Netflix’s latest original drama, 13 Reasons Why, tackles a number of topics facing teenagers today, but television as a whole can learn from the show’s portrayal of rape and sexual assault. The series, adapted from the best-selling Jay Asher novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, follows Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) after he receives a package containing cassette tapes recorded by his classmate Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) before she committed suicide. On the tapes, she details the 13 “reasons” – corresponding to a number of different people, including classmates and faculty members at her school – her life unraveled, leading to her suicide.
Although early episodes hint at a major turning point for Hannah with various other characters repeatedly mentioning a party, it isn’t until later in season 1 when the events of that night are laid out. The story of the party is told over the course of three episodes, the first – episode 9, ‘Tape 5, Side A’ – reveals Hannah was a witness to popular high school student Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice) raping her former friend, Jessica (Alisha Boe). Three episodes later in ‘Tape 6, Side B’, Hannah reveals she was raped by Bryce at one of his parties some time after the events at Jessica’s took place.
Bryce’s actions are a significant turning point for Hannah in the weeks leading up to her suicide, and they’re treated as such within the context of 13 Reasons Why. However, his actions also affect others besides Hannah, most significantly Jessica, but her boyfriend/Bryce’s friend Justin (Brandon Flynn) and the other students included on the tapes as well. Although it isn’t revealed until later in season 1, 13 Reasons Why is a story of trauma, specifically rape and sexual assault, and the effect that trauma has on victims as well as those around the victims and the perpetrators.
Television series tackling the topic of rape and sexual assault isn’t necessarily new, but the medium as a whole has received a great deal of criticism in recent years for employing these traumatic events for surface-level shock value and too often focusing on the perpetrators or those around the victims, rather than the survivors themselves. 13 Reasons Why, however, is a story centered on the perspective of a witness/victim, but one that takes great care to tell the same story from multiple points of view – though never through the eyes of the perpetrator himself. For this reason, 13 Reasons Why is a step forward for TV’s portrayal of rape and sexual assault, and it’s a show from which other series can learn.
Ostensibly, 13 Reasons Why is a show told from the perspective of Hannah through the cassette tapes she leaves and implores her classmates to listen to. But over the course of season 1, viewers are shown various events from the perspective of the other characters involved – not through voiceover like Hannah’s tapes, but through the direction of the scenes. It’s an important directorial and writing choice (more on the ones making those choices later), especially since 13 Reasons Why strives to show the far-reaching effects of Bryce’s actions, beyond even their influence on Hannah’s decision to commit suicide.
Take, for instance, the event of Bryce raping Jessica at her party, which is depicted three separate times throughout episode 9: First from Hannah’s point of view as a witness of the whole event, including Justin’s lack of intervention despite his knowledge of what Bryce was doing to his girlfriend; then from Justin’s own perspective while Clay is confronting him after listening to the tape; and third from Jessica’s own hazy point of view.
The scenes of Jessica remembering Bryce’s rape are shown earlier in the season, but they shift from hazy memories of having consensual sex with Justin (a false memory reinforced by Justin’s lies meant to protect his girlfriend from the truth) to clearer flashbacks of Bryce on top of her. This particular point of view is the most emotional and honest of the scenes depicting Bryce raping Jessica largely because they don’t hold back from showing it from Jessica’s perspective.
Then Bryce’s rape of Hannah takes place in episode 12. Her situation is different from Jessica’s in that there were no witnesses, no one attempted to intervene, and she wasn’t drunk to the point of being nearly unconscious – which is to say it can only be told from hers or Bryce’s perspective. As a result, the scene is much different, but no less focused on her point of view as the victim of an assault. The scene is shot through a series of closeups, some on various parts of Hannah’s body like her hand and some on her facial reactions; it ends with an extended shot of her face that his haunting and heart-breaking.
In an interview with EW, Langford spoke about her research into the role of Hannah. She spoke with a representative from It’s On Us, the initiative to address sexual assault on college campuses launched by former President Barack Obama in 2014, as well as a psychiatrist who works with adolescents. Langford said of how her research influenced the scene:
“There was a lot of conversation about why things happen in the way they happen, things like why Hannah doesn’t say no. There was a lot of discussion that went into that about how we were going to shoot it. When we did it, I felt super supported and absolutely comfortable on set, but it was very strange because that act makes me sick to my stomach. It’s so sickening and it’s uncomfortable and it’s ugly, but that’s also why we needed to show it.”
Langford’s scene in 13 Reasons Why, and the way it was shot, seems to be a response (whether direct or indirectly) to Hollywood’s issue of depicting rape and sexual assault in film and television. Langford said as much to EW about wanting to portray both Bryce’s rape of Hannah and Hannah’s suicide honestly:
“I just wanted [these stories] to be told right because I feel so many TV shows and movies that have shown these issues [of rape and suicide] either romanticize them or they use them as a plot device. I wanted this story to be truthful.”
Perhaps one of the most memorable discussions surrounding a highly criticized rape scene is that of the wedding night sequence between Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) in Game of Thrones season 5. The scene depicted sadistic torturer Ramsay raping Sansa on their wedding night, while he forced Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) to watch – but the camera focused on Theon, positioning him as the main point of view character rather than Sansa. As a result, the scene was criticized for prioritizing a man’s emotional anguish over the woman’s traumatic experience through directorial choices, whether it was intentional or not.
It may not be the case that Langford’s scene in 13 Reasons Why is a direct response to this discussion – even though the camera deliberately focuses almost exclusively on Hannah and her reactions in the moment – but it certainly speaks to how scenes of rape and sexual assault can honestly depict the victim’s experience. Additionally, 13 Reasons Why may be indicative of how important the creative team behind the camera is to non-exploitative portrayals of rape and sexual assault. Game of Thrones is written and directed predominantly by men (in fact, the series has had only one female director, Michelle MacLaren, who has helmed a total of four episodes, and two credited female writers, Jane Espenson ad Vanessa Taylor).
For its part, 13 Reasons Why season 1, episode 12 was written by Elizabeth Benjamin and directed by Jessica Yu. Looking at the whole season, four of the 13 episodes were directed by two women – Yu and Helen Shaver – while six episodes were written by four women – Benjamin, Diana Son, Julia Bicknell, and Hayley Tyler. It’s not an even split of men and women in creative positions on 13 Reasons Why’s freshman season, but it’s arguably a more diverse lineup than many major network and streaming series. Although it’s impossible to prove the more gender diverse creative team led to the show’s honest portrayal of Bryce’s sexual assaults of Hannah and Jessica, it couldn’t have hurt.
Of course while the scenes depicting sexual assault focus on Hannah and Jessica’s viewpoints, 13 Reasons Why does carefully portray how Bryce and those who are complicit in covering up his crimes. Justin’s reasons for why he failed to pull Bryce off of Jessica, and why he later lied about Bryce’s actions, are clearly laid out and fall into a gray area between the the unrealistic dichotomy of good and evil. Similarly, Justin Prentice, who portrays Bryce, told Bustle it was important for the series to show multiple facets of the character in order to paint a realistic picture:
“One of the things I wanted to do with Bryce was to make sure that he was a human being. I didn’t want to portray something that was disconnected from reality. Not that it’s necessarily a redeeming quality, but he takes care of his buddies. So, he’s a good friend in certain aspects, which makes him a little bit more relatable, which makes the things he’s capable of doing even more grotesque and surprising.”
Unlike Ramsay Bolton and the many other evil TV and movie characters whose depravity is proven through scenes of rape and sexual assault, Bryce is all the more realistic (and scarier) because he starts off 13 Reasons Why as a popular jock who is beloved by many. It’s a picture much closer to our own reality, which includes highly publicized cases of rape and sexual assault like those of Steubenville, Ohio’s football players, and Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner.
All of these details woven into the narrative of 13 Reasons Why help to create a well developed storyline about Bryce’s actions that focuses not on him, but on his victims. As explained by Hannah in her own words, Bryce’s rape negatively impacted her mental health and contributed to her suicidal thoughts. Jessica is also depicted processing what happened to her, making decisions to move forward – with hints that she may press charges against Bryce. This series’ narrative is an important story to be told, one that hasn’t quite been told before on TV and film – at least, not in quite the same manner. Both Netflix’s Jessica Jones and MTV’s Sweet/Vicious have received praise for thoughtful depictions of rape and sexual assault as well as their effect on victims, and 13 Reasons Why is another step in the right directon for TV’s portrayal of these subjects.
13 Reasons Why season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.