13 Reasons Why: A Conversation with Emily Holyoake

It seems like this has been a long time coming, my sister and I have had numerous conversations about 13 Reasons Why, so we thought we would sit down and record one of our discussions. Spoiler alert: we’re not huge fans.

Why did you watch 13 Reasons Why?

Jess: I’m just obsessed with Netflix, to be honest, and everyone was banging on about it.

Emily: This wasn’t one where people started saying ‘you have to watch this’ and I resisted it, because I usually do – I still haven’t watched Stranger Things, it took me about three years to watch House of Cards. But for some reason, 13 Reasons Why looked like it would be my sort of thing. And I think as well, I saw a lot of people saying ‘it’s so important’, ‘everyone must watch this’, and it looked like it had some sort of nobler purpose to it which I thought was quite interesting. And I definitely- I think I recommended it to you and I asked if you were watching it a lot.

Jess: Yeah, you kept asking me ‘are you watching 13 Reasons Why yet?’ and then I finally watched it in about a day, because there’s only 13 episodes of it. (Obviously).

Emily: So you did what the character doesn’t do, and you binged it all at once. Whereas, I spread it out- not because I couldn’t have binged it- I probably could have watched it all in one sitting if I had had the time to do it.

Jess: Yes, whereas I have no life.

Emily: So apparently in the book, he gets the tapes and he listens to them all at once, and the book takes place all in one night. Whereas for the TV series they decided to do this thing of breaking it up and have him going and confronting people as and when he found stuff out. And everybody else then saying to him ‘well you don’t know the whole story yet’, ‘why haven’t you listened to your- you haven’t even listened to your tape!’ And making the point that everybody else is shouting at the TV – ‘just finish listening to them!’

 

Do you think you’re the target audience for 13 Reasons Why?

Jess: Absolutely not. I’ve said this from the beginning, you know, 16/17 year old Jess would have absolutely loved it and been completely obsessed with it and just been like ‘I love Clay so much’ and ‘everyone’s so misunderstood’ and ‘I’m so misunderstood!’

Emily: Which character would you have liked best when you were 16?

Jess: Clay. Yeah, probably. I’m not sure, I don’t particularly like Hannah and I don’t know if I would have liked Hannah 7/8 years ago either.

Emily: I also really don’t think I’m the target audience for it. Although I don’t know whether Netflix thinks in ‘target audiences’… I think this is a problem with 13 Reasons Why and generally with Netflix – there’s either the kids section or there’s the rest of Netflix. And I think there’s something dangerous about streaming in that it really gets rid of ratings. They didn’t put those content warnings on until it had already been up for a couple of weeks at least.

Jess: Oh! Really?!

Emily: I can’t remember what stage they put them on, because by the time we got to it they were there, but those content warnings weren’t up to start with.

Jess: Oh yeah, I’m just looking here: “Netflix has announced it will add a content warning to its original series “13 Reasons Why” after multiple mental health advocacy groups and parents expressed concerns with its graphic depiction of suicide.” To not even think about that in the first place completely baffles me.

Emily: So these characters are … 16 to start with and then 17. I’m happy with 16/17 year olds watching it. I’m worried that it’s also appealing to teenagers a lot younger than that.

Jess: Yeah and without a parental lock on something, Netflix isn’t going to be like ‘are you sure you want to watch this?!’ It has a content warning at the beginning, but no one really reads those anyway.

Emily: And it’s only on some episodes too.

Jess: It’s definitely on the first episode, because I remember being really impressed that it had a content warning, but I didn’t know it wasn’t on there originally. That’s crap.

 

Why do you think people are saying ‘it’s so important’?

Emily: So I guess people are saying it’s important because it’s opening discussions. It’s definitely one of those series that everybody’s been talking about. People have spoken about the portrayal of depression in it and whether that’s effective or not, they’ve spoken about the representations of rape and whether those are truthful, accurate, helpful. I think it’s got a lot of discussion points in it, and it just about skirts around feeling like a public service announcement to watch- it doesn’t feel like it’s about ‘bullying’ or ‘abuse’ or ‘harassment’- I think it speaks on the same level as its audience. I’m still slightly uncomfortable with how graphic it is, but I don’t know whether that’s because I’m looking at it through a more adult lens. So I think people are saying it’s important because it’s starting conversations. I’m not convinced it’s starting the conversations it intended to.

Jess: Actually what’s been surprising is that it’s starting conversations amongst parents and their kids, which is great if it makes parents more open to talking about things like that.

Emily: It portrays parents very badly though. It portrays adults as not being able to on any level understand teenagers, which is not particularly fair. And it’s also saying to teenagers ‘the adults in your life don’t understand you, and when you ask for help they won’t be capable of giving you that help’. Because everybody that Hannah asks for help, everybody that Clay asks for help, is crap at it. There is no example in that whole series of an adult actually being able to help one of those teenagers. It wouldn’t have taken much to just have one person who didn’t fail. And Keiko Agena’s character? She’s like a communications teacher- she’s awful! How has she got a job?!

Jess: Mrs Bradley.

Emily: I mean, where did she get her qualifications?! I can’t believe that that’s actually a class.

 

Why do you think 13 Reasons Why could potentially be dangerous?

Jess: I have so many issues with this show. Speaking as someone who has had both relationships and friendships with people who have had depression, and as someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression in my own life and still does now, I think it’s incredibly dangerous to have a programme that’s centred on the suicide of a teenage girl and not to touch on the idea that there’s some mental health issues going on as well. It is entirely placing the blame on other people, on external factors, and yes of course all of those people have contributing factors, all of those events did, but it doesn’t touch on the fact that she probably was pre-disposed to a mental health issue that wasn’t address at all. Not once. I don’t know if I’ve completely missed a whole episode where they did that?! But to just kind of gloss over it in the way that they did, and make out that suicide is entirely blamed on people and their individual actions and not have mental health as a contributing factor- I don’t understand why they wouldn’t have touched on it. It’s such a big deal, especially now there’s a huge percentage of young adults who have some kind of mental health issue. To not touch on it… I don’t know why they haven’t done it and I think they’ve missed a trick there. That’s what young people want to see, that kind of thing being addressed.

Emily: Yeah you’re right, they missed the opportunity. It opens discussions about depression externally to itself, but within it, they really do shy away from using any terminology like ‘mental health’, ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’; they really shy away from using the words. I remember one scene that really confused me was that scene where Clay’s parents give him his prescription again, and we’re given the idea that Clay has suffered from some sort of anxiety, but we’re not given any context for it. We’re shown him with a bottle of pills, experiencing some symptoms and this idea that he’s over it and it’s in his past and we don’t have to talk about it again.

Jess: Yeah, ‘he’s taking these pills… DOT DOT DOT’.

Emily: In some ways that’s interesting and subtle story-telling and in some ways that’s being wussy about labelling things.

Jess: It’s laziness.

Emily: I think what you said is right, and that the whole premise of the show is that if you are feeling depressed, if you are feeling sad, if you are having suicidal thoughts then you should look externally to yourself, because it’s other people’s fault. The actions of other people obviously contribute and the stresses in your life can certainly trigger depression and make it worse. And people do need to be more aware of their impact on other people. But considering it’s a show that is entirely narrated by Hannah, I don’t think I really ever got to grips with how Hannah was feeling. For most of it she just seemed like this… vengeful angel.

Jess: It made me not like her.

Emily: One of the big sticking points for me was that she outed the rape of somebody else. That was for Jessica to deal with in the way that she wanted to, and Hannah takes that away from her. Because the show is quite clear that Jessica remembers it and is repressing it, she doesn’t need Justin to tell her what happened, she does know what happened. But Hannah outs her, which… there’s a lot that they do that makes Hannah not particularly sympathetic and identifiable with.

Jess: And they could have done so much with that character, it’s disappointing.

 

Are they any characters you particularly liked?

Jess: Tony.

Emily: I was convinced for most of this series that Tony wasn’t real, and that he was some sort of angel or imaginary figure that Clay had made up.

Jess: And I thought he was dead. Or that Clay was dead. And they were ghosts. Illuminati confirmed.

Emily: Yes, I was disappointed as Tony interacted with other human beings and it became clear that he wasn’t just a figment of Clay’s imagination!

Jess: Even Hannah didn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities that made me like her.

Emily: I have a problem that the male characters were much more active than the female characters –  the whole show is ‘Woman In The Refrigerator’, that trope of a male character being motivated to do something important with his life and make an impact because a woman has died. Considering as well, the stats may be different with teenagers, but in adults the rate of suicide in men is so much higher – it would have been a very different show if it had been a teenage boy at the centre of it who had taken his own life.

 

How do you think the show dealt with self harm?

Jess: I had to watch that bit twice, because I could not believe how much they glossed over… Clay sees Skye’s arms covered in scars and she says ‘it’s what you do instead of killing yourself’.

Emily: And she says something about how that is strength, and what Hannah did was weak. YEAH.

Jess: I was so shocked. ‘It’s what you do instead of killing yourself.’ And then that’s it.

Emily: Skye was such a screaming stereotype.

Jess: She’s this emo, she’s eternally angry, she writes poetry…

Emily: She works in a coffee shop and reads tarot cards-

Both: And she self harms!

Emily: And then of course she turns out to be the girl that Clay should be friends with because she’s also the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’! She’s just a collection of stereotypes.  You have this sort of mishmash of characters. Take Justin, who on the surface is the popular, jock-y, sporty one, very charming, very good with women, and then he goes home to a really shitty home environment and you kind of see that how he is at school is a façade and how he’s clearly a lot more sensitive… there are some characters in there that start off feeling like stereotypes and then get unpicked a little bit.

Jess: There’s these kind of issues-

Emily: Alcoholism…

Jess: -that are addressed in a way that you see them happening, but they’re never actually resolved or dealt with constructively.  So this kid is really hurting in a really relatable way, but we’re not going to deal with it at all.

Emily: Because the moral of 13 Reasons Why is ‘if we could all just be a little bit nicer to each other’… but being a little bit nicer to each other doesn’t actually address alcohol abuse or having a crappy home life where you go home and get beaten up, it doesn’t address the causes of self harm – being a bit nicer to each other. Self harm is not the same thing as suicidal thoughts – one does not necessarily lead to the other. And one is not an alternative to the other.

Jess: Just reading this from The Tab: “Speaking of which – Skye, the one character with scars, tells Clay ‘it’s what you do instead of killing yourself’. Where’s her recovery? What sort of message is this sending to the millions of young adults watching this show? Not everyone who commits suicides shows signs, granted. Almost all suicides are described as ‘shocking’. But is the word ‘depression’ ever uttered once in all 13 episodes?”

 

How do you think the show dealt with rape?

Emily: The thing that I realised recently about the rape scenes and why they piss me off – so I recently watched Three Girls, which is the BBC’s dramatization of the Rochdale child-grooming case, and I think that… it’s not gratuitous at all. The rape scenes in that… there’s one that we actually see on screen. We don’t see any flesh, we see a man taking off a young girl’s jeans, we see her crying, you hear her saying no, and then you see shots of the room. You don’t hear any sex noises… you don’t hear him orgasming. You don’t see any sex. There is no way that you can confuse rape with sex. The actual shots never confuse it. It’s rape. It’s definitely rape.

13 Reasons Why shoots rape scenes from the perspective of the male gaze. And makes them look like sex scenes. Because we see them in soft lighting, we see fingertips under bra straps, we see pants being taken off, the rape of Hannah happens in a hot tub which is traditionally a romantic setting and she’s already in her underwear. We hear sex noises. We see thrusting. And it’s all from the male perspective of it, even though I think it was trying to be the female perspective… But honestly if it was going to do what a girl might see or experience during rape, it could have been a shot looking up, or looking at the side of the hot tub, rather than looking at Hannah’s hands, looking at Hannah’s face, her lips, her bra straps, her shoulders. There are ways that you can film those scenes that make it feel like it’s from the woman’s perspective.

Jess: I don’t think that rape scenes should be censored at all, but it was very much male-orientated.

Emily: Those scenes were shot in a way that feel titillating. And if you took them out of context, it could just be soft porn. It could just be rough sex.

Jess: I think, the one rape scene I have seen depicted on television that has stuck with me for years, and does every time I watch it, is the attempted rape of Buffy by Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That in my mind is the truest, most honest depiction of sexual assault that I have seen in any programme or film.

Emily: Yeah, and you think about the differences. So that scene – it’s bright, harsh light –

Jess: There’s no airy-fairy music in the background, it’s silent in the background. It’s taking place in her own home, her own bathroom.

Emily: Yeah, and it’s clumsy as well, and the camera… you don’t have arty shots of bits of body parts, it doesn’t break it up at all. And the fight that they have is clumsy.

Jess: This is a woman who’s supposed to be essentially a superhero.

Emily: Yeah, so it still addresses that it’s not about who the woman is – anybody can become a victim. It doesn’t make any difference if that man has made the decision to rape. And they use the word over and over again. That’s something to give 13 Reasons Why credit for- they really explicitly call Bryce a rapist. That is actually resolved. It’s funny that that’s resolved and none of the mental health stuff is. The physical actions have consequences, but the internal stuff doesn’t.

 

What are your opinions on the way suicide is depicted?

Emily: Well I didn’t watch it. When it came to that point in that episode, I skipped through it. I got to the point where she took razor blades out of the cupboard and then thought, nope. Too much for me.

Jess: I watched it. I sat through that and watched it. For me it was very triggering… It was incredibly graphic… I still am in two minds about whether it was good that it was shown like that or whether maybe it shouldn’t have been.

Emily: Well why d’you think they did it? In terms of what they were trying to say about suicide?

Jess: I think it was basically a ‘this is how you can kill yourself’ scene. Which with a younger audience is, I think, irresponsible to show that in such detail.

Emily: There’s an instructional kind of aspect here where you see that she’s running a bath, you see that she’s getting an actual packet of razor blades – you see what tools she uses and how she does it.

Jess: It’s all very methodical and kind of normalised in the way that she’s doing it. If that’s the way they’re going to depict it then they also need to address why she’s treating it like it’s normal.

Emily: Yeah, it’s like, we’re not going to into the reasons why a person with depression – which we still have not said that she has – would not express emotions in the way that you would expect them to. She just has this flattened affect without any explanation, so it just seems like it’s normal, she has no reaction to it.

Jess: And it’s like with the rape scenes, the lighting is there, there’s music in the background, it’s all very glamorised. It just doesn’t feel right, it could have been done in a better way. They could still have shown the suicide but in a better way.

Emily: I think the whole show is not really communicating the impact of death. It’s a version of death where you get to still impact on people – we’re given this idea that Hannah is watching them, that Hannah gets to have some sort of active involvement in their lives even after she’s died.

Jess: It makes you feel like she could come back.

Emily: And again, to use a Buffy example, when they show a real human death in that, when Joyce dies, they have an episode that uses no incidental music, that is bright and harsh –

Jess: It’s all one take, you see Buffy vomit, it’s not glamourous.

Emily: It’s dealing with paramedics, it’s trying to give somebody CPR and hearing their ribs break because you’ve done it wrong. Whereas Hannah’s death happens in dim light and the parent rush in and they start crying and then it fades out, and then the ambulance comes and then it fades out again.

Jess: They don’t see it through.

Emily: They do a lot of reporting on what it was like but we don’t hear, see, experience a real death. And considering that it is trying so hard to demonstrate the real impact of suicide, it doesn’t have that effect.

 

Any positives to take away from the show?

Jess: I liked the music. The music was good.

Emily: Let’s hear it for the music.

Jess: I think some of the acting was great. It got people talking as well. I think it was good in theory, but it was poorly executed and there were things that needed to be addressed and resolved that weren’t.

Emily: I think this is what happens when you make a series out of something that is already ten years out of date, because I really think that understanding of and attitudes towards mental health have changed a lot in the last ten years, even in the last five years. I don’t think there’s a lot they could have done to this core story to make it what it needed to be, because if you take away all of the stuff that we had problems with – actually we just have a real problem with the set-up of the plot. We have a real problem with this idea that there are only external reasons for committing suicide. So if that’s what that source material is, why choose that to adapt? Because it’s hopelessly out of date already. It’s not serving its audience.

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