What '13 Reasons Why' Gets Right And Wrong About Rape

The Netflix show avoids making rape titillating, but still raises questions.

This post contains some spoilers for Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.”

Last week, the author of the YA-tear jerker 13 Reasons Why addressed one of the most controversial aspects of his book and the new Netflix show that it inspired: the raw depictions of rape and sexual assault.

Published in 2007, Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a teenaged girl who commits suicide, leaving behind 13 cassette tapes which explain the motives behind her death. The TV adaptation, which debuted on Netflix on March 31, recreates rape and suicide scenes from the book in disturbing, graphic detail.

This choice once again begs the question that comes up whenever we talk about rape on TV: Is it necessary? Or is it simply gratuitous?

“It’s uncomfortable, but that’s OK. It needs to be,” Asher told Buzzfeed News on April 7.

Asher acknowledged that some people have said that scenes are “too graphic,” but argued that rape shouldn’t be something that the viewer “can look away from.”

“You have to be uncomfortable when you’re watching it; otherwise you’re not in her mind,” the author explained. “In a way, it’s disrespectful if we say, ‘We know this stuff is happening, but we don’t want to be made uncomfortable by it.’”

Hannah Baker, the protagonist of 13 Reasons Why
Hannah Baker, the protagonist of 13 Reasons Why

The two episodes (9 and 12) where scenes of rape are shown come with trigger warnings, a rarity in the world of movies and television, where sexual violence is so often filmed through the male gaze. From movies like “Psycho” to shows like “Game of Thrones,” scenes of sexual violence are often shot from the offender’s point of view, with tantalizing and lingering shots of a woman’s body as it is violated.

To its credit, “13 Reasons Why” avoids this trope. In the scenes, the victims are mostly clothed, and the atmosphere is anything but tantalizing ― though that doesn’t make the scenes any less disturbing. In some ways, it makes them more so.

The show must also be commended for depicting the blurry gray area of “consent” ― in one of the rape scenes, the victim does not say “no,” and yet the horror of what happens to her is in no way ambiguous. Later, a high school counselor questions whether she protested the assault, once again emphasizing our shoddy definition of what does and doesn’t constitute consent.

And yet, there’s a trend of men defending graphic rape scenes for the sake of “authenticity” that Asher is most definitely following. We’ve seen it most recently with shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” and “Poldark.” So often, the defense of these depictions is that what we’re seeing as viewers technically isn’t really rape (as in the case of Cersei Lannister’s assault in season 4 of “GoT”), or that the writers and showrunners are trying to force the audience to confront rape, to manufacture empathy by placing the viewer viscerally in the victim’s shoes.

A still from the trailer for "13 Reasons Why."
A still from the trailer for "13 Reasons Why."

But awareness and empathy ― especially empathy for female characters ―shouldn’t require the audience to see a woman being assaulted. And often, these types of plotlines are little more than lazy storytelling. After all, there are ways to bring awareness to rape and sexual assault, and to call out the ills of rape culture and victim-blaming, without normalizing depictions of sexual violence against women.

This isn’t to entirely denounce “13 Reasons Why” or other shows that depict rape and abuse. There are similar themes of rape and violence in “Big Little Lies.” But where that show differs from “13 Reasons Why” is that it is focused entirely on the perspective of the women who are abused. Yes, “13 Reasons Why” features Hannah telling her story posthumously, but it also spends a great deal of time dealing with the guilt and man-pain of the Gary Stu-like main character Clay (who ― spoiler! ― contributed to her suicide by being too good for her).

“13 Reasons Why” shouldn’t be discounted because of its more graphic scenes. But, in light of Asher’s defense and the defense of so many other men who tell stories about women who are assaulted, we still need to ask some hard questions: What does it mean if we can only connect with the pain of rape victims by watching that pain played out so? What do these scenes achieve that couldn’t be achieved with their absence? And why are men so often the gatekeepers of these stories?

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