Sexual Assault Awareness: 13 Reasons Why

illustration by Ellissa Schatz

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Coincidentally, the Netflix original series, 13 Reasons Why, which centers on themes of interconnected sexual assault and suicide, is blowing up in popularity. The series is based on a 2007 novel of the same name authored by Jay Asher and is executive produced by Selena Gomez. In its 13 episode first season, the main character, 17 year old Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, is a serial victim of slut shaming and sexual assault, among other instances of high school bullying. She has committed suicide, but not before recording 13 tapes elaborating the story of why. These tapes are the storyline we follow in both the book and the series.

***This article contains spoilers. The following does not describe all of the events leading up to Hannah Baker’s suicide; this timeline focuses on the events of slut shaming and sexual assault to maintain relevance.***

illustration by Ellissa Schatz

 

The first piece in Hannah’s story is of her first kiss. She gets invited to hang out with popular football player, Justin, and they kiss at the park. When Justin tells his friends about it, he lets them believe that they went further than just kissing. While they were at the park, he snapped a photo of Hannah’s skirt blowing up while she was on the slide, and Bryce, the star athlete, takes Justin’s phone and shares that picture with the whole school. Both the rumor and the photo circulate, making the first mark on Hannah’s reputation as a slut.

The next mark is drawn by Alex, one of Hannah’s new best friends. Alex is upset that Jessica, his girlfriend and a friend of Hannah’s, doesn’t want to sleep with him. Some of the boys in school are collaborating on a ‘best/worst list’, and Alex bitterly writes Jessica in as “worst ass” and Hannah as “best ass”. This list is passed around the school and along with perpetuating Hannah’s reputation, severs her friendship with Jessica, who is now angry and jealous of her.

 

***In these first two incidents, among others, it should be noted that the creators of the show did exaggerate and sensationalize some of the reactions of the students. Some of the more minor events portrayed can be considered relatively normal high school drama that most 17-year-old kids go through, and that don’t realistically get blown up to the proportion that they did in the show. This is a valid critique of the writing; however, it doesn’t overshadow the focus that these events were simply drops in a much deeper bucket that ultimately had a lasting effect on Hannah Baker and her reputation with her peers. ***

Illustration by Ellissa Schatz

Tapes 4 and 5 are for Tyler and Courtney. Tyler, yearbook photographer, had been in love with Hannah and had been stalking her. One night, he caught a photo of Hannah and Courtney, a classmate, kissing during a game of truth or dare. He asked her out, and not surprisingly, she turned him down, and he released the blurry photo of the two girls kissing to the entire school. Rumors are flying and everyone is trying to guess who the two girls are. When guesses start to narrow on Hannah and Courtney, Courtney fears her own reputation being soiled, so she throws Hannah under the bus and says that it’s her and another female classmate. This is just one more thing that results in Hannah losing another friendship, and rumors about her sexuality leave her a helpless, isolated target.

Hannah Baker is now the school slut, and guys are all too eager to take advantage of that, verbally assaulting her and grabbing her in the hallways. She goes out on a date with a basketball player, Marcus, and he attempts to take advantage of her in the booth of the diner in front of the entire team because “he thought she was easy”.

Fast forward to the summer, and Hannah witnesses the rape of drunk and passed-out Jessica, a girl who used to be her best friend. The rapist is Bryce, who got permission to have sex with her from boyfriend Justin, because “what’s yours is mine, right?” and he “owed him.” During the scene, Hannah is crouched hidden in the corner of the room and is too scared to scream or say anything to stop Bryce.

Not long after, Hannah is also violently raped by Bryce in his hot tub after a party. He justifies this later to Clay by telling him that she was in the hot tub in her underwear, and she was giving him eyes. She wanted it. Every girl in the school wants it from him.

The next major event in Hannah’s life is her death. She carves deep into her wrists with a razor blade and bleeds out in the bath water that she leaves running.

Illustration by Ellissa Schatz

 

The scenes of both rapes and Hannah’s suicide are portrayed in an intense and pretty graphic manner. This upset a lot of people who say that the public, especially impressionable teens, don’t need to be exposed to this type of content. I disagree. It’s important that rape and suicide be portrayed in a way that makes it difficult to watch. Sexual assault shouldn’t be something that’s easy to swallow. We currently live in a world where it’s either hushed or trivialized, both of which lead thousands of young people to end their lives every year. It’s something that needs to be talked about as seriously as the impact it has on victim’s psyches. None of the characters of 13 Reasons Why talked about any of the things that were going on. Hannah didn’t speak about her assaults or how they impacted her emotionally until she was dead, when it was too late. Not talking about anything let the pressure build until it couldn’t build anymore. This led her down a spiral of not caring about anything. School, her friends, her own life.

Not talking also meant that no one around her knew what was going on inside of her. They knew the rumors, but they didn’t know how it was affecting her. Before she ended her life, she made a deal with herself. She would go talk to the school guidance counsellor, and if he didn’t help her, then that would be one more person who didn’t care about her, and she would end it. She told him about the rape, but wouldn’t tell him a name. From there, he said that without definite details and without a name, there wasn’t anything he could do. And there wasn’t. She left the office, went home, and slit her wrists. In reality, she had already made up her mind before even going into the office. “No one cared enough. I didn’t care enough.” Is what she said in the last tape. This is an accurate thought process of a 17 year old. Especially a 17 year old who’s been though the things that Hannah had in the past year. However, it’s important that anyone watching the show, especially other young girls, realize that that thought process of “no one cared enough, so I’m ending my life” is not correct. It’s not that no one cared enough- no one had any indication from Hannah that there was anything seriously wrong because she didn’t speak up. A lot of girls in similar situations don’t speak up. We make it extremely difficult for victims to say anything. We trivialize the assault or we don’t believe them or we blame them or we make up excuses in favor or in protection of the assailant.

The obvious message right off the top of 13 Reasons Why is “be kind to people because you never know what they’re going through.” And that’s absolutely correct, however, it’s a lot more than that. If something has happened or is happening to you or a friend, then it needs to be talked about. The less secretive this stuff becomes, the more we can do for individuals and society to put an end to the culture of slut shaming and sexual assault. In the end, those 12 people didn’t kill Hannah. Hannah killed Hannah. But maybe she wouldn’t have if it had felt okay to be open about the things that were going on in her head.