Psychological Analysis of ’13 Reasons Why’: People’s Feelings About Hannah Say a Lot About America’s Rape Culture
Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. The likelihood that a person suffers suicidal thoughts increases after sexual violence. Why aren’t we talking more about Hannah’s sexual assault?
Netflix’s newest sensation is sparking a larger conversation around suicide, rape, and bullying. In our multi-part series on 13 Reasons Why, one mental health professional will explore the psychological aspects presented in the show. Next up, a psychological Analysis of Hannah Baker’s mental and emotional health and trauma of sexual assaults.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. To learn more or for more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why.
Warning: The following article contains references to sexual assault, rape, and suicide. Please be advised this may trigger some folks who struggle with mental illness or have any personal experience of, or connection to, sexual assault, rape, or suicide.
I took a little over a week to watch the Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’. The premise and the sensitive issues addressed in the show made it impossible for me to binge-watch it. For those who are not familiar, the basis of the show is that Hannah Baker chose to record 13 audio tapes for 13 people in her life to listen to after she kills herself, because she claims that they are the reasons why she took her own life. The show has become a lightning rod for suicide awareness and the ethics of portraying suicide in entertainment.
Why Make a Show About an Unlikeable Character Killing Herself?
One of my biggest struggles while watching the series was not knowing how I felt about Hannah Baker, or how I should have felt about her. Each passing episode brought more competing thoughts and emotions about her character. One moment I really liked her only to find her smug and extremely sensitive the next minute.
And then my last article profiling the risk of suicide contagion was posted on Reddit and I realized a great many folks also had very strong opinions and feelings about her.
Just a sampling of some of the comments:
“I found myself angry that it was being so one-sided about suicide girl’s actions and so completely absolving her of any responsibility toward herself. If she’d made a tape about me, my reaction after watching it would have been, ‘What a self-absorbed b**ch. I’m not really sad about this.’”
“I can’t stand the lead character’s ‘I’m so much smarter than all of you’ attitude – and the whole ‘I’m going to blackmail each one of you so you can listen to why you’re all responsible for my death’ bullsh*t is enraging.”
“I tried to finish the audiobook, got halfway through and couldn’t stand her smug attitude any longer.”
“The girl that committed suicide was so god damn selfish and narcissistic. It never occurred to me that anyone would want to copy this.”
Folks online and in the media are also having trouble with how they feel about Hannah. They point to how Hannah is a hypocrite, how she lets down Jessica by not intervening or reporting Bryce’s rape of Jessica. People mention how she doesn’t turn in Tyler, the photographer turned voyeur. Others comment on how Hannah did not report Sheri for knocking over a stop sign, which later leads to an auto collision in which causes the death of Jeff.
I struggled with my feelings toward Hannah. I wouldn’t label her a narcissist, but she could be smug, arrogant, petty, unforgiving, dramatic, overly sensitive, and critical of others. Does that make her unlikeable? Perhaps. I think it just makes her human, warts and all.
But despite her character’s flaws, the more I thought about Hannah Baker, the less all of that mattered to me. Because in the end, no matter what type of person Hannah was, she was assaulted, stalked, and raped. And that changed everything for me.
Why Aren’t We Talking More About Rape?
The show has been a lightning rod for debates about mental illness and suicide. Communities and social media are debating the ethics of a fictional show depicting a graphic suicide. But why aren’t we talking more about the two rapes that occurred on the show? Why are we spending more time debating Hannah’s likeability than talking about the mental health aspects of rape, assault, and trauma?
Throughout the recorded tapes, Hannah recalls how classmates sexually harassed her in the hallways, spread rumors, objectified her, and stalked her and violated her privacy. In one episode Hannah witnessed her former friend Jessica, who was blackout drunk, raped at a party by the star football player Bryce. Hannah was later raped by him at a party at his house.
Clay, one of Hannah’s former classmates, later convinces Bryce to admit that what he did was rape. Bryce scoffs at the notion – “if that’s what you want to call it,” he dismissively sneers, while also claiming that Hannah “wanted it”.
Are We Downplaying or Overlooking the Topic of Rape and Sexual Violence?
I feel like the national conversation hasn’t been as robust in exploring ’13 Reasons Why’ and their commentary on rape culture. And I have some theories as to why.
The structure of the show places Jessica’s rape and Hannah’s rape in the second half of the series. This is obviously a plot device constructed to have the more minor slights and offenses happen early in the series. But what this does is that the viewer spends more time focused on other characters and the minor offenses of Alex, Zach. This shortchanges the focus that could have been centered on Hannah’s rape. And the show avoids any hints that Bryce is a rapist until the sexual assaults occur. And because Hannah kills herself shortly after Bryce rapes her, the focus and attention quickly shifts to her hopelessness and the suicide scene.
But I also believe there is another reason why there isn’t more coverage about the rape. A December 2016 story by Variety detailed the entertainment industry’s history using rape as a plot device, often to advance the male protagonist’s pursuit of justice. Rarely did it advance the storyline or focus on the female victim. Hollywood believes rape is horrible, but the industry consistently uses it in a casual and insensitive way that diminishes the destructive power it has on its victims. And the problem is not limited to just Hollywood.
An analysis by RAINN found that 97% of rapists never spend a single day in jail for their crimes. Jaclyn Friedman, author Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, said in an interview for Time, “What we really despise is the idea of rapists: a terrifying monster lurking in the bushes, waiting to pounce on an innocent girl as she walks by,” Friedman says. “But actual rapists, men who are usually known to (and often loved by) their victims? Men who are sometimes our sports heroes, political leaders, buddies, boyfriends and fathers? Evidence suggests we don’t despise them nearly as much as we should.”
Hannah’s story is a journey from the beginning to the end of rape culture. Justin takes a photo of Hannah that is shared throughout the school. She is mocked, groped, slut-shamed, stalked, and finally Hannah is raped.
When did not verbally saying “no” mean “yes”? How does any boy or man in our culture ever get to that type of thinking? Not saying no is NOT CONSENT.
Defining Rape Culture and it is a Problem for America
For those who dismiss the term “rape culture” as a over-hyped phenomenon coined by feminists in the 1970s, let’s first define what is meant by “rape culture.” Rape culture does not merely look at the number of rapes that occur or the laws in place that criminalize rape. It is the everyday normalization of objectifying and sexualizing women that sends the message to both genders that it is inevitable and not viewed as problematic. Rape culture is not ONE thing in particular, it is a cultural and societal norm that shapes how we view both men and women. The following could be an everyday checklist of how America’s own “rape culture” plays out:
- When women who come forward are questioned about what they were wearing.
- When survivors who come forward are asked, “Were you drinking?”
- When people say, “she was asking for it.”
- When we teach women how to not get raped, instead of teaching men not to rape.
- When the mainstream media mourns the end of the convicted Steubenville rapists’ football careers and does not mention the young girl who was victimized.
- When cyberbullies take pictures of sexual assaults and harass their victims online after the fact, which in the cases of Audrie Pott and Rehtaeh Parsons tragically ended in their suicides.
- When, in 31 states, rapists can legally sue for child custody if the rape results in pregnancy.
- When college campus advisers tasked with supporting the student body, shame survivors who report their rapes. (Annie Clark, a campus activist, says an administrator at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill told her when she reported her rape, “Well… Rape is like football, if you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback, Annie… is there anything you would have done differently?”)
- When colleges are more concerned with getting sued by assailants than in supporting survivors. (Or at Occidental College, where students and administrators who advocated for survivors were terrorized for speaking out against the school’s insufficient reporting procedures.)
We should be talking more about how ’13 Reasons Why’ showcases the destructive impact of rape and how everyone involved doesn’t know how to respond or handle it. 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted). Persons under 18 years of age account for 67% of all sexual assault victimizations reported to law enforcement agencies.
’13 Reasons Why’ has been criticized for downplaying the mental health connection between depression and suicide. Maybe we should be focusing more on the connection that rape and trauma have with suicide. According to The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1 in 5 women has been the victim of attempted to completed rape in their lifetime, and nearly half of women have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime.
Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. And young women are the largest demographic at risk for sexual assault. Females between the ages of 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. Would you believe me if I told you that teen violent crime has been on the decline? Imagine what the rates were at their peak.
If women were being abducted or carjacked at these rates, the headlines would scream that there was a national crisis. So how come our culture is so apathetic to 20% of the female population being a victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime? What is the percentage, what is the number, where folks then will agree that yes, America has a problem of objectification and victimizing women’s sexuality?
What does ’13 Reasons Why’ get right about America’s rape culture?
- Hannah protests to others sexually objectifying her, she is the one labeled as “overreacting.”
- The students on Hannah’s tapes protect Bryce and Tyler for their criminal behavior towards Hannah.
- Jessica and Hannah were raped by a classmate at their high school. Most rape victims, female and male, knew the person who raped them.
- Mr. Porter, the school counselor, initially doesn’t believe Hannah. Misconceptions about false reporting have direct, negative consequences and may contribute to why many victims don’t report sexual assaults, despite only 2-8% of all sexual assault accusations reported to law enforcement turn out to be false. This is the same rate of false reporting as other types of violent crimes. Yet many people have an immediate reaction of not believing the victim.
- Neither Jessica nor Hannah initially reported their rapes. According to The National Survey of Adolescents, 86% of adolescents who claimed they were raped did not report it to the police, child protective services, school authorities, or other authorities.
- Both Jessica and Hannah are traumatized. According to RAINN, 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms within the first two weeks following the rape. Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, the largest percentage for any form of violent crime.
- Hannah kills herself. One out of every three women who are rape victims contemplate suicide, and 13% of women who are raped attempt suicide.
Where Do You Go, and What Do You Do, If No One Believes You Were Raped?
All the teens who listened to Hannah’s tapes know about the rape allegations. Some believe it. Some don’t. None of them report the assaults, not even Hannah, who admits she was raped but does not mention Jessica’s assault. Bryce doesn’t believe what he did was rape. Mr. Porter, the school counselor, initially calls into question Hannah’s accusation. For much of the series, Jessica maintains that Hannah is lying, along with her boyfriend Justin, who enables her but also knows he only halfheartedly attempted to stop Bryce from assaulting Jessica.
Despite how the story unfolds, the point of the show is not to question a victim’s story. No, ’13 Reasons Why’ highlights how responsibility falls on us all, and for many folks, they become bystanders rather than upstanders. Don’t believe me? Then why do so many assaults go unreported? Why do so many reported rapes not lead to criminal charges? What type of criminal justice system have we created where it’s so difficult to report a crime, charge someone else with a crime, and prosecute them for the crime?
Don’t get me wrong. Bryce and Bryce alone is responsible for his criminal actions. The school culture depicted in ’13 Reasons Why’ does not provide him with an excuse. But his sexual assaults don’t merely occur in a vacuum. Even Bryce assumes he’ll get away with raping Jessica and Hannah.
It may not have been its intentions, but ’13 Reasons Why’ says a lot about America’s acceptance of rape culture, of silence, and of willful ignorance. We should be talking more about how ’13 Reasons Why’ showcases the destructive impact of rape and how everyone involved doesn’t know how to respond, how to handle it, or what their role and responsibility is as a witness, bystander, friend … human being.
Stay tuned in my multi-part series where I will explore:
- The Unrelenting Anguish of Suicide
- Could 13 Reasons Why Spur an Increase in Teen Suicide? Research Supports the Possibility
- 13 Final Thoughts About ’13 Reasons Why’
And next up: Current trends in teen culture, specifically around mental health and other topics addressed in the show
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.