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Pop Culture Advent Calendar, Day 9: 13 Reasons Why

Inspired by NPR, every day (gulp) from December 1st to 24th, I will be highlighting

a pop culture moment from this year that I loved. Today I talk about polarising teen phenomenon, 13 Reasons Why

It's a very tepid water temperature take to say 13 reasons why is polarising. Lots of people like it, lots of people hated it. Many experts in the mental health field thought it was irresponsible and defeated its purpose, and warped suicide so it was portrayed as a 1 +1=2 equation, when in reality it is so much more complicated and nuanced and messy than that.

I’m somewhere in the middle but tend towards dislike. I think it's well produced, and the young cast are talented. I think the character of Justin in particular, is very well acted and written, empathetically displaying generational cycles of abuse, neglect and addiction, and the show does a good job of asking us to sympathise with him because of his home life Brandon Flynn’s charismatic performance, but be repulsed by his complicity in crimes against Hannah. (Keep him AWAY from Jessica though, yikes)! I also like the show a lot more than I like the book, though that’s not saying much because even back in 2009, when I was a lot less picky about what I read, I wasn’t a huge fan of the book.

I think its graphic portrayal of sexual violence is misguided at best. Its producers have said that they want to portray the brutal reality of sexual violence, as well as its ramifications. In the horrific scene involving Tyler, which I would give a significant proportion of my savings to unsee the little that I did watch. I think there’s a difference between bringing light to something, giving proper due diligence to the aftermath of trauma to inciting something for shock value and controversy. There are many ways to tell this story, unfortunately.

The scene I’m alluding to is in the season 2 finale, where Tyler is horrifically raped. I’m not saying that sexual violence done to men should not be talked about or portrayed on screen – it should. My God, it should. There is so much work to be done there. And 13RW also does a good job of displaying power dynamics and cycles of abuse – Monty, Tyler’s rapist, is the victim of violence from his father. (Not that this happens to all victims and not that this excuses his actions). In Beyond The Reasons, a discussion taking a closer look at the show, that the reason for this scene is to bring the audience over to Tyler’s side, to emphasise ‘radical empathy’ – having empathy for a character very different to you.

But…we were already somewhat sympathetic, despite his creepiness. He had done the right thing in season 2’s court case and given the police all the information they needed. It is shown that because he doesn’t have social capital, he is disproportionately punished for his sins, compared to the other boys. To have such a violent act in a show to encourage empathy, especially when it is a set-up to a school shooting, a nuanced and complicated problem plaguing American educators and students today, is…not good.

The scene I wanted to talk about (lol) is also from the finale. It is at a school dance, and things are moving on for most characters. A wake is held for Hannah, Justin is adopted, Clay is okay(ish) and says goodbye to Ghost Hannah, Jessica is trying to heal. They’re at a school dance and the beautiful song ‘The Night We Met’ by Lord Huron is playing, which has come to be the series’ theme song and Hannah and Clay’s song, representing all that they could have been (although I low-key think they wouldn’t have been more than good friends).

The song’s lyrics are thematically perfect – ‘I had and then most of you some and now none of you’. It’s a haunting song about loss playing over a scene where most of the main characters embrace each other and cry. It’s sad but cathartic, and the catharsis makes it hopeful. It’s genuinely moving; and had all the stuff with Tyler (and Justin and Jessica) not happened, it would have been a beautiful ending for a series steeped in darkness.

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