Any work of fiction will always work as a representation of real life, whether it’s the author’s intention or not. This is one of the reasons why there is so much debate on the importance of a plural and diverse representation of human beings in media. However, not all content gets a free pass when it comes to fiction. Just how much should a fictional work show in order to tell a story?
TRIGGER WARNING: This article talks about portrayals of sexual abuse in media
Taking a look back at 2015, we have some examples of television series that used controversial topics that sparkled negative reactions. The controversy surrounding Game of Thrones is probably the case that everyone remembers the most. In Season 5’s ‘Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken’, Sansa Stark was raped while her brother was forced to watch. There were many things that were wrong with that scene. For starters, it was pointless: the scene didn’t happen in the books and the event was completely unnecessary since it did nothing to further the plot. Sansa had already been established as a miserable character when it came to her relationship with men. On top of everything, the camera was focused on Theon, and not on her, as if the whole thing was just added to give Theon some manpain to be angsty about. Game of Thrones is not the only case, though, there are many TV shows that have been criticized for featuring pointless non-consexual sex scenes: American Horror Story, Law & Order, Supernatural, Shameless…
At the other side of the spectrum, we find series that have actually done the opposite thing. Last year, Mr. Robot‘s season finale was delayed by one week after the sad events that took place in Virginia, where a journalist was shot in live television. These events were very similar to a particular scene that was supposed to air that night in the series’ finale, which led USA Network to delay the episode out of respect. While some viewers understood the decision and thanked the series for being considerate, others didn’t agree with it and said that the show should go on anyway because life and fiction are completely different things.
Fiction works as a representation of reality, so it should come as no surprise that fiction (R Rated and up) would represent the good, but also the most brutal and controversial aspects of real life. In fact, it’s often when series decide to take the more realistic, crude approach that they get praised for being accurate, instead of just re-telling the same fairy tale over and over. Just taking a look at some cult classics, we will find many movies that showed controversial issues like sexual abuse or glorification of violence: A Clockwork Orange, Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction…
How should these series regulate these controversial themes? The general consensus seems to be as follows:
- Is it necessary for the plot? There seems to be a new trend among TV writers of wanting to show crude, shocking images just for the sake of ratings and shock factor. Game of Thrones‘s rape scene would be a perfect example of this. I find it hard to find a scenario in which a rape scene would help further the plot of a story and I find it even harder to justify why the rape scene in particular should be showed on screen. I believe we can all see the difference between an R-Rated movie that tells a story about sexual abuse or an implied off screen non-con scene that helps developing a character and a pointless rape scene like the one that took place in Game of Thrones.
- How is the action framed? Framing is very important when it comes to showing the author’s point of view and how the events should be interpreted by the reader/viewer. The problem doesn’t come so much from the fact that a questionable act has taken place, but on how it is portrayed. Does the person committing the act get away with it? How do the other characters react to it? How is the audience expected to feel about it?
- Rating and trigger warnings. Children are more prone to being influenced by media than adults, so it’s only reasonable that fictional works that feature matters such as violence or discrimination should be rated R+. Trigger warnings are also becoming more and more relevant since the appearance of the Internet and the user’s customization of genres, tags and labels. Usually, the rating itself already gives you an idea of what type of content you might find in a show, but it would still be super helpful if networks noticed this tendency and started adding trigger warnings before episodes air.
There are no rules when it comes to fiction, so the limits of what can and cannot be done will always be up for debate. There are also many different factors that come into play in these type of arguments so, at the end of the day, everything comes down to common sense and the viewer’s preference. The thing is, you can’t dictate how much a fictional work should affect someone or even if someone should be offended. There seems to be a tendency to blame sensitive people for being offended by X things but, the truth is, every viewer has their own personal experiences that will connect differently to fiction and generate different interpretations of the same text and different levels of attachment to fictional characters. You can’t really make rules out of personal opinions, so everything these shows and movies can do is make it as comfortable and tolerable for everyone watching.