How To Be An Ally, According To Clay In '13 Reasons Why'
Netflix's adaptation of 13 Reasons Why is framed as a mystery — before Hannah Baker commits suicide, she records 13 tapes that detail the progression of events that lead her to take her own life. Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why ahead. After her classmates eagerly labeled her the class slut at the first available opportunity, she was subjected to bullying, gossip, the betrayal of friends, sexual harassment, and rape. When Clay learns that there's a tape dedicated to him, he's confused and terrified to listen to it — Hannah was his friend and his crush, and the mere thought that he inadvertently harmed her makes him physically ill. But Clay fought rape culture on 13 Reasons Why, and his actions throughout the series teach an important lesson about how to be an ally for girls like Hannah.
Hannah is initially excited to start at a new high school with a clean slate — and the year begins on a positive note. She bonds with Jessica, another transfer student, and is thrilled when her crush asks her out and she shares her first kiss with Justin. The next day, she's shocked and humiliated to learn that he's told the entire school they had a sexual encounter. During their date, Justin took a series of photos of Hannah at the playground and carefully selected a picture that exposed her underwear because she went down the slide wearing a dress and it's spread around the school. Hannah is immediately labeled the "class slut" and both boys and girls bully and ostracize her.
Clay is, for the most part, the exception. Though he does lash out her briefly, which he later admits to Tony stemmed from jealousy, he refuses to engage in the school's harmful dialogue and after one rude remark, makes an effort to not treat Hannah any differently than he did before the rumors started. The depiction of his character is realistic — Clay desperately wants to help Hannah, but he struggles to find the "right" actions and words. As a result, he's sometimes awkward around her and then he feels guilty — but he doesn't stop supporting her. People often assume that being an ally requires a grand gesture or a heroic act, but, as Clay's treatment of Hannah proves, simply being the one person who doesn't judge can make a world of difference.
Clay's seemingly small acts of kindness and respect for Hannah have a major impact on her — it's why she dedicates a tape to him. This message is so important for viewers of all ages because, if only more people had behaved like Clay, Hannah wouldn't have been mistreated and bullied to the point where she could no longer bear to be alive.
In the aftermath of Hannah's death, Clay is haunted by the fact that he didn't do more — although, realistically, there wasn't much he could do. But the fact that his treatment of Hannah had such a profound impact on her illustrates that it doesn't take a grand gesture to be an ally or a source of comfort. Clay feels helpless because he can't stop the abuse, but he doesn't give up or walk away from Hannah.
Being an ally doesn't always mean swooping in and saving someone. In Clay's case, it means sticking by Hannah when no one else does. Everyone likes the idea of a grand heroic gesture, but it's not always an option. However, being there for a person is always an option.
The effects of rape culture quickly permeate every aspect of Hannah's life — Alex, who was once her friend, makes a "hot or not" list that declares she has the "best ass." The list, of course, spreads like wildfire and Hannah is humiliated. Alex's "hot" list was largely motivated by his anger at Jessica for refusing to have sex with him — both girls are hurt by the list and it's an opportunity for them to commiserate. That's certainly what Hannah wants — but, as 13 Reasons Why shows, girls also participate in rape culture. Jessica slaps her, ends their friendship, and tells Hannah that she believes Justin rather than her own friend.
This culture also persists after Hannah's death, but Clay has the opportunity to hold Bryce accountable for his crimes. Unlike almost everyone else on the show, Clay isn't afraid to use the word rape — and this is so important because society seems to deliberately tiptoe around the word in some sort of effort to pretend that it's incredibly rare. I've heard the phrase "gray area sexual assault" more times than I can count and it's a cop-out — we need to acknowledge the ugly truth that rape is far too common and it's a life-altering crime, not a "misunderstanding."
Interestingly, Alex is the only other character who isn't afraid to use the word rape and hold Bryce accountable. This certainly doesn't change the fact that when Hannah was alive, he was an active participant in the school's rape culture. His degrading "hot list" contributed to Hannah's despair, but it's important to show that people can learn from their mistakes and then do everything in their power to fight back against the culture they once perpetuated. It's obviously disturbing that Alex didn't learn his lesson until Hannah committed suicide — but his story arc sends an important message to viewers.
Alex certainly had terrible intentions when he made the hot list, but I doubt he viewed it as act of sexual harassment that would have a traumatic effect — his actions are an example of how rape culture is so normalized that people (especially teenagers) don't always realize they're participants. It's deeply disturbing, because rape culture is never addressed at the school — and when Hannah seeks help from Mr. Porter, he victim blames her, minimizes her experience, and tells her the best solution is to "move on."
Even when Bryce's crimes are revealed, Clay and Alex are the only two characters who are determined to do something about it — for the sake of Hannah, Jessica, and the other girls Bryce will undoubtedly assault if someone doesn't put a stop to it. During one tense conversation about how to proceed, Courtney is the only girl at the table — and she's determined to keep Bryce's crimes a secret in order to protect herself. Alex looks straight at her and says, "you know what's worse than being a rapist? Justifying it."
As 13 Reasons Why illustrates, girls and women also participate in rape culture and it can be devastating for survivors — we expect that other women will empathize and be furious on our behalf, and it can feel like a terrible betrayal when they choose to side with a rapist.
When Hannah's alive, Clay is an ally through small but meaningful actions. After her death, he seizes the opportunity to bring her rapist to justice. The common thread is that, both before and after her death, he does everything in his power to fight rape culture. Being an ally takes on different forms depending on the situation.
As Hannah tells Clay, "you don't belong on this tape." If just one or two more people had treated her in the same way he did, the tapes wouldn't have existed at all.