Everyone who has attended high school knows there's a social hierarchy in place. The jocks and cheerleaders are in the popular category, the smart kids are in student government, and the weirdos — those who don't quite fit in anywhere — are the outcasts. Kids get sorted and labeled into these neat little boxes from the moment they step into the hallways and are expected to live with them for the next four years of their teenage lives.
We immediately recognize these labels in TV shows or films about high school. We're so used to these labels that we forget there's a complex human being underneath what we presume about people. Netflix's #13ReasonsWhy seeks to deconstruct those labels with each character linked to Hannah Baker's decision to take her own life.
Stereotypes Don't Reveal A Person's True Character
The popular kids of high school are often given a bad rap. They're the school's elite and the "chosen ones" of the most attractive bunch. But they're also the meanest, getting drunk off of their own power trips and the control they feel they have over those who aren't in the same league as they are. As 13 Reasons Why shows, being popular doesn't always mean they live a charmed life outside of school, or that all popular kids seek to make other people's lives miserable. Just look at the show's resident popular kids Justin Foley (Brandon Flynn) and Jeff Atkins (Brandon Larracuente).
Both boys are handsome, play sports and have no trouble getting their pick of girls to go out with. They check off the stereotypical boxes you come to expect from the "popular" label. However, that's where the similarities end.
On the surface, Justin seems to have the perfect life. He's coasting by without a care in the world, right? As the episodes get into some of the backstories of these kids, you realize everything isn't what it seems. Justin comes from a crappy home life where his mom has an abusive boyfriend and they're struggling to make ends meet.
At one point in the show, Justin admits that his friend and fellow popular kid Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) helped pay for new sneakers because Justin's shoes were so badly worn and full of holes. Seeing the stark contrast between Justin's perfect image in school vs. his home life is a startling one.
One of the major themes of 13 Reasons Why is no one really knows what's going on in someone's personal life. Justin is one of many examples scattered throughout the show. While Justin may exhibit some nasty behavior at times, trying to bully and incite fear in those to get what he wants out of them, he also has shown that he's not an entirely bad kid. In fact, he has the potential to be a good person if only he wasn't hanging with the wrong crowd.
Despite Justin's rap sheet of poor decisions and inexcusable actions towards Hannah and even his girlfriend, Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe), to his credit, Justin doesn't force himself on any of the girls he dates. In Episode 9, "Tape 5, Side A," Justin doesn't take advantage of a drunk and passed out Jessica in her room. Instead, he backs off and leaves the room to let his girlfriend sleep. These are some of the smaller examples of Justin's potential to be one of the better popular guys at school. However, because of the pressure he feels to act a certain way around his friends and to protect his reputation, he does the opposite of what he knows is right.
Justin may have turned out to be one of the weaker kids, unable to stand up to others and ultimately not care what others think of him, but that brings us to boys like Jeff, who makes it his mission to be the genuinely good guy that just happens to be popular.
Jeff's presence in 13 Reasons Why may have been brief, but that doesn't mean he hasn't left an indelible impression on the fans who fell in love with him. Jeff is an example of a character who takes the "mean jock stereotype" and turns it on its head.
In flashback scenes, Clay is Jeff's tutor, helping bring the all-star's grades up. It's only through Clay's memories of Jeff that the audience learns what kind of person he was. Jeff could have left his relationship to Clay as strictly a tutor-to-student relationship. Instead, Jeff takes an active and genuine interest in Clay's personal life. Jeff wants to help Clay put himself out there more and help Clay win the girl, specifically Hannah.
It's because of Jeff that Clay actually goes to parties and dances that the awkward, sort of loner would tend to avoid. Without Jeff, Clay wouldn't have had the opportunities or moments he had with Hannah if Jeff hadn't given Clay the push he needed. Based on the interactions between Clay and Jeff, you can probably say they became good friends.
What we have been taught about most high school stereotype labels is that the jocks or cheerleaders will always be mean and would never take an interest in outsiders or misfits like Clay if it didn't benefit them in some way. Jeff has nothing to gain from helping Clay with his social and love life. The one who has more to gain from Jeff's help is Clay himself. Jeff is aware he's popular at his high school but he never abuses his status to manipulate it to his advantage; definitely not in the same way that Justin does. Jeff is the type of popular jock who respects and talks to everyone. He isn't one to ostracize another person based on where they are in the school's hierarchy.
In an interview with Thrillist, actor Brandon Larracuente touches upon why it was so important to him to portray Jeff as not the usual popular high school jock:
"Dylan [Minnette, who plays the protagonist, Clay] and I met to develop the backstory for Jeff and Clay — how Clay helps Jeff with his homework and how Jeff helps Clay talk to women. In developing the character, I had noticed that everyone was against Clay. I wanted to be different, but I also realized I was supposed to be a jock. So I'm in that group of friends that sees Clay as a problem — and they're always picking on the smaller kids — but I wanted to be a leader and show that you don't always have to be a follower."
Labels are exactly what they are — just labels. They aren't the full picture of an individual. At most, it's a one-dimensional part of what makes a person who they are. 13 Reasons Why depicts plenty of other examples of kids being more than the labels they're given through their backstories. Conversely, some characters never go beyond the stereotypical label, like Bryce, embodying a privileged jock bully. However, the #Netflix show does have other teachable moments beyond bullying, suicide and sexual assault.
What we can take away from a show like 13 Reasons Why is to see beyond the labels and neat categories we unconsciously impose on ourselves and others. Look past them, don't presume we automatically have someone figured out, and take the time to truly get to know people. Like Justin and Jeff, they are multilayered human beings with thoughts and emotions like the rest of us.
Do you think 13 Reasons Why is effective in breaking down the usual high school stereotypes?