HOW “13 REASONS WHY STARTS A CONVERSATION ABOUT RAPE CULTURE

“If you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why”

If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you’ve heard of the new Netflix original  series “13 Reasons Why”; a series which seemed to land on all of our plates unexpectedly but has resonated with most of its viewers indefinitely. When I first heard of this series, I was compelled to watch it because Selena Gomez was actively promoting it on her social media platforms as her new co-produced series which she was “overwhelmingly proud of”- and as a Selena Gomez fan, I had to watch.

To say I enjoyed 13 Reasons Why would be inaccurate. I definitely did not “enjoy” this series. At times the images are so disturbing and unfiltered that it is impossible to “enjoy”.  Instead, I was transfixed by it, and it was completely unsettling in the most favourable way. 13 Reasons Why is portrayed as a teenage drama, but the writers definitely haven’t sought out other teenage death-orientated dramas like “The Fault in Our Stars” for inspiration. There is no glamorisation of the outcome; no greater meaning for Hannah’s death and absolutely no consolation to the viewer by the finale. In fact, as the series progresses, each episode will hit you harder, and rattle your consciousness more profoundly. Honestly, when I finished the final episode, I felt somewhat perturbed for the rest of the day. This brutal honesty is exactly what makes this show so important.

Suicide rates are increasing at an alarming pace with 6,639 recorded suicides in the UK and Ireland in 2016, and female suicide rates are the highest they have been in nearly a decade.  13 Reasons Why is set after Hannah Baker has committed suicide, but through a non-linear narrative we are taken on a mystery journey through the events that led up to her suicide, and those that it sets into motion. The series focuses on many issues that are not unusual for a teenage drama; teenage angst, popularity, sex, and the general concept of the tapes may seem inscrutable to some. Yet the way each issue is intertwined with one another creates a butterfly effect of tumultuous events that serves to create a compelling, and at times relentless, storyline that truly cements a deeper message into the audiences conscience.

Of course, the main theme in 13 Reasons Why is suicide and this topic could be explored endlessly through this series, but there are plenty of other blogs already touching on this. (Check them out). Another issue that emerges throughout the 13 episodes is rape; more specifically rape culture. The story vividly displays the harsh coldness of rape and the poison that is the rape culture that society can’t quite seem to stifle. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the term “rape culture”. If not, it describes a society that’s actions or attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse. This may seem like another pro-feminism fabrication of the truth for some; surely our society doesn’t normalise sexual assault? After all, it’s illegal? This is true predominantly, at least in appearance. Yet most people don’t realise they are probably witnessing aspects of rape culture everyday.

Bryce is a flawless character, only  in that he perfectly exemplifies exactly what he is meant to;  that being the popular white male who feels that he is entitled to women simply because of his position. As one of the school jocks, Bryce certainly walks around sporting a confident demeanour, and at first during the flash back sequences it may not appear deeply threatening,  but his behaviour is consistently undesirable throughout. One of our first insights into rape culture is Bryce sending the picture of Hannah from Justin’s phone to everyone in school. The picture is certainly questionable thanks to the unfortunate angle at which it was taken, and Bryce has no hesitation when sending it out fuelled with the intention that everyone would assume Hannah and Justin had hooked up. This is the first time Bryce acts without a females consent, and it paves the path for rest of the series. Everyone in school is fast to label Hannah a slut, but nobody questions who sent a picture of her around without her permission. Bryce is protected, because nobody is asking the right questions.

Yet, during the initial post-suicide scenes Bryce didn’t deeply startle me as a rapist. This is the shocking part, because by the time the viewer is enlightened to the events at Jessica’s party, including her own rape, everyone else involved on the tapes has already heard what Bryce is accused of doing. So why is it not until the final couple of episodes that any character (bar Clay) begins to act even slightly hesitantly towards him? (This being Justin). Instead of protecting Jessica, or any other potential victim, they choose to protect Bryce (once again). So much so that the viewer doesn’t even suspect him until the writers physically lay it out for us. By not reacting, everyone allows Bryce to revel in his actions. Justin even dismisses him making suggestive comments about Jessica, despite knowing what he has done to her. At one point it is almost questionable if Bryce truly knows he has done something wrong, as he states “if that was rape then every girl in this school wants to be raped”. This is the line that brings rape culture to the forefront of concern; Bryce believes that Hannah “wanted it” because society and the attitude of his peers has permitted him to feel like women are his property, that he as a male will always be desirable to the women of his choice.

Bryce is not the only embodiment of rape culture present in the series. The theme surges throughout at different intervals, and is intensified once again by the character of Marcus. Knowing Hannah’s fate makes it naive to believe Marcus could have provided a solace for Hannah when she agrees to go on a date with him. Nonetheless, much like Hannah I found myself falling for his charming smile and cute persona, desperate to find any humanity in an otherwise series of deplorable events. The outcome is disappointment. Hannah is frequently sexually objectified throughout the episodes since the rumour of her and Justin spread around Liberty High. In result she is frequently slut shamed and boys like Marcus suddenly feel entitled to her. A simple date turns into Marcus trying to impress his peers by forcing himself (more accurately his hands) on Hannah in the middle of the diner, despite her tears and pleads to stop. Hannah is mortified, but Marcus is infuriated. How could a girl who is renowned for being a “slut” not let him touch her?

I am glad to say that I don’t know many men like Bryce and Marcus. But they do exist, and so often they go unnoticed because like Bryce, they are protected by society, be it their friends, their parents or their school. Liberty High depicts how in some cases a school would rather allow for a rapist to walk their halls, than to admit that their talented sports player could be a criminal. Even reading reviews of the series I have noticed how many people felt that the visual display of rape was “gratitutous” and “uncomfortable”: they would rather enjoy their viewing idealistically than allow the series to hit a nerve about a very controversial subject that may help to send out an important message on rape and rape culture.

There is no explicit justice for the victims of rape in 13 Reasons Why. Why? Because there so often isn’t in real life. Instead, it aims to serve a reminder to society that sex is not a boys prerogative; women are not men’s property or play toys and as shocking as it may seem, regardless of wether a girl has had sex with nobody or a lot of people, nobody is entitled to have sex with her unless it is a mutual decision. There is no “blurred lines” when it comes to sexual consent: there is a straight thick black line that has “yes” and “no” on either side.

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