The Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” based on a novel by Jay Asher, tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who recorded tapes about the people she blames for driving her to suicide. While some critics praise it for sparking discussion of suicide, bullying and rape culture, others say that its graphic depictions of suicide and rape went too far. However, aside from the occasional Tumblr post or Facebook comment, no one has addressed an issue in one of the plot lines that I believe to be rather salient: the homophobia surrounding the story of Courtney Crimsen’s role in Hannah Baker’s suicide.
Courtney appears on one of the 13 tapes that Hannah recorded. The tape says that, after Hannah enlisted Courtney to help her catch her stalker, who took pictures from outside the bedroom window, Hannah and Courtney kiss in a drunken game of truth or dare. Hannah’s stalker took a picture of them kissing and sent the image to everyone in the school. When a male student asks Courtney about the picture at a school dance, she tells him that the picture is of Hannah and Laura, an openly lesbian student, and that Hannah is bisexual and solicits threesomes, adding to the rumors about Hannah’s sexual promiscuity. Hannah confronts Courtney about spreading lies to prevent students from learning that Courtney is a closeted lesbian.
Though the show has multiple gay characters, it has effectively villainized the only prominent lesbian character and belittled the homophobia that she would face. Courtney hides her sexuality because she does not want people to blame her two gay fathers for making her gay. Through Laura’s homophobic treatment by the other classmates and Hannah being bullied for her perceived sexual activity, the show admits that Courtney would face serious harassment if she were outed. However, even as the other characters have experiences tangential to homophobia, they do not show empathy for Courtney. None of the shows gay characters, including Ryan Shaver, is shown offering Courtney his empathy.
Clay Jensen, the show’s main character, was mistaken for being gay in freshman year and mocked by his classmates, and yet he asks Courtney “it’s the 21st century, how is this so hard for you?” His hypocrisy is highlighted when, after Hannah says that every guy who saw the picture without knowing who was in it had masturbated to it, a clip shows Clay looking at the picture and grabbing lotion and tissues, implying that he, like many boys, had fetishized lesbian activity for their own sexual gratification.
There are several issues regarding Courtney’s characterization within the series. Courtney is shown to be afraid of the consequences of coming out of the closet, which the show says includes bullying and fetishization. Courtney’s desire to hide her sexuality motivates her to protect the reputation of Bryce Walker, who, according to the tapes, raped Hannah and her former friend Jessica.
This plot device is problematic. In the show, a lesbian character defends a rapist. However, in real life, a potential consequence of coming out as a lesbian is corrective rape, in which a person rapes someone perceived to be gay in attempt to turn them straight.
Courtney is made unsympathetic for trying to keep her sexuality hidden, while Hannah is portrayed as a victim of her circumstances. Hannah is bullied for her rumored bisexuality and promiscuity.
The show does not send the message that it’s wrong to bully someone for sexual orientation and sexual activity, but instead says that it’s wrong to bully someone for their wrongly perceived non-straight sexuality and promiscuity. Courtney’s narrative only reinforces this damaging message by showing a gay woman of color victimizing a white, straight woman who is made out to be sexually pure.
Audience reception reveals that the show failed to soften Courtney’s villainization through explanation of her motives. Courtney corrects Ryan’s description of Bryce Walker as a rapist by saying “alleged rapist,” to which Ryan responds with “f– off, Courtney.”
This iconic line became an internet meme. Though the audience rightfully condemns Courtney’s willingness to defend a rapist, I have seen this meme more than I have seen memes condemning Bryce for being a rapist. The audience’s greater condemnation for Courtney shows that the series failed to make Courtney a sympathetic character.
“13 Reasons Why” attempted to give Courtney an understandable motive for her otherwise heinous actions. In doing so, it sent a bad message regarding homophobic bullying and encouraged its audience to shut off their empathy for Courtney like its characters did.
Had I written the screenplay, I would not have made the only lesbian character an unsympathetic villain, but instead I would have explored the nuanced intersection between homophobia and misogyny in a way that makes the audience confront their own prejudices in their daily lives.
Aryn Plax, a sophomore journalism major, is metro editor for the Campus Times. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.