It’s Still a Stigma to be A Slut: The Most Tragic Thing About Thirteen Reasons Why

High school is a great primer for life outside of it. Sure, it gets a bad reputation for being this strange stop on the road that is everything getting better, but in truth there is no metaphor more accurate for the way things operate outside of it. Which is to say, no one cares if you’re adrift at sea, least of all if you’re not contributing to the ship that is their “success” (in high school, this means popularity and the ability to fit, or at least blend, in). And they especially don’t want to throw you a lifeline if you’ve been branded as a “certain kind” of girl. The one who gives it up with ease—it being, of course, her body. The one who relishes sexual delights. Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) is not—was not—one of these types. And yet, the mere suggestion of her appetite at the outset of Thirteen Reasons Why is enough to make her feel less than, like little better than a piece of trash that can be thrown to the ground as easily as the note she writes to one of her tormentors, Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler). High school may get worse and worse with each passing decade, especially as the medium of the internet allows for more inventive ways to bully, but one thing that will stand the test of time, evidently is the go-to insult for girls: slut. Whether the person calling her that is male or female, it’s still somehow the most effective way to tear someone down with a single syllable that turns quickly into a rumor that turns quickly into school gospel.

Its obvious predecessor in addressing how this “invective” shapes a girl’s persona is My So-Called Life. Appropriately, Wilson Cruz a.k.a. Rickie Vasquez makes his appearance on the show as the lawyer defending the Bakers’ lawsuit against the school. His name? Dennis Vasquez; perhaps an homage to the past. The other parallel is the archetypal “list” that circulates among the sophomore males. Whereas Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) relished her moniker of “Most Slut Potential” in the fifth episode, “The Zit,” Hannah’s reaction to her own appellation is one of humiliation. Worst of all, it comes from one of the many people she once considered a friend, Alex (Miles Heizer), trying to make his then current girlfriend, Jessica (Alisha Boe), feel guilty for not sleeping with him. The trio that used to be inseparable at the local coffee shop, Monet’s, now has an even further rift wedged between them when Alex labels Hannah as the girl with the “best ass” and Jessica as the one with the “worst.” This on the heels of a photo of her that’s circulated with her dress up at a playground after basketball jock Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) perpetuates the first sexual rumor about Hannah established by upperclassman Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). Clay (Dylan Minnette), a sort of hybrid Brian Krakow/Jordan Catalano in sensitivity and looks, knows little of the backstory behind these events and the rumors they caused until receiving Hannah’s post-mortem auditory suicide note: thirteen tapes elucidating the “thirteen reasons why” she killed herself. In spite of being her best friend and working with her on a near day-to-day basis at the movie theater, there’s still much he doesn’t know about her internal turmoil. In addition to an unshakeable stature as a sex monster, Hannah is also plagued by constantly being watched, which, naturally causes another slut-related piece of evidence to circulate through the school, this time of the lesbian variety. In episode four (Tape 2, Side B), Hannah addresses the normalization of stalking with her reminder, “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. They’ve made us a society of stalkers. And we love it.”

Thirteen Reasons Why, adapted from Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel with such razor-sharpness (this is a bad adjective to use for this particular show, I know) by Brian Yorkey–more known up to now for his theater work–is the “teen drama” that’s been so long missing from television. Yet, like any good teen drama, it transcends the genre it its relatability. It illuminates the accepted maxim that we’re expected to simply move on from the “little things” that start stacking up into a giant emotional burden to shoulder, hence Hannah’s use of the butterfly effect metaphor. A butterfly flapping its wings far away and weeks earlier can cause a hurricane. Just like the buildup of all Hannah’s social affronts lead her to believe that she is utterly alone with no one to turn to. So afraid does she eventually become of trusting those around her, that she often screams at anyone who tries to reach out to her, boys most of all. Even Clay, the one person she wants in her life more than anyone, becomes a source of making her skittish. The trauma–the learned helplessness–of it all, directly stems from the notoriety she has gained as a slut. The worst part is, of course, that she’s never even had sex before. At least if you’re going to get this branding, you should be engaging in some physical enjoyment as solace.

Some might see Thirteen Reasons Why as a tale of how so many of us just need one kind word from another person now and again to keep going, to know that we’re not flailing solo in the ether that is the universe. And yes, it is largely about that–about the “minor” interactions that form our daily feelings. More than this, however, Hannah is an emblem not just for how affecting and upsetting it is to feel lonely–like there’s no one she can turn to without having it somehow backfire–but also how the reputation for being a “whore” is a stigma that shouldn’t still cause this much controversy. Regardless of your opinions on girls who have “a lot” of sex, it shouldn’t be something that makes them feel somehow wrong or ostracized. Of course, those ruffled by this cry for “the rights of the slut” will say that high school girls shouldn’t be having sex at all–that’s what it’s really about. But they are. No matter what drives them, no matter how you slice it, the average age a girl in the U.S. loses her virginity is seventeen. This isn’t to say that “sluts” should be applauded for their behavior. They shouldn’t be anything for it. At least not until those who abstain get half as much shit for their prudishness. Even Rayanne Graff wasn’t as strong at handling her reputation as she let on, at one point calling the Teen Helpline run by Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa). Because, despite the school of thought that insists being your own best friend if you want to survive and have high self-esteem is the only way to ensure happiness, the way we’re treated by others still matters, still influences our own perception of ourselves. But maybe if there wasn’t such besmirchment in the United States associated with sex in general and having “too much” of it specifically, high school girls (and the women they eventually become) wouldn’t be driven to the lengths of madness that ultimately just make them want to live up to the hype all the more. And, to be frank, who gives a fuck if they do? Other than the people jealous that their own existence is devoid of orgasms that aren’t self-inflicted.

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