13 Reasons Why teaches us that we must confront rape culture

Last week, I binge-watched the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which is based on the book by Jay Asher. Like many people, it affected me, touched me, and forced me to relive my own experiences.

Trigger Warning
This blog post will discuss sexual assault, rape, and suicide, as well as the far-reaching consequences of rape culture and patriarchy. There will also be spoilers for 13 Reasons Why. Please proceed with caution, and only read this post if you feel able to do so.

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Readers of this blog may remember my articles about how I was raped as a teenager, and the book I’m currently working on, called Some Girls Do, which is largely based around that experience. 13 Reasons Why explores the effects of rape culture on both young men and women, and depicts the sad ending of Hannah Baker’s young life.

The book, written by Jay Asher, was published about a decade ago. It had found its way on to my to-read list a while ago, but I’d never gotten around to reading it. Then, the show flashed up on Netflix. At first, I found myself amused by how a teenager in 2017 would struggle with playing a cassette, and how, when Cat said, “I’ve known you this entire century!”, it took a second for me to realise she was being literal. It made me feel old. But 13 Reasons Why soon got much, much darker.

For those who don’t know, 13 Reasons Why centres on the story of Hannah Baker, a young woman who killed herself, and left tapes behind to be shared with everyone who had a hand in her suicide. From her best friend, to the boy she liked, to the boy who liked her but was too shy to say – 13 Reasons Why is a rabbit hole of rape culture, depression, and the darkness women and girls face every day. I want to discuss this aspect of the show, and how we can learn from it.

In episode 9, “Tape 5, Side A”, we discover another reason why Justin Foley is on Hannah’s tapes. Earlier on, they’d gone on a date and kissed, but Justin had taken a picture of Hannah going down a slide, with her skirt up and underwear exposed. That photo was then passed around the school, along with rumours about what else went on that night. This slut-shaming set the stage for the rest of Hannah’s experience, and may have informed some of her later decisions, but I’ll come back to that.

Justin Foley was on tape 5 because he left his drunk girlfriend in her bedroom, and let Bryce go in and rape her. Justin is guilty by cowardice. He was too scared to stop Bryce from doing what he did, even though he knew what Bryce was going to do. Jessica was unconscious, and therefore unable to consent, and unable to fight for herself. Hannah, hiding in the bedroom, was speechless with fear. If only someone had stopped Bryce that night. But I can understand why neither Justin nor Hannah did – if for very different reasons.

You see, rape culture doesn’t only affect women, who are directly abused and oppressed by it, but it also affects men. Men who grow up to believe they are number 1 – athletic, smart, good-looking – these guys are given every possible opportunity in life. Justin is your typical sporty guy, with a shitty home life and a rich friend who has helped him out along the way. These guys are told that they are the best, the alphas, the ones who will go the furthest in life. Everyone else is just there to be walked on, or used, or to bolster their self-esteem. Women are nothing but objects to be used and discarded at will. Athletes regularly get away with sexual assault, because a conviction would ruin their chances, their reputations. Remember the Stanford rapist? If there are little to no consequences for their actions, how can we ever expect boys to grow up decent? That’s not to say that the individuals are absolved of blame – everyone has the ability to be better than their circumstances and their learned behaviour. But society certainly doesn’t make it clear that rape, in all the forms it takes, is wrong. It doesn’t make it clear that women are people, equal to men, and have bodily autonomy. This is a huge wrong that must be righted, but it doesn’t start with these individuals. It has to start higher up, deeper, in policy and law and societal norms.

Hannah, of course, didn’t do anything because it could have happened to her (and, in fact, it does). She was petrified, frozen, and we can only imagine how horrific it is to listen to your friend – or anyone – be raped. If we didn’t live in such a patriarchal society, women would feel more confident about speaking out – confident that they will be listened to, believed, helped. But we are not.

Jessica, aware that something isn’t quite right, doesn’t know exactly what happened to her, until Justin finally confesses. It’s easier to call Hannah a liar, than it is to admit to the truth – that your friendship group is heavily steeped in rape culture, and that you, by protecting Bryce, are shielding a rapist. Marcus Cole, honour student, highly regarded, attempted to use Hannah just like Justin did. Late for their date, he arrives cocksure and flirty, and she decides to give him another chance – until he tries to put his hand up her skirt in the middle of a diner, with his friends watching and egging him on. When she shrieks, she’s the crazy bitch who led him on, who he thought was easy.

This is bullshit, you may be thinking, rolling your eyes. This doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t. Oh, but it does. It happens far more frequently than anyone would care to admit. And it happens because we do not talk about it, we do not address it. Instead, we blame what the girl was wearing, reducing her to a piece of meat, and the boy to some creature that only acts on its desires, unthinking, inhuman. But this is not the truth. These boys are fully aware of themselves, and what they’re doing, even if they’re not completely aware of the consequences of their actions. I expect more of boys – I do not believe that all boys and men are animals, unable to control themselves when they see a flash of thigh or a shapely shoulder. In 13 Reasons Why,  Hannah is harassed or abused by at least six boys she thought she knew. One took pictures of her in her bedroom. One lied about a sexual encounter. One raped her. But this is normal. We’re used to it. And how utterly sad is that?

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Back to the story. After all that had happened, Hannah ends up at a party, with all of her peers – and Bryce. Don’t forget, she’d watched Bryce rape Jessica with her own eyes. Why did she stay? Why didn’t she run? My theory is this: society loves to shame and blame women for their own sexual assaults. Comments about their clothes, their behaviour, how drunk they were, always come pouring out when a woman comes forward. I think a part of Hannah didn’t – couldn’t – truly believe what she’d witnessed. When the group of “Reasons” (Alex, Zach, Marcus, et al.) are discussing about their next move, Zach tells Alex to stop calling Bryce a rapist. Stop using that word! he says. What other word would you use? comes the response. Indeed. But we always hesitate to call a rapist a rapist, don’t we? We call them the accused, alleged, athletes. We rarely name the problem, so how can we expect young women to be able to?

I also believe that Hannah was too far down the rabbit hole to crawl back out. By the time she arrived at Bryce’s party, her head was an absolute mess. Was she fully capable of separating reality from fantasy? Was she able to firmly state that she had seen Bryce rape Jessica? I don’t think I would have been able to speak out about it when I was Hannah’s age. With everyone around you walking on eggshells, not daring to name the problem, to declare what had actually happened, it’s reasonable to suggest that a part of Hannah was doubting what she had seen. After all, a part of me doubted that what had happened to me was actually rape. It wasn’t the rape I’d heard of before – it didn’t happen like rape is “supposed to”. So was it rape?

I know now that yes, it was. I also know that what happened to Jessica was rape, and that what happened to Hannah was rape. Bryce didn’t seem to know – or perhaps he did know, and just didn’t care. When Bryce is raping Hannah, she doesn’t say no, she doesn’t fight back, she just lays there, and you eventually see her eyes glaze over. Hannah is gone way before she slits her wrists in the bathtub. Bryce broke her spirit, she says on the final tape, and every woman who has been through something similar felt her heart break as Hannah spoke those words.

A final word on Clay. The fact that Hannah’s story was told through the eyes of Clay is one of the few things that irritated me. In the penultimate episode, Clay goes to see Bryce, accuses him of rape, and gets beaten up. Of course, the audience is supposed to feel sorry for Clay – he did, after all, do what Hannah had told him to do, and left her crying in the bedroom after their make-out session had scared her. He hadn’t told her how he felt, and so he felt responsible for her death. Seriously, this male perspective is unnecessary and unwanted in a story like this. Let the women tell their own stories, without a male spin on it, or how it affected the men in her life. I’d rather it were told from a brother’s perspective, or even her dad, rather than a friend she wanted to date and made out with once. It almost cheapened Hannah’s experiences, and although Clay as a character (and the actor, of course) is brilliant, I did not care to hear Hannah’s story from him. I wanted to hear it from her, her truth, as she knew it.

My comments on Clay may well be unpopular. He’s the star of the show, after all, the good guy. He who didn’t hurt Hannah, and extracted a confession out of Bryce. But what some viewers might not understand is that it was easier (not easy, but easier) for Clay to confront Bryce than it would have been for another girl. A girl would have been scared that Bryce would rape her, too, and while her mission would have been a noble one, she might have refrained from confronting Bryce for that reason. Clay, rightfully outraged and disgusted at Bryce, and willing to take a beating to do the right thing, simply cannot understand that perspective, and I feel that some viewers may not have thought about it that way either, so I wanted to bring it up as an observation.

In the end, Hannah commits suicide. That scene is graphic and raw, but so, so necessary. As are the graphic depictions of rape. This stuff happens. Parents – this stuff is happening to your kids, whether they’re the victim or the perpetrator. I know that’s hard to hear, but it’s the truth. Schools – this stuff is happening within your halls, your classrooms. Stop denying it, and start fighting it. I suggest that all schools agree to show this TV series to their pupils, or at least recommend that they watch it at home, so they might begin to understand the way things are, and that things cannot continue as they are. Because there will be another Jessica, another Bryce, another Hannah. There will be. There already is. And that just isn’t good enough.

Have you watched 13 Reasons Why yet? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or, as always, you can email me privately on thebandwagonreviews@gmail.com.

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