The Real Problem With Sexual Assault Scenes In 13 Reasons Why

Controversy has surrounded the popular American teen drama series 13 Reasons Why since the release of season one in March of 2017. At its narrative’s center is Hannah Baker, a high school student who commits suicide and leaves behind six cassette tapes, upon which her pre-recorded voice explains exactly who and what led her to take her own life. Season one’s backlash was mostly focused on the show’s graphic portrayals of both Hannah’s rape and her suicide. Season one received backlash for representing yet another extremely graphic rape scene, suggesting the cries of outrage against Season one were largely overlooked, writes RUTH DE CERFF.

The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, spoke out in defense of the show in response to the public’s outrage at the show’s sexual assault scenes:

“We’re committed on this show to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through. When we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it. We would rather it stay out of our consciousness. This is why these kinds of assaults are underreported. This is why victims have a hard time seeking help. We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”

There is merit in the show’s intention of depicting these issues truthfully and as they occur in reality. But this intention as a defense suggests these stories can only be told truthfully if they are told explicitly. Yorkey suggests the only alternative would be to represent these moments unrealistically, to tiptoe around the issue and to minimize its impact. When actually, there are countless film tools that can be used to guide viewers into thoughts and feelings, to suggest to you that something has happened without explicitly showing it to you.

It is entirely possible, for example, to relay the message that a sexual assault has taken place without creating a scene that literally portrays a man thrusting into a screaming, crying woman for over sixty seconds.

Of course, “talking about it is better than silence”. No one is saying do not talk about it, but rather talk about it better. Portraying a scene that depicts sexual assault is not the problem, the problem is portraying a sexual assault scene irresponsibly. The discussion of these issues is absolutely imperative, so why not aim to discuss them in the best way possible?

Even though some of the backlashing viewers were likely to be coming from a place of subconscious victim shaming, this is not the only reason why viewers were unhappy. Yorkey’s defense implied shame is the only reason why viewers felt uneasy watching some scenes. This is grossly negligent because it overlooks the viewers who did not agree with the show’s explicit portrayals because they are sexual assault survivors themselves. For these viewers, these scenes can be insensitive and triggering.

Being a victim of sexual assault is not something so shameful that it should not ever be made visible. It is extremely important for the issue of sexual assault to be made visible. What does not always need to be made visible is an explicit recreation of the actual incident.

This is usually where someone chimes in with a: “if you’ve experienced sexual assault yourself, just don’t watch the show.” Problem solved. Even 13 Reasons Why takes this approach by including a disclaimer in the beginning of both seasons (a feature added only after the backlash of Season 1):

“13 Reasons Why is a fictional series that tackles tough, real world issues. Taking a look at sexual assault, substance abuse, suicide and more. By shedding a light on these difficult topics we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation, but if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series might not be for you.”

Here is why this disclaimer can be described as insufficient: the show claims to have the aim of starting a conversation, but then goes onto say that if you are directly related to the issues yourself, maybe you should not be part of that conversation. The conversation about these issues should be entirely inclusive. In fact, it is of the utmost importance that those directly affected are able to be include themselves if they wish. Why not create a show about these issues that everyone – including those directly affected by the issues – can watch and engage with? If a show about issues of sexual assault, substance abuse and suicide aren’t for those who have experienced these things themselves, who are these shows for? A conversation about the issue of sexual assault cannot neglect sexual assault survivors in reality.

It is not outrageous to consider that 13 Reasons Why and shows or movies alike choose to portray violence explicitly for the purpose of shock value or drama. It is not outrageous to doubt that explicit, violent, jarring scenes are too conveniently dramatic and shocking for the only intention to be truthfully telling a story.

It is not to say that 13 Reasons Why maliciously intends to trigger sexual assault survivors, those battling with suicide, those struggling with substance abuse. It is rather that, just like 13 Reasons Why’s disclaimer says; sexual assault, suicide and substance abuse are tough, real-world problems.

As important as it is for these issues to be represented truthfully and realistically, it is even more important for these issues to be represented responsibly.

Ruth de Cerff is a UCT graduate in English, Media and Film based in Cape Town. She did her post-grad diploma in Marketing and Advertising Communications at the Red and Yellow School and currently works in digital marketing for the live music venue Café Roux. She co-runs a book review blog called Dog’s Ear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

Featured image via Netflix