Warning: Light spoilers ahead for season 2 of 13 Reasons Why.
At the end of season 1 of 13 Reasons Why Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe) confessed to her father that she’d been sexually assaulted. Season 2 of the series, which picks up five months after the events of the first, finds Jessica struggling to move on as a survivor once she returns to school. And through Boe’s powerful performance, her storyline highlights how the road to justice and healing is often more difficult for women of colour.
Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh) sues Liberty High, believing the school could’ve done more to protect Hannah (Katherine Langford) from the bullying and rape that ultimately led to her suicide – and those tapes. Clay Jenson’s (Dylan Minnette) main mission throughout season 2 is also to get justice for Hannah, by taking down her and Jessica’s rapist: Liberty’s wealthy star athlete, Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice).
Unfortunately, Clay adopts a “by any means necessary” attitude in order to achieve this goal, often acting out irrationally at the expense of Jessica’s well-being.
He repeatedly pushes for Jessica to go to the police and share that Bryce assaulted her, ignoring how much of a struggle it is just for her to get up each morning and walk the halls of Liberty with her rapist steps away. Clay’s willful ignorance is enraging, despite his good intentions. Though after testifying in the Baker’s case in episode 3, Jessica finally breaks down and shares why she can’t come forward with her story at that particular time.
“Hannah was sweet and sensitive and white,” Jessica says through tears and visible exhaustion. “And look at what they are doing to her. I’m not the right kind of victim to go against Bryce Walker, especially when it’s his word against mine.”
As soon as the words left Boe’s lips I was pissed. I felt the heat rising in my chest. But after a few seconds, all I could do was shake my head. As a Black woman whose own claims of sexual violence have been brushed off before, nothing Jessica said in that scene was news to me. The same thing she felt at that moment is exactly what many women of colour are feeling in the real world today in regards to the #MeToo movement.
Over the last few months, this movement has done a tremendous job of bringing the voices of sexual assault and harassment survivors to the forefront. And while it has begun to create an atmosphere of change and finally hold some powerful men accused of these crimes accountable, not all survivor’s stories are being heard.
Simply because, like Jessica said, women of colour aren’t seen as the right kinds of victims.
Ironic, given the fact that #MeToo was founded by activist Tarana Burke, a Black woman, in 2006. Nevertheless, the movement wasn’t highly populariaed until last year when actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet “me too” if they’d ever been sexually harassed or abused. Since then many other high-profile celebrities and executives have stepped forward to share their own #MeToo moments. But an overwhelming majority of these women, whose stories garnered massive media attention, are white. This has left many women of colour wondering, what about us? Burke herself even acknowledged that Black and brown women, for whom this movement was initially created, are “still being ignored” in an article for The Washington Post.
When women of colour say “me too,” we're often sexualised, blamed, questioned, or like Burke said, ignored, no matter the race of our aggressor. Take any allegations involving R. Kelly, or even the case of Lupita Nyong’o — one of Hollywood’s most critically-acclaimed actresses — and Harvey Weinstein.
Right after Nyong’o penned a powerful op-ed in the New York Times recalling the incidents when he continuously harassed her, Weinstein felt the need to issue a statement denying the accusations and specifically called her out by name. The same thing happened when Salma Hayek came forward with her own accusations, yet he remained silent or issued a generic statement when it came to his other more than 80 accusers. Coincidence? I think not.
Women of colour experience a higher rate of sexual violence, yet our stories are deemed less important and “newsworthy.” For example, Native American women — who are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race, according to the Department of Justice — are never mentioned in national conversations about sexual violence. A Georgetown Law study found that people perceive Black girls to be less innocent, more adult-like, and less deserving of protection. I personally think these same perceptions plague other women of colour as well and keep us from getting justice no matter how much money we have or how much we try to appear “relatable.” The latter is exactly what Jessica does before taking the stand when she straightens her curly hair, showing how women of color sometimes feel that they have to conform to European beauty standards in order to be seen as “worthy.” She calls it “court hair” and notes that she hates it. Her white mother, on the other hand, tells her she loves her hair that way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to see that so many women of any race feel empowered to speak their truth. However, more intersectionality is desperately needed to make this movement stick.
As long as white women continue to solely dominate the conversations surrounding #MeToo, the change we seek will remain out of reach. To really shake things up, everyone needs to be aware of the different ways sexual violence affects women of colour and the additional barriers to justice we face. I’m grateful that 13 Reasons Why acknowledged this.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit the Rape Crisis website or call 0808 802 9999