of just how much Courtney Crimsen twisted the knife in the doomed Hannah Baker’s back, was to absolutely endorse it. It summed up my own youth: Aside from one “asshole” male, most of the bullying I experienced came from other girls. But given the extent to which boys’ behavior destroyed our doomed protagonist, was that really a valid characterization? The simple answer is “no.” The more complicated answer, well…It’s still “no” but with a lot of qualifying statements thrown in.
Girls absolutely can be evil, but a lot of what we put one another through comes from our already disadvantaged position in the world. 13 Reasons Why has a tendency to either misunderstand or completely ignore that perspective. Young women are constantly fed the message that we are natural enemies. Whether it’s because we’re competing to be noticed — you have to be the prettiest — or because we’re trying to get into a very comparatively limited number of leadership positions, we are at odds. All the time. We get paid less than men for equal (and oftentimes more) work, so the only thing we can do is crush one another on the way to the top.
13 Reasons Why barely gives this concept a glance when, thanks to a “hot list,” Hannah’s friendship with Jessica Davis ends in a slap. Arguably, that friendship was on the way out the second Jessica and Alex started dating, excluding Hannah from their former trio. But that could easily be another case of a woman (Jessica) feeling threatend by another woman and acting as society dictated. Thanks to the list, Jessica’s fear was justified, after all. Was Jessica evil when she cut her best friend out? No. She was short-sighted, cowardly, and paranoid. Was she evil when she slapped Hannah? Possibly…but she was hurting because of those “asshole” boys.
What was Alex’s excuse for his role in all of that? Oh, I get it. There was none. He knew that Jessica and Hannah had been friends until he became romantically involved with Jessica. He knew Hannah had already been through a lot…And he had to know that contributing to the list, especially when it meant ranking Hannah above her former friend, would cause trouble. He didn’t exactly seem to care until it was too late, though.
But maybe Hannah didn’t see other girls as evil until the next one betrayed her. So, let’s look at that.
Even if the characterization of Courtney Crimsen as the spawn of Satan is spot-on, there’s nothing to forgive the strange choice to paint girls, in general, as worse than boys. The girls weren’t doing the molesting or the raping in 13 Reasons Why; the boys were. (As we all know, that’s how it happens in the overwhelming majority of real-life cases, too.) The girls weren’t covering up rape and lying to victims, all while making excuses about what good guys the rapists were; the boys were. Regardless of how many terrible things Courtney did to protect her own secret, the heinous acts committed by Hannah’s male classmates were easy enough proof that boys, too, are evil. They’re not “just” assholes. That’s important to remember.
Maybe that one line wouldn’t be so niggling, even after finishing the series and seeing the horrible effect Hannah Baker’s story had on those around her, if the heroes of the story hadn’t turned out to be men.
It’s the male friend and doomed love interest, Clay Jensen, who struggles the most with hearing the tapes. Everyone else, including former female friends Jessica and Courtney, tries desperately to cover up their own involvement. Tony and Clay ultimately expose the truth. Some of the boys tell half-truths in their depositions, which is at least something: The girls tell outright lies.
When a teenaged girl takes her own life and shares the many evil acts committed by the boys — and even one adult male counselor — at her school, how are the boys also the heroes? How are the girls still described as the worst of the villains?
Despite every all-too-relatable moment in 13 Reasons Why, I’m still left wondering what exactly the point of “Hannah’s” commentary on her fellow young ladies was. Hopefully, that’s the point: to get us to question why, exactly, we’re always talking about mean girls, when we should be talking about how terrible everyone is. Maybe with a little more female representation in writers’ rooms and behind the camera, that message would have been a lot more clear.1 of 1