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’13 Reasons Why’ Destroys Manic Pixie Dream Girl For Good

TV

And adds urgency to teen narratives

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of 13 Reasons Why

One of the most important things to know about 13 Reasons Why is that our heroine, Hannah Baker, is dead. In fact, within the first few minutes of this new Netflix series, which premieres today and is based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, we’re told that Hannah killed herself. And before doing it, she recorded a set of tapes meant to explain and point to the reasons, well, why.

This would be a compelling and heartbreaking story in and of itself. Watching the young Clay Jensen—Hannah’s friend—reconcile her death while trying to piece together the details of her final months would be more than enough to anchor the series’ themes of grief, social currencies, and the disconnect between adults and teens. But what makes 13 Reasons Why so special isn’t its tapestry of sorrow; it’s the way we learn about Hannah, away from Clay Jensen’s aching gaze.

Hannah Baker is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her purpose is not to float into town and make everyone around her pine. She is not the idea of a young woman—she is a young woman—and she is complicated, as all young women should and tend to be. And while Clay mistakenly sees her as the larger-than-life, rule-breaking, fast-talking girl of his dreams, the show is quick to establish that Hannah was always much more than that. By listening to her tapes, Clay realizes that the realities of her life looked much differently outside the gaze he saw her through. And that’s a unique way to approach teen drama.

Whether through shows like The OC or movies like Almost Famous, the MPDG trope has become a fast way for a young male character to tell the audience about himself. Through his unrequited love, we discover that characters like Seth Cohen and William Miller are sad, confused, and misunderstood—until they’re less so, thanks to the help of the young women they fall for. It’s boring and it’s overdone, and when Clay’s feelings for Hannah became obvious, it was anxiety-inducing. Not just because she clearly wasn’t interested, but because Hannah deserved more than to be an accessory to somebody else. Teen dramas, in general, deserve more.

And we know this because we’ve been getting more. Riverdale, hugely anchored in teen culture, created characters with depth and complexity who confront problems ranging from homelessness to incarcerated parents to, uh, stage fright. (Ladies and gentlemen, Archie Andrews.) Pretty Little Liars has been rich in its tragedy and sensationalism for several seasons, and Degrassi: Next Class has proudly carried the torch of embracing uncomfortable topics in a way that allows for discourse around them. So to secure relevance, 13 Reasons Why had no choice but to reflect the evolution of teen-centric dramas. Especially since so much of its story revolves around what we misunderstand about teens.

In the pilot, we learn that after her first kiss, Hannah’s narrative is hijacked: her crush’s trigger-happy friends share photos that lead to school-wide slut-shaming and social ostracizing, leaving Hannah to reconcile who her true friends are. But worse, as it’s happening, the adults around her are clueless. A teacher calmly asks her class to put away their phones as Hannah’s picture shows up on them. The night before, Hannah’s well-meaning mom tries to intercept a phone call but is easily duped. Several times, Clay’s mother attempts to reach out to him but is thwarted thanks to his ability to conceal plans via text messages. Technology, we learn, is its own beast, navigated and used in a way that some of us can’t understand as adults. And while this could be 13 Reasons Why’s biggest lesson, it’s only a footnote to a bigger theme: The microcosm of high school can be dark and dangerous and life-ruining, but, even in the midst of it, you still have to hand in your geometry homework.

Which makes for a story that’s compelling as hell. The strength in 13 Reasons Why lies not in its mystery (enter: the tapes and what they slowly begin to reveal), but in the way, it presents darkness so ordinarily. Villains are jocks with cute smirks you think you can outwit. Victims are those whose story you don’t hear. Heroes are misunderstood and lonely and falling apart. Everybody is just trying to get through the day, and it’s not going well.

And at the center of it is Hannah—or the absence of Hannah, depending on whose perspective and timeline we’re being treated to. Hannah, who is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Hannah, whose tragedy provides a gateway into the realities of what it’s like to be a teenager. Hannah, who uses old-school technology to illuminate the pitfalls of social media and the tech we take for granted. Hannah, a character you can’t help but want to get to know.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.