Trying To Understand Misery Porn, From Your Friendly Neighborhood Dying Girl

Tragedy sparring with Nicholas Sparks’ gimmick is weird as hell, you guys.

With an increasingly vocal audience craving more social responsibility from the art and media they are shown, it’s becoming harder and harder for a film or television series to avoid the scarlet letter of “problematic.” Netflix’s series 13 Reasons Why was an extremely polarizing topic, with myself and Meredith Borders even offering point/counter-point reviews of the series for both Birth.Movies.Death. and Forever Young Adult. There’s a common misconception that to portray something problematic in a film is to endorse the behavior. This is simply not true. Exposure does not equate encouragement and it’s time we challenge ourselves to think in a way that may feel alien, but will ultimately allow us a better understanding of the purpose behind so-called “misery porn” movies.

Misery Porn gains its roots in the world of literature, but things like Lifetime Original movies and “very special episodes” of television shows have been playing with this tragedy sparring angle for decades. Recently, the increased popularity of “sick lit” (a sub-genre of realistic young adult fiction that — at its most disgusting — appears to glorify illness, suicide, and self harm) has started popping up with film and television adaptations on a very large scale. No longer are these stories relegated to the melodramatic world of after-school specials; they are now made more accessible than ever and boast A-list talent.

When I was in junior high school, I had an unhealthy obsession with the Nicholas Sparks’ film, A Walk To Remember. This tragic love story fed right into the out of control hormonal cocktail that was my brain and it is distinctly the first time I can recall openly weeping in a movie theatre. I bought the soundtrack and cried through renditions of Mandy Moore’s “Only Hope” and I yearned for the days when I would have a love story as pure and beautiful as the one between Landon and Jamie. It didn’t matter to me that Jamie’s leukemia was used purely as a way to make middle-class white people cry about how “unfair” life is without having to ever address privilege or the fact it takes terminal illnesses to actually have an “unfair” position in life. Because people have a strong ability to see tragedy as a metaphor rather than a reality until it personally impacts them.

Fast forward to college when the tragic teen flick The Fault In Our Stars popped into view and completely changed the game. TFIOS follows Hazel and Gus, two teenagers that fall in love despite also suffering from cancer. The couple even go for the gold by sharing a first kiss in The Anne Frank house, a move that polarized audiences to the point of outrage. As someone currently battling pancreatic cancer, I have a lot of conflicting feelings about TFIOS. On one hand, I applaud the film for allowing audiences to get a look at young people with illnesses in a way that isn’t “feel sorry for them, feel sorry for them, feel sorry for them,” but at the same time, the fact that Hot Topic was profiting off of merchandise with quotes from the film on it while actual cancer patients die every day because they cannot afford the treatment is pretty disgusting.

But this isn’t anything new. As of this article, there are 87 young adult fiction books about cancer, because if The Fault In Our Stars got anything right, it’s that audiences are huge fans of crying about dying teens that find love in hopeless places. I get it, I do. Cancer is foreign to most young people so it’s easy to replace “illness” with any other negative feeling they may be experiencing and find inspiration that they too can find love. There was a Buzzfeed list of TFIOS tattoos that threw me into a fit of rage until I reminded myself that people are going to find comfort in whatever ways they can, that every single person is at war with something, and it’s not my job to tell them the “acceptable” way to fight it. Sure, some of these obsessive fans may not have cancer or love someone who does, but perhaps they find a sense of repose in this story because it doesn’t hit too close to home.

And then there’s the question of “triggering” content like 13 Reasons Why or To The Bone. Both of these Netflix Originals (13 Reasons based on the book and To The Bone based on Marti Noxon’s own life) that tackle difficult topics like suicide, sexual assault, and eating disorders. Responsibly portraying mental illnesses and real-life tragic events is very, very difficult. Considering everyone responds and reacts to trauma differently, it is an impossibility to present these topics in a way that will be universally acceptable. In both of these cases, the creators have done their best to humanize people who are often stigmatized, and have included a palatable romantic subplot to make these difficult stories accessible for a mass audience. It’s a dangerous tightrope to walk because these stories can be and legitimately are triggering to some people, but there needs to be a sense of responsibility on the audience to know themselves and their limits before diving into a potentially triggering situation. Just as some alcoholics avoid going to bars, those that may find themselves victim to relapsing should avoid watching this content. Many argue that the mere existence of films/series like these are irresponsible or disrespectful to individuals actually living the lives these stories are based upon, and it’s hard not to see the point. However, how are we going to expose people that aren’t already living these lives to these stories and inform them of their existence without at least trying? I fear that we’ve stopped being a culture of people eager to allow films to take us away to someplace new, in exchange for the ability to screech the loudest when something isn’t perfect on the first try.

I can only speak from the experience and perspective of someone with cancer, and I don’t have all the answers when it comes to misery porn. Psychologists can’t even universally agree on the right way to handle these sorts of films, so it would be foolish to think that I am the foremost voice on the topic. What I do know is this -- film and television have genuinely life-altering power. If Jaws could make an entire culture terrified of the ocean, we absolutely have to take the presentation of difficult and real-life situations seriously...but that doesn’t mean we need to serve as judge, jury, and executioner when we watch something that upsets us. Evoking negative feelings doesn’t mean a film is bad, just as finding solace in something that can be deemed “problematic” doesn’t immediately make you a bad person. To quote The Fault In Our Stars, “All representations of a thing are inherently abstract.” These stories are going to exist whether we make films about them or not, and I like to try and understand the intention behind the storytelling rather than burn the final product at the stake if it’s anything less than perfect.

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