Story vs accountability: where do you draw the line?

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.

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2 thoughts on “Story vs accountability: where do you draw the line?

  1. Gratuity and exploitation are cheap thrills, a lowering of audience expectation that devalues the event. Rather, as you posit, those events or scenes should be a catalyst for change, exploration, commentary. We are, and should always be, reviled by acts wrought on the weak and minority, especially if they are exploitative.
    There will be some who simply write for exploitation and cheap thrills, while others, like yourself, write as a means for voicing a cause, speaking up for the voiceless.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  2. You said, “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).”

    It’s a fine line indeed, even when one is trying one’s best not to be exploitive. I love the questions you raise here. And using rape as an example (and my treatment of it in my story–thanks for the mention!) is a good one for me in thinking through the problems I had with writing the story. I myself have not been raped, which already made me feel a little uncomfortable about writing it–am I using this for a story? And do I have the right to “speak” as someone who’s been raped (will I do the experience justice-when so many stories are taken from the victims and, yes–exploited?). However, I have experienced trauma and know how hard it is to relate to others due to its impact–its silencing, its fear of love, and general distrust of the world. I’ve also been sexually assaulted, as I’ve found to be the case with so many of my friends. (I used not to believe the statistics. I do now.) For most of us, these events don’t compare to the impact of rape, but all sexual assaults have a certain characteristic nature in the violation–the objectification, the level of shame/guilt it can arouse (along with the stigma), the incredible conflicting feelings about sexuality and the body during and/or afterward. That being said, I still didn’t feel like my experience even compared to being raped and definitely didn’t qualify for me to speak. But the story already had me, as did the character (I feel like stories appear as ideas in my head and grow). I wrote her as one traumatized, traumatized by this horrible, violent violation that haunted her relationships with anyone she truly wanted to love (both giving and receiving it) but couldn’t–yet. Its also about the healing power of love-and how that begins when people are willing to listen and truly see each other *as they are*, disturbing stories and all.

    Perhaps that is why I wrote–I feel that it is both important to tell the disturbing stories but also to realize that the (simple) telling in and of itself is not the end–that is, the telling itself, in allowing what is silenced to speak, is an act of love and all acts of love are transformative. The telling creates the opening for love, even if all that love can do is to barely begin to empathize with the smallest part of someone else’s story, someone else’s life. Not all stories will function this way, of course–as perhaps many of the exploitive ones you mention (although, strangely, even they may sometimes function that way). I guess I wanted my story to be about someone wanting to reach an other, without being able to–But the one she wanted to reach was able to break through enough to get a glimpse of who she was and was determined to be able to truly *see* her and listen to her disturbing story (for it will be disturbing–if for no other reason that it can be so unimaginable that someone you love experienced such pain). The need to be seen and heard is universal among human beings. That was my connection to her story. I was still nervous, though. It made me feel so much better when one of my friends, who herself had been raped and is an activist who speaks out against sexual violence, loved the story. I felt perhaps I’d accomplished at least some of what I’d wanted.

    Perhaps whether something is exploitive (for the writer) is determined by the degree that the writer is willing to “listen” and “see” the phenomenon (or story or person or whatever) about which she or he wants to write. When one makes space to see an other, what is revealed my be brutally ugly–but it will also reveal something deeply human in need of love. But seeing is not perfect, and whether the story is determined to be exploitive by the *group* one is writing about is ultimately not determined by the writer. There may be cases where the writer will have to listen again and go deeper in her relationship to the other. But what matters is that there *is* a relationship, a dialogical one. Not one where the writer plays with objects she creates out of the other without realizing that the other has a voice–and a story.

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