Oh wow, what a great way to make your story either beloved or berated. Stick in a taboo, and you’re nigh guaranteed to have no one who feels neutrally about your work.
Taboos are funny though. They’re society’s big damned no-no, the cardinal sins, the unforgivable crimes. Thing is … what is taboo?
Incest, rape, murder, theft, women in skirts, women in trousers, men in trousers, men in skirts, high hemlines, low hemlines, showing ankle, not showing ankle, exposed tits, covered tits, homosexuality, sex in public, sex in private, woman on top, woman on bottom, swearing, not swearing … no one can agree! Even the ones that are usually taken as universal: rape, murder, incest, and theft. True, it’s safe to say every society thinks they’re bad, but the definitions of those words … not so consistent.
In some societies, it’s not incest if you’re not siblings; no one would have the slightest issue with uncle/niece. Once upon a time, cousins — any degree. Some say, not first, some so not second, others go “Shit you guys are 11th cousins 87 times removed!? that’s sick!” never mind, of course, that it has been calculated that no two people on Earth are more distantly related than 12th cousins. Rape? Oh, let’s just not go there, suffice to say that rape is defined differently depending where you’re standing on this planet – and likely several others – and just move on. Murder, okay, seriously? Do I need to make you watch CourtTV (or whatever it calls itself now) all weekend? Even a single society can get in arguments over whether or not something is murder! Theft – true, theft is generally well defined, it’s more a matter of who is doing it as to whether it’s theft or something else (no I am not just making a stab at taxes, there’re other things I was commenting on with that statement, too – let’s be fair).
Some taboos are somehow more acceptable than others. You can put rampant murder in a show and it’ll be a hit series: Dexter. You can make a smash movie, more than once, about theft: Ocean’s Eleven. You get told off for not having characters raped: Seanan McGuire can explain that one here.
Some taboos come with stipulations. Some people can’t accept a christian homosexual. A gay man is somehow more disturbing than a gay woman. Bisexuals fuck with some people’s heads. Polyamoury, polyandry, and polygamy, are … something. Don’t get me started on men in skirts, dresses, or kilts. If we get to movies, a naked man makes it NC-17, a naked woman it’s R. Kill Bill is R, but Showgirls was NC-17.
What’s the bit about love and hate, though?
Take Heinlein. Time Enough for Love. People adore it, or they hate it. Funny thing is, so few people can seem to hate it without bringing up the very brief scene in wherein Lazarus Long has sex with Maureen Smith, mother of Woodrow Wilson Smith, the little boy who would grow up to become Lazarus long who would go back in time and end up meeting his family a little before the first world war. Let’s forget all the places before wherein there is much discussion, and thought, on the subject of incest and taboo. Let’s ignore the argument Lazarus has with his daughters/clones Lapis Lazuli and Lorelei Lee before he leaves for 20th century Earth. Let’s completely ignore the part that is as long or longer than the part wherein he actually has sex with Maureen wherein he is having quite the internal discussion with himself about what’s going on. Oh, and let’s also absolutely ignore the fact that Maureen seduces him, not the other way around (seriously, there’re people saying HE starts it. Illiterates).
There are big taboos and little, though. You can make a lot of people mad by making a truly strong, competent woman … especially if you make her actually feminine. I mean, the bad arsed chicks in action movies are great, but gods save you if they voluntarily wear and own dresses. Men can’t be gay and tough. Children can’t be mature and responsible; a budding romance between a boy and girl in 5th grade is cute and sweet, between two boys or two girls is just sick and the author should be locked away from decent society and made to register as a sex offender.
It’s funny, too, don’t you think? Theft: and by corollary extension, murder and rape (if you think about it, they’re just very specific kinds of theft – one of life, the other of … dignity? we’ll go with dignity) … no one really takes issues with them. They’re horrible though, as they actually undermine society. Social, society, grouping, people getting together as a community, co operation, etc. This is what theft violates. Theft betrays the trust of your neighbours that you will respect that which is their in exchange for their respecting yours, and so on. But sex, oh my gods, sex; that is the one people freak the fuck out about!
Fetishes, bestiality, incest, homosexuality, bisexuality, plural marriage … none of it impacts society! It doesn’t! Nudity? Nope, well, it could if people don’t bathe, I suppose, but that’s details. Who wears the bifurcated or unbifurcated garments? Who can strut around with their breasts exposed (newsflash guys, all Humans have breasts, even the males – shit, guys, you can lactate because the glands are present). NONE of that has the slightest bearing on community and shared co operation of those around you to make life less of a struggle. Yet it is sex that people freak out about. Sex that we have endless laws, etiquette, rules, expectations, et al. to govern. Statutory rape, age of consent, not with brother, not with cousin, not with daddy, not in the arse, not on Thursday, not during the full moon …
I think it’s because of these things though. Some people are upset by seeing positive light shined on that which undermines the glue which binds society. Ocean’s Eleven does offend some people, Kill Bill would upset some folks, and there are those who feel that rape should be left far away from our fictional realities. And, if you’re somewhere that a lot of people feel strongly about this – then rape, murder, theft … you’ll scandalise people.
Shit, once upon a time, the interracial element of Hairspray, had it been made in the era in which it is set … wow, that, boys and girls, would be what is generally regarded as a Shit Storm. Kind of a pity, it didn’t come out in the sixties … that might’ve been fun. I wasn’t born yet, but I could read about it.
But no … it’s true, today, that if you want that polarised reaction: they love or hate you, no in betweens at all, you must go with sexual taboos. In this age, sex doesn’t just sell it pisses people the fuck off. In other eras you might have tried philosophy, theology, theosophy, themes relating to death, occult. You might have scandalised with certain portrayals of murder or if your thief weren’t of noble intent as was our dear friend and saviour Robin Hood.
Yeah, this was rambling, I suppose. I never promised to not write this as I thought about it. I think the point is there though.