This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
13 Reasons Why is a show that lives in darkness. After all, the Netflix drama is born out of the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school junior and sexual assault survivor who leaves behind recordings detailing the many emotional scars her classmates, and one counsellor, inflicted upon her before she took her own life. From there viewers are forced to watch the rape of another teen girl, Jessica Davis (Alisha Boe). The series, which premiered its second season earlier this month, is filled with more instances of self harm, suicide attempts, near-fatal drug abuse, and the reveal that Hannah’s former school, Liberty High, has an expansive, campus-wide culture of protecting multiple sexual predators. 13 Reasons Why is dark.
Yet, only one scene in season 2 is so visceral and upsetting I was forced to pause it, pace around my apartment, scream a little, and sit back down to let it finish. Unsurprisingly for anyone who has finished 13 Reasons Why round 2, the scene we’re talking about is Tyler Down’s (Devin Druid) assault and rape at the hands of Montgomery de la Cruz (Timothy Granaderos), one of the school’s most enraged bullies, in the finale “Bye.”
After noticing how deeply Tyler’s attack affects every single person who watches it, one big question arises: in a show built on physical and emotional suffering, why does this moment stick out as so distressing for a viewer? Remember, this is a series with two rape scenes, multiple Polaroid photos referencing other assaults, and a suicide. When you really think about that question, you realise Tyler’s sodomy scene is so harrowing because it completely inverts our expectations of how television has told us women and men are meant to experience pain on screen.
Men and boys like Tyler experience physical suffering in pop culture all the time. They’re shot at, beaten, threatened, and put in shockingly violent situations at a confusingly consistent rate. Even soft, friendly comedies enforce this habit, from The Good Place — remember Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and the very bloody trolley problem? — to Arrested Development, which ended its less-than-stellar fourth season with Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) getting punched in the face by his son (Michael Cera). Action series play into this, as do mysteries, dramas, period pieces, and every other genre under the sun. We expect to see men get hurt, but only in the ways that put their faces and bones and torsos in danger.
On the other hand, while viewers will cheer for a badass heroine to win in a scuffle, it rarely feels like a brawl could break out at any time around her. Yes, Game Of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) might be one of the fiercest women in Westeros, but do you really worry that someone is going to start a physical altercation with her at any moment? Of course not. Fans barely even feel that way about Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) or Brienne Of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), and they are literal warrior women.
Rather, when any of these ladies are vulnerable, they are vulnerable sexually. Over seven seasons of Thrones, Dany, Arya, and Brienne — three of television’s most fearsome women — have all been threatened with rape, and more often than not, it's gang rape. Dany herself has categorised her first sexual encounters with husband Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) as rape.
But those HBO heroines are not alone, as sexual violence seems to be the go-to threat for all women across television. The handmaids of The Handmaid’s Tale are only forced into their wing-hatted position, which includes monthly, government-sanctioned rape, when they’ve committed some “sin” or trespassed against the conservative religious regime of Gilead. All of a sudden, the possibility of becoming a handmaid, or sex slave, becomes a form of social control. In Westworld, prior to the robot rebellion, Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) was consistently threatened with rape by the roving bandit hosts of the park, apparently for simple sake of Wild West authenticity. When Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) was kidnapped during Scandal’s most bizarre plot line, her captors immediately introduced the possibility of sexual assault to keep her in line. That detail has stuck with me for more than three full years.
At this point, viewers have been conditioned to expect to see women sexually abused, or, at minimum, threatened with the possibility. It’s in the metaphorical water to the point where the aforementioned Game Of Thrones added an extra rape scene where a consensual sex scene used to live. The fantasy epic would later shoe-horn in another unnecessary sexual assault, which the cast and crew have been defending since 2015. Handmaid’s Tale won an Emmy for featuring rape, or at least the possibility of it, in nearly every episode of its first season. That is why the scenes of Hannah and Jessica being sexually assaulted on 13 Reasons Why should deeply upset viewers; however, they won’t surprise them, as television has forced viewers to expect this kind of violence against women and girls at all times. It's a deeply upsetting fact that it is difficult to create a gut-punch level of discomfort over a form of violence that television has worked decades to desensitise audiences against.
The Netflix show itself points out how egregiously common sexual violence is against women, kicking off the 13 Reasons Why season 2 finale “Bye” with a powerful montage of many of the series’ woman characters detailing their own histories of harassment and assault. Everyone from Sheri Holland (Ajiona Alexus) to Clay Jensen’s (Dylan Minnetee) lawyer mom Lainie (Amy Hargreaves) tells a story. While the moment is an important reminder to sexual assault survivors at home that they're not alone, it also suggests to viewers this type of sexual intimidation and violence is a constant, near-unavoidable danger for women.
But, we have never watched a young men degraded in the 13 Reasons Why world in the same way we’ve been conditioned to expect for women of all ages until Tyler is sodomised. It is a distressingly long moment that is awful, and made more awful for the viewer because they couldn't have seen it coming. Rape isn't the standard form of aggression imposed upon boys — as previously mentioned, an old-school beating is.
Yet, thanks to toxic masculinity's abject hostility against any form of vulnerability and its worship of brutality, violence like rape through sodomy has turned into one of the ultimate forms of punishment against a man, short of murder. That form of sexual assault both allows the aggressor to inflict his will on his prey in an extremely painful way, while also diminishing the victim's own culture-approved masculinity. It’s a form of emotional, sexual, and physical violence all at the same time, whether the rapist is using his own anatomy to attack his victim, or a foreign object, as Monty does with the broomstick. A punch, on the other hand, just hurts for little while.
That is why viewers are forced to practically sit next to Tyler as he is assaulted, as director Kyle Patrick Alvarez zooms all the way into the traumatised young man's face during the attack. The filming choices allow viewers to watch both Tyler's anguish and Monty’s savage assault, which you expect to stop at a certain point, but continues for an alarming amount of time, in tandem. It’s impossible not to imagine all of the organ damage Monty is inflicting upon his victim while Tyler screams out in pain. Neither he, nor the viewers at home, are given any room to breathe.
The solution to the horror that is the Tyler assault scene isn't giving viewers so many male rape scenes that we become desensitised to them in the same way pop culture has tried to make us desensitised to sexual assaults against women. Instead, it's a creating a culture where TV doesn't feel the need to reflect the constant threat of sexual violence back at viewers, no matter a person's gender.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.