The question for today is “As a writer, how much does serving the story take precedence over accountability?” Or something like that. I’m going to waffle on for a bit to give some context to the question and then my answer.
We were specifically discussing films, mostly horror, but also your disturbing thriller/serial killer/gratuitous violence ones. I’m actually not a fan of films with gratuitous violence and gore. I also prefer not to read gory horror stories. I’ve read some seriously disturbing stories that were NOT gory, that make a very lasting impression and are clearly a social commentary that I feel made a valuable contribution without being exploitative.
I avoid exploitation films and stories. And I definitely don’t want to be writing that stuff. I think there are more than enough people writing exploitation. I prefer to think of myself as writing stories that, if they deal with disturbing subject matter, are pushing the boundaries by being progressive or transgressive, rather than just propping up cliches, tropes and oppressive concepts.
I consider myself, as a writer, subservient to a cause. I’ve had stories that seem to cry out for exploitative treatment, and I may find myself defending myself in the future for elements in my stories that could be considered exploitative. There is a very fine line between exploring subject matter in a way that is intended as social commentary, awareness-raising, or progressive, and portraying it in a manner that is exploitation (concerned more with cheap thrills and normalising the “Othering” of marginalised groups).
For instance, one scenario that is used as an exploitation trope is the raped woman who falls in love with her rapist. Realistic and thoughtful depictions of rape are few and far between. By realistic and thoughtful, I mean examining the issue from the point of view of the victim, the impact on (her… because it’s usually a woman) life, her experience with the legal system if she goes down that path, the ongoing ramifications of her relationships with other people, etc. Films that do seem to try to portray these issues often fall back into the revenge mentality. Clearly, most women who are raped don’t then go on a killing spree of men, or embark on a bloody-minded pursuit of the man who raped them. Yet it’s a fantasy played out in film more than the reality, which is that the woman has to learn to live with what happened to her, deal with fear, flashbacks, triggers, and changed relationships with men in her lives. But who would want to go see a movie about that?
I read a beautiful short story a little while back called This is Not a Pretty Story that did deal with rape in a thoughtful way. It wasn’t at all exploitative and the author had obviously been intending for the story to be less about “the rape” than about the impact on the victim learning to live with that experience in her past. To me, these are stories that need to be written.
To what extent are we as writers accountable for our words? I’m sure opinions are varied. My opinion is that for myself, I cannot write a story whose only purpose is to exploit. I definitely do not just write stories with happy endings, however. I have written rape scenes, disturbing sex scenes, scenes depicting violence. My stories are generally character-driven, and generally my horrible scenes are catalysts for change, and I explore the impact on the victim and the social context. I reckon many writers would say they serve the story, but I would rather not just support and add to the normalising of things like misogyny and sexual violence by writing stories that showcase them with no critique. And in spec fic you can push the boundaries in this way, being progressive and transgressive, and end up with a far more interesting story than one that just relies on tired tropes and brutalised women.