‘13 Reasons Why’ Avoids TV’s Routine Exploitation of Dead Women by Forcing Us to Care

13 Reasons Why Kate Walsh
Courtesy Netflix

Television loves teenage girls. Especially when they’re dead.

Innumerable series — from garden-variety procedurals to prestige fare like “The Killing” and “True Detective” — kick off their initial storylines with the death of a young woman. The new Netflix drama “13 Reasons Why” aligns with this dead-girl TV tradition: It’s about Hannah Baker, a young woman whose suicide provides the starting point of the season.

It’s easy to be wary of such premises. Why does TV so often seem to be more interested in dead women than live ones? Why do so many stories about young women on TV revolve around assault, fear, disappointment, and death? These are ongoing conversations that certainly need to continue.

All in all, “13 Reasons Why” could have stepped on so many land mines when it came to difficult subjects like sexual assault and death, but in the end, as I noted in my review, the show mainly got things right. It isn’t perfect, but it did accomplish one crucial task within minutes: It made it easy to care about the acerbic, tender-hearted, and feisty Hannah (Katherine Langford) and her earnest best friend, Clay (Dylan Minnette).

In fact, much of the drama’s character development was terrific, as were the explorations of power dynamics among several sets of believably depicted high-schoolers. Even if there were some repetitive elements — and various points in the season were crowded with too many subplots — the beats of Hannah’s decline were heartbreakingly rendered.

So many times on TV, the bodies of women have been used in exploitative ways: Rape, murder, mutilation, kidnapping, assault are devices that are often used in prurient ways to juice up the plot with the narrative equivalent of empty calories. To stand out, to seem “edgy” or to make noise, many shows do cheap, demeaning things to women all the time, and most programs are often studiously disinterested in showing the realistic aftermath of those wretched moments.

This wasn’t one of those times. (Spoilers for the finale follow.)

In the last episode of the season, “13 Reasons Why” showed Hannah slitting her wrists in a bathtub. It had to show that moment, as tough as it was to watch, because much of what happened to Hannah all season long was physical. Her body was an object of ridicule and discussion almost from the moment she arrived at school.

Early in the season, a photo of her was circulated by the ruling jock-bro clique, who openly mocked her at school and spread rumors about her. The casually sociopathic jock Bryce casually assaulted Hannah in a store (and of course, he faced no consequences for that, or for his rape of Jessica, one of Hannah’s classmates). The store incident with Bryce didn’t help, nor did the petulant actions of Zach, a “nice guy” jock with an easily provoked vindictive side. The bullying, nastiness, and false rumors that gained momentum all season caused her to lose friends and diminished her limited self-esteem.

As she realized that no one was willing to curb those tormenting her, she began to carry herself differently, and she cut off her hair. It all became so overwhelming that when she and Clay finally kissed, she couldn’t handle with it. Moments later, she witnessed Jessica’s assault — and later still, she was raped by Bryce, a predator who left handprints all over her skin. By the end, Hannah’s spirit had been broken, but that was partly done via the repeated and gross mistreatment of her physical self. Taking ownership of her body, and taking it out of the equation, was the only choice she thought she had left.

Of course, Hannah had other choices, but her depression and PTSD did not allow her to see that truth, or to feel it. Langford was exceptional in many ways, but never more than when she showed the light go out in Hannah’s eyes during her rape. From that moment, she felt mentally dead; to hear her tell it, what she did in the bathtub was just taking care of a loose end. It was heartbreaking to see Hannah make that final choice — and TV needs to tell more stories in which rape survivors are shown dealing with their assaults and moving forward as fully realized human beings (MTV’s “Sweet/Vicious” can’t be praised enough for doing just that).

But if “13 Reasons” depicted her rape with sensitivity and unflinching honesty — and it did — it had to show what the ultimate outcome of that act was, for her as an individual.

Too many programs shy away from showing the consequences of the devastating things that are done to women, but “13 Reasons” made us look — and it made us care about who we were looking at. The series gave Hannah a complexity and a voice that those in her world seemed determined to deny her. It was hard to witness Hannah’s death, but it felt of a piece with what had gone before, which was a close study of the growth of one young woman’s physical and mental distress.

The show chose to tell a psychologically dense story in a mostly naturalistic and emotionally acute way, so it made sense to give Hannah that final say over her body. Ultimately, in “13 Reasons,” Hannah was not simply the object of Clay’s affection and the target of everyone else’s gossip and rumors and thoughts. Protagonists, when they truly are protagonists and not placeholders, get to make choices.

Though it was devastating to watch (for those who could watch), it felt more honest for “13 Reasons” to depict why and how she ended her story, rather than elide the truth and focus on everyone else’s reactions to a limp body found in a bathroom. In this case, looking away from what happened to her body would have felt false and evasive. That haunting, spare scene of Hannah cutting her skin was shocking and unforgettable. It pressed a button, but not in a cheap, flashy way.

It was a horrifying and very specific moment of consequence that touched the soul, and sometimes that’s how art works.