Bryce Walker is a high school jock who believes every girl in school wants to sleep with him-including Hannah Baker, a bullied classmate whom he sexually assaulted before she took her own life. Bryce says he knew Hannah "wanted it" because "she made eyes." He tells Clay, who's been pining for Hannah, "I know that's hard for you to hear, that your crush wasn't pure and clean."
Hannah (Katherine Langford), the deceased narrator of Netflix's absorbing 13 Reasons Why, is the victim of rampant slut-shaming and harassment from the other students in school. That culture of abuse ends in her violent rape, after she's been so dehumanized that her assailant can't even see her as a person. The bullying began after she hooked up with the cutest boy at school, Justin (Brandon Flynn), who took upskirt photos of her as proof they went all the way. Other students branded Hannah a "whore," a reputation that follows her until her death. But here's the twist: Hannah and Justin never had sex. In fact, the high schooler never gets to more than an enthusiastic first base with any of the classmates she's accused of shacking up with. Our sympathy, as viewers, is somewhat conditional upon this fact: Hannah Baker doesn't deserve to be slut-shamed because, factually speaking, she wasn't a "slut." Hannah remained "pure and clean" until Bryce (Justin Prentice) assaulted her and took her virginity.
13 Reasons Why, for its many strengths, never considers an important question surrounding the victim's suicide: What if Hannah had been promiscuous? Should Hannah and Justin have enjoyed earth-shattering, sing-a-Carole-King-song-afterward sex on that plastic slide, would it have been okay to circulate photos of her underwear at school? In a later scene, Hannah explores her Sapphic urges with a closeted female classmate, Courtney (Michele Selene Ang), but the two are interrupted by a stalker (Devin Druid) who snaps a photo of them in action before things go further. But if Hannah's pervy admirer had caught the ladies in flagrante delicto, would the invasion of her privacy seem less sinister?
When our sympathy for victims of slut-shaming hinges on the fact that they remain chaste, we neglect justice for those bullied for expressing their sexuality in consensual ways. This narrative is too often missing from films and television shows that deal with the harassment and even the violence women face simply for being female and wanting to have sex. Whether you're a virgin or the biggest whore in town, no one deserves to be shamed.
Even during the final seconds of her life, Felicia Garcia was reportedly bullied by her classmates for being a "slut." Garcia, a 15-year-old student at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, was in foster care and her parents had both died when she was younger. She allegedly hooked up with four members of the football team at a party prior to her suicide. Garcia was physically assaulted in the hallways after rumors of the sexual encounter spread at school; she would have her books knocked out of her hands while walking to class. Fellow classmates harassed her online. As she stood on the station platform on the day of her death, waiting for the train to come, reports allege she was still being taunted. Garcia jumped.
The cruelty that slut-shaming victims are subjected to, even beyond the grave, is horrific. Nicole Mittendorff, a firefighter in Fairfax County, Va., took her own life last year after she was targeted by message board posters who claimed she'd been "slutting her way around the county." Commenters on Fairfax Underground, a chat site for residents of the county, said that the married 31-year-old had numerous affairs and threatened to leak nude photos of her in retaliation.
Mittendorff died in April following months of vitriol and abuse directed at her from anonymous sources, and the commenters continued to pile on as the reports of her suicide gained national attention.
"She is responsible for her slutty actions and guilt associated with," wrote one user in April 2016, following the announcement of an investigation into Mittendorf's death. "Blaming an anonymous forum is stupid... The guys who fucked her are stupid, she's stupid, and now we have a whole bunch of bullshit costing millions of taxpayer dollars."
It's impossible to say if either one of these women did the things of which they were accused, and they aren't alive for any of us to ask them. Their dignity as women and human beings, though, is innate. It has nothing to do with how many people they were having sex with or how often they were having it. Any concerns about Nicole Mittendorf's sex life should have been exclusive to the victim, her husband and the men she was accused of sleeping with-not the scrutiny of an actual public forum. The fact that it was considered appropriate for a group of strangers to ridicule her and pick her apart is a reminder that women are too often viewed as public property, over which we're all allowed to claim ownership.
"Whether you're a virgin or the biggest whore in town, no one deserves to be shamed."
There are too many similar cases to name here‚ of women being bullied and shamed for behavior that their male peers would be applauded for. In 2013, a 17-year-old girl became a trending topic on Twitter after performing oral sex on some fellow concertgoers at an Eminem concert at Slane Castle in Ireland. You likely remember her as #SlaneGirl. After social media users called the anonymous young woman "disgusting" and a "ho," the New York Daily News reported she was "so distraught she had to be sedated at a hospital." Amanda Todd, 15-year-old living in Canada, took her life in 2012 after she was blackmailed for exposing her breasts over a webcam.
Why is it so difficult for pop culture to recognize these girls? Why don't we talk about the girls who aren't celibate and should have the opportunity to explore their desires without being punished for it?
Let's contrast 13 Reasons Why, in which the protagonist is allowed our sympathies because she doesn't give it up, to a critical early scene in Power Rangers, a reboot of the cult '90s TV show. Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, is a recovering high school bully who was ostracized from her friend group after she leaked nude pictures of a classmate. Although it's illegal to share explicit materials involving a minor, the audience is never expected to feel sorry for her friend. In fact, when Kimberly's old clique confronts her about what is a clear transgression of privacy, we're supposed to take her side.
Power Rangers recognizes that bullying is wrong, but it's Kimberly who is portrayed as the real victim here. The classmates who confront her come off as snotty mean girls who need to forgive their friend and get over it, not people sticking up for a survivor of revenge porn. It says a lot that Kimberly is a character and the girl whose nude photos she leaked-which, mind you, constitutes an illegal sex crime-is not. It's more difficult for the audience to extend sympathy for someone who doesn't get a face or a name and whose story is never told.
There's a clear line being drawn here in the sand: When girls retain their virtue, like Hannah, they haven't earned their victimization. When young women give it up, whether by having sex or objectifying themselves, our empathy is no longer considered mandated. Kimberly's classmate chose to take the photos, and Hannah didn't. That distinction is everything.
"Slut-shaming is about our ability to strip women of their worth based on an extremely narrow version of acceptable femininity"
13 Reasons Why, based on the acclaimed novel by Jay Asher, does a terrific job at examining an important truth about teenage girlhood: women are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Studies have shown that it doesn't really matter how women behave; you can slap on a chastity belt and still be called a "whore." The American Association of University Women found in a 2011 survey that 46 percent of female students in middle and high school reported that a classmate had made "unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about you." The only thing a population this large has in common is that they all dared to be female.
That's because slut-shaming is about power as much as it is about sex. It's about our ability to strip women of their worth based on an extremely narrow version of acceptable femininity, one that tells transgressors they have so little value they may as well not even exist. The show and its source material are very clear that although we can never fully explain why someone chose to end their life, the toxic environment at Hannah's school absolutely contributed to her death. It's an unflinching look at what rape culture really does to young women, even those who survive it.
Hannah should have gotten the chance to move to New York like she always wanted-to live her dreams and be embraced for her whole self. But Felicia Garcia and Amanda Todd should have had the same opportunity.
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