The ups & downs of 13 Reasons Why’s queer representation

Reflecting on the triumphs and pitfalls of the controversial Netflix show’s portrayal of queer issues

The series' portrayal of AIDS casts a shadow on its presentation of LGBTQIA+ issues.
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13 Reasons Why wrapped up its run a lot like it started: angering conservative parents and making headlines. 

But parents aren’t the only ones with concerns. In its fourth season, the Netflix original show has stirred up mixed opinions surrounding its depiction of queer issues. 

13 Reasons has always been controversial, to say the least. While it pushes important boundaries in its depictions of some social issues facing contemporary teenagers, the series unsuccessfully toes the line between bold and problematic in its depiction of others. 

From a dangerously empathetic portrayal of an almost-school shooter to a redemption storyline for a serial rapist, 13 Reasons has seriously misstepped a number of times in its attempted counterculture approach to the perils of high school. While the first season of the show successfully adhered to a tight storyline, its following seasons have too often relied on sensationalizing social issues to inspire wobbly plots

Among some of the things it’s done well, 13 Reasons has never shied away from LGBTQIA+ characters. However, as with many of the demographics represented in the show, queer storylines aren’t safe from harmful rhetoric. 

With the inclusion of the show’s first bisexual+ couple and a deadly AIDS diagnosis, the series’ fourth and final season presents yet another conundrum: what should viewers take away from 13 Reasons’ queer representation?

Bi+ representation in mainstream media is difficult to come by, and innocuous representation even more so.

A 2018 GLAAD study found that of 109 film releases from major studios in 2017, only 23 contained LGBTQIA+ characters. Of those 23 films, only two featured characters who identify as bisexual.

Whether it’s labelling bi+ characters as licentious cheaters, treating bisexuality as a mile marker on the road to coming out as gay, or neglecting to portray them at all, people who identify outside the binary of straight and gay are too often underserved in film and television. 

13 Reasons’ Charlie St. George is a reprieve from bi+ stereotypes: he’s the quarterback of the high school football team, a doting boyfriend, and a well-rounded character. He isn’t fraught with self-doubt, he’s accepted by his friends and teammates, and comes out to his supportive father over a cup of coffee. 

Whereas Charlie’s character was a later addition to the show, his boyfriend, Alex Standall, has been a main character all four seasons. Speculation about Alex’s sexuality has circulated among fans since the first season. And after three seasons of an on-again, off-again relationship with his ex-girlfriend, season four sees Alex explore his sexuality. 

13 Reasons deftly avoids a number of tired tropes in its depiction of Alex and Charlie’s relationship. Neither character is held back by internalized homophobia, their past relationships with women are never called into question, and, in Alex’s case, labelling their sexuality is not a priority. 

Of course, both Charlie and Alex’s experiences are privileged, white portrayals of coming out. But for a show that sometimes misses the mark in its representation of marginalized groups and sensitive issues, Alex and Charlie feel like a solid—if a little safe—place to start.

Despite its bi+ inclusion, 13 Reasons’ positive queer representation in its final season is significantly undercut by its depiction of HIV. 

In a shocking twist in the series’ final episode, one of the main characters, Justin Foley, is diagnosed with HIV which has progressed into full-blown AIDS. Justin, who struggled with drug addiction throughout the show, dies before graduating high school.

Justin’s death comes across as a cheap exploitation of HIV for shock value with serious disregard for its promotion of AIDS-related stigma. 

The show could have used the plotline as an opportunity to show that an AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence; instead, it wielded HIV as a tool to kill off a character who struggled with substance abuse, homelessness, and engaged in same-sex sex work.

The stigmatization of AIDS has a long, intersecting history with the queer community; HIV continues to disproportionately affect segments of the LGBTQIA+ community today. 

In line with several harmful stereotypes, 13 Reasons killed off a fan-favourite character—played by a gay actor—with an inaccurate representation of HIV related to his sex work with men, culminating in an emotionally manipulative attempt at a tear-jerker finale.

The queer representation in the fourth season of 13 Reasons Why is illustrative of how the show often tackles sensitive issues: intrepidly and with seemingly little forethought toward the consequences. 

Sometimes, this approach pays off—as was the case for its bi+ representation. Other times, it treads dangerously close to doing more harm than good.

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