This writer’s life: social responsibility

Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in a world where there’s a lot of stuff asking for our attention: our houses, families, friends; our jobs, hobbies, dreams; politics, television, music. On any given day, we are exposed to so much and we’re left to decide how we should respond, or if we should respond at all.

In case you missed it, Lorde, a sixteen-year-old singer-songwriter from New Zealand, has the top hit in the US right now. In her own words, her song is about opulence and and over-indulgence: “Around the middle of last year I started listening to a lot of rap, like Nicki Minaj and Drake, as well as pop singers like Lana Del Rey,” she says. “They all sing about such opulence, stuff that just didn’t relate to me—or anyone that I knew.  I began thinking, ‘How are we listening to this? It’s completely irrelevant.'”

Recently, a feminist blog that I read posted an article about how the song is racist. A few days ago, they posted a follow up.

I’m not here to tell anyone what to think about this song (though I have my own opinions). No, for what I want to talk about, I’m not even sure it matters whether the song is or is not offensive on some level. If we want to talk about media crossing the line, we only need to look at the Belvedere Vodka ad, or to stay with music for a bit, any of the following songs: Love the Way You Lie (domestic violence), Blurred Lines (rape), You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful (self-esteem). This is, obviously, just a partial list of a partial list.

Some of the songs in this post piss me off. Some I like. And I can point to books, movies, television shows, etc., that fall on one side or the other of this imaginary line I’ve created for myself in terms of which messages are hurtful and damaging and which are somehow okay. I can read Lolita, for instance, and not think it crosses some line.

But what is our responsibility as artists to promote some type of social justice? Art and words can effect change—I don’t think I need to argue that here—but do they need to? And when does a piece of art cross the line from social critique (or simply an observation) into something worse? I’m writing a book review right now, and something I keep coming back to as I write the review is that I believe that art sometimes needs to look at the ugly in life, and needs to look without flinching, without trying to make it beautiful again.

I’m struggling with a story right now that is set the morning after a guy gets a girl drunk and has sex with her. She has no memory of it, and she’s shocked and hurt. I want my readers to see that this is rape, but I don’t want the point of the story to be teaching my readers not to do the same thing; I don’t like fiction that exists solely to teach a lesson, where that lesson is the most important thing. In the story, I get in both characters’ heads, and in each new draft I work to humanize the guy a little more, to make the girl look like less of a victim.

When I talk about the piece in these words, I get a little sick to my stomach.

When I read it, I just want to push it further in the direction it’s going.

I don’t know how to reconcile these two thoughts. I don’t know if I should even bother trying.


  • Amaris says:

    I think that the key to social responsibility with art is not to be reactionary. I don’t think you can really create and react at the same time.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    I’ve been thinking of writing a post about this topic for a long time. I constantly think about art vs. activism, and while they are definitely intertwined, I think the key is that you are an artist FIRST, and an activist second. Our responsibility is not necessarily to depict the world as it should be; rather, the world how it is, in all its darkness and complexity.

    • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

      I agree with Laura’s point — that our job is to reveal people as they are, not as we wish they were.

      • Kathryn says:

        I like this wording of it all. It’s what I feel, but I haven’t yet figured out how to express it. But I see people so often trying to dictate what art should and should not do. Perhaps, though, these people aren’t artists themselves, or, to steal Amaris’ phrasing from above, they’re primarily creating reactionary art. Which sure, maybe that’s a thing, and maybe it’s a necessary thing, but it’s not the only type of viable art.

  • MelinaCR says:

    What Laura and Sam said about revealing our humanity, and that at best that revealing leads a reader to a more expansive understanding of the enormous lack of justice/balance in our culture?
    Also I linked to this short interview in a post I wrote, but thought it was relevant to the questions you raise here about your story:

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