Ivy, the heroine of the new five-part BBC America series Thirteen, isn't freed by a prince, like in fairy tales about female captives. The anti-Rapunzel, she simply emerges from the house where she has been kept prisoner for over a decade — pale, barefoot, and tentative — and then runs like a frightened animal to the nearest pay phone to call for help. We learn very little about her life in confinement. Thirteen, which originally aired in the UK in February and March of this year, gives us a survivor's story set firmly in the present. The series never looks back, though as Ivy interacts with her family and friends, who have known her "all her life," they quickly realize that is only half-true. Taken at 13, then kept for 13 years, she is now 26. They need to deal with the current Ivy, not the Ivy they remember.
This Ivy is wary, shy, manipulative, and defiant. Her lips wobble and she has trouble making eye contact. She sometimes sounds like a typical teenager, demanding a phone and to see her onetime boyfriend; when her mother won't let her, a tantrum ensues. "I've had sex!" she yells, the words knifing though the air. She doesn't call it rape. When holes in her account of the abduction and the years she spent locked in a basement emerge, the police and her parents begin to question everything she says. As soon as there are discrepancies in her story, the issue of consent creeps out the window. Just like assault survivors everywhere, once Ivy "admits" to something outside the traditional victim's role, her abuser is seen as less culpable.
Ivy's list of betrayals before, during, and after she returns is long. She is not the only person keeping secrets. Her parents have divorced in the interim, but they don't tell her. Her teen boyfriend is married, but he removes his wedding ring when they meet. Her father had given up on the idea that she might ever return. Her sister questions whether she is really Ivy. The police, at first her saviors, begin to investigate her. Every time Ivy's anger flares at these discoveries, the more she resists the stereotype of a timid victim and the idea of happily ever after.
We're in a moment where there are several kidnapping narratives running through popular culture, whether they're used for dark humor, as with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or for a more serious emotional punch, as with the Oscar-winning Room. And, of course, the female captive is a mainstay of our most beloved myths and fairy tales, from Persephone to Tiger Lily. What sets Thirteen apart is not only its exclusive focus on Ivy's life after she escapes, but the way it acknowledges that all freedom is relative.
I haven't been through a horrific trauma, but I've definitely — like most women — come up against infuriating societal expectations about how I should live. In a way, Ivy fled a certain kind of safety when she came out that door, leaving behind a world where she had lived half her life, one where all the rules were set and understandable. She left this kind of demented haven for a situation (a situation called life!) where she has to constantly make decisions, often while doubting her instincts, and then defend her choices to the people around her. I feel like I go through this every day, although on a much smaller scale. The show is about Ivy's freedom, but it made me realize that there isn't a lot out there about what it's actually like to be a "free" woman.
Mikki Halpin is Lenny's editor at large.