Last month, I watched the show 13 Reasons Why. As someone who doesn’t cry often over films, TV, and books, I probably dehydrated myself crying. As much as I want people to be more aware about sexual assault and how it affects people, both personally and in the ripple effect, this show depicted certain elements in a way which were very difficult to watch.
Being in high school is hard enough. Instead of being able to focus on your education and learning, school has turned into a 4-year game of social statuses and popularity contests. Worse, if you are going through anything at home or are being bullied, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay focused on the main task at hand.
13 Reasons Why shows a variety of problems kids in high school face. The show focused around the way that many young high school girls are “slut shamed,” treated like conquests, and how accusations of sexual assault are handled.
Early in the show, the main character Hannah goes on a date with Justin. He takes a photo of her coming down the slide and she doesn’t seem to realize that her legs were slightly spread and her panties were exposed. You’d think nothing should come of this right, it’s just a photo of her on the slide? Nothing sexual happens between them, but he holds onto the photo.
Later on, with his friends, Justin allows his phone to be taken by the alpha-male character Bryce. Bryce sees the photo and starts pressuring Justin to admit that he had sex with her or that they hooked up. He then proceeds to send the photo to the entire school.
Shortly after, this picture is going around school and Hannah is quickly ostracized. There’s no context implying or stating that anything happened between Hannah and Justin, yet she’s the one who’s considered a slut for having her photo taken and sent around. She didn’t consent to her photo being sent to others, yet here she is dealing with the aftermath of nearly an entire school judging her and talking behind her back. She quickly begins to cave in from the embarrassment.
Meanwhile, nobody seems to blame Bryce or Justin, who are the ones responsible for this photo being sent around. Nobody says, “You guys are really acting immature and frankly inappropriate. You need to clear the air.” They are not held accountable, but instead almost rewarded for their efforts as male specimens who have conquests. Allegedly.
Later in the show, this same theme is loud and clear when there are two accusations of sexual assault brought against Bryce. There are two extremely graphic rape scenes as part of Hannah’s telling and when it comes out, the girls do not seem to receive the shock and outrage they deserve.
The first incident, Bryce can be seen sexually assaulting Jessica (Justin’s girlfriend at the time) while she is nearly passed out drunk in bed and Justin is aware of this happening. Justin briefly attempts to stop him, but later shuts down and does not admit it to anyone else, even Jessica. He simply allows his girlfriend to be assaulted and keeps it to himself. In fact, he remains best friends with the guy and rallies behind him, defending him later on (until the end of the show). This behavior is extremely common between men, especially high school and college men. They simply are afraid of standing up or don’t believe their friends or “brothers” have done anything wrong and excuse it in any number of ways.
The second incident involves Bryce assaulting Hannah. He later says to Hannah’s friend that she “wanted it” and attempts to describe the many things she did or failed to do which indicated that she wanted to have sex with him. It’s like pulling teeth, but he finally admits that it really wasn’t a consensual encounter. Others knew about this incident, yet never came to Hannah’s defense or even took any action against Bryce, who has now assaulted at least two young women.
Again, these behaviors are extremely normal. Not just in high school, but everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you have evidence or if you stand up for yourself, there will be people who will still blame you as the victim and those who will side with the offender and defend them.
Many people depict rape as a violent act against a stranger, much the way you often see it on TV or in movies. However, a large portion of rape and sexual assault cases involve the people who the victim knew and trusted.
The fact that these girls know the man who has abused them should not impact their ability to speak out or seek justice, yet it does. When you know your abuser or rapist, it can make you feel smaller and more afraid. If you have seen the way others are treated when they speak out, it can completely shut down your ability to tell someone what has happened and know you’ll be believed. Instead of being able to heal, you may even have to be around this person repeatedly if you go to school with them or attend any type of functions.
While this show raises many important points about the way accusations of sexual assault can affect young people, I think it’s important to realize the changes that can actively be made. Starting from a young age, everyone, not just boys, needs to learn about consent. People need to be taught to be more understanding and compassionate and that if someone makes an accusation of this nature, they should be respected and understood and believed.
This show ends with a young girl taking her life and the whole moral of the story is that she could have possibly been saved, had anyone intervened. Had anyone believed her and helped her and rallied behind her instead of Bryce, who is guilty of multiple assaults, she may have not chosen to take her life. She may have felt supported and stronger and cared about and that is something we can all try to do for anyone in our lives who may be struggling with a similar incident.