In case the title isn’t obvious, this post contains spoilers.
I stayed up until 3am last night finishing Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix. Knowing how different the show was from the book, I was prepared to be annoyed by it (which I was, more than once). Knowing what psychologists and counselors were saying about its treatment of teen suicide, I was prepared to hate it. I started writing commentary in my head, ready to tick off all the popular boxes: doesn’t mention anything about mental illness, glamorizes suicide, doesn’t offer any help for vulnerable teens who might be watching.
Only that last thing proved true: the least that the producers could have done was display the number of a suicide hotline at the end of each episode. But what I saw wasn’t a show about suicide, per se. The suicide was a driving plot point, sure, but it wasn’t the primary focus. What I saw instead was a cautionary tale about the influence of rape culture among high schoolers – particularly how it affects teenage girls.
That’s probably the biggest way that the Netflix series deviates from the novel: the book makes Hannah out to be vengeful and, for lack of a better word, petty. Her suicide is treated like a “fuck you” to every person who slighted her; her experience didn’t ring true for me as someone who has experienced clinical depression and suicidal thoughts. Even the scene with Bryce in the hot tub at a party is treated differently: Hannah’s consent with Bryce is very, very sketchy in the book. But in the show, it’s clear to anyone with eyes that he’s raping her.
Having experienced varying forms of sexual harassment from beginning to end of the series, the rape is clearly the last straw for Hannah. Her suicide seemed like a natural consequence of untreated PTSD – especially given the cringe-worthy meeting with her school guidance counselor, in which he basically tells her to just “move on.”
We know that the same guy also raped Hannah’s friend Jessica, which Hannah witnessed. Jessica was very, very drunk. Would she have come forward to corroborate Hannah’s story? Her drunkenness was used as the justification for assault: it’s not like she’ll remember. It’s easy to understand why she wouldn’t tell anyone: rape culture taught her to blame herself.
We also know that Hannah was harassed by classmates after being voted “Best Ass in Class,” and had an undeserved reputation as the school slut. She was groped by more than one male student in more than one episode, each one believing they were entitled somehow. You can start to understand, even a little, how hard it would have been for her to come forward, to be believed, and for Bryce – a popular, good-looking, all-American “nice guy” – to face the consequences he deserved.
Reporting rape is hard enough for adult women, let alone teenage girls who aren’t fully matured mentally or emotionally. The message I internalized wasn’t Your life is ruined if you’re raped, but rather, No wonder she felt so desperate.
Toward the end of the series, Clay talks with a classmate, Skye, about the way that Hannah was treated in the final weeks of her life. Skye’s response is flippant: “So? What happened to Hannah isn’t anything that doesn’t happen to the rest of us.” There’s the real message. There’s what parents need to start paying better attention to. Stop peddling “boys will be boys” and victim-blaming; it teaches your daughters to hate themselves, and teaches your sons to be criminals.
Taken together, Thirteen Reasons Why is worth watching because many of us believe the lies that Hannah’s guidance counselor told her. When she told him “something happened” that night, he immediately assumed it was a consensual encounter she later regretted. When Bryce is confronted by Clay, Hannah’s friend, about the rape, he quips without remorse, “She was in my hot tub, in her underwear. What did she expect?”
Even “good kids” and otherwise good parents believe these lies about rape, further traumatizing survivors. This doesn’t need to happen. If there’s any lesson to be learned from this show, it’s to teach your kids what consent looks like, as soon as they are old enough to understand. Teach kids not to be afraid of the word “no”: to say it and to listen to it. Never tell a survivor to just “get over it” or “move on.” Women rarely have anything to gain by making false accusations, yet too many people believe this happens all the time – that more rape accusations are false than true.
The show is graphic and disturbing on many levels, but I don’t think it was gratuitous. There are too many shows (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones) that try to add elements of sex appeal to rape scenes, and this show doesn’t: you see it happening from the victims’ perspective, which makes all the difference. That makes the scenes triggering as hell to people who have lived through it, but to everyone else, the ugliness is starkly real. The women who held up signs saying “Trump can grab my pussy at any time” at rallies really have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. A lot of people don’t if they think rape jokes are funny.
I know what it’s like to feel suicidal after experiencing assault. By the last episode, tears streamed down my face as I imagined what could have happened to my life if I hadn’t sought counseling; if I didn’t start taking anti-depressants again for the first time in years; if I didn’t stop drinking away my pain and force myself to go to AA. My heart truly breaks for Hannah. I wish things could have turned out differently for her. But I understand why they didn’t. I understand why she saw no way out.
End note for those who think this show glamorizes suicide: how? In the book, Hannah overdoses on pills. The producers could have chosen to show her falling asleep in a bathtub filled with bubbles, surrounded by candles, with soft music playing. Watching Hannah gasp in pain after slitting her wrists was anything but glamorous. If you want to see a movie that glamorizes suicide, look no further than Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Somehow, Juliet manages to shoot herself with a handgun and fall perfectly aligned next to Romeo’s body, her face gently grazing his, their hands interlocked, and without a single of drop of blood to be seen.
Like this post? Check out A Stunning Accusation, available on Amazon.