Elaine Hsieh Chou on the Ethics of ‘Trauma Porn’

“If you are retraumatizing the very audience a piece of media is supposedly for, can it really be for them?”

A stylized image of Elaine Hsieh Chou on a pale pink background, with blue, yellow and black squiggles around her head.
Hsiu Chon / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Elaine Hsieh Chou’s new short story “Background.”

“Background” is a new story by Elaine Hsieh Chou. To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Chou and Katherine Hu, an assistant editor for the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Katherine Hu: In your short story “Background,” an estranged father works as an extra in the hopes of encountering his daughter, a renowned director, on one of her sets. It’s a grand forum for reconciliation. What inspired this setting?

Elaine Hsieh Chou: I’ve been doing some background acting since 2019. It started as a way to make ends meet when I was in between jobs, but I grew to really love being on set. I’ve met people from all different walks of life and have had some pretty fun experiences (like transforming into a zombie in the dead of night!).

“Background” was inspired by a two-day set I was on of all-Asian extras. There were over 70 of us. We were all playing one ethnicity (Japanese), and all the scenes were actually “set” in Japan. What I found interesting was how we were such a varied mix, from all different ethnicities and social backgrounds: multi-generation Americans, first-generation immigrants, even hard-core conservatives, like the person who loudly declared on the bus, “Trump has done more for this country than Obama ever did.” But when you watch our scenes in the show, you would never know it. Because the principal actors were from Japan, audiences assume that this entire portion of the show was filmed there. Through what Gene calls “movie magic,” our differences were erased.

Hu: The blank spaces are a fascinating aspect of the story and force us to engage with the text in a unique way. My mind manages to fill some of them in quite easily, but others are more difficult. What is their significance, especially in a story about anti-Asian violence?

Chou: When I was first drafting the story, something about writing out all those scene breakdowns felt jarring. When I tried using blank spaces in certain spots, they clicked into place. And with the use of NDAs on sets, which I had to sign for the aforementioned show, it made sense. The blank spaces also bring to mind erasure poems—what’s not there says as much as what’s there. As this formal choice relates to anti-Asian violence, I think it was a way for me to mitigate writing out those beats because it would be painful to do so, especially because the ending of the shoot is already violent in its own right.

Hu: Athena is estranged from her father by choice, but you’ve decided to tell the story from Gene’s perspective. How did this narrative decision inform the way the story unfolds? Was it always told so closely from Gene’s perspective?

Chou: In my early notes for the story, I considered writing a story about a single father with a daughter who wants to be an actress. Then I jumped to writing from the perspective of a background actor, because I had that firsthand experience. I thought the director could be controversial: an Asian director who writes a satirical film about anti-Asian hate that casts Asian actors to be the victims of anti-Asian hate, but I wasn’t sure who the director’s character really was. Then, in the fall of 2021, I just started writing and new paths opened up. I trusted those instincts and followed where the story led me: The father is estranged from his daughter and she is the director. The film she directs is different from the one I had originally imagined, but some of those early themes stayed.

Hu: The film set is eerily realistic, yet it’s not reality. An extra, for instance, argues that being directed to act as a victim of anti-Asian violence on a fake subway set is still anti-Asian violence. How do you perceive the relationship between reality and our depictions of it? Is it always a challenge to depict a violent act without the risk of perpetuating it?

Chou: This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and in recent years, there’s been more discussion of “trauma porn” and who it really exists for. If you are retraumatizing the very audience a piece of media is supposedly for, can it really be for them? Do any of us, after a hard day’s work of existing in the world, want to unwind by watching or reading something that makes us feel ill? And when this happens, does it automatically make the media in question for “educational purposes,” which is lightly coded for educating a white American public? Where is the line between making an audience feel seen and turning their pain into shock value?

As for violent depictions being violent in and of themselves, several years ago I read that Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (2002) includes a continuous nine-minute rape scene. I fixated on how Monica Bellucci might have felt while filming it. Even though I have never seen the film and do not plan to, that has always stuck with me. I also recently learned that, before the widespread use of body doubles, many child actors had to act in kissing or sex scenes with adults much older than them. Brooke Shields was 12 years old when she played a sex worker in Pretty Baby (1978), opposite a man more than double her age; she also had nude scenes in the film.

Hu: Gene and Athena both have novel ways of simplifying morality—the points system, for instance. Given their difficult relationship, and the trials of their respective lives, are these morality tallies simple attempts at being good? Or is something greater at play?

Chou: Rather than attempts at being good, I think Gene and Athena both struggle with navigating life in a healthy and non-chaotic way—for Gene, because of his alcoholism, and for Athena, because of growing up with an alcoholic father. As Gene’s character came into focus, I realized that the good-day-, bad-day-bagel system is so deeply tied to his own personal recovery program because he has not (yet) been able to regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It’s also low-stakes enough for him to commit to. For Athena, she has had to formulate a very rigid vision of right and wrong from a young age, and took pride in the fact that she could commit to this vision, unlike her parents. That self-righteousness has followed her into adulthood.

Hu: The story ends with Gene volunteering to be the extra who is violently attacked, with Athena watching him from behind the camera. As readers, we’ve been watching Gene closely, and are able to imagine him more directly through her eyes. Will this scene satisfy Athena’s desire for control?

Chou: I don’t know if Athena is focusing on a desire for control here; I think she recognizes that Gene wants to punish himself so he can finally forgive himself and move on from how he treated her as a child. He wants to quite literally right the wrongs of the past—which of course, none of us can do without a time machine. So when this situation presents itself, Gene grabs it as a last-chance opportunity. And Athena lets him. Gene’s IMDb credit is framed as Athena’s gift to him, but the real gift might be this last scene. To withhold the “punishment” he craves would only be further punishment.

Hu: What other projects are you working on?

Chou: I’m working on adapting my debut novel, Disorientation, into a film with my co-writer, the incredible April Shih. There are some other TV projects I’m working on, too, that I’m very excited about. I’m also editing my forthcoming short-story collection, Where Are You Really From, which will feature “Background” and different genres of storytelling: satire, remixed fairy tales and Chinese mythology, soft sci-fi, and horror-inspired stories. I love how short fiction is a space for exploration and play, and I can’t wait to share these stories.