The Shock Value of Stories

The line between shock value and portraying the often unsettling or shocking in a raw yet sensitive way is often hard to distinguish. In the past year or so especially, I’ve read more books and watched more shows that dance between addressing the tougher topics candidly and emotively, and portraying things graphically for shock value. But what I’ve come to start questioning is where that line actually lies, and whether portraying potentially triggering content, such as self-harm, sexual assault, and suicide, should always be portrayed in such graphic detail.

The most common example of this occurrence is in 13 Reasons Why, which received a lot of backlash after it aired about the way it showed the suicide of a character in the way that it did. Not only did mental health professionals write about how being exposed to such graphic portrayals of suicide and self-harm is harmful for people, there was also a drastic rise in numbers of Google searches relating to suicide and suicide hotlines according to this article in CNN. Given that there was a deliberate change by the filmmakers of this show to the method of suicide of the character to one that was potentially only used for shock value (even though suicide of any kind is triggering for some), it raises the question of whether portraying such tough issues much always be shown in such a confronting way or whether creators have a duty to protect their audience from possible triggers.

Of course, different people are triggered by different things, and the way people live with mental illness varies from person to person. There is no “one way” to experience mental illness, but the question of whether some creators portray graphic scenes in such detail for shock value alone is undoubtable. Look—we’re still talking about 13 Reasons Why, and I believe that part of why it was so successful for Netflix was because of how much backlash it received and how much the media was talking about it. So why wouldn’t other writers or producers want to do the same thing for publicity? It’s probably naive of me to think that some people and companies would value actual human lives over money, but that’s just capitalism for you.

But then the question of whether shock value is always a negative thing must inevitably be raised. Should shows like 13 Reasons Why that showed the graphic sexual assault and suicide of a character be censored because of their triggering content, or should they be commended for bringing issues like this to the forefront and raising conversations about seeking help and dealing with mental illness in schools and households? Obviously I’m not a fan of the show because of how damaging it was to so many people, and I, personally, can’t justify that. But the question still stands for other content and other novels.

What about Margot McGovern’s Neverland? To me, this book was very triggering and I wasn’t expecting it to portray self-harm in such a raw, confronting way, but at the same time, that’s part of what makes that book so powerful. So necessary. It’s important to not shy away from the tougher issues, but of course, the reader should always be advised of potential triggers and not push themselves to read something they don’t feel comfortable reading—or something that could be very damaging for them. Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces was the same for me. These are two books that I feel teeter between shocking and sensitive, and I really commend the writers’ candour in depicting self-harm in such realistic ways.

I know I don’t have the answers for this discussion. Part of the difficulty is that there’s no definitive line between shock value and honesty. Maybe it differs from person to person, like how people are triggered by different things. But I think it’s worth discussing, and I only think more and more content like 13 Reasons Why, Neverland and Girl in Pieces will continue to be made. It’s important to consider what the difference between writing or creating something for shock value and doing it to portray an issue with candour. Perhaps the line lies in the aim of the creator and what they hope to achieve.


The Things We Can’t Undo

I was not expecting this book to raise all these questions. Questions about dealing with issues with sensitivity and candour, and why books like The Things We Can’t Undo are so important. I was so pleasantly surprised by the depth and complexity with which this novel addressed topics such as consent, sexual assault, blame, mental health, and suicide, and it couldn’t have been more well-written. Please be advised that there are trigger warnings for sexual assault and suicide in this novel—it’s definitely not a light book. The Things We Can’t Undo takes the narrative about consent that’s been done a hundred times before and weaves it into something new and something incredibly powerful. This book was so sensitively handled and well-written, and that’s what I loved most about it.

It’s hard to write about the beginning of this story and reading from Dylan’s point of view because one of the inherent downsides of reading from first person narration is that you don’t get a full overview of the situation. All you know is what the one character you’re reading from is thinking, or what they believe. Dylan and Sam are in love, or so everyone thinks. They both wanted to have sex, or so Dylan leads us to believe. And that’s part of what makes this book so confronting and so thought-provoking. But it’s through the points of view of both Sam and Dylan that we begin to understand just what happened—and how consent should be a thing that’s black or white, but is not always apparent.

One of the things I loved most about this novel was the use of social media throughout—the instant messages and unsent letters that show how starkly different this one night was for the both of them, and how it affected them both in such different ways. The conversations surrounding rape and consent felt refreshing because of how they were told in such a unique format, and I just couldn’t be more pleased with the strong messages this novel held. This book definitely isn’t an uplifting one, but its discussions surrounding sexual assault and mental health makes it one that both teens and adults alike should pick up.


4 StarsLet's Talk

What did you think of the show 13 Reasons Why? Do you think some shows / books write about the tougher issues for “shock value”? What are some novels you think deal with self-harm or sexual assault candidly and sensitively? Let’s continue the discussion!

Thanks to Gabrielle Reid for providing me with a copy of her novel to review during the The Things We Can’t Undo blog tour!

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6 thoughts on “The Shock Value of Stories

  1. I reacently had to DNF Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Niell. I get what it was trying to do, and I think it did that effectively. But it’s such a find line between saying that a message, ie women are objectified, is wrong, and then having to use that message yourself. I normally feel pretty secure in my body and how I look but after reading sections I would walk around and feel like I was being judged which was so weird, and the story wasn’t compelling enough to keep reading. I’d much rather watch a documentary about production of gendered experience (I’m feeling all fired up about this at the moment because i had two lectures about it in the last two days). I’ve read 13 Reasons Why several time, and I think it does have lots of good things going for it (even though the author is obviously a totally terrible human), but I wouldn’t read it again, because it is very much based around idealising a certain form of high school. anyway, great post!

  2. I liked 13 reasons why. Both the book and the series. I’d say increasing search for “suicide hotline” is a positive outcome. I mean, rather that than these people actually killing themselves. It kind of gives me hope that they actually found help and maybe even got better…?

    Not talking about sexual assault and not showing people how it affects the victim is not going to help anyone in my opinion. It’s a topic that is very close to me, and i just wish more people would be aware and would stop the stupid opinions about “the victim asked for it” and whatnot. If we never discuss this and censor stuff about it, i don’t know how it would ever change.

    Of course authors and film makers have a responsibility here and portray it in a realistic way that shows how the victim feels afterwards, and there needs to be some sort of a conclusion / explanation.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed them both! I agree that it’s important to talk about these topics and I appreciate the book and the show for bringing these issues to the forefront, but I personally just didn’t like some aspects and the portrayal of the suicide. I hope you enjoy season two if you watch it! 💙

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