The ‘13 Reasons Why’ Graphic Sexual-Assault Scene: Did the Show Go Too Far Again?
After being reprimanded for its graphic suicide scene last season, Season Two of Netflix’s teen drama shows a brutal sexual assault in explicit detail. Is the scene too triggering?
The second season of 13 Reasons Why begins with a hybrid PSA and mature content disclaimer, with the show’s leads addressing the camera to warn that the series “tackles tough, real world issues, taking a look at sexul assault, substance abuse, suicide, and more.” They caution that “if you are struggling with these issues yourself, this series may not be right for you, or you may want to watch it with a trusted adult” and urge anyone who needs to talk to someone to reach out for help.
This trigger warning is, at least in part, in response to controversy and backlash surrounding the first season of the show. About a teenage girl named Hannah (Katherine Langford) who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of tapes explaining how the people in her life led her to that point, the first season culminated in the graphic depiction of Hannah slitting her wrists to take her own life.
Many, including mental health professionals, warned that such a realistic portrayal of suicide was harmful and could lead to suicide contagion, or copycat. In fact, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention takes the stance that the detailing or dramatization of a suicide can have the effect of sensationalizing the act, especially if the person seeing it is experiencing at-risk factors.
More, there was the argument that the show’s very conceit was problematic in its reducing the act of suicide to “reasons why” in the first place. Placing blame on others perpetuates the notion that friends and family of those who take their lives could have and should have done more, which is a misunderstanding of mental illness, depression, suicide, and, in this case, grief.
Season two of the series is mostly concerned with the aftermath of Hannah’s suicide, zeroing in on the culture of bullying, misogyny, and sexual assault at her school as the classmates she left behind testify at a trial brought by her parents against the school. While the reason Hannah took her life and the ways in which people failed her when she reached out for help is still the driving force of the series, the graphicness of that first season’s suicide scene is not revisited.
But anyone who thought that meant there wouldn’t be a scene that was at least as hard to watch, if not more so, as that one in the new season found out in the season two finale that they were mistaken.
Warning: There are spoilers ahead.
The extent to which Liberty High School has issues with systemic, unaddressed bullying, even after Hannah’s death, is illustrated through the character of Tyler (Devin Druid), a loner who passes his time taking photos for the yearbook and who is ostracized by everyone at the school, even kind-hearted protagonists of the series.
Tyler falls in with a crowd of punk kids, who respond well to his desire to make the kids who tortured him pay through a handful of blackmail and vandalism stunts. He eventually gets caught, disowned by his friends, and sent to a behavioral rehab program after vandalizing the school baseball field. When he returns, the baseball team is not happy with him. Monty (Timothy Granaderos), one of the lackeys of Bryce (Justin Prentice), the jock accused of raping several girls, is particularly unhappy to see Tyler return.
He follows him to the bathroom and sexually assaults him. The scene is horrifying.
It starts with Monty bashing Tyler’s head against the mirror and then onto the sink multiple times. Tyler’s eyes are stunned. He’s so startled by the random attack that, initially, he’s not even screaming. Monty screams at him that he’s a faggot as he drags him to a stall and starts drowning him in a toilet bowl. That’s when Tyler starts pleading for mercy.
Two other jocks who were with Monty then hold Tyler down while Monty grabs a mop. You know what’s going to happen immediately. Monty takes the mop handle and forces it up Tyler’s rectum. Tyler’s eyes practically bulge when he’s entered. He starts to scream but the others muffle his mouth. Monty, a muscular and strong teen by any account, is forcing the handle deeper into Tyler with all of his might, the strain on his face mirroring the pain on Tyler’s. When he takes it out, you see how deep it went because of how much of the handle is blood stained.
Monty casually tosses it to the floor as he walks out of the bathroom, leaving Tyler, with his pants down and butt exposed, slumped against the bathroom wall. He starts weeping.
The scene was directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who also directed the controversial suicide scene from the first season, and lasts for two full minutes.
The scene is already drawing a mixed reaction from those who have sprinted through their 13 Reasons Why binge. Male rape is rarely depicted on screen and in pop culture, let alone talked about on a mainstream level. Statistics state that 1 in 6 men have been sexually assaulted or abused, and those incidents, like Tyler’s, are rarely reported, leading to a lifetime of trauma and, in many cases, mental illness.
There are those praising the show for shedding light on that issue, especially for showing that the assault is often not about the sex, but about the power. Monty doesn’t have sex with Tyler, but he sexually violates him. The power of the scene, as disturbing as it is, is the way it mirrors the real and violent trauma of an assault.
Others, however, are disgusted by what they argue was the unnecessarily graphic nature of the scene, especially given the outcry over the season one suicide scene and the potential harm of its realism. Even with the content warnings and PSAs, they argue that the scene’s explicit detail is triggering, especially those who have experienced sexual assault. For all the talk about raising awareness about the issue, there is also criticism of the use of violence as entertainment and for shock-value buzz, especially considering the young demographic the show appeals to. There are other ways to raise awareness without airing a scene this graphic.
(The website PopBuzz has a good round-up of these reactions culled from social media.)
Could the same point about sexual assault have been made without the scene? Possibly. We’d venture that the show, no matter how noble its mission of raising awareness of myriad issues set out to scandalize again this season, and knew it would be doing so with this scene.
My issue with the scene is independent of its graphic nature. It’s the fact that it seems narratively exploitative, a random act of violence used to set up the final scenes of the episode and the cliffhanger that leaves things open for what is sure to be a 13 Reasons Why season three.
After his assault, Tyler finds an automatic rifle in his basement and heads to the school dance with the intention to massacre his classmates. On the subject of scenes that are triggering, it is jarring to see a student dressed in black walking up to his school wielding a rifle on the weekend after a school shooting in Santa Fe left 10 people dead.
We understand that 13 Reasons Why aims to reflect the issues traumatizing high school students today, and the fear of a school shooting is undeniably chief among them. But even the threat of a school shooting—Tyler doesn’t go through with it—is a plot device that needs to be handled sensitively, and the way it was so randomly introduced in this finale episode seemed more to manufacture heightened emotion from the show’s young viewers than serve the story or make a valuable point.
(The show canceled its Los Angeles premiere following the shooting.)
It’s a shame, too, that Tyler’s sexual assault scene is proving so divisive because, prior to it, the way in which the show explored sexual assault and the trauma of sexual assault survivors was hands down the most valuable part of the new season.
The conversations that surrounded the issue, particularly as former cheerleader Jessica (Alisha Boe) discusses her journey to getting her life back on track after being raped by a school jock, may have been slightly academic in nature, with dialogue occasionally seeming as if lifted from a think piece. But the points made had more clarity, information, and authenticity to the experience of a survivor than we’ve seen on a high school drama before. In fact, those scenes do make the argument that you can shed light on the issue without a brutally graphic depiction of the assault.
The thirteenth and final episode of the season was an odd one, a coda to the action meant to tie up lingering loose ends and set up a season three when the season had narratively wrapped itself off—and quite powerfully—at the end of Episode 12. The trial’s verdict was handed out, Jessica gathered the courage and support she needed to file a criminal complaint about her rape, and Bryce is arrested on the court steps. The arc of the season was over. Arguably, the entire finale episode, including Tyler’s assault, shouldn’t even exist.
In that initial PSA that aired before the season, Alisha Boe addresses the camera and says, in relation to reaching out for help if you need it, “the minute you start talking about it, it gets easier.” That seems to be the mission statement of 13 Reasons Why: Get people talking. Just how responsible the show is in pursuit of that mission, two seasons in, is still up for debate.