Monday, May 15, 2017

13 reasons I hate that "13 reasons I hate '13 Reasons'" article, and also hate the original "13 Reasons"

I realize that critiquing a show about teen angst:

1) means I've watched the show, taking away any bona fides I have as an intellectual
2) is shooting fish in a barrel

But I can't resist bashing it for the same reason I ended up watching all 13 episodes of the longest after-school special in history: it says a lot about American culture that this show is even popular in the first place, so watching it seems like interesting social research.

I was going to post a straightforward "13 reasons I don't like '13 Reasons'" post, but that seemed so obvious, I knew it must have been done. It was, and by the Huffington Post, which means it really was a terrible and obvious idea. Besides, I only really have like 9 reasons to hate 13 Reasons Why, so I'm going to add together reasons I hate the show with reasons I dislike (not really hate) Sezin Koehler's critique of it, and maybe together get to 13. I'm certain nobody on the Internet has concocted a title yet as convoluted as the one I just came up with for this blog post, so at least the approach is mildly original.

1. Its popularity is evidence of a perpetually infantilized culture (show). My sister-in-law introduced the show to me. I love my sister-in-law, because she's family, but if you're 45 and talking to me about how much you love some teenage kid on a show, you might have some issues with stunted emotional growth. She wasn't the only one, though. My office is full of grown-ass people who loved this show. Anis Shivani wrote about how fiction writers today churn out bildungsroman stories where there is never any real coming-of-age. That's this story. It's all angst and none of the wisdom that angst is supposed to eventually engender. I get that the catharsis is supposed to happen to Clay, not Hannah, but his epiphany seems to be nothing more profound than "people should be nice to each other."

2. A drinking game I invented that would have killed me if I'd played it (show): Watch an episode, any episode. Take a drink every time a character awkwardly excuses himself from a scene because the writers just need to get themselves out of a conversation with the dramatic tension still unresolved. "Uh, I need to get to class." "I have to go to meet Tony." "I'm late to meet someone for coffee." Use something low-proof or you'll die.

3. Calling the narrative structure "manipulative" (article): Koehler criticizes the show for having the "mother of all manipulative narrative structures." If you haven't seen the show--and anonymous commenter, I know you haven't (and shouldn't; it's terrible)--a girl named Hannah makes 13 tapes where she tells 12 people (one gets two tapes) the roles they played in contributing to her decision to kill herself. I actually was interested in getting to the end for the first four shows because of this format, until I realized nothing interesting was really going to happen. At that point, I was like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, just wanting to get to the end of the free sub.

But isn't that what a show is supposed to do? Is it really "manipulative" to hook viewers so they finish the show even if they really don't want to? If so, may we all be so lucky as to write stories that are equally manipulative.

4. Having obviously gay actors play asshole heteros (show): A girl at work was very excited to inform me that the actor who plays Alex was dating the actor who plays Justin. Color me shocked. Not that I or anyone else in 2017 gives a shit about someone being gay, but I didn't really find anyone's performance as asshole hetero believable. Only Zach struck me as a believable jock (although he can't shoot a basketball for shit). Look, there are lots of gay actors in the world convincingly playing straight dudes and vice versa. I'm not saying you can't cast someone as something because of some personal characteristic in the actor that doesn't match the character. I'm just saying these particular actors didn't sufficiently get out of themselves and into their characters to be believable. That's understandable--they were being asked to play terrible people. Maybe it was hard to find that register. But their inability to find it made the whole construction of a high school societal microcosm built around predatory jocks hard to buy. 

5. The bad guy isn't really bad (show): Okay, the character rapes at least two girls, which is beyond criminal. It's just that I've known really bad, dangerous men. The actor playing Bryce didn't strike me as scary. He seemed like a bad actor sleep-walking through being a dick. A good actor would remind me of true, morally terrifying people.

6. Pretending anyone gives a shit about Judith Butler (article): Koehler critiques the show for "pandering to the heterosexual male gaze," and claims this gaze "needs to be deconstructed, not elevated." For the majority of people who didn't waste their lives with literary theory, she's borrowing terms from feminist theory. Here's an explanation of "the male gaze." I hate when anyone acts like they can just throw around terms from theory that aren't part of normal parlance and feel they've made a point thereby. Or like normal people really ought to know what "the male gaze" is. Besides, rape doesn't gratify a non-pathological male gaze. Teen sex doesn't gratify a healthy hetero male gaze. (I assume the actors are really at least 18--Tony looked like he was 37--but pretending the characters really were their age, I certainly wasn't getting horny watching that shit.) The only thing that moves in the direction of pandering to the male gaze is the lesbian scene--and that scene is pretty fucking fully deconstructed when the voyeur is caught and ridiculed.

7 and 8. Treating suicide like it's either a reaction to local conditions (show) or something to treat psychologically (article) instead of a conclusion someone might come to quite logically: My work occasionally loses someone to suicide, and then the leaders treat us to a round of hand-wringing, encouraging us all to look out for each other and to get help if we need it. I hate that in all the talk about suicide, nobody ever seems to consider that it might be an entirely sane conclusion. Camus' magnum opus was entirely dedicated to taking the question seriously. He began by saying most people don't commit suicide because they never get past their basic, animal instinct to survive. There's nothing to praise in this.

I'm generally uninterested in what psychological and psychiatric professionals have to say, because I don't find them to be terribly interesting people. I wouldn't want to live their lives. So I don't know why I ought to take their word on something like suicide as any more authoritative than what anyone else thinks about it. Why is suicide always treated as a pathology? There's a bias there that assumes life is always better under all circumstances. There are more ways to look at suicide than from the point-of-view of public health. Philosophers and artists have a say, too.

9. Hannah's tapes don't talk to her parents (show). When I think of reasons I don't strongly consider suicide, #1 on my list is that I'm a parent and I know what that would do to my parents. Hannah's parents aren't perfect, but they do seem to care about her. She talks to them. They talk to her. They find her when she kills herself. She never talks to them on the tapes. She talks to 11 dickheads who screwed up in a variety of mostly adolescent ways and one kid who liked her but was shy. This doesn't really say much for Hannah's character. That's really a narcissistic inability to connect to the feelings of others--the same thing she made 13 tapes to complain about in everyone else.

10.  Rape (show): Koehler was right about this. Her beef was that showing the rapes sexualized the girls. That's true, but for me, I was more just concerned by how tawdry a plot device it was. When I wondered in episode one why she might have killed herself, rape seemed like a pretty good bet. When it turned out it was actually guilt over watching a rape she didn't stop, that seemed to me like a decent plot twist: her getting raped would have been too straightforward, and this got at it from the side. But then she goes and gets raped, too, in episode 12, meaning they really went to that rape well a lot. It's like the writers were making a soup of bad things that would happen to Hannah to make her sympathetic, and when they got to the end they tasted it and said, "needs more rape." But those two rapes throw the whole rest of the plot out of whack. Hannah's really been through so much from just those two incidents, the rest of what happened seems like nothing worth mentioning. Isn't the idea to talk about how a bunch of small things can add up to something big, not how a bunch of huge things make something stupid?

11. Suspension of disbelief is hard (show): The first kid would have panicked and gone to an adult. Someone would have gone to the authorities with evidence of rape. The show tried to account for this so it could keep its device, but really, no. Most of the kids weren't sociopaths, and not all of them had that much to hide.

12. Criticizing the notion that the show says we're all alone (article): What if, rather than a lot of condescending garbage about how suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, we were honest about how alone we really are sometimes? If we quit knee-jerking away from suicide? If we honestly answered what amounts to a decent question: when life doesn't seem to offer more pleasure than pain, why keep at it?

It occurs to me that the greatest movie ever about suicide, It's a Wonderful Life, manages to be life-affirming precisely because it takes on George Bailey's question--would everyone have been better off without me?-- head-on. It's a more edifying answer than life usually gives us, but before that, it at least honestly depicts disappointment. There's nothing especially wrong with admitting that life often just sucks.

13. Season Two (show): I know I sound like a calloused bastard ripping on a show that tried to tackle the subject of teen suicide. The show isn't for me. It wouldn't have been for a teen-aged version of me. But I'm sure there are people it helped. Its popularity probably has pushed some teens to talk to someone and keep going. I don't want teens to kill themselves. They're too young to make that decision. There is an age at which I think one can make that decision and not be psychologically pathological, but teenager isn't it. So I could forgive the show for its gratuitous insertions of random bits of teen culture to show its hipness, its rape-happy plot line, its many head-scratching plot holes.

Until I realized they're going to do a season two. That basically means they've lost any ability to claim this is a venture aimed at promoting the public good. Netflix realized they had a hit, and they decided to keep going with it.  Even though it makes no sense to keep going. She's dead. I don't care if the books the series was based on kept going. As a Netflix series, it makes no sense except as a cash grab. They're even going to bring back their cast of "kids" who look like they should be about ready for their first mortgage. All of which makes the show now seem like it really is exploiting a vulnerable segment of society.

14. My 13 reasons goes up to 14. In the first episode, they tease us with Clay having some kind of past psychological disorder he once took pills and met with a shrink for. It leads one to wonder if we are getting the real story when we see things through his POV. Other characters tease the possibility he actually did something bad in the early episodes. But by the end of the show, it's clear he was just a nice guy who didn't realize how much trouble Hannah was in. He didn't really do anything. So that whole bit at the beginning about his past issues was a weird red herring.


  1. 95% agree. 1 quibble and a reason 15 and 16. 1) Maybe it was because he was a bad actor, but I thought the actor who played Bryce captured a certain sociopathic apathy I see a lot in spoiled and emotionally neglected teens. I thought was effective as an asshole. Reason 15: after all the screeching and angsty sermonizing about justice, there was never any real justice at all. One peripheral (and reasonably decent) character attempts suicide at the end, but the central problem characters just walk away. Maybe they're saving it for season 2, but that's sacrificing important story substance for wasted angsty conversations about nothing. It's just dumb. 16) You pointed out the unbelievability of no kid telling their parents, but could you blame them with how dull and clueless the show portrayed the parents as being? Talk about excessive caricatures. About the only parents remotely resembling real human beings were Hannah's parents, which adds to the confusion because, as you pointed out, why would you not talk to them, of all people?

  2. Koehler's article mentions the parents, and she's right. Her article actually isn't all that bad. I just get triggered by theory-speak and by people who too deeply internalize the language of counseling.

  3. I tried the read the whole thing, but, well, it just never ended. The Baltimore Sun had an article on this series last weekend. Between your description and what I recall (zero) from the Sun, I remain a Beverly Hill 90210 kind of guy.

    The thing about Judith Butler and a lot of those kinds of folks that's always struck me is this: they clearly have no certain idea what men actually are like, or what goes on in their heads, or what motivates. No idea. Yet they think they do, and feel find fencing off speculation of the flipside from all men. Silly, and revealing. Read that book by Eva Keuls, Reign of the Phallus, and you see what I mean. Of course, now it's all so 90s! Except in little academic cul-de-sacs like Classics and Comparative Literature where it remains cutting edge technology.

    I'm intrigued by your comment about gay men playing straight men, that one need not be of a class to play the class. Of course, that's unless it's one ethnic group or another, apparently.

    And I also like your comments about the use of rape as a motif. It was something I wondered about quite a bit with Boys Don't Cry. When did it cross from a kind of objective, documentary, or even didactic stance and into pure voyeurism. Ditto the rape scene in Leaving Las Vegas. I wondered to what extent we as the audience were ok watching this kind of violence because it was politically valenced in a particular way.

    1. I don't mind occasional over-generalization. Without it, you'd never develop any theory at all. I only mind when theoretical terms start to propagate as though they weren't provisional terms created as part of a thought experiment. Natural science theories might present us with newly-discovered real things; I don't know how often it happens with literary theories.

  4. I tried to watch the show, but halfway into Tape 1 Side B (episode 2) I just didn't want to watch any more. I like a some YA stuff - Anderson's "Speak" was great, saw the movie first and loved that, then read the book and loved it more - and I grew up on Ponyboy, there's even a YA philosophy novel (Sophie's World) that I read every couple of years. And I liked the gimmick used as structure, the tapes: yes, it's old, but it's in media res, isn't it, it's been done for 2800 years. I just found it too Twin-Peaks-Wannabe-But-We-Forgot-The-Weird.

    However, I wanted to try, mostly because I wanted to reply to your Reason 5:

    "The bad guy isn't really bad (show): Okay, the character rapes at least two girls, which is beyond criminal. It's just that I've known really bad, dangerous men. The actor playing Bryce didn't strike me as scary. He seemed like a bad actor sleep-walking through being a dick. A good actor would remind me of true, morally terrifying people. "

    A guy who rapes two girls is, de facto, scary. That he can walk around without wearing a sign saying "I'm a Rapist" makes him more scary, not less. Do you think there's a connection between this, and the various cases of rapists going unpunished (or punished with trivial sentences) because nobody can believe such a nice boy will ever do it again?

    What I'm really curious about is why you've put so much effort into this, looking at the show, the article about the show, the reaction to the article about the show. I didn't even know it existed until you wrote about it. Of course, I don't get out much ;)

    1. Exactly...why DID I put so much effort into this? I really don't know, other than I kept watching one more episode because...well, what's one more? And then I got to the end and wanted those 13 hours of my life to mean something.

      Bryce wasn't a nice guy who you wouldn't think did something like that. He wasn't anything at all. I wouldn't have noticed him if the show didn't decide he was the bad guy. He was just not remarkable in any way, which I think is a shame. Making him what you suggested, a nice guy who does unthinkable things, might have been a better approach for the show to take. They tried to make him like a bully/straight-up bad guy. I didn't buy it.