Representation in 13 Reasons Why
*WARNING: Spoilers ahead!*
Netflix just released a new original series, 13 Reasons Why based on the book by Jay Asher. I read the book in high school and was completely blown away by the story. The premise is that a girl, Hannah Baker, kills herself and leaves behind tapes with the 13 reasons (13 people) why she did.
I binge watched the show in 3 days. It took me on an emotional journey I wasn't altogether prepared to take. I've read the book and listened to it on audiobook but seeing things play out on the screen made it so much more harrowing. The show did so many things right, and nobody is really talking about it yet. I started writing this post and realized that it is LONG, so I'm going to break it up. Today, I want to look at one aspect of something this show did really well: REPRESENTATION.
As far as I can remember, most of the characters in the book are presumed to be white. In the movie, the central group of characters is actually quite diverse in terms of race and sexuality. There are five heterosexual white males, one heterosexual white female, two heterosexual black females, one homosexual Asian-American female, two homosexual white males, one heterosexual Asian-American male and two heterosexual black males. (This is only counting the people on the cassette tapes, Hannah herself, and Tony).
In addition to having so many different people represented, the show works to break stereotypes as well.
While the homosexual Asian-American female struggles with the secret of her sexuality, she is top of the class, portrayed as a perfect student, which is fairly stereotypical. On the other hand, the heterosexual Asian-American male is a star athlete who needs tutoring, counter to the narrative that Asian-Americans are all super smart and quiet and not athletic.
The heterosexual black male student is also top of his class. He is applying to Ivy League colleges. He is on the student honor board. He portrays a picture of a young black male that is so absent recently in our culture: that they are more than thugs and lost causes. They are successful and smart and just as capable as their peers.
One of the heterosexual white males has a mom who is a drug addict who continually chooses her boyfriend over her son. He doesn't have money to afford things, like school books and basketball gear, so one of his friends' parents helps him out. Counter to this, is the realistic portrayal of a rich, heterosexual white male who lives without fear of consequences of his actions. When the students think about pressing charges against him, a true concern is that his parents will buy him out of trouble. This does happen in real life.
One of the homosexual white males is portrayed as a tough guy from an Italian family, shown beating someone up at one point. He in no way fits the narrative that gay men are feminine and less manly.
These portrayals, the ones that break and reinforce stereotypes, make the show believable. It's a truer snapshot of the world in which we live today.
In addition, I think the show handles the portrayal of male feelings extremely well. The kids in the show are fairly traumatized by the tapes, the accountability for their past actions, and the show doesn't shy away from showing what that means. We see male characters cry. Clay Jensen cries multiple times, realizing that maybe he could have done something differently to change the outcome of Hannah's life. Justin Foley cries when he finally confronts his role in the rape of his girlfriend. He cries again after his mom's boyfriend chokes him and his mom still chooses her boyfriend over him. We see Alex Standall cry when he realizes that something he thought would be a stupid joke actually has fatal consequences. Tony cries under the weight of the burden Hannah has placed on him.
Even better than all of this crying is the fact that it isn't shown as weakness. Two kids embrace because they're both going through something traumatic and it doesn't have to be considered "gay." It can just be two guys working through their stuff, having each others' backs. Any young man watching the show can see people processing their emotions in both healthy and unhealthy ways and learn from that. Viewers see that men are just as emotional as women and that it's OK.
The show also depicts different types of families. One student has two fathers. One has a single mom. One has parents who are married but struggling with money. One has military parents who are absent a lot. One has a family where the mom is the main breadwinner. These are what real families look like, and it was awesome to see them even if they were only small parts of the narrative.
Though I'm not sure of the shows ratings and whether or not it's "success" has quite been quantified yet, I would bet that the diversity in it hasn't deterred people from watching. People spend so much time fighting against the idea that representation is important, but it is. And I think part of the reason the show was so powerful is because it was so believable. And it was believable largely because of its diversity.
Next week I'll be talking about suicide & rape depictions in the show. Be sure to check back!