The Damage Done by Media Portrayals of Trauma
Everyone knows the media has a HUGE influence on cultural beliefs, attitudes, and mindsets. I’m honestly not sure how it is in other countries, but here in America, whoever controls the media pretty much controls the minds of most Americans.
One thing I noticed even as a kid, when watching shows like Full House, was the vast difference between the way the beloved Tanner family handled conflict and the way mine handled it. As a kid I longed to be able to tell the truth – my truth, my family’s truth – without punishment. I was confused by the fact that whenever little Stephanie Tanner’s feelings got hurt, all she had to do was yell something confrontational at one of the other characters and then run to her room. Then lo and behold, within minutes, a sentimental soundtrack would start to play, and a caring adult (or even sometimes her older sister) would knock on the door and enter the room. They would listen with undistracted concern as Stephanie eloquently voiced the deepest emotions of her heart – which sometimes started out angrily or rudely (which didn’t bother them at all, naturally). They would respond with a touching life lesson, a quick and simple resolution would be found for everyone, and then they’d all hug it out.
This scenario was so far removed from my own life – where speaking truth was the ultimate crime – that I sometimes wondered what planet I was from.
What I didn’t realize: while my own family life was certainly far from healthy, the media portrayal of conflict and trauma isn’t exactly true to life either.
I cite Full House as an example of old school media portrayal of conflict resolution (I’ll get to trauma in a minute). And on some level, I get it. I get that it’s a 30-minute show and they have to keep things clipping along for the sake of time and interest. I understand that. I understand that it’s a family show and entertainment + life lessons were the goals of the show…not necessarily a reflection of the average family life. I get it.
But on the other hand, I wonder sometimes if other kids like me watched the show and felt even more like freaks or outcasts because we didn’t have healthy relationships. Conflicts weren’t resolved for us. They weren’t even discuss-able. And so many kids – me included – turn(ed) to TV when we couldn’t figure out what lives were supposed to look like…what relationships were supposed to be like. I’m not saying this was smart. I’m just saying, being a kid, I had no other ideas.
But movies and TV shows that portray people who experience some kind of trauma are not much better. In fact, they’re far worse.
Just this morning I was being my usual extremely-productive self and I had Jurassic World turned on while I was working on some projects on the computer. I may or may not have needed to take a nap or two in there. 😉 Jurassic Park and that whole series of movies are one of my favorites if for no other reason than they’re comically awful. But they are perfect – albeit dramatic – illustrations of how American media does a huge disservice to its viewers with its portrayals of characters going through traumatic situations. Jurassic World focuses on 2 kids – kids – who are around 10 and 16, maybe (I forget) who go to the theme park that features real-life dinosaurs and everything goes horribly wrong just like the first three movies (you’d think these fictitious characters in charge would learn by the time the FOURTH MOVIE rolls around…but I digress…). So the first major thing the kids go through is being attacked by the humongous hybrid “mega-Rex” dino while they’re in a glass hamster-ball going for a ride with what was supposed to be totally herbivorous types. After they survive the attack and escape into the prehistoric jungle, they have to find their way back to the compound, where they are continuously surrounded and attacked by various other carnivorous dinosaurs throughout the rest of the movie. And of course, everyone that matters makes it to the end and goes home and lives happily ever after.
OR NOT. I can’t help thinking when I watch the movie – as scene after scene plays out – If that really happened, those kids would be scarred for life. They would not just walk away and go live their lives. They wouldn’t be functional. They’d never be able to sleep. Hope their parents have read up on PTSD. Hope they’re prepared for panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares. Say goodbye to college. Good luck ever being able to take them outside a locked psych unit. Get ready to spend a few scant millions on therapy…each.
“But it’s a movie about dinosaurs, Jade. Dinosaurs. It’s not real. It’s just supposed to be fun. Get a grip.”
Okay, fine. Forget Jurassic World.
Ever watch Law & Order: SVU?
I do. It’s actually one of my favorite shows. People have asked me about it before, and I can’t really explain it other than to say that watching it is cathartic to me. I know it’s unrealistic (dear God, I know that) – but I get some sense of satisfaction to observe someone, even in an alternate universe in a fictitious TV story, being listened to by a strong and caring mama-bear type of character. Having justice sought on their behalf. Being seen as a person and not just a case. Being saved when in danger.
But the truth is, the show isn’t realistic either – not by far. Survivors don’t just “get over” a trauma in the process of reporting the incident and cooperating with law enforcement and legal aid in seeking, capturing, and prosecuting the perpetrators. In fact, most (if not all) of them are re-traumatized by the entire process. Telling and re-telling their story to doctors, cops, and lawyers, undergoing the physical exam and gathering of evidence (both bodily and in their private living space), being exposed repeatedly to the presence of their perpetrator in the courtroom, being badgered on the witness stand by the perpetrator’s legal defense – all of these things continue to harm. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be done if the person can, because putting criminals behind bars where they can never hurt another person is crucial. But I’m saying it’s no wonder so many people can’t, or won’t.
I’m also saying that oftentimes shows like SVU end with the person immersed back in their daily lives as if nothing happened. Or they end with a conversation with the main cop on the show, with the victim indicating that they’re well on their way to being back to normal.
This is grossly inaccurate. And TV shows indicating that people can just return to normal like this is – in my opinion – contributing to the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. And still, I GET IT. It’s entertainment. It makes sense WHEN YOU FRAME IT as entertainment. But how many people do??
It would be more accurate – but much less entertaining – to leave room at the end of shows like SVU to document the months of therapy, wrecked sleep, anxiety attacks, psychiatrist appointments, hyper-vigilance, depression, and (sometimes) suicide attempts made by trauma survivors after an incident like an assault. To show changes in lifestyle or habits they feel compelled to make now that they’ve survived a trauma, such as the inconvenient necessity of never taking stairways (if it happened in a stairway), or extreme reactions to what are normally benign every day occurrences (like doorbells or sirens).
SVU is not alone in this. And they aren’t as bad as some other shows and movies.
But stop and think about it, though. How many TV shows or movies have you watched – in your lifetime – that shows a character enduring something traumatic, and the end of the show/movie has them back to normal** within a few days or weeks?
Or a better question to ask is, how many have you seen that don’t? (I’ll wait.)
I’m not sure how to change this, or what even needs to change. We need stories. They are part of the culture of the human race. But I wish that there was more accurate portrayal of stories to begin with, and more realistic follow-up. Like if you’re going to have a show like Law & Order: SVU, then take the time to do a 30-minute informational follow up with basic info about trauma and recovery. Reactions and symptoms that are normal (albeit things you may feel you need assistance with if they are too life-altering for you), what reactions most likely need some kind of intervention (severe depression, suicidal ideation, etc), and national toll-free resources to call for help.
Hmph. Maybe I’ll write CBS, NBC, and ABC and pitch the idea. The worst they can say is no. NOT that I actually think they’re on the side of the common man, but that’s another post for another day.