Stories Should Sometimes Make Us Uncomfortable

Stories Should Sometimes Make Us Uncomfortable

Shortly after the release of Mad Max; Fury Road, a friend of mine posted a lengthy Facebook diatribe about why she disliked it. The fact that I loved it and she didn’t has never really bothered me (I don’t believe my friends need to have the same opinions I do). But her reasons for disliking the movie have always stuck in my craw.

Her main complaint had to do with the short scene near the beginning of the movie which depicts several overweight women hooked up to milk machines. In fact Immortan Joe (the movie’s villain) sits in the foreground sipping freshly procured milk. He exits this scene a few seconds later in a huff to make sure his prized breeders are still locked in their vault.

Because this scene disgusted my friend, she disliked the entire movie.

It’s supposed to make you cringe

But I can’t help thinking her reaction is exactly what George Miller hoped to achieve when he wrote that scene. You’re not supposed to like this depiction. It’s not supposed to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. It exists for one purpose; to illustrate Immortan Joe’s character. He’s not a nice man. He’s not supposed to be a paragon of humanity. (At this point in the movie, he has already denied a thirsty population access to clean water.) Immortan Joe doesn’t regard women as people; he regards them as objects. This brief sequence of scenes gives us that insight into his character without anyone having to explicitly state it. It isn’t until much later that Splendid declares to Max, “We are not things.”

This isn’t the only painfully uncomfortable moment in Mad Max: Fury Road either. Later in the movie Splendid’s child is cut from her womb while her life quickly fades. The reason? Good old Immortan Joe wants to know if it was a boy even though the pregnancy isn’t far enough advanced for the child to survive. When the organic mechanic announces that the baby was, in fact, a boy, Joe enacts an absurd ritual to mourn it.

It’s supposed to make you cringe.

This scene drives home the fact that Immortan Joe, and those who ride with him, regard women as insignificant and unimportant outside of their ability to breed. And I’ve always wondered if he would have been half as upset if the baby had turned out to be a girl.

Discomfort is a powerful tool for fiction

All good stories evoke emotional reactions. No one bats an eye when someone cries over the death of a good character. Nor would anyone look askance to the cheers given over an evil character’s demise. We can only determine which category a character falls into by looking at their actions along the way. That means writers need to show their audience what kind of person their character is. (Remember that old adage; show don’t tell?)

Anger and discomfort are tools writers keep tucked in their belts. They pull them out when they want you to notice or think about something. Not every story can be made of happiness and rainbows. How can we draw attention to the absurdities and inequalities in our society if we aren’t able to depict them in fiction? The fastest way to make someone think about something is to hit a nerve. People never seem to consider that their sense of indignation might have been intentionally crafted.

Scenes like this are not designed to make you cheer. Not every character is meant to be redeemable. Sometimes, uncomfortable truths need to be stared in the eye.

We can’t just write about a sterile version of the world

This is hardly an isolated incident. I’ve read several scathing articles denouncing George R.R. Martin for the depiction of sexual content in Game of Thrones. The biggest offense is the sale of a thirteen year old girl into marriage with a much older man. I get it; it’s gross. But it’s also historically accurate (sorry, but it’s true).

And it’s supposed to be gross. It’s supposed to be cringey. I just started watching the show, but now that I’ve seen the story arc in question, I can’t imagine why anyone thinks it’s supposed to be cool or sexy. (Ew!) Writers don’t write about this sort of thing to glorify it (and if they do, they deserve to be called out for it).

But writers must be allowed to include uncomfortable imagery in their work. You can’t draw attention to the twisted flaws in our society if you’re forced to write about a sterile version of the world. So the next time you see something like this on the big (or small) screen, ask yourself; is this supposed to make me mad? And if so, why do you think that is?

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