The Writer’s Responsibility: Handling Sensitive Subject Matter

TRIGGER WARNING: this blog post openly discusses the treatment of rape in popular culture and literature.


Audiences of literature, television, and film are becoming increasingly intolerant to The Shock Value—that is, the blatant exploitation of sensitive subject matter as a way of horrifying readers and viewers.

Recently, fans of American Horror Story expressed outrage over the fifth season’s premiere that featured a scene in which an addict, played by Max Greenfield, is raped to death by a wax monster wearing a conical strap-on. This scene is only one example of an ongoing use of rape in the AHS franchise as what Aaron Barksdale of The Huffington Post calls “a tool to be edgy.” What distinguishes this particular scene from other occurrences of rape is the lack of an emotional catharsis—the portrayal of the long-term impact that the incident has on the victim and the attacker.

Game of Thrones is another television show notorious for its disturbing rape scenes. Earlier this year, a scene with Sansa Stark and her new husband, the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, prompted several viewers to walk away from the show altogether. Jill Pantozzi, the editor-in-chief of The Mary Sue, a feminist website, argues that the scene was “not necessary to Sansa’s character development,” especially considering how she is already a survivor. Not to mention, the scene undermines the agency and individuality that Sansa had been cultivating throughout the season.

This is not to say that writers cannot and should not depict rape in their work. However, the way in which a writer illustrates the incident is extremely important. When it comes to triggering subject matter, writers have a responsibility to consider the impact that the story may have on the reader/viewer—especially those who have experienced this kind of trauma themselves. Matters like rape are incredibly real; presenting it as something edgy and stylistic, a tool for drama, is, to say the least, insensitive.

With that in mind, here are a few points to consider before writing on any sensitive subject matter:

  1. What is the purpose of this scene?
  2. What is the value of illustrating the act (of, for instance, rape) explicitly? That is, “on camera” as opposed to “off camera.”
  3. Is this scene necessary to the character’s growth?
  4. In your story, how is this scene contextualized within a larger trajectory of development?
  5. Whose point of view are you telling the story from? Who are you giving a voice to in this scene?
  6. Why have you chosen this point of view/voice?
  7. Who and what do you give the most attention to in your story/in this scene? Why have you chosen to do this? How do your choices guide the reader through the story/scene?
  8. How does all of this influence the audience’s understanding of the subject (not only in your story, but in the real world)?

Keep in mind:

Audience members who have not experienced certain forms of trauma, like sexual violence, often cultivate their understanding of it through the stories that they read and hear. Though writers have a right to tell these stories, this freedom also comes with a responsibility to be conscious and sensitive with their subject matter.


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