On 13 Reasons Why and the scenes of sexual violence:
Put frankly, my thoughts of the horrendous sexual violence scenes in 13 Reasons Why are like a muddied cloth, with hands tearing at either end, pulling and ripping it apart. There is no clarity, and every time I try to put my thoughts together, the pieces seem to rearrange themselves in my mind. I’m almost envious of all the writers who have proclaimed their stances with their feet firmly planted, right or wrong, good or bad. But what if it is more than that?
This is your spoiler alert.
Watching Hannah Baker’s rape scene, I didn’t shed a tear of sympathy, like many people had. There wasn’t sympathy at all; there was an undeniable knowing of the experience and an inability to separate her body from mine. I watched as her hands began clenched, in a tight fist and felt my own white-knuckling, gripping whatever parts of my skin I could clasp, as if in self-protection. I saw Hannah’s inability to say the word “no” (as if fighting to scramble away and trying to leave said “yes”), and the walls of my throat closed shut. I wasn’t gasping tears like other viewers described, because my airways had simply clasped together, letting nothing at all seek through. Like an outward reflection of my insides writhing, I saw myself curl up tighter, into a ball, waiting for it to stop. I listened to his panting, thrusting, and pleasure all the while.
When the scene ended, anger surged through my body and rage filled my heart. I thought, how fucking sick and voyeuristic can we be, as a society. I didn’t fast forward, like I could have, and sat through it instead, and creators of the show kept us suspended in the long moments of violence, rather than… well, rather than the countless other ways you can depict the cruelty of sexual violence. It seemed, pun unintended, violently unnecessary. I wondered, what is the intention, here? Are these the steps people must take to gain ratings, viewers, and be the trend of the week? Is the exploitation of all-too-real suffering worth it?
I wondered why entire films can be dedicated to the experience of a person after losing a loved one, the painful process of grief and the trajectory of trauma in this process. A viewer can appreciate the pain and suffering a person experiences after this loss, and the countless ways in which it affects their lives, without needing to sit through the loved one’s dying. This is not the same when someone loses their body as their own.*
It is different with sexual violence. It is not enough to simply acknowledge it happened, and trust the person that it was traumatic, horrific and life changing, but we must see the victim suffer, sit through their experience and decide if it is painful enough. Is it not enough to see how Jessica suffered, drowning herself in alcohol to cope? How her whole life fell apart before her, and she no longer was a teenager who could sit comfortably with herself in a school day- she now had to be inebriated to make it through? Was it not enough, to learn how it impacted Hannah Baker’s desire to end the pain so badly, she chose to take her life?
If we take a moment to think of the purpose of showing these horrid scenes, I consider the following: What is the message? Who is it for? What is the purpose? If the message is for viewers to know it is painful and therefore be better equipped to support victims of sexual violence (or, god forbid, stop someone from committing sexual violence), I wonder why it takes the act of witnessing the suffering for this level of empathy to take place? What would it be like, to see how it changed their lives and simply trust that it was traumatic and true? What if we believed victims of sexual violence, for a while?
I’d say there are two sides to this debate, but truly, there are so many more. Victims of violence have come forward and said that this was the first time their experience of rape was accurately represented, without over sexualizing the act or showing it from the perpetrator’s perspective. I am not here to dismiss that. I simply just do not believe with confidence that re-creating sexual violence is the only way to get a message across.
Some of the show’s creators and contributors have said that it is important for it to not be hidden, as sexual violence is in the real world. My argument to that is this: you are not going to be there, witnessing the act, when a friend, sister, mother, brother, acquaintance or stranger gets sexually assaulted. You will be there for the aftermath. You will be there when they are living the pain of trauma and violence and their suffering and anguish and maybe doing a hundred things you won’t approve of. It is then that it matters if sexual violence is hidden. These are the times when it counts. You have the opportunity to bring the person out of the isolating, world shattering place of sexual violence trauma where things are hidden, and bring it into the light. Make it something a person can talk to you about. Be a person someone can talk to. You do not need to see it for it to be real. You do not need to see it to stop it from being hidden.
*The previous comment of “losing their body as their own” is not a blanket statement of how all victims/survivors feel. But it is for some. And in that moment, it is temporarily a large loss of agency, power, and control; however, I am not saying that the loss is permanent. We can have agency again.