Here at Abbey Research, we are keen to highlight when aspects of our research appear in popular culture. After all, our societal consumption of TV, movies, music, and books can have a significant impact on how we understand certain issues. With that in mind, we are excited to announce a new feature series, the Pop Culture Spotlight. This series begins by exploring three key themes from Netflix’s latest streaming success 13 Reasons Why: rape culture, millennials and social media, and multiple perspectives or ‘truths.’ (Warning: this post contains spoilers) As a brief aside, these posts will not cover other matters raised in the show, such as mental health or suicide itself. As these don't fall in our research intersections, we'll allow other experts to address those.
13 Reasons Why chronicles the tragic events which lead to the suicide of high school junior Hannah Baker. Before committing suicide, Hannah makes 13 recordings, effectively forming her suicide note, with each recording detailing the events and people which contribute to her decision. Based on the bestselling book by Jay Asher, the show forces viewers to confront the insidious nature of rape culture by illustrating each character’s complicitness in perpetuating it.
‘Rape culture,’ first articulated as ‘rape-supportive culture’ in the 1970s, indicates that “rather than focusing explicitly on the perpetrator of sexual violence, the term targets the cultural practices that reproduce and justify the perpetration of sexual violence” (Rentschler, 2014: 67). This is made painfully clear in the excruciating portrayal of Hannah’s life in high school. In the laundry list of small (and large) instances of rape culture, we see Hannah experience sexually specific targeting through rumors, groping, cyberbullying, verbal abuse, neglect, and eventually rape.
By including two separate, yet directly connected, rapes in the storyline (Jessica’s rape is depicted in Episode 9 and Hannah’s in Episode 12) the show carefully illustrates how rape culture perpetuates the cycle of violence. The circumstances around Jessica’s rape make clear how ‘cultural practices’ reproduce rape culture. Hannah’s narration describes that after Jessica passed out drunk, Bryce enters the room and rapes her. Her boyfriend Justin walks in on the act, is forced to leave by Bryce, and eventually lies to Jessica, telling her they had sex and that she was not raped.
Everyone who listens to that tape and does not report Bryce (or tell Jessica the truth) becomes complicit in both her rape and the eventual rape of Hannah. Through their fear, dishonesty, and inaction, the characters let Bryce continue to assault women and allow for rape culture to fester at their school and in their town. Furthermore, rape is not the central act of the show, and the first 8 episodes focus on the ‘cultural practices’ which lead to and perpetuate the resulting sexual violence.
Hannah is unforgiving in her accusations but the brutal reality of rape culture is that we can all be complicit, even if we do nothing. The story of Hannah’s classmate and potential love interest, Clay Jensen, is perhaps the most challenging because we see his complicitness portrayed through his inactions. The show spares no one, and in doing so, becomes the benchmark for any future media which aims to tackle the complex and destructive nature of rape culture.*
*Author’s note: several TV shows and films have recently focused on instances of sexual violence, for reviews and critiques of their approaches see: From Elle to Game of Thrones, why is culture obsessed with rape?, Broadchurch shows how rape is not just a gratuitous plot device, and another review of rape culture in 13 Reasons Why.