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13 Reasons Why takes a voyeuristic lens to rape and suicide, with complicated results

Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why, season 1, episode 13. Beth Dubber/Netflix

Early on in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, two girls confront a boy who’s been watching them.

“Have you ever heard of the male gaze?” one of the girls asks.

“No,” the boy says.

“Well, we have,” the girl responds. “And we're not totally sure what it means, but you have it.”

13 Reasons Why is, among other things, a show about the concept of the male gaze, the idea that when our culture tells visual stories, we assume the viewer by default to be masculine, heterosexual, and predatory. Under the male gaze, men watch, and women are watched, and the observed woman is an objectified sexual object.

It’s about the gaze, and about voyeurism, and violations of privacy, and about what it feels like to be a girl living in an objectified body under the patriarchy.

But one of the critiques that’s been leveled against the show since its late-March premiere is that it asks the audience to gaze too much. It depicts suicide and rape in graphic, cringing detail, and some viewers have felt as though the show is asking them to become voyeurs, to be titillated by watching a teenage girl’s body in pain.

The series’ decision to depict suicide and rape in graphic detail makes sense in the context of its source material. 13 Reasons Why is based on Jay Asher’s bestselling YA novel of the same title, which is not so much about suicide as it is about the adolescent fantasy of suicide, and the idea that it might be romantic and mysterious and sexy. Within that framing, both the show’s graphic violence and its insistent focus on voyeurism come into focus as an attempt to mitigate the romance in which its source material wallows — with mixed results.

On 13 Reasons Why, we are all voyeurs and we are all terrible

Devin Druid on 13 Reasons Why, season 1, episode 1
We are all Tyler.
Beth Dubber/Netflix

“You are being watched,” says Hannah (Katherine Langford), on the first of 13 tapes she’s sent out, posthumously, to the 13 people she blames for her suicide. (That includes Clay, our hero, who crushed on Hannah from afar; Tyler, the yearbook nerd who stalked her; and Bryce, the jock who raped her.) On this show, the characters are always being watched, and the audience is always aware that it is we who are doing the watching.

In one scene, Clay’s parents are arguing in whispers until suddenly they jump and look directly at the camera, as though they’ve noticed it for the first time. Within the world of the show, we’re meant to understand that they actually noticed Clay (Dylan Minnette), standing exactly where the camera is. But for a jarring second it feels as though the fourth wall has broken: We’re spying on them and their privacy, and now they know. We’ve been caught.

Clay’s parents look at the fourth wall on 13 Reasons Why
They caught us.
Netflix

Clay himself is constantly peering through bedroom windows and lurking in the shadows, watching Hannah’s memories unfold. And because Clay is the audience surrogate, we’re peering and lurking and watching with him. It’s all we can do.

But Clay, like the other characters, is viscerally disgusted with Tyler (Devin Druid), the only character who is explicitly labeled a voyeur.

Tyler is the outcast of the group of teens who find themselves the subjects of Hannah’s tapes, the one they all look down on. “No one deserves [the tapes],” says high-achiever Marcus (Steven Silver), “except maybe that psycho.” One by one, they all throw rocks through his windows. Whenever he tries to get in on their planning sessions, they push him away.

But Hannah doesn’t think Tyler is especially different from anyone else. “We’re a society of stalkers,” she says. “We're all guilty. We all look. We all think things we're ashamed of. The only difference is, Tyler, you got caught.”

Within the world of 13 Reasons Why, voyeurism is universal, and it is also abhorrent. It is so common and so terrible that the other characters all feel they have to punish Tyler in order to absolve themselves of their own sins.

And part of the reason voyeurism is so terrible is that voyeurism is the impulse that first reduces Hannah to a body with a target on it to her classmates. Hannah’s reputation is destroyed through a series of illicit photographs taken and distributed without her permission, through lists and jokes that encourage her classmates to look at her body, to stare, to gaze.

And eventually the gaze turns into unwanted, unasked-for touch, and that’s what ruins Hannah’s life.

In 13 Reasons Why, voyeurism is the foundation of the rape culture that drives Hannah to suicide. And because we are all voyeurs, we are also all complicit in rape culture.

Is it possible to show an onscreen rape without being exploitative?

Justin Prentice in 13 Reasons Why, season 1, episode 2
Ugh, this asshole, right?
Beth Dubber/Netflix

It’s when the show takes its voyeurism into especially traumatic areas — specifically two rape scenes and Hannah’s suicide — that things get tense.

When Big Man on Campus Bryce (Justin Prentice) rapes Hannah’s former best friend Jessica (Alisha Boe), we see it from three points of view: first from the perspective of Hannah, hidden drunk and terrified in the closet, hearing sounds and seeing glimpses through the slats of the closet door; from the perspective of Jessica’s boyfriend Justin, who briefly bursts into the room to see Bryce draping himself over Jessica’s semi-conscious body; and finally in Jessica’s hazy recollection, with Bryce’s hands pinning her to the bed. The rape is never shown in detail, but it is disturbing and visceral, and framed in a way that keeps the audience constantly aware that they’re watching something private and horrible.

Far more graphic is Bryce’s rape of Hannah, which we see very clearly. As televised rapes go, it’s not an overly sexualized scene — there’s no focus on writhing limbs or naked bodies — but it is very clear in depicting every moment of what’s happening. The camera stays on Hannah’s face, and we see her flinch in pain at the moment of penetration. We watch her expression glaze over as she starts to disassociate from the trauma. Afterwards, we see fingerprint-shaped bruises all over her body.

Both scenes manage to avoid many of the controversies that have accompanied other recent high-profile television rape plots. To use just one show as an example, in the past, Game of Thrones has come under fire for using rape scenes as edgy scene-dressing; for focusing on the trauma rape inflicts on the survivor’s male relatives rather than on the survivor herself; and for apparently writing, directing, and producing a graphic depiction of rape while under the impression that it was a depiction of consensual sex.

13 Reasons Why, in contrast, clearly defines both rape scenes as rape. It focuses on the trauma inflicted on the survivors, and it makes both rapes pivotal to both plot and characterization.

But still: Was it actually necessary to include those rapes in the story? And if it was, did they have to be there in such graphic detail?

“What does it mean if we can only connect with the pain of rape victims by watching that pain played out so?” asks Zeba Blay on the Huffington Post.

On Twitter, Her Story writer Laura Zak calls the show “trauma porn parading as woke media.”

The subtext of this critique is that there’s something secretly gratifying in watching these rape scenes, maybe even something vaguely titillating. If, as the old saw goes, it’s impossible to depict war onscreen without glamorizing it, it may also be impossible to depict rape onscreen without eroticizing it.

13 Reasons Why frames itself as a deconstruction of the male gaze, but the critique of its rape scenes argues that it is complicit with the gaze itself. We see the rapes primarily from Hannah’s point of view, but her perspective is filtered through Clay’s point of view; he controls the way in which we receive her story. And if the camera’s gaze is always by default male and straight, then the woman’s body at which it gazes is by default a potential sexual object. That potential is heightened, not diminished, when the gaze is present for her rape.

When the gaze is present for her suicide, things get even muddier. A voyeuristic look at Hannah’s death keeps her suicide from feeling glamorous and fetishized — but it also introduces a complication.

Our culture often presents suicidal women as beautiful. 13 Reasons Why challenges that, but its challenge might be dangerous.

Katherine Langford in 13 Reasons Why, season 1, episode 13
Such a pretty dead girl.
Beth Dubber/Netflix

The most graphic and violent scene in 13 Reasons Why is Hannah’s suicide. We see her wrists in close-up as Hannah slides a razor across them again and again. We see the blood and hear Hannah cry out in pain. We hear her gasping for breath as she lowers her bleeding arms into the bathtub. And when her parents find her dead body, we see her blue skin and the pink-tinged bathwater.

It’s a shocking contrast to our culture’s iconic image of a suicidal woman — namely, Hamlet’s Ophelia floating beautifully in the water, with flowers tangled in her hair.

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, circa 1851
Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, circa 1851
Wikimedia Commons | DcoetzeeBot

Unlike Ophelia’s, Hannah’s suicide is not beautiful or romantic. It is in fact extremely hard to watch; I found myself flinching away from the screen and covering my eyes. The audience can see — is forced to see — that her death is painful, and messy, and that it does not lend itself to dreamy pre-Raphaelite paintings.

In that messy violence, the TV show’s depiction of Hannah’s suicide is the opposite of the book’s. In Asher’s book, Hannah’s suicide is not explicitly depicted; we find out about it after the fact. And in the first draft, the suicide never actually happened.

Asher included his first draft of the ending in the book’s 10th anniversary edition:

“She tried to do it, Clay, but she didn’t. She didn’t kill herself. That’s what the teachers are telling everyone right now.”

I drive my head back, crashing it into a locker. But not hard enough.

“When her parents came home, she was unconscious. From the pills. But they took her to a hospital and pumped her stomach and they saved her.”

My knees feel ready to crumble, so I let myself slide down the lockers and then hug my knees against my chest. “Please,” I say, not much more than a whisper, “please don’t lie about this to me.”

She steps beside me and barely touches my shoulder. “Clay, Hannah is alive.”

Asher’s editor asked him to make Hannah’s death permanent, he says, and he agreed, “out of respect for the seriousness of the issues presented in the book,” because “suicide is permanent, and it should feel that way.”

But Asher’s first impulse to keep Hannah alive — and the way he planned to make the revelation — is telling.

Firstly, the reveal that Hannah was secretly alive all along isn’t actually about Hannah — it’s about Clay and his feelings. (“Please don’t lie to me about this.”) Similarly, in the final version of the book, Hannah’s suicide isn’t really about Hannah. It’s about Clay, and how he feels, and all the times he has to double over in pain and scream into his hands because he just feels so much.

Secondly, the impulse to keep Hannah alive speaks to an impulse to take the safe route wherever possible — the same impulse that may have lead Asher to keep Clay from claiming any culpability in Hannah’s death, despite the fact that this choice invalidated the entire premise of the book. 13 Reasons Why makes a lot of safe choices and feels, overall, like a very safe book, despite the fact that it is ostensibly about suicide.

That’s because Asher’s 13 Reasons Why is not really a book about suicide. It’s a book about the fantasy of suicide, and more specifically the male fantasy of a beautiful and mysterious sad girl who only you — the presumably male reader — truly understands and can save. (Female readers get to choose between identifying with the male protagonist or taking on the subordinate fantasy of being a beautiful and mysterious sad girl with one person who truly understands her.)

The tragedy of Asher’s 13 Reasons Why is not that Hannah was so beaten down by life that she killed herself. It’s that Clay didn’t get the chance to save her.

Within the context of Asher’s novel, the Netflix show’s insistence on showing suicide and rape in graphic detail, and its persistent return to the idea of voyeurism, begins to make sense. Asher’s novel wallows in the romantic fantasy of being so sad you could kill yourself, but the Netflix show wants to avoid making depression, sexual assault, and suicide seem glamorous, or even worse, aspirational.

So to compensate, it makes it uncomfortable to watch that depression, sexual assault, and suicide. It reminds us, insistently, that we are prying, and by extension that rape and suicide are not romantic fantasies to glory in. And it makes the violence of its rape and its suicide scenes obvious and visceral. It reminds us that the body at which we are gazing is a human body; it says, No, this is not romantic and sexy, this is happening to a human body, and it is unpleasant, and it hurts.

Is Netflix’s attempt to create distance effective?

According to Victor Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at New York University and Chief Medical Officer of the suicide prevention program the JED Foundation, the TV show’s attempt to keep Hannah’s suicide from feeling aspirational has mixed results.

“It is probably, for most of the viewers, a way of effectively dealing with the sense of the suicide being dreamy and ethereal,” he says. “On the other hand, research shows us that the more obvious, florid, dramatic, and explicit the portrayal is, as disturbing as it is to most of us, there’s the potential that for some people who see it, who are really struggling with something, this winds up being in some way strangely appealing.”

That’s because of a phenomenon known as suicide contagion, in which suicide attempts increase after a high-profile successful suicide, whether real (Marilyn Monroe) or fictional (The Sorrows of Young Werther).

“Imagine an adolescent feeling emotionally lost, almost invisible, and witnessing the notoriety or memorialization of a teen who completed suicide, gaining attention in their immediate community as well as the vast amount of attention obtained from social media,” says Phyllis Alongi, the clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. “This is the essence of contagion.”

Suicide contagion is why journalists follow media guidelines designed to make it difficult to describe a suicidal person as heroic or a suicide as inevitable. Studies have shown that when newspapers implement those guidelines, there’s a measurable decrease in suicide attempts.

But similar guidelines do not exist for works of fiction. And suicide contagion means that for some 13 Reasons Why viewers, the graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide might function as a how-to guide.

“It’s not that 50 percent of the people who see a depiction of suicide will be inclined to act,” Schwartz says. “But when you think about media that’s being consumed by large numbers of people, it will have an effect on a few of them, and when you’re talking about a life-and-death effect. … It’s small statistically, but it’s obviously desperately significant.”

The ideal response, says Alongi, is to use the show to begin a conversation. “13 Reasons Why is provoking dialogue,” she says. “If teens are going to view it, we can utilize the series as an opportunity to increase awareness and education of this very important subject.”

If 13 Reasons Why is a show about the gaze, its reception is creating a conversation about the gaze’s limits, about what we can responsibly look at and depict. The show insists that the objectification of the male gaze is harmful and violent — but whether the show effectively avoids becoming complicit in that gaze is an open question.