**trigger warning for sexual assault and suicide in relation to 13 Reasons Why book and series**
It took me a while to summon up the courage to watch 13 Reasons Why. The subject matter alone is tough to watch but, having read many reviews, I was acutely aware of the fact that it did not shy away from any of the brutal reality of what the characters experience…..and I wanted to feel ready to watch that within my own space and time.
13 Reasons Why has received a huge amount of backlash. Suicide prevention organisations have called what they depicted ‘gratuitous and triggering’. Sexual assault survivor support groups have asked for more warnings to be put on the show…
I knew before I pressed play that this was going to be tough viewing.
Years ago I read the book 13 Reasons Why and it broke my heart. I found it a tough read and I felt so much heartache for what everyone in the book experienced. Now, aged 33, watching 13 Reasons Why and seeing these characters depicted on screen is still as tough and brutal and heartbreaking.
However, I applaud the producers of this show for depicting this honestly and unapologetically. These experiences are so often shied away from in mainstream media – glossed over or not even acknowledged. It is important to tell these stories. It is important for people to see the brutal reality of what happens and the aftermath.
It’s important for people to talk about this.
I want to talk about four characters stories in particular: Bryce, Clay, Jessica and, of course, Hannah.
In case you haven’t read the book or seen the show – there are spoilers from now on…
Let me start with Bryce. Bryce is a predator and at no point in his life has he been told that what he is doing is wrong. He believes that he has the right or the monopoly on girls bodies. At one point, in his confession to Clay that he raped Jessica and Hannah he says, “They were pretty much begging me to fuck them. If that’s rape, then every girl in this school wants to be raped.” Rape culture is real and it’s dangerous. From Brock Turner to Dr Luke, victim blaming and rape culture clearly exists within our society. Young men are taught to ‘man up’ and ‘get some’ but at no point are they taught about consent and about respect. Bryce is a product of that environment. First he rapes Jessica while she is passed out drunk at a party. If you have ever watched ‘The Hunting Ground’ or ‘Audrie & Daisy’, you will be aware of the sheer prevalence of this crime for young women today. Having no one call him out on what he did, in spite of Jessica’s boyfriend knowing that his long time best friend had raped his girlfriend, Bryce goes on to rape Hannah. He shows no remorse, no recognition that what he did was wrong. Even when he is confronted, he defends his actions, saying that the girls were ‘asking for it’. Bryce has never been told he is wrong and, unless stopped, will most likely continue to offend – believing that it makes him ‘a man’ when he is anything but.
“You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything. . . affects everything.”
― Jay Asher,
And then there is Clay – the recipient of Hannah’s tapes when we meet him in the series. Clay feels every second of Hannah’s story as he listens to each of the tapes, painstakingly following her footsteps through the recordings and continuously wondering what he could have done to change the events that occurred. In short, Clay is the antithesis of Bryce. Clay’s empathy for Hannah, after hearing her story, is overwhelming for him – to the point where he beats himself up, becomes ill, depressed and self-destructive. He is, in effect, collateral damage from Hannah’s experiences and decision. He is forever changed by all he hears and his eyes are opened so brutally to the reality of the people he is surrounded by. Thankfully we leave Clay on a hopeful note as he reaches out to someone who is struggling in her own way – understanding that change begins within.
Jessica’s story resonated with me in a big way. Her denial and confusion over that night at the party, her desire to act out without knowing why, hiding in alcohol and partying, trying to dull the pain and face the reality of what happened. Jessica’s silence within the lawyers interview, her fear of speaking out about what Bryce had done, her feelings of shame and blaming herself – every sexual assault survivor has gone through these emotions. Her reactions were symptomatic of a society of victim-blaming – where a college athlete who rapes an unconscious woman is given a 3 month sentence and revered in reports as ‘just making a mistake – he should not have his life ruined because of it’. The psychological effects of sexual assault are irreparable. As a survivor, you are forever changed. Jessica is forever changed. Her final scenes where she speaks to her father about what happened to her were, for me, amongst the most emotional in the series. You feel like she will finally get the help that she so desperately needs and the slow healing process can begin.
Hannah. Hannah’s story could have gone in a different direction at any moment yet, it did not. Surrounded by misogyny and slut-shaming, she starts to feel more and more alone and victimised. People are cruel and heartless towards her and she is both the victim of and witness to sexual assaults from multiple people. She begins to feel worthless and becomes self-destructive. Even when someone as kind and caring as Clay comes along, she is unable to let go of what has happened to her so far – she is already changed and suffering from the psychological effects of the relentless cruelty of her peers. When Bryce rapes her, she says on her tape that he ‘broke her soul’. Hannah’s final decision is heartbreaking and horrifying. The honest portrayal of what happens and the aftermath of such a choice was confronting and ugly and crushing – the sheer bravery of a series to not shy away from the subject is admirable. Within her tapes, however, you see glimpses of a life that could be, a future she could have, and what more there is out there for her. It is heartbreaking to see and to know that Hannah’s decision means she never gets to see that future, and her family and friends never get to see that future.
I feel like 13 Reason Why’s controversy stems a huge amount from fear of talking about these subjects – and yet, staying silent is the worst thing you can do. Hannah’s story could have gone another way if someone….anyone…had asked, cared enough, been ready to listen and to stand up for her. Jessica’s story could have been different if the ‘bro-code’ had meant calling out your friends when what they are doing is wrong. Clay’s story could have been different if he had persevered and waited ready to listen to Hannah. Bryce’s story could have been different if he had been taught the importance of consent and respect.
In the end, talking about these subjects is the first step towards real change…