Article by Clare Stephens /
June 12, 2018 /
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Just over halfway through 13 Reason Why’s season two finale, the character of Tyler Down walks into the bathroom at school.
It’s his first day back after completing a rehabilitation program for bad behaviour.
For the majority of the season, Tyler has been attempting to exact revenge on the students who mistreated Hannah Baker, the 17-year-old who died by suicide at the end of season one. Eventually, he’s caught for defacing the school’s baseball field with the word ‘RAPIST’ – an act aimed at Bryce Walker, who raped Hannah and two other teenage girls.
Upon Tyler’s return, he seems calmer and genuinely remorseful for his decisions.
But what follows after he enters the bathroom is the most disturbing two minutes of television I’ve ever witnessed.
One of the school’s athletes, Montgomery de la Cruz, follows Tyler and demands to know “why the f*ck” he came back. When Tyler apologises, Monty grabs his head and pushes it violently into the mirror behind him, before slamming his head repeatedly on the hard, ceramic sink.
He then drags Tyler into a cubicle, almost drowning him in the toilet bowl, and orders his friends to “hold him”.
Monty gets a mop from the corner of the bathroom, and while his friends restrain Tyler, whose pants are now pulled down, the teenager is anally raped with the wooden end of the mop.
When Monty abandons the mop, we see the tip is covered in blood, and in a later scene when Tyler returns home, he’s bleeding from the anus.
I’m providing this detail because elsewhere online, descriptions of Tyler’s rape are alarmingly sanitised.
The scene is regularly referred to as ‘Tyler’s sexual assault,’ with rare mentions of the teenager being ‘sodomised by a mop’, and almost always mentioned in the context of his decision later in the episode to arrive at the school dance armed with guns with the intention to commit a mass shooting.
But what we see in those two minutes is the most graphic, violent depiction of rape I can personally ever remember watching. It’s unexpected, it’s perpetrated at school, and has an implied ‘justification’ that seems to make the entire ordeal even more cruel.
My first instinct upon watching the scene was that it was gratuitous. I was left with my mouth wide open, gawking at my screen, wondering how such a graphic scene could possibly be a necessary part of telling a story.
The blood, the tears, the screams, the palpable fear of a vulnerable teenage boy – surely we don’t need to literally see those details in order to empathise with a character’s sexual assault. It’s the type of imagery that doesn’t leave you. Days later, I can still see flashes of the bloodied mop, and the expression of a helpless teenager in an indescribable state of shock.
I remember feeling sickened by the male sexual assault in Outlander, and holding back tears while watching little Hassan limp away from his abuser in The Kite Runner. These depictions are so disarming because representations of male sexual assault are comparatively rare in popular culture. While we’ve (disturbingly) become used to the rape of women being used as a plot device in movies and on TV, we’re far less likely to see males in the same position.
And when we do, it’s shocking.
Given the underrepresentation of male victims of rape in the public sphere, some have argued that Tyler’s confronting assault in 13 Reasons Why is actually an important conversation starter.
Speaking to Vulture, series creator Brian Yorkey said, “As intense as that scene is, and as strong as… reactions to it may be, it doesn’t even come close to the pain experienced by the people who actually go through these things”.
“Was Tyler only raped in order to advance the plot to the point where another major tragedy was about to occur?”
“When we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience,” he said. “We would rather not be confronted with it. [But] we believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”
Surely, however, TV shows, especially those aimed specifically at young people, have a responsibility to treat these subjects with sensitivity, and to interrogate the messages they’re sending.
After his brutal sexual assault, Tyler returns home and doesn’t tell his parents about what happened. Later in the same episode, he puts together a plan to shoot up the school dance. Is this meant to imply that victims of sexual assault go on to commit acts of violence? That school shooters have deeply distressing reasons behind their acts? That Tyler was only raped in order to advance the plot to the point where another major tragedy was about to occur?
Speaking to Mamamia, Senior Lecturer in social and political sciences Dr Lauren Rosewarne said while “it’s important that depictions [of sexual assault] don’t glamourise, sensationalise or eroticise serious criminal offences… how sensitive a portrayal is will always be open for debate”.
Male sexual assault will inevitably be triggering for some viewers, but Rosewarne doesn’t believe this is a good reason to exclude it. “It is important to see ourselves and our struggles on screen: it tells victims they are not alone but it also creates the capacity for important and necessary conversations about these topics,” she said. “A space is also generated where viewers might be motivated to ask questions or seek out important information.”
Overall, Rosewarne believe it’s “important to recognise that 13 Reasons Whyis fiction and that expecting it to be more educative than entertaining is unrealistic.” The crucial conversations, education and action, she said, will always happen outside the show.
Perhaps my discomfort with Tyler’s assault is part of my wider problem with the show – that in the 13 Reasons Why universe, abuse, violence and self harm are bizarrely portrayed as solutions to problems and inevitable human behaviour.
The overarching narrative of there being ’13 reasons why’ Hannah Baker ended her life is entirely illogical and unrealistic, as is Monty’s justification for raping Tyler. In real life, these tragedies are far more complex.
These major plot points coupled with the suicide attempts of Alex and Skye, Bryce’s multiple rapes, Justin’s drug use, and the relentless physical threats and fighting between what appears to be a group of mostly middle class, privileged teenagers, create a show that makes a farce of mental health issues and sexual assault.
In this world, the most sensitive topics for young people in 2018 are used gratuitously for entertainment, in a way that obscures any necessary level of complexity. What we’re left with is horror for the sake of horror, violence for the sake of violence, and disturbing scenes that while fictional, can never be unseen.