‘13 Reasons Why’: Toxic Masculinity, Recuperating Rapists and Emotional Gaslighting
13 Reasons Why just finished its third season (yes, it’s still on). It’s a show that is huge among young adults, and also one of Netflix’s most consistently controversial (not to mention frustrating) shows. It deals with important topics, including teenage depression, rape culture in high school and particularly men’s sports, incompetent administrators, male rape, substance abuse, homelessness…the list goes on. Yet, it somehow manages to ask the wrong questions about nearly every single issue. In the interest of space, I won’t recount the controversies around season one’s graphic depiction of Hannah Baker’s suicide (a decision that Netflix finally walked back recently) or season two’s portrayal of Tyler Down being brutally sodomized by a mop (one of the TV scenes that will forever scar my memory). What does season three contribute to this list of sins? Emotional gaslighting.
Yes, the mystery of season three, if you’re unaware, is the murder of serial rapist Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). Yet, imbued within the whodunit is an arc of redemption, of not just taking Bryce to task for his crimes but trying to rehabilitate him. Season three’s writers were determined not to paint him as this through and through abuser, to demonstrate that he was trying to change, but the “goddamn world won’t let [him]!” [Yes, that line is actually uttered by Bryce. Yikes, am I right?] The impetus to make Bryce a sympathetic character is I guess understandable from a storytelling perspective. The writers want all the characters to be multidimensional. Thus, Bryce’s story blooms: he is not just a serial rapist but a young boy who grew up wealthy and privileged AF, but who really just wanted affection from his parents. I’m not trying to sound facetious, or to diminish the real emotional trauma imparted by negligent parents who think that money can buy affection (trust me, I’ve been there). But to have that sort of backstory become the grounds for his narcissistic entitlement and complete disregard for women? That’s just irresponsible. Yet, the series is actually damn effective at weaving this web of sympathetic identification for Bryce.
I myself went in expecting to hate Bryce (and still do) but found myself deeply moved and in tears at multiple points in the season, much to my chagrin. The boy has been through the wringer, the show seems to suggest. For example, Bryce’s dad walks out on him and his mom and decides to start a new family after his son gains notoriety as the town rapist; his chauvinistic star athlete persona gets him no traction at his new elite prep school because his classmates all know he’s a rapist, and his only friends are his mother and Ani (Grace Saif), the daughter of his grandfather’s live in caretaker. My, how the mighty have fallen. Ani is the new kid on the block and, alongside Jessica Davis, one of two women of color who are series regulars on the show. More and more, the show has become a boys’ club, which is really not a good look for a series that is centered around sexual assault, its perpetuation, and its extensive fallout. Despite repeated warnings from her friends and even Bryce’s mom (!!), she falls for Bryce’s charms and starts sleeping with him (!!!), which I guess serves to demonstrate that rapists can indeed be charming and seductive when they choose to.
Either that, or she is the show’s Magical Negro, a trope referring to a black supporting character who consistently comes to the aid of the white protagonists. To that point, she is the season’s omniscient narrator, who seems to know everything about everyone despite being the new kid on the block. She is convinced that Bryce is not a trash human being, but really just “broken,” a wayward soul desperate for attention and affection. Ugh. This could be interesting if we’re given some context into Ani’s interiority (i.e. what she’s thinking and feeling) but instead she is given no backstory. Magical Negros exist in film to move the plot along and fix the white characters’ problems. And, true to the trope, she manages to save all her friends. Just when the police are about to charge Clay Jensen (you know, the white male protagonist who is exhausting in his bullheaded earnestness) with Bryce’s murder, she manages to concoct a super convenient, barely credible lie — to the police, no less — to blame it on the dead guy (see below). Wow. Magical indeed. Again, we’re not offered any explanation for her constant meddling or her omniscient presence but the resolution is wrapped up in such a neat bow that the show doesn’t want us to ask these pesky questions.
I should also mention Bryce’s mom Nora. I gotta give props to Brenda Strong for turning in a phenomenal performance as the matron of the Walker family, who reviles the old school, oppressive masculinity that characterizes her husband, her father…and ultimately, her son, but who as a mother really wants to believe her son can be better. She makes you feel Nora’s palpable amalgamation of fear, resentment and love, often pulling her in such emotional extremes that one wonders how she keeps it all together. To the show’s credit, this season the writers really hone in on the idea that toxic masculinity is ingrained both systemically (at schools, within sports) and in more intimate spaces like families, where it’s passed down intergenerationally. That is, these behaviors of masculine aggression and misogyny are learned, as we see with the Walkers. Strong excels in portraying the emotional balancing act of anguish and trepidation that Nora must constantly negotiate: she never quite knows whether her son is going to hug her or strike her, and all the while is trying to learn how to love him.
Finally, Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos). Bryce’s best friend and the bully who brutally raped Tyler Down at the end of season two. Guess what? Turns out, he’s a closeted, self-hating gay. Again, I’m not being dismissive, but the move to humanize Monty after the horrific trauma he inflicted on others, when he’s been nothing but a one-note bully the entirety of the first two seasons, is questionable. Why does the series feel like they need to complicate characters like Bryce and Monty AFTER painting them into a corner? This season, we learn that Monty comes from a Latinx family, with a homophobic father who regularly beats him. The abused becomes the abuser…classic. He learns to hate himself, and in turn, refracts that rage onto others, because his dad is a grade-A, alcoholic, deadbeat loser. When Tyler (god bless him) finally works up the courage to confront Monty about what he did, he retorts that “it’s not anything that hasn’t happened to tons of other guys.” [Are we to assume that Monty’s dad also raped him with a mop…?]
When Monty is invited to a party with a bunch of Bryce’s prep school friends, he eye fucks a lovely boy named Winston Williams (Deakon Bluman). They end up making out and Winston goes down on Monty, with Monty’s face conveying a tortured combination of anguish and pleasure, as if he is actively trying to repress the fact that the blowjob feels good. Winston makes the mistake of saying bye to Monty, which incites a pummeling because the “faggot” dared to speak to him. But of course, Monty gets a redemptive arc too. After Bryce confronts Monty about raping Tyler (cuz Bry Bry is trying to right his wrongs), they have a falling out, and we see that Monty is really as lost and lonely as Bryce. And so, when on a chance night he runs into Winston again, he desperately asks to hang out, and they end up having sex (!!). After topping him, Monty still denies that he’s gay, but Winston tenderly tells him that he can “be whatever [he] wants to be.” Sure.
Long story short, season three concludes with Monty being framed for Bryce’s murder, and the last we see of Monty is a confrontation between him and his father, which results in his dad spitting in his face after learning his son is gay. Yikes. Again, this scene is meant to contextualize Monty’s abusive actions and make us empathize with him. The next thing we know, we hear that Monty has been murdered in jail (b/c someone found out/overheard that he’s gay?). I suppose that means that season 4 will follow a similar narrative arc — figuring out who murdered a relentless bully, fleshing out his traumatic backstory, and spotlighting how the kids at Liberty High reckon with their involvement in not one but two murders. Because as Winston reminds them, “He was a person too.”