This post first appeared on March 18, 2009.
This is one of those things that is hard to describe, but you definitely know it when you see it. My “best” example of such a scene was one scene where a woman met her end by being sliced in half lengthwise, starting at her genitals. If it wouldn’t get me sued, I’d describe that whole sequence in detail just to put in context how truly nasty some scenes can be. Rape scenes are also walking a fine line. It’s possible to handle them tastefully, but I’ve read a few where it’s felt like the rapist is standing in for the writer’s own fantasies – the kind of scene that after you read, you need to take a shower to wash the dirt away.
After more than five years as a reader, I now know far too many ways to mutilate, subjugate and sexually degrade a woman. I’m by no means a feminist, and there are plenty of instances where I’ve read an act of violence committed upon a female character and haven’t raised an eyebrow at it. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying you should never hurt, injure or kill your female characters. That would be equally sexist. The problem sets in when it feels like the victimizer in the scene is a stand-in for the writer’s own sick desires.
This is one of those subliminal things that’s hard to point out without using specific examples, and unfortunately, to show the worst/best examples of such writing would likely get me sued. As blurry as the line gets, it most frequently gets crossed when some sort of sexual element is added to it. A scene where a woman is stabbed and her throat is slashed probably wouldn’t set off any alarms – but a scene where a woman is stabbed, then raped as the attacker takes obvious glee in her pain is going to be more repulsive.
Any creative attacks upon the vagina are also likely to trigger this response. Rape is a hot button for a lot of people, and doubtlessly there will be stories where such an act will serve the plot. (The Accused and A Time To Kill immediately spring to mind.) If you’re just trying to write a “fun” slasher film, I’d be careful about adding rape in there. If you’re writing torture porn, then you’re just a sick son of a bitch and there’s probably no saving you.
Yeah, I said it. I get the impression that torture porn gets bought less on the strength of its script and more on the cynical view of, “Well, this can probably make money in this market.” It seems like that genre is on its way out, and I for one couldn’t be happier. I don’t recommend writing it, but I don’t think too many readers like those scripts either, so you really don’t have anything to lose.
And don’t take it personally if agents, producers and managers who read the script think that there’s something strange about it. Readers often fancy themselves dimestore analysts, and we tend to think that a sick script is the product of a sick mind.