’13 Reasons Why’ and the Devastating Power of Rape Culture

SPOILER ALERT/CONTENT WARNING: This post contains spoilers from the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and discusses sexual assault and rape culture.

 

You’ve probably heard of the new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Like most Netflix series, it is taking the Internet by storm. I was hesitant to watch the show at first because it looked very sad (you know from the beginning that the heroine has killed herself), and I thought I was too old to watch a show based on a young adult novel. However, I am really glad I decided to watch it. The series is raw, suspenseful, has a great soundtrack, and is filled with a cast of dynamic, diverse characters.

The show is about a 17-year-old girl named Hannah Baker who records 13 tapes before she kills herself. Each tape is about a person in her high school who hurt her somehow. Whether they actively did something malignant, or unintentionally triggered a previous trauma, each tape describes a heart-wrenching event that shaped Hannah’s decision to take her own life. She drops all 13 tapes off with her friend, Tony before she dies, and he passes them to the first person who is discussed in the tapes. That person then passes the tapes on to the next person, and so on and so forth until we get to Clay Jensen, the protagonist of the story. The series starts when Clay is given the tapes, and we see the stories play out through a series of flashbacks. We also see Clay’s reactions to the stories in real time. Even though Clay is the person listening to the tapes, the stories are all told from Hannah’s perspective.

I usually can watch an entire Netflix series in a couple of days, sometimes even in one day. However, this series took me a while. I had to watch other shows in between episodes and often took pauses in the middle of episodes. The content is very difficult to watch. In particular, the series very explicitly shows two rape scenes, as well as Hannah’s suicide. I would not recommend anyone who might be triggered by these scenes to watch them.

Despite how difficult the rape scenes are to watch, they show the kinds of sexual assault that are all too often ignored in our society. A large majority of sexual assaults are not committed by strangers in a dark alley. Oftentimes the victim knows their attacker, whether they are a friend, partner, or acquaintance. The sexual assault scenes in 13 Reasons Why flip rape culture on its head. We live in a culture where instead of teaching men not to rape, we teach women how to not get raped. When a woman decides to tell others about her assault — which sadly, many women are too afraid or ashamed to do — she is often asked irrelevant questions such as, “Well, were you drinking?” or “What were you wearing?” These questions do nothing to heal and put the blame on the victim, rather than the attacker, assuming that the victim was “asking for it.”

In the first sexual assault scene, the victim, Hannah’s friend Jessica, is drunk and unconscious. She obviously cannot consent. In the second scene, where Hannah herself is raped, she is sober, completely conscious and the attacker is the host of the party she is at. While she is assaulted, Hannah does not scream. She does not call for help. She does not try to push her attacker off of her. She goes numb. The scene shows that a victim does not have to “fight back” to justify her assault. Everyone responds differently to violence, and traumatic experiences elicit a variety of responses from victims. Hannah’s reaction is not “wrong” and it is important that the show makes that clear.

Unfortunately, Hannah is unable to find the help she needs to heal from her sexual assault.  In the final episode, we see that Hannah’s last tape is a recording of a visit with the school counselor, Mr. Porter on the day of her death. She refuses to tell him the name of her attacker, which prompts Mr. Porter to refuse to help her. He even goes so far as to insist that she should just “move on.” Mr. Porter clearly has had zero education on rape culture. In a recent post on Bitch Media, Aaminah Shakur discusses how disconnected adults like Mr. Porter cause many of the problems in the series. In the piece, Shakur shares her personal experiences as a teenager who attempted suicide and was a victim of rape just like Hannah. Shakur talks about how she had zero help from teachers and counselors, and all of these so-called “trusted adults” accused her of seeking attention:

We cannot advise teens to confide in an adult if we aren’t building relationships with them that make us trustworthy. Part of building that trust is acknowledging the ways parents, school policies, and staff often contribute to and fail to protect them from bullying or sexual violence.

~ Aaminah Shakur, It’s Us Failing Them, Not Them Failing Us: Disconnected Adults Are the Problem in 13 Reasons Why

Shakur’s essay shows how sadly, many school counselors are just like Mr. Porter and are clueless on how to help victims of sexual assault. We not only need to improve sexual education curriculum to include lessons on healthy relationships and affirmative consent. We also need to make sure all counselors and teachers more aware of rape culture and its harmful effects. Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted; and every eight minutes, the victim is a child. This is not okay.

Even though I find the rape scenes to be important and capable of changing assumptions around sexual assault, I have problems with the graphic suicide scene. Although there is no melancholic Dashboard Confessional song playing in the background, the realistic depiction of how she did it (she slits her wrists) could trigger “copycat suicides” by teens who are going through many of the same issues that Hannah goes through in the series. In the late 80’s, a media campaign reduced the number of suicides and attempted suicides by over 80 percent in only six months. By avoiding sensationalism in suicide reporting, the campaign weakened the causal link between media coverage of suicide and copycat suicides. Unfortunately, 13 Reasons Why takes a step backwards because it shows in great detail how Hannah ended her life.

Aside from its many flaws, 13 Reasons Why has opened up an important conversation about suicide, depression, rape, and sexual harassment in teens and young adults. The series shows how we need to demand more from our high schools and colleges. We need to demand that young men be taught not rape, and we need to demand a culture that does not slut-shame. We owe it to the thousands of real-life Hannah Bakers out there.

 

Resources

Samaritans Suicide Prevention Hotline

RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline

All About Consent – Planned Parenthood

Men Can Stop Rape

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools

  • Yes! Even though the series certainly has flaws, it has sparked a long overdue conversation on rape culture and male entitlement, particularly how bullying can have an undercurrent of misogyny. I wrote a 3-part response to the series myself, analyzing the underlying sexist beliefs that drive character actions.