After watching the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why I feel emotionally exhausted, with no sense of catharsis or resolution; just a sad heaviness in my chest. I’m now a 53 year-old man, but this series stirred up all sorts of painful memories of my own high school years: memories of bullies, teenage despair, awkward and failed attempts at friendship, and of the oblivious (sometimes hostile) adults who stood on the sidelines. One of the strengths of this show – and what makes it so unsettling – is that, as in real life, no one is depicted as completely free from blame for contributing to the world’s misery and hopelessness. There are no clear distinctions between “good guys” or “bad guys.” Everyone is implicated in the suffering of those around them. The most sympathetic characters in the show are neither pure nor blameless. They’re just the ones striving to be honest about their guilt while making the truth known.
The central conceit of 13 Reasons Why is a series of 13 tapes recorded by Hannah Baker before she commits suicide. Each of these tapes chronicles the abuses she underwent at the hands of fellow students and the adults in her life – from social humiliation, to callousness, to rape – that drove her to kill herself. The tapes have been circulated among the culprits, and finally wind up in the hands of Clay Jensen, her unrequited teenage love, who then struggles with feelings of guilt about his own blameworthiness while trying to figure out what he should do with the information he has learned.
I became interested in 13 Reasons Why because much of the show was filmed in my hometown of San Rafael. As my wife jokes (echoing a character from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), seeing your own neighborhood depicted on screen makes you feel “certified.” It makes it feel as if the place where you live has significance beyond your own personal experiences. As I observed the film crews at work on our street, a sense of excited anticipation was provoked in me, priming my desire to see how our familiar, everyday surroundings would ultimately appear on screen.
In 13 Reasons Why, San Rafael landmarks are on prominent display. Mt. Tamalpias appears throughout the series as a visual anchor. The downtown police station, library and Fourth Street are regular backdrops. Key characters occupy houses located in the Gerstle Park and Dominican neighborhoods. San Rafael Hill, with its views of the San Francisco Bay and of the city below, provides a detached, aloof panorama of the landscape in which the despairing drama of the show plays out. Like tourists in our own hometown, my wife and I have now taken to visiting these various addresses and locations, seeing them in a new light, as if they have been illuminated by reflections from the television screen. In the process, our city has taken on a strangely glamorous but melancholic luminosity that merges fabricated gloom with our own real-life recollections of teenage sadness.
Crestmont is the name of the fictional town that serves as the setting for13 Reasons Why. Early in the first season, one of the parents in the show mentions that her family moved away from the suburbs to this town for a better life. It is a curious, but quite apt, piece of dialogue that perhaps explains the appropriateness of San Rafael as a filming location. Technically, San Rafael is a suburb of San Francisco; however San Rafael is also the seat of Marin County, a place that has a reputation for being a world unto itself; a bubble of wealth, liberality, creativity and idealism. “Mellow Marin” is home to the Grateful Dead, the mountain bike, and as depicted in The Serial, is a place where alternate lifestyles and new-age therapies proliferate. It is also one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. All of this has led many people to regard the county with disdain, as too exclusive, too sheltered, too white and too privileged. 13 Reasons Why capitalizes on this reputation, challenging smug assumptions by showing that economic prosperity and cultural liberality do not eradicate real human suffering.
Obviously, not everyone who lives in Marin is rich, but the aura that is cast by the county’s wealth does affect everyone, sometimes resulting in callousness to the challenges faced by many Marinites. Everyone suffers through their own forms of unhappiness, and the unhappiness experienced by those living in conditions of privilege can sometimes be just as bad, if not worse, than the unhappiness of those who live in more obviously abject conditions. Oftentimes, there is more widespread sympathy for the plight of the underprivileged than there is for the suffering of the well-off, leaving privileged people to feel guilty about their own despair. After all, what do they have to be sad about when there are others in the world who struggle with poverty, crime and hunger?
The effect of this kind of callousness is illustrated in one especially memorable scene from 13 Reasons Why, when Clay is belittled by his high school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. After complaining about the atmosphere of hostility and despair at school, Mr. Porter makes a point of telling Clay that in his previous job at an urban high school he actually had to deal with students who had “real” problems. Clay’s look of betrayal is obvious enough that the counselor, and we the audience, know instantly the message that has been conveyed. Some suffering is more “real” than other suffering. The suffering of those who live in economically well-off areas is less legitimate than the suffering of poor people. Later in the season, it is this same attitude that is revealed to be one of the 13 reasons why the character Hannah Baker kills herself after Mr. Porter suggests that she just forget about being raped by the school’s star baseball player and get on with her life.
This all struck a personal chord, reminding me of my own high school years and how my teenage despair was compounded by feelings of guilt and shame for being in despair. When I fell into states of depression, I was told by the adults around me that I should just be thankful that my life was as good as it was. I remember one of the school custodians, a middle-aged man, threatening me, a teenager, with violence when I was sitting alone and depressed, apparently because he thought I was being disrespectful to him. When I complained to the Vice Principal at San Rafael High School about being bullied, I was met with a disdainful, blank stare that I took to mean, “You have nothing legitimate to complain about.” When I eventually did fight back against one of my bullies, I was suspended. The message was clear: I was just a privileged whiner. My suffering was not genuine. After all, other kids have real problems.
It is a sad fact that those who are bullied often end up becoming bullies themselves. Such kids learn that one way to feel strong and to salvage self-dignity is to lash out at the world and the people in it, refusing to remain passive. This is a dynamic famously described by the German philosopher Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel claims that humans desire to see themselves reflected in the eyes of others and to gain their recognition. But in doing so, people endeavor to control the image of how others see them. This control results in a kind of enslavement of those whose acknowledgement we crave, and in this enslavement we reduce others to the status of objects, useful for the fulfillment of our own egoistic desires. However, in being enslaved to us, others come to learn the power of mastery and objectification, incorporating that power into their own consciousnesses and thus learning to break free from their masters. This is what Hegel calls the “master/slave dialectic,” and he claims that it is at work in all human relationships. In a sense, all human relationships are bullying relationships!
In 13 Reasons Why, the master/slave dialectic is on full display. The jocks in the school represent the masters; those who demand that others glorify and adore them, submitting to their desires, whether they be social, sexual or educational. These demands for dominance are expressed in the intimidation, assault and rape of other students. But we learn, as the season unfolds, that these “masters” have themselves been enslaved outside of school by their own dysfunctional family dynamics. The jocks’ abusive inclinations did not come from nowhere but rather grew out of the abuses that they themselves have suffered at home. Their trauma has become internalized and then vented on others at school.
This, however, initiates a cycle, and the students who are abused by the jocks at school in turn learn to lash out, either by abusing others or by abusing themselves. So it is that a bullied photography student finds that he can reclaim a sense of his own power by secretly snapping, and then publicly distributing, photographs of other students in intimate situations. Clay Jensen, from whose perspective the show’s story unfolds, takes his own revenge on the photography student, secretly snapping a nude photo of him and sending it out on social media in order to humiliate him. Throughout the season, these little acts of revenge build up but produce no feelings of justice or relief. Instead, the atmosphere of despair, anger and hostility just grows and grows as more acts of violence, humiliation and unkindness are piled one on top of the other. Meanwhile, the adults in charge seem disconnected from the pain taking place underneath their noses.
Again, I am reminded of my own high school experiences. Sometime in my junior year I came to the conclusion that none of the adults in my life were going to offer any help in dealing with the humiliation, violence or despair that were daily aspects of life at San Rafael High. I recall dreading going to campus and finally deciding that I was going to fight back. I would be just as cruel to others as they were to me. That was when I started to smart mouth teachers, school administrators and school narcs. I got into fights and was suspended. I realized that I could use my intellect to make fun of the jocks who tormented me, confusing and belittling them in front of other students. And it all made me feel more powerful, more clever and more in control than I had ever felt before in my life. But I also became more callous to the feelings of others, more arrogant, and more disdainful of people than I had ever been. Just like in the show, I alleviated my own suffering by making others suffer. I made myself feel big by making those who threatened me feel small. This coping strategy followed me into my post-high school life, and it has taken decades for me to learn how to abandon it.
The only thing that feels inauthentic about 13 Reasons Why is the depiction of how kids from various and differing subgroups socialize with one another. So, for instance, Clay and Hannah attend (and are welcomed at) a party thrown by jocks and cheerleaders. Some of the jocks and popular kids appear at the cafe hangout frequented by Clay and his friends. Alex Standall, a kid who listens to The Ramones and Joy Division, dates Jessica Davis, the school’s most popular cheerleader. Maybe things have changed, but when I was in high school jocks and alternative kids did not date one another or attend the same parties. Maybe things are different now, or maybe this is just a bit of artistic license on the part of the show’s writers.
I would recommend 13 Reasons Why to those who are looking for something more than light, easy entertainment. It is a show that encourages viewers to reflect on their own victimization at the hands of bullies while also considering their own culpability in contributing to the suffering of others. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is not a show that offers catharsis or resolution. However, it does push audiences to think about their own complicated connections to others with depth and a sensitivity rarely seen on TV.