It’s an understatement that depiction of rape in media is an extremely sensitive topic, not least because it’s so often done in an insensitive way. No matter how progressive Hollywood becomes, it continues to perpetuate certain myths about rape and sexual violence in general, to the detriment of both survivors and anyone seeking to have a productive discussion on the issue.
For example, rape is often depicted as being done by a “dangerous stranger”, when, in reality, most sex crimes are by someone the victim knows (70 percent, according to RAINN). The suggestion that the victim “could have stopped it” or “encouraged it” also still persists. Just as insidious is the number of shows that use rape as a cheap plot device, for shock value or instant so-called characterization.
As Variety quoted one female writer: “For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can be sure it will be brought up immediately, like it’s the obvious place to go when fleshing out a female character… You can use it as a reason for anything she might do. She’s ‘damaged goods,’ physically, emotionally and mentally, and I think that is a bad, bad message to send to women who have been sexually assaulted.”
That being said, it is refreshing to see one TV series that averts this: the visceral and controversial Netflix drama “13 Reasons Why.” Released last March and based on a 2007 YA novel, the first season of the show centers on the suicide of high school student Hannah Baker, who leaves behind tapes addressed to the people who drove her to end her life. It is eventually revealed rape played a crucial role in this: Hannah witnessed her friend Jessica being raped by another student, and felt guilty that she couldn’t prevent it. The same boy, Bryce, later rapes Hannah as well. Both of his assaults are shown on-screen, in graphic and uncompromising detail.
What “13 Reasons Why” does very well is show how Hannah and Jessica’s rapes are a product of their environment: the culmination of a pervasive culture of sexism at their school, which nurtures and encourages people like Bryce. The tapes reveal that Hannah was the subject of consistent sexual harassment; that her rape wasn’t an outlying event, but everything that was already happening to her taken to the next level. Hannah’s first boyfriend spreads false rumors that she had sex with him; she and several other girls are put on a hot-or-not list.
In the final tape, Hannah tries to tell her school counselor, Mr. Porter, about being raped, but is unable to use the word rape or name her attacker. He first assumes she had a consensual encounter that she regrets, even asking if she’d been drinking, clearly assuming it was somehow her fault. Even when Hannah very strongly indicates that she did not consent, rather than pressing her for more information, Mr. Porter tells her that he can’t do anything if she’s not willing to pursue legal action. Through him, the series paints a truly horrifying picture of an academic environment that is at best resigned to rape, and at worst indifferent.
The story isn’t told through Hannah’s eyes, but rather through Clay, another student at Hannah’s school, who is driven to bring her justice after listening to the tapes. The mastery of this is that, while the tapes allow Hannah to tell her own story, through Clay’s eyes the viewer is forced into the role of the ultimate bystander. With Hannah dead when the story begins, Clay (and the audience) can only listen to Hannah move ever closer to her tragic end. This might be the main reason the series is so difficult to watch– the audience knows from the beginning that whatever Clay does, he can’t save Hannah.
While Clay didn’t hurt Hannah in any deliberate way, he slowly learns that things might have ended differently if he or anyone else had been there her. In this way, the series teaches that any abuse (sexual or otherwise) depends on the apathy and silence of the ordinary people around the victim, just as much as it depends on the abuser and the system that protects them.
Possibly the most controversial aspect of the show’s treatment of sexual assault is its decision to graphically depict both Hannah and Jessica’s rapes on-screen. Teen Vogue editor Ella Ceron, herself a rape survivor, writes that, “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”.
And, however hard it makes it to watch the show, it provides a chance to dispel numerous myths about rape. It refutes the “dangerous stranger” myth: Bryce is someone both girls knew and even were friendly with, who they find themselves alone with at a seemingly innocuous party. Neither Hannah nor Jessica actually say no to Bryce (Jessica because she was heavily intoxicated), yet the show makes it very clear that it’s the responsibility of the person giving sex to obtain consent, not of the person receiving sex to grant it.
Bryce’s actions are clearly presented as rape, even though neither of his victims “fought back.” Most importantly, the show spent all the prior episodes building up Jessica and especially Hannah as vibrant and complex people, who are far more than victims. The viewer sees how damaged they become as a result, but, while it’s too late for Hannah, the season ends with some hope that Jessica will find a way to recover.
There are certainly things to question about “13 Reasons Why,” in particular its ultimate portrayal of Hannah’s suicide. But despite its drawbacks, it should be recognized as a cut above the rest when it comes to discussion of sexual violence in the media– and how it can be stopped.