What 13 Reasons Why gets right about teenage sexuality, across the spectrum
[Spoiler alert: The piece gives away many major plot points of 13 Reasons Why.]
13 Reasons Why was an engaging show, to say the least. It brought up a bunch of conversations regarding suicide and teenage problems. But at the heart of it all, it was also a show about a bunch of high-schoolers trying to get along with their lives. And having/trying to have sex. Which we all know is very important, unless you’re a peacock.
The show dealt with sexual assault and rape, and indeed they form crucial plot points in the story. But something which went almost unnoticed was the way in which it portrayed alternate sexualities and even consensual heterosexual relationships. The show was not the epitome of gender representation but it did portray gay and lesbian relationships in the way they should be: without exaggeration and not for comic relief.
Let’s take Tony for example. He is probably the most likeable character in the show and we’re introduced to him as a music aficionado who drives a Mustang, the most butch of automobiles. He wears leather jackets and combat boots. He fixes cars and welds in his free time. Tony is macho.
And he’s gay.
The show dropped little hints here and there but we are never really sure till he mentions his sexuality to Clay. And that’s because the show never fixates on his being gay. It wasn’t used as a plot point. Tony was a gay character because they exist in real life. Their sexuality doesn’t always have to serve a purpose in the story.
He is shown to have a steady relationship with Brad and that is well portrayed. Which is to say it was portrayed without any extra frills — but how rarely do we see that?
Then there is Courtney. Even though she conforms to the racial stereotype of Asians being smart and hardworking, that’s where the comparisons end. For Courtney is a closet lesbian who is being raised by two gay dads.
She goes to a sleepover to Hannah’s while trying to catch Hannah’s stalker. Over a game of truth or dare, they end up kissing. Tyler takes a photo of it which spreads all across the school and Courtney throws Hannah under the metaphorical bus, trying to save herself.
At this point we all pretty much hated Courtney. But then she explains her reasons to Clay and you kind of understand. She says how her turning out lesbian would be another source of derision for her fathers. How everyone would say that she’s gay because her dads are gay too. How she couldn’t come out because of what her dads might face. And boom, you suddenly see a knock-on effect of alternative sexualities which you might never have thought of before.
Hannah, on the other hand, explores her bisexual side without being too concerned about it. She comes to talk to Courtney the next day and is relaxed about the whole thing. Courtney was not a reason for Hannah’s suicide because she kissed Hannah. It was because she didn’t act like a friend should.
Here too we see a different portrayal of bisexuality. Usually movies and TV shows will use women kissing just for titillating the audience. It rarely has any more meaning or purpose than that. But here, it was just two people kissing and figuring out what they liked.
Another character of alternative sexuality is Ryan, the school poet/editor who was gay and was never judged for that. He was only judged for being a jackass which is okay.
And finally there was Clay. He showed us how seeking consent wasn’t all that hard. Every time he was with a girl, he would ask, “Is it okay?” Three simple words. And that’s all you need.
The whole idea of men taking charge has taken hold of us. You’re supposed to read the signs and just know when a woman is ready. Asking for permission supposedly kills the mood for many people.
And yet Clay does it so naturally. And this despite him being a shy nerd.
Now think about your school life. Heck, think about your college life. Can you imagine people handling alternative sexualities the way these high-schoolers did? Indians can barely get to grips with heterosexual relationships, let alone homosexual ones.
If a Ryan were to come out and be a “skinny faggot who writes poems” can you imagine the range of abuses that would rain down on him? Every single thing that he ever said or argued for would be forever linked to his sexuality. “Chakka” would be his nickname throughout his school life.
Or a photo coming out of two girls kissing à la Courtney and Hannah. Those girls would forever have their “reputations ruined”. Their parents would probably pack them off to other towns where they would be forced into arranged marriages and heterosexuality regardless of what they want.
A show like 13 Reasons Why is important because it kick-starts conversations. We discussed teenage suicides and depression because of it. We would be wise to pick up other things from it too. Like how completely — for the lack of a better word —‘normal’ it is to have alternative sexualities. Maybe we can stop calling people “cocksuckers” and “gay” when they irritate us. Maybe we can start seeing and judging people for what they think instead of who they want to have sex with. Maybe we can seek consent if we are not really sure.
Maybe, just maybe, we can start being decent human beings.