Damaging Words: On “Thirteen Reasons Why”




WHEN I GOT MY first email account in the early 1990s, I — like many new to the technology — marveled at the speed with which we could communicate with colleagues and friends, down the hall and around the country. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that email would have on cultivating bad feeling. Someone — I’ve long forgotten who or under what circumstances — emailed me a nasty note, one I felt I did not deserve. Instead of deleting it, digitally turning the other cheek, I kept the offending email in my inbox, where it served as a nearly daily reminder that I had been unjustly insulted. What had initially seemed so ephemeral — a message I could’ve easily deleted — I held on to in order to nurse a grudge.

Vicious forms of communication and the holding of grudges are at the heart of Jay Asher’s award-winning and best-selling 2007 young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, recently made into a television series and released on Netflix. Both novel and series focus on Clay, a high school student, who has received a box of tapes — old-school cassette tapes — that narrate the 13 reasons why Hannah Baker committed suicide. Instead of leaving a note, Hannah creates these tapes that are then passed from one person to another, each one implicated somehow in her decision.

I won’t spoil the plot by revealing too much, but suffice it to say that much of Hannah’s decision to kill herself revolved around incessant bullying and shaming. Hannah’s story begins when a photograph of her innocently kissing a boy is passed from one student’s cell phone to another, with the boy bragging that more than a kiss occurred. Hannah’s reputation as a slut circulates just as quickly, and we soon see the terrible effects of gossip on Hannah’s life. By the end of the book and series, the friendship drama has intensified, culminating in some fairly awful acts (including rape).

The series has been getting a lot of press recently, as in this article in The New York Times, which tracks concerns that the show’s representation of teen suicide is potentially misleading or even damaging. I think, though, that as a story of teen bullying, Thirteen Reasons Why strikes a poignant and cautionary note, raising an issue important to student readers, parents, educators, and school districts. The television drama, for instance, follows a lawsuit that Hannah’s parents bring against the school system, which had seemed to turn a blind eye to Hannah’s misery. And controversies over the adaptation’s representation of suicide at least bring to public attention and discussion the pressing importance of considering why some teens decide they would rather die. Bullying is all too real — and lethal — for many young people.

Related to this issue, perhaps the most intriguing dimension of the narrative is its use of “old” media (not just new tech like cell phones) in the circulation of gossip and vicious talk. One male student passes around a handwritten list comparing girls’ physical attributes, saying Hannah has the “best ass,” which only worsens her reputation and makes her the object of further unwanted advances. The school photographer, who develops his film by hand, also stalks Hannah, taking pictures of her through her bedroom window, including one in which she playfully kisses another girl — resulting in yet more reputational damage. In a striking scene in the series, Hannah’s mother finds graffiti on the bathroom wall that leads her to believe the school’s culture of bullying and sexual shaming is out of control.

The cumulative effect of such “old” media — handwritten notes, photographs, graffiti —and their vectoring of gossip is a stark materializing of the circulation of damaging talk. Just as words deface a bathroom wall, so too do they scar Hannah’s psyche. Indeed, Hannah’s choice to use cassette tapes to explain herself seems like a clever narrative ploy to remind us of the material reality of language and its consequences for those who are victimized by it. Hannah even has the recipients of the tapes use a paper map to travel to various locales around town to see some of the places associated with her bullying and shaming. In this way, she is herself seizing the means of the circulation of damaging discourse, even as this intervention is too late to save her own life.

We have become acutely aware of the very real non-ephemerality of our networked communications. No doubt, our impressive communications technologies can generate a lot of ill will and even truly awful correspondence with harmful, sometimes deadly consequences. Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student whose sexual liaisons with another male were spied on by his roommate with a digital camera and then tweeted about, committed suicide as a result of this invasion of his privacy. Another student in San Diego took his life after pictures of him masturbating were circulated among friends and others. While these are extreme examples, they remind us of the powerful capacities of these technologies to enable spying and surveillance. They also underscore the lasting damage that can be caused by the ability to disseminate — and sometimes keep in circulation — things we shouldn’t have to deal with publicly.

Thirteen Reasons Why takes the emphasis off digital technologies and instead places it on the creative capacities of teen bullies and gossips (i.e., most teens at some point in their adolescent years) to use a variety of communication tools to circulate viciousness. The tools aren’t the problem. Old media is just as good as new media at turning words into sticks and stones that break spirits and bodies. The moral of this tale might be that we are always watching, following, stalking. We’re looking, but are we really seeing? Are we using our creative capacities to truly connect with others, as opposed to merely observing and assessing?

Perhaps what’s ultimately most surprising about Thirteen Reasons Why is that the kids keep the tapes secret for so long, passing them around without adults finding out. This aspect of the narrative, in both book and teleplay, stretches credibility. Surely the secret would get out much sooner. But this fantastical covertness does gesture at the palpable desire to keep at least some things secret. Not everything needs to be known about everybody. And starting with that notion might be the first way to interrupt the circulation of damaging words — both online and off, through old and new media.

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Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English and Director of the Center for Excellence in Writing & Communication at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship.


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