Teen Spirit

Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” handles suicide poorly but treats gay youth with respect

Tommy Dorfman and Katherine Langford

Netflix has scored another hit with 13 Reasons Why, a teen drama somewhat in the vein of My So-Called Life. The series has been attacked–deservedly, in our view–for trivializing or even glamorizing teen suicide, a scourge LGBTQ youth suffer disproportionately.

The show also happens to deal with some queer themes in a hereto-unexplored way, and even manages to work in a cameo from perennial queer actor and So-Called cast member, Wilson Cruz. Not only that: series co-star Tommy Dorfman (above, left) has spoken publicly about his own coming out.

13 Reasons Why follows melancholy High School sophomore Clay, played by uber-adorable Dylan Minnette, as he copes with the suicide of his friend and sometime crush, Hannah (the beautiful Katherine Langford). Hannah left some audio recordings behind to explain her choice to end her life, and the series unravels like a mystery as Clay tries to discover the reasons why.

Dylan Minnette and Christian Navarro
Dylan Minnette

Besides including the familiar queer themes of isolation, loneliness, and feeling like an outsider, 13 Reasons Why also works in some more overt content. Though the show doesn’t make a huge point of it, one of the pivotal characters grows up as the daughter of two married dads. The show features matter-of-fact scenes at the breakfast table, or around the house, taking the inclusion of a different relational household for granted. Ditto scenes where characters question their sexuality as part of a normal growing up process.

One character’s questioning of her sexuality has attracted some criticism as well. The series doesn’t quite deserve the ridicule on that point. Remember, coming out affects everyone differently. Even for a child raised in a tolerant, gay-friendly, household, coming out can still be scary. All teenagers grapple with finding their own identity, and for the character in question, fretting over coming out just represents part of her teen insecurity.

Dylan Minnette and Kathrine Langford

13 Reasons Why has its problems. The show trivializes teen suicide, reducing it to a plot device without considering the ramifications. Everyone on the show seems a bit too pretty and too affluent to take seriously as an average slice-of-life. When the subject matter turns especially dark and gritty, the rest of the production seems afraid to follow suit. As a result, the show sacrifices realism in favor of gloss. At 13 episodes, the series is long, and as a result, the drama slides from edgy into Beverly Hills, 90210 soapiness, or worse, After School Special territory.

Yet 13 Reasons Why does provide an insightful, well-thought look at modern teen and family life, and the central mystery of Hannah’s suicide captivates viewers from the get-go. That the show also includes normalized queer families is just an added bonus.

Miles Heizer and Dylan Minnette

Catch 13 Reasons Why on Netflix now. Check out the trailer below!