Tag Archives: racism

Crossing the Line: Writing About Taboo Subjects

This spring, I took my first “official” Creative Writing class. (Arts Camp doesn’t count, right?) I figured I may as well try to take a class that was actually relevant to what I wanted to do with my life in the last semester of college. As a communication studies major, the workshop format appealed to me in that I am very used to discussing topics and ideas with professors and fellow students–we comm people love to talk. However, I quickly came to feel as though my ideas weren’t valid in the class–not due to anything our instructor did–because of the way they were received by fellow students. I was used to group discussions in my comm classes where no one could ever really be wrong. Conversely, in the workshop environment, I soon learned that writers had very clear opinions about right and wrong, even if they didn’t explicitly state them as such.

Early in the semester, before I learned to keep my mouth shut or suffer a verbal onslaught where virtually everyone in the class disagreed with me for the rest of the hour, we were workshopping a story about rape. It’s important at this point for me to tell you a few things about this story:

  1. It was initially framed as a romantic comedy type story about a couple trying to conceive. (That’s probably not really important. Just a fun fact.)
  2. It quickly veered into nowhereland when the female protagonist was literally kidnapped by a horribly disfigured man in broad daylight. Did anyone see, you ask? No, because she ran at a track with no one in the nearby vicinity except a WHITE VAN and she still willingly helped the man when he asked her to use her phone or something, despite her internal monologue along the lines of, “He looks like bad news. Oh well. I’m sure my intuition is completely wrong.”
  3. The story then flashed forward 5 years in the future. Our heroine had been held captive in the elephant man’s basement and raped on a daily basis. He also sterilized her for laughs. Because he somehow knew she wanted a baby more than anything.
  4. She finally escaped and called her husband (while still in the elephant man’s house) and he married someone else because he thought she was dead. End of story.

The author of the story, who was a woman, basically took all the worst societal tropes and myths about rape and violence against women and put them in one poorly written short story. Which I think is very dangerous.

I raised the point that the rape in it really bothered me. Now, there wasn’t a rape scene in the story–at least, not to my memory–I just thought it seemed senseless. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my main point was that if you are going to be writing about rape, or something similarly sensitive, it has to be done with a great amount of care and thought, not just because it’s horrifying. You have to think about the audience–potential survivors of rape themselves–who may be reading it and how they would feel. You have to think about what writing about random acts of violence from random people contributes to the culture.

Of course, the people in our workshop staunchly defended the author of the piece, which is fine. I wasn’t attacking her. I wasn’t attacking anything. Except the notion of careless rape scenes, I suppose. To the instructor’s credit, he paused the discussion and asked the class if we thought there were certain subjects that shouldn’t be written about.

And thus, the subject of this post.

This is a highly contentious issue for writers. I think most writers feel like they should be able to write about everything because, well, they’re writers! The human word is their palette! Or something. But, I don’t think it’s quite as clear as that. Because words don’t just exist on the page and make pretty sentences. They have power.

It’s not my job to say what you can’t and can write about. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say there should be a black book of subjects that are forbidden. I simply think with certain topics that are obviously sensitive–sexual violence, child abuse, race, just to name a few–you have to put extra thought into why you are writing about it in the first place and whether your story needs it.

The real kicker is, the author of that story was not a survivor of rape. (Shocker. I know.) She wrote that story because being kidnapped in broad daylight by a horribly disfigured rapist is her worst fear. Sadly, she didn’t understand the logical trap she was caught in. She essentially wrote an episode of Law and Order:  SVU because she’s scared of Law and Order:  SVU. Not to discredit these experiences, of course. We all know the statistics about rape. I’m not here to remind you of that. With shows like Criminal Minds, NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, (and all varieties thereof) and even True Detective which focus overwhelmingly on female victims, the portrayal of violent, sexual crime against women is undoubtedly contributing to the culture at large. It’s a vicious cycle.

I answered our instructor’s question, whether some things should be off limits, with a yes. I said that rape, for example, should be off limits unless you are writing from your personal experience or if you are doing it for a specific reason, which, frankly, I don’t think this story was doing. (This was, of course, met with many grumbles.)

A few months later, near the end of the workshop, we were critiquing a story where the character’s race was suddenly revealed through a random racist joke by another character who implied the protagonist was Black. I actually missed it the first few times I read it. That was the only reference to it in the entire piece. It’s also important to note the author of the story was white.

At this point in the semester, I was pretty well keeping my mouth shut until specifically asked to contribute. So when the instructor asked what I thought, I said, “Is he supposed to be Black?” Everyone shrugged and nodded, nonplussed. I essentially said:

“OK, that’s what I thought. I kind of have an issue with that. I think if you’re going to mention race, especially a race other than your own, you can’t just throw it away. It has to be done with purpose. And I really don’t know if you should even be writing from the perspective of a Black character because you don’t know what it’s like to be Black. I don’t know, I just had a problem with it.”

Some people thought it was “anti-racist” because the character was so cool, which is offensive in and of itself.

But this brings me back to the main theme of this entire post, which is that writing about sensitive subjects, and writing in general, has to be done with purpose, with care, with thought, and with meaning. Or else it’s just drivel.

Furthermore, I signed up for stand-up classes in Tulsa. The first class was this past Sunday and we mostly met the instructor and talked. Much of the discussion revolved around what it’s like to do stand-up, to be a comedy writer, our various opinions on comedy theory, etc. At one point, the instructor looked straight at me and said, “Do you think there are any jokes that are out of bounds?” (It’s as if I were wearing a sign on my forehead.)

I replied immediately and said, “Yeah. Rape jokes.”

He then replied with a weird diatribe about what kind of comedy he finds to be offensive or not offensive. As he was ranting about it, I wasn’t entirely sure why he asked me. He was basically saying he wasn’t the type to make racist jokes or dead baby jokes or rape jokes and didn’t necessarily like them, but he would laugh at anything. Which I thought was an arbitrary line, but I didn’t outright have a problem with. I can’t say I haven’t laughed at racist jokes or rape jokes in my lifetime because I’m sure I have. But I certainly wouldn’t defend them. However, moments when we laugh are also moments we have to check ourselves and ask why we did laugh. Was it just the shock value? Or was it the racist/sexist/homophobe in us laughing?

As he was going on this weird diatribe, another student in the class, an older guy in his fifties asked, “Yeah, but just because you laugh doesn’t mean you support [rape], right?”

The instructor replied, “No!”

Here’s where I kind of disagree, though, I didn’t say anything. I think laughing is implicitly a form of consent. Especially when you’re a comic. If a comic bombs, they know the joke didn’t work and they don’t keep using it. But when people laugh at, say, a rape joke, they think it works and will keep it in their set. Even if you yourself aren’t a rapist, you’re overtly supporting the rape culture by laughing.

That’s my rambly thoughts on it, anyway. I suspect as a freshly minted female “stand-up”, this won’t be the last time I discuss rape jokes with a dude.

And, of course, a few minutes later, when the older gentleman insinuated that I was a prostitute because I was waiting on the street with him before the class started, I wasn’t terribly surprised. Which is kind of the whole point, isn’t it? At least our instructor found that “joke” to be offensive.

I owe a lot to a column in LitReactor by Cath Murphy for my thoughts in this post.