If there’s one major way teen shows have blossomed since the WB reigned supreme, it’s in terms of racial inclusion. The recently wrapped sagas of Teen Wolf and Pretty Little Liars tried their hands at diversity over their 100-or-more episodes. Riverdale is a veritable rainbow coalition, with a Latinx mob family, a trio of Black pop stars, and an Asian-American heartthrob in Reggie Mantle (real-life model Charles Melton). And, the suburban tableau of 13 Reasons Why is filled to the brim with teens of color, from Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) to Tony Padilla (Christian Navarro) and Zach Shan-Yung Dempsey (Ross Butler, whose Riverdale exit paved the way for aforementioned fellow hunk Melton)
While all of these shows leaned into “diversity,” they also fell into one of the biggest traps of progressive television: the belief that allowing characters of color to have indistinguishable experiences from their white counterparts benefits them or the audience. It doesn’t. It only minimizes the real-life stories of teens in that situation. Thankfully, 13 Reasons Why finally realized that issue in season 2.
During the Netflix drama’s original run, the students of Liberty High School skated around the topic of race in the same way they tried to avoid dealing with the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) all together. No one questioned how race plays into the rape of biracial character Jessica, or even her popularity. The same goes for Sheri Holland (Empire star Ajiona Alexus), a young Black woman and the solitary Liberty teen to actually go to jail for her crimes in season 1. Marcus Cole (Steven Silver) is the only teen whose life as a Black boy at a white school is explored — and that’s because the weight of Marcus’ circumstances are nearly his only legitimate character trait.
This is not the case in 13 Reasons Why round 2. Viewers get their first signal this season will be different thanks to a running subplot about Jessica’s hair. Jessica, who has a white mother (Andrea Roth) and Black father (Joseph C. Phillips), has natural waves in her hair. But, in the season’s third episode, “The Drunk Slut,” Jessica flat-irons her hair until it’s pin-straight in preparation for the her testimony at the trial between Hannah’s parents and the Liberty High school district. Jessica’s mom Noelle is immediately happy to see the change, exclaiming, “Your hair!” That makes sense, since Jess’ hair texture now looks identical to her blonde mother’s. A resigned, sad-sounding Jessica responds, “You always tell me how much you like it. When it’s straight.”
Noelle tries to assure her daughter she’s “beautiful either way,” but Jessica has obviously already internalized years of unwitting messages about when she is percieved as most attractive and likable. The answer is when she whitewashes herself. That’s why, when Alex Standall (Miles Heizer) later asks why Jessica’s hair is different, she explains, “It’s court hair.” If Jessica’s every word is going to be judged by a jury of her peers, she seems to believe she has to erase visible signs of her Blackness.
This subtle signaling leads to one of the most interesting developments of season 2, as Jess becomes friends with Nina Jones (Samantha Logan), a fellow Black girl and sexual assault survivor. Another layer of depth is added to the the new episodes by seeing these two young women of color support each other and grow together. It also lends itself to one of the few jokes of the season, when Jessica’s dad questions whether the new friend group she has met through Nina is “the best influence” on his daughter. It’s worth noting the entire group is made up of Black athletes, one of whom the protective dad caught Jessica kissing. Her knee-jerk response is to ask, aghast, “Why, because they’re Black?”
Jessica’s Black dad has one of the best lines of the entire season, asking, “Is that a serious question? Have you looked at me lately?” Soon enough, father and daughter are bursting into laughter. It could couldn't be more refreshing to hear someone actually mention their status as a person of color in the 13 Reasons orbit — or harder to imagine such an honest statement being dropped back in season 1.
Other characters in 13 Reasons Why 2.0 have similar revelatory moments, adding a level on truthfulness that wasn’t there before. Take Tony, for example. A large part of the early-in-the-season intrigue is tracking down Jessica’s ex-boyfriend Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn), who ran away from home and is now living on the streets of Oakland. Protagonist Clay Jensen (Dylan Minette) figures this out and asks his BFF Tony, one of the few people of color to whom he regularly speaks, to help him traverse the city. Tony asks, “You thought you would ask your brown friend for help navigating the streets?” All of a sudden, Clay is reeling over whether or not he is racist. and his request was offensive. While Tony was mostly kidding, Clay should be questioning why he jumped to certain conclusions about his Latinx friend.
The same level of self-reflection is required of Justin, who very quickly assumes Sheri knows where to buy heroin. Again, she checks him on that expectation. While Justin blames his suspicions on the fact that Sheri is now an expert in helping people detox from drug withdrawals, everyone is also forced to assume his conclusion jumping is also based on stereotypes.
As someone who grew up the “brown friend,” to quote Tony, in a world as white as suburban Staten Island, I understand the dream that young people of color really do have the exact same high school experiences as the rest of their classmates. But they don’t. There is always that little reminder that you don’t look like everyone else, your hair isn’t like anyone else’s, and you will face very different expectations than anyone else for the rest of your life. It’s an inescapable truth. Maybe if we own up to this unfortunate reality on television, we’ll finally be able to move forward as a culture.
Let's all be thankful 13 Reasons Why is taking the baby steps necessary to start walking towards that future.
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