High School Dramas represent a crucial part of a teenager’s life, but do they actually represent teenage life? Most TV Writers graduated High School 10+ years ago; they may have the advantage of time and space, but memory tends to create a rose-colored tint of nostalgia. “13 Reasons Why”, adapted from a novel by Jay Asher, attempts to depict the current climate of High School in 2017 (cyber-bullying, mental health), but its true strength is how it subtly shifts our perception of what is ‘normal’.
In a recent article on BuzzFeed titled “How Watching ‘Skins’ Made me Feel Seen”, Sophie Brown writes she “never realized quite how important it was to have the mainstream media nod in your direction” until she watched the British TV show “Skins”. Her discovery of a show that accurately represented her life – an excessively drug and alcohol fueled one at that – underlines how important it is to have diversity in Teen Dramas. Sure, some adults are uncomfortable with today’s explicit TV content, claiming it will lead more teens to experiment; but just because it’s uncomfortable for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Brown lived her teen years and then watched “Skins”. To be able to realize you’re not alone – to see an accurate account of your experience depicted onscreen – makes all the difference growing up.
“13 Reasons Why” depicts a new canvas of High School. The 90’s gave us stock teen archetypes, many stereotypes based around gender and race, and Hollywood has been slow to break this mold. “13 Reasons” takes a magnifying glass to a group of teenagers. On first introduction they fill generic slots: Popular Jock, Nerdy Outsider, Queen Bee. But the tropes we’ve created begin to crack as we get closer – each episode is dedicated to a character, similar to the “Skins” format” – it soon becomes apparent their actions and personalities define them, regardless of popularity, gender, and race.
The star basketball player, Zach, is Asian-American and more concerned with winning games and a passing grade than breaking the Asian-Nerd stereotype. The actor’s media coverage is perhaps greater because that’s not his defining characteristic. The Wanna-Be-Valedictorian may be black, but his struggle has nothing to do with the color of his skin. An interracial relationship has a lot of baggage and drama, yet none includes a conversation about their race. In fact, I don’t believe a character’s race is ever directly addressed until the final episode when Zach, played by Ross Butler, gives his full name and includes his Chinese middle name. The colorblind casting in “13 Reasons” creates a world where one could swap any character’s race and it wouldn’t change their story. Creating characters who are defined by their emotional struggles makes skin color a moot point. This is not to say that alls-well in the world. But it is an important stepping-stone to address the fact that the world is changing, and High Schools are not (and never were) 90’s Rom-Coms.
Like many mainstream shows, the default for most characters is heterosexual, but “13 Reasons” gives us more than a ‘token gay’. You have the resident gay guy who, instead of being the stereotypical quippy one-liner, is selfish and vain. He’s out and proud and, better yet, not the victim. In fact, his actions harm others. There is the much under-represented story about being gay and female. Her struggle is different; she’s less ashamed of being gay and more wary – perhaps even scared. Thanks to a nice inclusion of gay parents, she’s acutely aware of how the outside world treats gay couples and isn’t yet ready to embark on that personal journey. And lastly there is the subtle, but still important, storyline regarding a guy who’s out, but almost reluctantly. This version is one I’ve witnessed first hand. The guy is out to his close friends, even dating another man, but isn’t out to his family (I assume) or the public. It’s an in-between state, balancing a tightrope of comfort in accepting who you are and fear of outside judgment.
Breaking stereotypes isn’t just relegated to the trials of being a teenager. Every single day commercials and TV shows depict a mother who cooks and cleans, and a father who grills and wears a suit to work. In “13 Reasons” Clay’s parents buck this trend. His mother’s a lawyer working long hours while his father, a professor, wears jeans and reads books. Some stereotypes remain – his mom over-worries and his dad is more chill – but they also break the mold. In one scene Clay’s dad cooks dinner, while his mom comes home after working late. It’s a simple scene that finally includes the complexity of real life parenting.
High School is never as we remember, and High School in “13 Reasons” is nuanced in a way many teen shows lack. The jocks are the apex predators, sure, but they’re also not slamming nerds into lockers and knocking books out of their hands for no reason. The parties are welcoming, people shout out names when others arrive, regardless of popularity; the jocks are more interested in drinking and letting loose than excluding and demeaning others for the fun of it. There’s the tag-a-long friend who’s not really a part of the popular group, but is allowed to hang with them anyway. The group of girlfriends who slowly drift apart and form new friendships as months progress. This is the High School of my youth. There were cliques, sure, but they were more transient than the classic Mean Girls trope. And most importantly, High School was about what people said you did.