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The Problems With Black Suffering On-Screen

How far is too far when it comes to exposing Black pain?

Illustration by Renald Louissaint. Images: Netflix and FX

CCandy Ferocity could have been any Black trans woman, and maybe that was the problem. On the award-winning FX series Pose, Candy’s position oscillated between being the laughingstock of the balls, a bullying house mother, and a witty sidekick. But unlike other house mothers, such as Blanca and Elektra, Candy’s character didn’t give audiences much insight into her life when she was just Candy Johnson, which is why her untimely murder became that much more harrowing.

Candy was the victim underneath Pray Tell’s gaze in the ballroom scene. He made fun of her once-tiny figure and her absent dance moves. She asked him, “Why do you always have to put me down?” He responded, “I don’t have to put you down when you’re always in the bottom.” All Candy wanted, in her words, was “to be seen,” and that was one of the last scenes where viewers saw her, animated and resistant, before witnessing her bloodied body in a closet within a seedy motel, her eyes open and staring off into some imperceptible spot.

TThe internet commentary was swift. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community were upset because the material hit too close to home. Exactly two weeks before the airing of this particular episode, Brooklyn Lindsey, 32, was found dead on the front porch of an abandoned home in Missouri City, Kansas. Like Candy, she was dark-skinned, Black, and trans. She was also found alone, and her killer has yet to be found.

Since the beginning of 2019, 15 Black trans women have been murdered. It is an epidemic that showrunner Ryan Murphy and creator Janet Mock wanted to showcase, although many chalked up the attempt to trauma porn. Morticia Godiva, a Black trans woman, said that the lack of authenticity was the most striking. One of Pose’s biggest inspirations is the iconic documentary Paris Is Burning, and if the story were to stick to the script, Venus Xtravaganza would’ve been Candy incarnate. But unlike Venus, Candy is not a blonde White woman. So why did the dark-skinned Black actress have to die? In Godiva’s words with regard to Candy’s story, “Wanting to be true to what has happened and is happening is admirable, but… delivering something that does not center trauma is a lot more validating.”

When I asked Godiva about Candy’s storyline and death, she said, “It felt unnecessary to see, because there was no real development of Candy, and killing her was trauma porn, especially having just mourned the loss of two trans women within a month’s time.” By Godiva’s statement, Candy’s death was pornographic in that it was obscene and oppressive to reinforce the real world. The broader implication is that Black trans women are already vulnerable in real life. Shouldn’t their on-screen lives be seen as full?

This assertion for an intermediary between television and film fantasy and blunt reality unearths a tricky yet fundamental question: How does a creator bring awareness to an issue without triggering viewers whose identities mirror fictitious subjects? Where is the line drawn between trauma porn and responsible storytelling when handling Black and Brown subjects?

TThe predecessor to what we know today in the zeitgeist as trauma porn is what was known in the 1980s as “poverty porn.” In 1984, Ethiopia experienced a famine of biblical proportions. More than 1 million people perished between 1983 and 1985. On October 23, 1984, BBC News decided to begin its lunchtime bulletin with images of starving people and dead bodies.

The decision to reduce Ethiopia to sinewy bones and bloated bellies was a cash grab for aid agencies. Bob Geldof, an Irish rock artist, created a song called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” On July 13, 1985, at the famed Wembley Stadium, a Live Aid concert raised global awareness about the Ethiopian famine. Afterward, USA for Africa’s single “We Are the World” included artists such as Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper on the track. These efforts raised more than $100 million. But at what cost?

Many NGOs during this time used those horrific images to secure funding. Birhan Woldu, who was only three when her emaciated face was photographed, admits that Live Aid did not help. According to the Telegraph, 91% of humanitarian aid in Ethiopia in 2009 went toward food. Less than 1% — 0.14%, to be exact — has been spent on helping Ethiopians prepare themselves against future droughts.

Poverty porn — or “disaster porn” — struck again in 1993, when Kevin Carter, who was White, shot an image of a vulture standing watch over a starving girl in Sudan, waiting for her to die before swooping in. The photo appeared in a 1993 issue of Time. The St. Petersburg Times said, “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Although Carter shooed the bird away, he was so haunted by the suffering that he committed suicide months after winning the Pulitzer Prize. The result, immortalizing Black pain, diverges from the intent, which is to raise awareness. The reason is very apparent: It’s done under the White gaze, and violence toward Black subjects has historically been rooted in spectacle.

MyMy familiarity with the phrase “trauma porn” began in 2014 with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement. The image of Michael Brown’s corpse on the pavement in St. Louis, Missouri, circulated throughout Twitter for hours. His image was followed by that of more images and videos of Black people being massacred in front of our very eyes. Often these visuals would come without any trigger warning.

Black people were already mindful of how police terrorize our communities. We never had to convince each other of the stories. In a feature for the New Republic, Kia Gregory writes about this “linked fate”: “In the African American community, individual life chances are recognized as inextricably tied to the race as a whole. So when black people watch a video of police violence against another black person, they see themselves or their loved ones in that person’s place, knowing that the same fateful encounter could very well happen to them.”

But this still does not answer the question of TV and film portrayals, which we often view hoping for a bit of escapism. Another example of what has been considered in internet circles as trauma porn is the Emmy Award–nominated series When They See Us, which is the story of the Central Park Five. Some viewers went so far as to say that not only is the story trauma porn, but also that it should not be seen by anyone. In an interview with ABC News, director Ava DuVernay responded to these claims: “If you don’t want to watch it, it’s good, fine with me. But I think running away from our history, running away from the realities of what so many of our brothers and sisters are going through and saying, ‘That’s too painful. I don’t want to watch it,’ I think, is challenging.”

In both Pose and When They See Us, the creators involve Black people handling Black subjects. They are writing from an inspiration of real-life accounts from their respective communities. In the past, there was a strict Black-White binary with regard to Black violence. A White person was behind the camera and therefore had much power over Black people’s narratives. But now the tide has shifted, and more nuance, arguably, is required when the binaries are less dichotomized.

TThe first problem with trauma porn is that there is no fixed meaning and therefore no universal response. Two individuals can witness the same event and have completely different psychosomatic responses. To put a label on any work of art as being trauma porn would be to cast a broad stroke over any viewer’s reactions, which neutralizes the playing field and destroys any chance of nuanced discussion. At the same time, research is underway on the effects on Black and Latinx people who view traumatic images in the media.

In an interview with Riana E. Anderson, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, she says, “I absolutely see heightened depressive systems at work as a result of watching these things. En masse, we are seeing a shift in psychological outcomes. It can absolutely negatively impact us.”

One aspect that’s crucial to understanding how we view traumatic images is habituation. For example, if I view something once, I might be shocked. By the fifth time, I think it’s normal. This method is used to treat PTSD victims, but for Black and Latinx people specifically, too much habituation in media might make us emotionally mute to situations in real life that could protect us from danger.

TThe second problem with trauma porn is that the lines between individual and collective experiences get blurred, but with good reason. In her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey argues that in the world of cinema — especially in the movie theater, with its darkened rooms and “shifted patterns of light and shade” — there is a voyeuristic separation. In this essay, though, Mulvey centers the vulnerability of White women in front of the White male gaze. In response, bell hooks wrote an essay called “The Oppositional Gaze.” White people, unlike Black people, have always had the access and privilege to stare. During the Jim Crow era, Black people could be reprimanded or lynched for making eye contact with a White person. In hooks’ own life, she writes, “Within my family’s southern black working-class home, located in a racially segregated neighborhood, watching television was one way to develop critical spectatorship.”

When Black people look at mass media, they are aware that it is a system of maintaining White supremacy. Therefore, when images that seem as personal as a dead Black trans woman’s body or the wrongful incarceration of five Black men proliferate across millions of screens, that pain has the potential to be mangled and arouse those who could not truly know said pain because they do not exist in the same body as those suffering on the screen. Whatever feelings an outsider might feel are not necessarily counterfeit, but temporary and distant, able to be felt but forgotten because that reality is almost an improbability in their lives.

When Black people look at mass media, they are aware that it is a system of maintaining White supremacy.

TThe third problem with trauma porn is that there is no mindfulness about how Black people hold multiple realities at once, and therefore there is no one work of art that can totalize Black people’s experiences and remain as ours — and only ours — in any capitalistic system. It’s a conundrum that Tommy L. Lott, a professor of philosophy at San José State University, wrote about in a journal article on the inability to define Black cinema. In it, Lott argues, “The need of an essentialist theory diminishes, along with the idea of a monolithic black film aesthetic, once we realize that there is no monolithic black audience.”

However, there is a deep, instinctual need stemming from whoever labels a cinematic work as trauma porn. It is not ignorance of how Hollywood works, but rather an extreme sensitivity to how the viewer exists outside of it and how fictitious representations are few and far between. The label is an attempt to acknowledge pain that can never be evenly inflicted or sensed among an audience and to force recognition of how that pain can be easily forgotten once the credits roll, while viewers — who resonated with their fallen characters so much — are left with the rubble.

If trauma is person-dependent, then is the label “trauma porn” erroneous? Depends on who you ask. When comparing Candy’s storyline on Pose to When They See Us, pop culture critic Cate Young says, “When They See Us is witnessing the actual trauma these men witnessed and have audiences recognize that pain. I think it’s more far off to call Candy’s storyline as trauma porn, because these women are always subject to that kind of violence. Pose is supposed to be a venue where they can shine and not be subject to the kind of stories that we know happen in real life.” Ahya Simone, a Black trans woman artist and filmmaker, says, “We are a community who is fully and intimately aware of this, but if you’re marketing to a mass audience, which Pose is, then it would be fine. It’s not so much a hard line, but rather, who is this for?”

It is safe to say that if a creator, no matter the race, is working within a Hollywood system, then that person is going to be marketed for mass appeal, which includes audience members both inside and outside of their respective communities. Very rarely is something marketed only to Black audiences if the vast majority of creators who have the most power and say over which content is produced is White. Yet at the same time, for those Black artists who do make it and want to tell the stories of their communities, there are no strict parameters over what is excessive suffering, and responsible storytelling for each person’s coping strategies is different.

FFor Black people, stress lies dormant within us at all times, and it takes only a second of a frame for an image or sound to trigger an acute stress response. Charity Griffin, PhD, a psychotherapist at Winston-Salem State University, said, “Some people are drawn to it to be engaged and remain aware. Some people choose, as an act of self-care, not to ingest or view something. I think this is about balance in media and film.”

The more we probe for boundaries of what trauma porn is, the more we will come up short, because one conclusion can never be satisfying to all.

The balance may come from those working both in and outside the system. Ja’Tovia Gary, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, chose to use the murder of Philando Castile in her short films, but she refuses to show him bleeding out. Instead, abstracted flower petals cover his body. In her words, “I don’t need to utilize this image in order to get my emotional, psychological, and aesthetic point across. I withhold to move against a tradition of showing Black people in pain.”

The more we probe for boundaries of what trauma porn is, the more we will come up short, because one conclusion can never be satisfying to all. We can all view the same work and walk away with a different response, because that’s what art does — it breeds unique interpretations. There are no hard-and-fast rules. However, when Black audiences view a program like the aforementioned, they are mindful that their gaze has never been prioritized in comparison to the White gaze, and therefore this “trauma porn” judgment is not only a stress response but also a self-conscious act over how power inserts itself into the otherwise fantasy of storytelling. Therefore, trauma porn is less about a general category and more of an attempt from those who exist outside the Hollywood system to individualize and center their pain so that other spectators, like those who are called out, are mindful that suffering transcends a screen. It is constant, shape-shifting, and active, and that ire serves to reawaken those to not turn away, even when a viewing experience is complete.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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