Warning: The following post details the events in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Be wary of spoilers.
The new show 13 Reasons Why is knees-deep in the topic of the male gaze, which is tricky quicksand. The issue is this: How does one investigate the ramifications of toxic masculinity without employing the toxin itself? The Netflix series, based on the book by Jay Asher, details the "13 reasons" why a girl named Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) died by suicide. Unexamined, the 13 reasons amount to high school bullying. Upon closer inspection — and completion of the episodes — they can all be traced back to toxic masculinity and the male gaze. One of the final reasons — and the most surprising, so avert your eyes if you haven't finished the series or read the book — involves Baker's rape, another sort of tricky quicksand. But the show manages to never employ the male gaze, even when it's featuring one of the most violent instances of toxic masculinity.
As a viewer in the series, we bear witness these 13 accumulated violences. There are two ways we can experience these aggressions: We can witness them from the omniscient perspective, seeing them happen as a third-party observer; or, we can experience them from the point of view of Hannah herself. Guess which one is the more violent option? If you guessed the first one, you're correct. Seeing the reasons expand as Hannah experiences them lends her agency throughout this whole ordeal. For example, when Hannah is listed as the girl in school with the "best ass," the camera never wanders over her derrière, eager to prove her sexual worth. Instead, we see the ramifications of the list in Hannah's eyes. We see the heartbreak — literally, in close-up shots of Langford's face. In the same episode, Hannah's classmate Bryce makes a covert grab for her ass. Again, the camera doesn't linger over the act itself. Instead, the viewer sits with Hannah's stunned reaction — this is the female side of this interaction, and it's the one Hannah, as well as the young women of the world, deserve.
The camera has long stood in for the male gaze. It's is a nebulous term, so let me define it as best I can: The "male gaze" is when art — film, written, or otherwise — assumes the man's point of view. Examples include when a park executive wears heels running through a forest in Jurassic World, when Karen Gillan wears almost no clothing in Jumanji, or when a female character is described as "hot but not aware of it." Scenes of man-on-woman violence often assume the male gaze, e.g. Game Of Throne's hotly debated rape scene featuring Sansa Stark.
Ironically, in the second episode of 13 Reasons Why, Hannah and her friend Jessica (Alisha Boe) ask Alex (Miles Heizer), who penned the "best ass" list, "Have you ever heard of the male gaze? Well, we have. And we're not totally sure what it means, but we're pretty sure you have it." That, in essence, seems to be what these characters are grappling with for the sum of the series. They're not sure what this force is, but they know they're falling victim to it — Hannah Baker in particular.
The glory here is that the show itself never falls victim to it. Every time Baker is bested by the male gaze, the show is careful to avoid using the gaze itself. Hannah's classmate Justin (Brandon Flynn) shares an upskirt image of Hannah with the entire school. We barely see the image — instead, we hear about it. When Hannah is convinced she's being stalked by a photographer, the viewer rides alongside Hannah as she goes about her day, paranoid that someone is following her. (In this case, the male gaze would be the POV of Tyler the photographer.) When a barely conscious Jessica is assaulted by Bryce (Justin Prentice) at a party, the camera shows us the event through a lace curtain, because Hannah is hiding behind a lace curtain, horrified at what's happening to her friend. Finally, when Hannah herself is pushed against the concrete wall of a hot tub, we see next to nothing of the actual rape. (Granted, this could be for reasons of violence, but given the graphic nature of an entirely different scene in this show, that argument is tenuous at best.) The episode that features the rape begins with a shot of Hannah's downturned face. Audio of the assault plays over the shot. Footage of the actual event features primarily Hannah's face, pressed against the ground. Throughout the scene, we are guided by Hannah's voice over, saying this: "The way I see it, there are two different kinds of death. If you're lucky, you live a long life, and one day your body stops working and it's over. But if you're not lucky, you die a little bit, over and over, until you realize it's too late." Effectively, Hannah is telling us about her rape. We aren't experiencing it as a third-party observer or, God forbid, from the POV of Bryce, the rapist. We're seeing it from the female gaze.
13 Reasons Why straddles this difficult boundary. The show is about bullying and violence. It would be easy for it to be a gratuitously violent series, relying on the shock value of teen hatred. But it's not. Instead, it's violent in a different way. Hannah Baker, our emotionally destitute narrator, delivers pathos with a dry voiceover and the perpetrators of violence aren't given agency at all. The show may be about the loss of feminine agency, but it doesn't rob its women characters of their narratives.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.