Content Warning: The following article contains some spoilers about the series 13 Reasons Why. Additionally, this article discusses themes of sexual assault in 13 Reasons Why and on the University of Puget Sound campus, as well as suicide. These notions may be triggering for some, so continue reading at your own discretion.
For those of you who know me, I was addicted to show 13 Reasons Why as soon as it hit Netflix. The show's premiere came at the end of "self-harm awareness month," a nod to the show's premise of a girl who commits suicide. Thus, the message is clear — the series serves as a form of propaganda for suicide prevention. While this effort to communicate such a serious notion is presented in a way that relates to teens (via the media that they consume the most), the overall approach can feel gimmicky and contrived. But for some, the themes of self-harm and sexual assault in 13 Reasons Why can be triggering. So, how can you reconcile a middle ground?
Let's start by talking about it.
In the three weeks since its premier, there have been numerous PSA's that have been published warning about the implications of 13 Reasons Why. And amongst these articles are viewers just like me — they read the novel for which the show is based and loved it, but were disturbed by the assault in 13 Reasons Why. . . what changed?
I first found Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why (for which this series is based) when I was ten years old. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning, sitting paralyzed in my bed as I turned each page with that ferocious reading hunger we all know and love. It was a gripping story and I read it in less than 24 hours. Why did I like it so much? Was it Asher’s writing style? Was it his portrayal of his characters, or the vivid scenes his words painted in my mind? What were these scenes depicting? I read Thirteen Reasons Why again when I was eleven, again when I was fourteen, and lastly when I was sixteen. The novel followed me through my adolescence. But it seemed that no matter how many times I read it, I never absorbed the traumatic events that I was rapidly consuming. All I knew was that I liked the novel and that it made me feel something every time I thought of it — but, if that feeling was happiness or sadness I could not tell you. Until now.
Looking back, the first time I had learned about rape was in fifth grade — the same year that I had first read Thirteen Reasons Why. My class read Julie of the Wolves wherein a young Inuit girl is sexually assaulted by her husband. Albeit a controversial situation for my teacher to present to a young class, this was the pivotal moment in which I learned what it meant to be "taken advantage of." The concept was easy enough for me to grasp at that age, as if the understanding had been an untapped, intrinsic element of my moral code. But, why was I shocked to see that sexual assault and rape was the cornerstone of Hannah Baker's demise when I watched the series at nineteen? Why hadn't I remembered these traumatic events from the novel?
How can you begin to understand this omission?
Imagine filling a room with all of the men and women of all ages, of all ends of the earth, and all stretches of your life. Now, picture yourself standing in the middle of these bodies with a fist full of pebbles, spinning. You’re spinning and spinning and the world is beginning to unhinge itself and these tiny, almost nonexistent rocks begin to slip through your fingers. You can feel them, hundreds of them, as they fly from your hands and whirl around with reckless abandon — but, can you tell me who they hit?
I'll give you a hint: undoubtedly, some men will be pummeled. Yet, an overwhelming number of women will stand before you covered in pebbles, an indication of their having taken the brunt of the assault. Why? Because, statistically speaking, 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence. These are the people who know what it’s like to be “taken advantage of." I am one of them, and for a person that has experienced a constant barrage of figurative nicks, cuts, and bruises, it's not uncommon to internalize the attacks. Sometimes, you even forget. And this is what happened to me each time I read Thirteen Reasons Why — I internalized the traumas endured by the characters and supplanted them in my mind with vague memories of enjoyment until I was finally confronted by them in the show.
The series handles the complicated relationship between teens, their administration, and their desire for help. Students in the series address the hypocrisy of the suicide prevention and anti-sexual assault posters around the school, and they discredit the merit of this form of awareness. But is it awareness? In all, it appears that the students are being exploited while trying to advocate for themselves.
Does this sound familiar?
Despite our University's efforts to portray a safe and understanding campus climate, women are being raped and otherwise taken advantage of every weekend. Unfortunately, these women rarely come forward to prosecute their attackers out of fear. And not a single member of an abusing party is ever held accountable — more often than not, the school's policy is to hold an informal hearing and enact a limited "no contact order". Launching a full investigation is not an encouraged action to take and the school does not make an effort to take the step that our country has been begging every school to take: kicking these men out off of our campuses and out of our schools.
Why is this still happening? Why do we still blame the victim?
Why do we boast about lending our survivors and their allies the voices they deserve if we only value the tremendous volume for which the perpetrators speak over their prey? While openly discussing the common occurrence that is sexual assault on campus, I recently had a male friend tell me that the worst part about rape is that he cannot empathize with it. In fact, “he will never understand it” he said, “because, ya know, physically. . .” Technically, he’s right — most people who are assaulted are often women, so how could he possibly know what it’s like to be violated in this way? But he’s also very, very wrong. Without realizing it, my friend has expressed the ancient assumption that if one cannot experience the exact events of the assault themselves, then they can never empathize with the victim. Instead, they reject the responsibility of being an advocate and they wash their hands of their potential to help because it’s easier to phase out those voices screaming “take back the night." But in reality, is it the daylight that is the most fearsome?
What happens when we stop listening?
We are undermining and rationalizing other people's experiences. In the context of 13 Reasons Why, the Executive Producer states that as young adults, the trauma and abuse we perceive to have experienced is weighted more heavily on us because of the inherent immaturity of our age. This is where he is egregiously incorrect. Instead, he is minimizing the very incidences and occurrences these people who are doused with pebbles withstand every day. We cannot let this go on any longer — no one’s suffering and pain is any less of an injury than someone else’s. Age is not a factor. Gender does not matter. We are human and we need to help each other.
So, what can we glean from this show?
13 Reasons Why should be your wake up call. Sure, it’s comprised of a million different archetypes and tropes and their sole purposes are to clearly present the show’s premise (i.e. here’s why some people commit suicide and here’s what you can do about it). But, despite the actors and fictional nature of the show/story, there's a truth behind it that wants to be heard. The sexual assault in 13 Reasons Why is just real as real off-screen as it is on-screen.
Take a step back and think:
Your friend’s (f)Instagram (i.e. fake instagram account), Snapchat, Facebook, etc., is often the truest part of them, so what are they really trying to communicate? Their posts about loneliness, about abuse, about anger, about sadness, about no longer continuing life — they mean something. They want attention, but we as a society need to stop assuming that it comes from a negative or selfish impetus. We will have another Hannah Baker if we continue on this pathway. We will have another tragedy that all of us will feel earnestly, profoundly, and deeply. This series can help us prevent the creation of these minuscule wounds before a person even needs to begin mourning, mending, and ultimately healing.