Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

13 Reasons Why fails to center teenage girls in its exploration of their pain

Alisha Boe
Screenshot: 13 Reasons Why

When Euphoria began airing on HBO, the comparisons to 13 Reasons Why were unavoidable. Here was another show that depicted teens in despair, each hazardous action a desperate cry for help. But as its first season went along, the comparisons between the shows dissolved, revealing Euphoria to be a singular work of teen arthouse, an outgrowth of generational trauma born from disillusionment with the American dream. The question of Euphoria is clear: How are the teens of today supposed to grapple with the damage previous generations inflicted on the environment, political systems, and the pursuit of happiness? What are the teens supposed to do when debt waits for them in college and emotional disillusionment in their adult lives? The kids of Euphoria ultimately resolve to make the most of their disaster, allowing themselves to bathe in the small pleasures of social and sexual enlightenment. And most pointedly, Euphoria is a show that centers the perspective of the teenage girl, positioning teenage boys as largely unaware of what their more marginalized peers go through.

13 Reasons Why takes the opposite approach, positioning the teenage boy as the emotional center of the high school experience as well as the moral center of teen life: specifically, Clay Jenson (Dylan Minnette), the lovelorn teenage boy haunted by the beautiful enigmatic girl (Katherine Langford) he couldn’t save. Throughout the events of the first two seasons, Clay rises from outcast to the Godfather of the school, doling out mob justice whenever he feels like his friends have been wronged. By season three, Clay is the most popular kid in school, despite the show’s constant lip service to a jocks-versus-nerds social hierarchy. Upon hearing that one of his friends was struggling in silence, Clay asks: “Why didn’t you come to me?” As funny as it may seem to compare Clay to Vito Corleone, his pull within Liberty High is laughably vast with ties to the jocks, the punk kids, the cheerleaders, and everyone in the margins.

Grace Saif and Dylan Minnette
Screenshot: 13 Reasons Why

The continued focus on Clay in season three is disappointing when considering the harrowing character development that Jessica (Alisha Boe) has undergone throughout the series. She goes from being portrayed as a heartless alpha bitch who deserted outsiders Hannah and Alex for the popular crowd to being a real live girl who is revealed to have dealt with the same sexual assault and alienation that Hannah suffered. Jessica endures the loss of her best friends, the love of her life, and her overall sense of safety. In season three, she joins the anti-rape activist group Hands Off. This should be an empowering storyline for her, underlining the importance of groups like this in the community; instead, the group is depicted as one-note extremists, more interested in disruption than creating actual change. The organization is oddly exclusionary of boys, giving male assault survivor Tyler (Devin Druid) grief for voicing his opinions and taking a stand against all-male jocks, neglecting to consider that there are guys like Zach (Ross Butler) who actually desire to be allies.

Portraying Jessica and her activism as flashy and short-sighted undercuts the deep maturity that she displayed throughout season two. If 13 Reasons Why was really a show about exploring the pain of a teenage girl, it would have gradually shifted its focus to Jessica, phasing out Clay. Hannah is dead, but Jessica is alive and her story as a survivor of sexual assault trying to navigate the remainder of high school and the ever-present threat of her abuser is much more compelling than Clay and his savior complex. In the past, 13 Reasons Why was rightly criticized for including a long scene depicting Hannah committing suicide. The show was also critiqued for its incorporation of long, exploitative rape scenes and constant flashbacks to them. The show could have built goodwill around the centering of Jessica, making the argument that someone with Hannah’s circumstances could survive, showing teens that rape victims can live on and find the support they need. Jessica could have been proof that the system doesn’t have to be broken forever. She is instead pushed to the side for Clay and his new dream girl, Ani (Grace Saif).

Simply by running into Clay first, new transfer student Ani is able to meet and get to know every character involved in the saga of Hannah’s suicide, all in a matter of weeks. Ani is quickly brought into the fold and trusted with secrets due simply to her association with Clay. No one seems to ask why she’s there or what her motives are throughout the entire season. Initially, it may seem like Ani’s addition to the cast was a way for the show to try to bring the focus back on to teenage girls and how they are mistreated within the high school ecosystem, but she ultimately functions more as an omniscient narrator curiously masquerading as a character.


At the start of the season, Ani arrives in town from the U.K. with her mother (Nana Mensah) who works as a care nurse to Bryce Walker’s grandfather. Bryce (Justin Prentice) and his recently separated mother (Brenda Strong) also live there, forming an unsteady household full of tension. Despite being warned repeatedly about Bryce’s history of violence against women, Ani approaches Bryce with fresh eyes, uninterested in the pain he has caused everyone around him, including her new best friend Jessica. Ani views Bryce and everyone else at Liberty High with poetic distance, pontificating about their behavior as if unfamiliar with the volatile nature of teenhood or the widespread effects of rape culture. Unlike all the other teen girls on the show who are deeply affected by the constant presence of predatory boys and sexual assault in their community, Ani walks effortlessly through the halls, aligning herself with the boys and going through the motions whenever Jessica tries to get her involved in anti-rape advocacy. Ani doesn’t seem to believe in rape culture, activism, or pretty much anything. And predictably, her indifference only leads to more pain for Jessica.

How can a show that began by pushing for accountability among teenagers provide us with a morally indifferent protagonist that sleeps with a known rapist who has terrorized all of her friends? Ani is the least accountable character in the show’s history, reckless in every sense of the word and yet, the show doesn’t paint her as a villain. It applauds her for betraying Jessica, undermining her healing and activist effort. Every season, the number of women in the cast shrinks, and they’re replaced with more tortured boys in increasingly violent situations. From the beginning, 13 Reasons Why has been a show about men reacting to women’s pain. It’s just more blatant about it now.


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About the author

Jourdain Searles

Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster.