Disclaimer: This article contains several spoilers to Season 2 of 13 Reasons Why.
Questions continue to swirl around the newly-released second season of Netflix’s breakout hit teen drama 13 Reasons Why. And rightfully so, as the show’s writers take viewers through another fast-paced season of traumatic, yet oversimplified converging plot lines. The most powerful question, however, was not sparked by what the writers said this season, but by what they left for viewers to read between the actors’ lines.
In the show’s season-two finale, character Jessica Davis stands before a court to describe the details of her sexual assault and is echoed by a symphony of women, young and old, telling their “me too” stories. This comes after Olivia Baker (mother to the sexual assault survivor and suicide victim whom the show centers around, Hannah Baker) suggests that she does not know a single woman who has not been sexually assaulted or harassed.
Despite an Internet cacophony of complaints about the show’s handling of these difficult topics, this moment in the series reflected a monumental sentiment that transcends the Netflix phenomenon—both in truth and cultural pervasiveness. Many of us do not know a single woman who has not been sexually assaulted or harassed. It is the foundation of the #MeToo movement.
While the discourse continues around the #MeToo movement and writers’ rooms that choose to tackle the larger-than-life realities of sexual assault, our collective gaze somehow has become stuck on The Bad Man. The Bad Man (i.e. Weinstein, Cosby, Spacey, etc.) is where the conversation stops—and perhaps, that is the Achilles heel of the movement against sexual assault, harassment and violence against women.
Olivia Baker’s suggestion points to something far more insidious and deserving of a more nuanced conversation than our comfortable pattern of accusing, investigating, and then attacking The Bad Man. For every sexually assaulted woman we tally, we also tally a Bad Man. So when, to Baker’s point, the tally begins to spill over, off the page, off the charts and into an overwhelming reality that almost every woman we know has been affected, will we acknowledge that almost every Man we know must also be involved?
13 Reasons Why deals directly with the effect this realization has on women. In a poignant scene, rapist Bryce Walker’s mother is faced to look at exactly the kind of man she raised. While she reacts viscerally to the truth (slapping him across the face), we imagine it does not scratch the surface of emotions that would befall a woman who is faced to acknowledge that the tally is equal on both sides, and she plays a role in the story. For every woman there is a man. And if almost every woman is involved, suffice it to say almost every man is too. And every man very well could include our sons, our brothers, our fathers, our best friends, uncles and cousins. All the questions raised by this reality force us to ask the ultimate question: Are we prepared to accuse, investigate, and attack our own?
The #MeToo response model fits differently when we come to the realization that the machismo we witness in our own homes may be amplified when we are not around and they are on a street corner, crowded subway car, or in an intimate relationship. What once looked like an outspoken son or brother with dirty jokes has become a much deeper, darker reality for some—as they face the tales of what he’s done to another woman in the #MeToo movement. Here is when it becomes far more complicated and the model suddenly feels too small for the situation. It’s not easy to accuse, investigate, and attack your own without, by extension, taking a long hard look at your own environment.
The seeds, symptoms, and signs of sexual harassment and assault can be fuzzy when held up close. Yet, the patterns we continue to see play out in our society are closer than they appear. If outrage stirs when we see it from afar on The Bad Man, it needs to stir up outrage when we see it close to home. After all, it is the unseen threat to progress and the future of the #MeToo movement.
Another Netflix phenomenon—which is non-fiction – “The Mask You Live In” (developed by The Representation Project), deals directly with the effects all-too-enabling societies, cultures, and homes have on young men in America. According to the documentary’s website, “research shows that compared to girls, boys in the U.S. are more likely to … commit a violent crime” and that pressure from “the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives … encourage[s] them to disconnect from their emotions… [and] objectify and degrade women.”
Simply put, the documentary suggests that we (culture, society, and families) may be starting our boys young. And at times, we may even encourage problematic behavior. According to a Variety review of the documentary, political scientist Caroline Heldman suggests that the concept of masculinity is intrinsically connected to the “rejection of everything that is feminine.” Yet, as the documentary shows, we spend so much of our time teaching boys how to be more masculine with subtle suggestions about the clothes they wear, music they listen to, and even the things they “acquire” (the documentary points out how we often tie masculinity to the acquisition of women).
A clear example of this is the backlash Amber Rose’s son, Bash received as a result of his love for Taylor Swift. A sweet, talented and innocent boy, he received unwarranted questions about his “manhood” and sexuality at an impossibly young age—simply because of his admiration for strong women.
So if almost every woman we know says “me too,” what can we expect from almost every man we know who has been taught or bullied into being masculine (or, as Heldman suggests, “the rejection of everything feminine”)?
It’s only logical that we will see cases like that of Junot Diaz, where a man may join in saying “me too” late in life; acknowledging that they are also victims of sexual assault only to become one themselves.
Because, we can’t forget that, according to 1in6.org, one in six men have been sexually abused or assaulted and according to nomore.org, it occurs before the age of 18. Nor can we forget that those boys can grow up to become The Bad Man, (we assume) because they fear that their assault is an ubiquitous threat to their masculinity – one that can only be absolved through the assault of others.
In the case of fictional character from “13 Reasons Why,” Tyler Downs, we see that some of them never say “me too,” after being violently assaulted—even to their own mothers—for fear that it can be too much to deal with. Instead they choose to take matters into their own hands—often in violent ways, as the character did when he loaded a rifle with plans to shoot up a school dance party in response to his own sexual assault.
The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey touched on the silencing and shaming of men in exchange for protecting their masculinity. He told Vulture, “When we talk about something being ‘disgusting’ or hard to watch, often that means we are attaching shame to the experience. We would rather not be confronted with it. We would rather it stay out of our consciousness. This is why these kinds of assaults are underreported. This is why victims have a hard time seeking help.”
So, these victims act out the suppressed parts of themselves— their interests, desires, and even their own pain, in violent ways. And when silenced sexual assault is not the impotence for violent behavior in men, often times, societal expectations are. We have seen catastrophic outcomes from boys who grow up on the belief that when women do not respond to their advances, violence is the only answer.
It may be our only hope, then, that we begin to create, tell, and listen to more stories—cautionary tales that could save this entire movement—about cases like that of Amber Rose’s son, Bash, who narrowly avoided the biggest threat to the “me too” movement: unchecked machismo, unchecked gendering, and unchecked toxic masculinity.
Too often masculinity and our incessant reinforcement of it has played a dangerous role in the pervasiveness of “me too’s.” We raise boys without training our eye on the messages they receive about their own bodies. We talk about the trauma inflicted on girls without looking at the lessons taught to boys—lessons about how to reject femininity and women to assert their own identities.
Perhaps, as we look at the tally of who has skin in this game and see how much it affects us all, we’ll be ready to have another conversation: one about how to prevent The Bad Man from ever growing inside someone again.