'13 Reasons Why' Depicts Rape Differently From Other TV
'13 Reasons Why' Can Be Triggering for People Coping With
How '13 Reasons
Why' Depicts Rape Differently From Other TV Shows
When I was 16, I was raped at a party. It took me seven years to admit that to anyone; now I just say it as fact. It is what happened to me.
It is not a particularly unique fact, unfortunately, as RAINN estimates that 1 out of 6 women has been sexually assaulted. It's not a very fun fact, either, for obvious reasons; and it shouldn't be. Neither of these qualifiers change the fact that I was raped, and that I have relived that trauma more times than I can count, in the eleven years since it happened.
Sometimes the trigger is general; I'll hear of another sexual assault in the news, and instantly remember my own. There are other times, however, like the scenes in the new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, where the trigger is specific, and I see myself reflected on the screen. I know that I am not alone, either.
13 Reasons Why follows a group of high school students as they piece together a story as it is described on a series of tapes by a girl named Hannah, who died by suicide. On the tapes, she recalls how classmates sexually harassed her in the hallway, and spread rumors and objectified her and other girls at the school. In two of the episodes, things escalate severely: she witnesses a friend, who was blackout drunk, being raped at a party by a football player named Bryce; she is later raped by him at a party he threw, too. The show reaches its climax when Clay, one of Hannah's former classmates, convinces Bryce to admit that what he did was rape "if that's what you want to call it," he sneers, maintaining that Hannah "wanted it," even though the audience can visibly see her struggle in her flashback. She later tries to tell a school counselor about it, but because she did not overtly say "no," her confidante questions if the experience was rape or simply a sexual encounter that she regrets.
Not saying no, however, is not saying yes. Not saying no is not consent .
It's clear that both Hannah and Jessica, the girl who was too drunk to consent, were raped. Yet what is less clear from the rather open ending is whether Bryce will face consequences for his actions, and why the other students who know about the assaults do not come forward with the information. Ostensibly, it is to protect either Jessica or Bryce or both or because they are worried about their own involvement in mistreating Hannah. Like Mr. Porter the counselor, some of the students question whether Hannah's tapes are telling the truth, in part because they don't want it to be true. (For much of the series, Jessica maintains that Hannah is lying, and is enabled by her boyfriend, who tried and failed to stop Bryce from assaulting her.) It is important to understand that the point of the show is not to question a victim's story, but to throw into relief the responsibility of other people to be upstanders, and do their part to stop sexual assault when they see it .
Sexual assault isn't the only issue that 13 Reasons Why tackles; the story, based on the book by Jay Asher, details a number of issues that millions of teens face every day. However, the assaults in particular aren't plot points so much as they are two of the key focal points of the plot. The fact that they are unflinching in their depiction is reflected in the trigger warnings that appear on screen before each of the episodes in question (a third trigger warning is issued in the episode where Hannah dies); and the scenes, I imagine, would be hard to watch even if you never experienced sexual assault yourself. They are designed to be uncomfortable. Rape is an uncomfortable topic. It never should be a comfortable one, either. The minute it becomes easy to talk about is the minute we've become desensitized to its violence.
A storyline that centers on rape is a marked departure from the way Hollywood usually approaches the subject. A December 2016 story by Variety detailed the industry's history with using rape as a plot point, or as a go-to way to describe why a character featured certain traits. Rarely did it advance the storyline in a meaningful way, producers explained, or focus on a female character. A number of scenes, like one in Game of Thrones, focus instead on the point of view of a male character, or serve as a way to propel a male character forward to find justice. 13 Reasons Why leans toward the same gender breakdown in one respect: it is Clay who really tries to get justice for both Hannah and Jessica. But what is different here is the fact that, because of its structure, the show at least allows Hannah to tell her own story.
Shows that are able to constructively discuss rape are still few and far between, despite the fact that it seems to be a go-to story device for much of Hollywood. The 2016 show Sweet/Vicious offered one answer to that, telling the story of a girl who takes justice into her own hands after she is raped by her friend's boyfriend. But there is not one set answer to how shows should discuss rape, just as no two survivors have the exact same story. That much is made clear by Law and Order: SVU alone, a show that focuses on the Special Victims Unit of the New York City Police Department and has run for 18 seasons. Over the course of more than 400 episodes, the detectives on SVU investigate assault after assault; yet often, the number of cases is overwhelming, especially when viewed as part of a binge-watch .
13 Reasons Why debuted on Netflix the same way many of the original programming on the service debuts: as an entire season, enabling viewers to binge-watch the episodes in a day or a weekend. But the show is difficult to get through, especially if you have experience with any of the subjects discussed in the episodes. One friend texted me that she was taking a break between episodes, and might abandon the series altogether because she was associating it with memories from her own assault. Another watched the entire season in a day, but expressed feeling deeply unsettled after doing so. I had to fast-forward through certain scenes, or go for a run between episodes, or sleep things off. Even so, I saw myself in Hannah, and in Jessica. I saw myself in Hannah's fears about being intimate with anyone at all, and I saw myself in Clay's desire to set things straight. But I also wondered how many viewers saw themselves in the kids who didn't do anything at all, either to stop sexual harassment when they could, or to tell someone about it when they knew about it. It didn't sit well with me. It's not supposed to.
There are a number of issues with the way the show tells its story, including the way it grays the area between wrongdoing and feeling guilty. It also does not provide a solution for many of the issues it discusses; moreover, its target audience is likely familiar with them firsthand, so if it is aiming to shed light on what teens today deal with, it is doing so primarily for their parents. Yet just because people know that there is a problem, doesn't mean that the story shouldn't be told.
When I was raped, I didn't know that what happened to me wasn't my fault. I was drunk and at a party. I had been flirting with the guy who would become my rapist earlier that night. I was surrounded by friends, and thought that if something was wrong, they would have intervened. They did not, but that did not make my assault any less wrong. There is no such thing as "less wrong." There is harassment, and assault, and one can often lead to the other. And there are, unfortunately, too many people who know what it is like to experience either, or both.
Because even one person is too much. Every day, victims of sexual assault will be faced with reliving their experiences over and over for the rest of their lives. You can cope, and seek help and if you have been assaulted, I sincerely hope you do but even something as simple as turning on a television, or reading a newspaper headline, could remind you of your own story. It's a difficult world to live in. For me, knowing that other people understood did not make it better, but made me feel less alone. And it made me feel like I could tell my story, and that people would listen. If 13 Reasons Why helps give someone the strength to tell their own, then that is one less person who feels like they need to keep that awful, painful secret to themselves.
I was raped. It is a fact abut me, and it has informed a lot of who I am as a person and how I approach my relationships now. But it is not a reflection of my character, or in any way my fault. And if you are reading this and are still wondering if you are somehow to blame for your own story, know that you aren't. It was not your fault. It never will be. And you are not alone.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.
For more resources on sexual assault,
Rape on Campus,
and the National
Sexual Violence Resource
Why '13 Reasons
Why' Can Be Triggering for People Coping With Mental Illness
Shannon Purser hit home for some with her tweet Monday night reading, I would advise against watching 13 Reasons Why if you currently struggle with suicidal thoughts or self-harm/have undergone sexual assault." The amount of support shes received on Twitter since has been truly inspiring. I agree with Shannon. 13 Reasons Why reveals what its like to feel suicidal to some, but for others, it's something they actually have to deal with every day.
Since writing my last article about 13 Reasons Why, Ive had a lot of insightful conversations with many people regarding mental health. I met a couple of friends for ice cream one night and they told me that theyre binge-watching the new series, then paused when I expressed to them how badly it hit home for me. It wasnt until a couple days later when one of them said to me, Ive been thinking about how you said you struggled watching 13 Reasons Why, and now I dont understand how people can watch it unfazed. At the end of the day, while the idea of someone wanting to take their own life might be new or uncomfortable for some, its a very scary reality for others.
I was in a dark place for some time throughout high school after multiple people in my life died by suicide. I always felt different from those around me, as if when people spoke to me they were simply looking at a casing of a broken soul that no one wanted to believe was hurting so badly. I remember telling myself, "This has to be depression; if not, I dont know whats wrong with me." I held on to this feeling for a little over a year before getting help, creating artwork about suicide, bullying, feeling alone, sexual assault, and different mental illnesses work depicting important topics often glossed over similar to Hannah Bakers poem and the discussion questions brought up in her class. In one of the seasons last episodes, we hear Hannahs poem expressing her desires to disappear forever, a poem that was admired by her classmates, but tragically overlooked.
This is where the punch in the heart comes back while watching the show. The feeling of, Ugh, I remember when that was me, or even I feel that way, too. Scenes Ive spotted throughout the series depicting a potentially triggering experience for unstable viewers are the multiple rape scenes, displays of self-harm, and the scene where Hannah dies, as well as the overall ambiance of feeling alone at home and school. However, I believe that someone struggling with suicidal thoughts could potentially be triggered by any scene in the series, because we never truly know what is hurting somebody.
My biggest concern for viewers who are struggling and watching this show is the suicide contagion effect, otherwise known as copycat suicide." As reported in The Washington Post, a collaborative project between journalists and suicide prevention groups has issued recommendations for how to report on the subject, titled "Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide," which speak to the fact that the amount, duration, and prominence of suicide news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The report, which featured input from the American Association of Suicidology and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also notes that it can be especially harmful when the media "uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death. This is why I find 13 Reasons Why especially triggering because its more than a news report on somebody who dies by suicide. This is a whole television series where we watch Hannahs life unfold and start to relate to her life before we are graphically shown her tragically dying.
It makes me nervous to think about mentally unstable people watching this series because I know what its like to almost idolize or look up to someone who has died by suicide, and to try to justify it as being okay if I did the same thing that they did. A little bit before my 10th birthday, I lost my own father to suicide. And growing up a daddys girl, I looked up to my father in many different ways. Hearing that he had died by suicide, I immediately tried to justify it for myself, thinking, Well, parents always know whats best, right? Wrong. It took me breaking down on the living room floor one morning before school and crying to my mom, I just cant take it! School, work, everything! I just wanna be with Dad again! I was rushed to the hospital. Looking back, I wish I had had an open conversation with my mom before getting to that breaking point. Thats when they sat me down with a counselor and he talked everything out with me and told me I have major depression and chronic anxiety, and gave me medicine to help with it. Getting professional help was the best thing Ive done for myself.
From that point on, I realized that I needed to separate my thoughts from my dads actions, and be thankful for the amazing support system I had around me. I have been clean from self-harm ever since, but that was a time so low in my life. That being said, when I watched 13 Reasons Why, I felt immediately sunk back in. I watched Hannah move across the screen as slowly as I walked through the halls of the high school I was bullied in. I saw Hannah hide behind her hair similarly to how I sat in the back of my sophomore math class. The names Hannah got called are the names I hear echoing in the back of my head as I remember my friend Ally, who went through similar bullying and unfortunately died by suicide our junior year of high school.
Maybe we could all see a small part of ourselves in one of the characters of the show, and its hard to watch when you know youve felt or still do feel the same way. Some say this series just shows the truth behind whats happening today, which needs to be addressed. That is true: Mental illness needs to be addressed. However, Im here to say that you are allowed to feel upset watching 13 Reasons Why. Your emotions are valid and warranted; it is very heavy material about real problems that real people face. I know that while I watched this series, I had panic attacks and cried myself to sleep multiple times. Everyone around me could tell that I wasnt OK for weeks.
So if you havent stayed up late binge-watching the series yet or youve been skeptical about it or maybe just havent gotten around to it, I say take Shannon Pursers words to heart and caution yourself first. And even if the show hasnt impacted you tremendously, remember that for other people, it has.
If you or someone you know is
contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention
at 800-273-8255 or text 'SOS' to 741741