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The wretchedness-avoidance complex: how “gritty” portrayals cause harm

April 8, 2016

In the last of three articles on prostitution, I’ll talk about media portrayals of sex work including fiction and the wretchedness-avoidance complex; the process by which people who dislike seeing unpleasant depictions of life are turned off particular groups of people by an overdose of grit.

A number of gritty dramas are determined to portray prostitution “the way it is” or rather, in the worst way possible. The mistake of the filmmakers is to think that their earnestness and compassion translates down to their audience; or their sub-audience, whom they have not considered. Their sub-audience are people who never watch the feature, but rather receive impressions from it via culture, including discussion on social media. Their sub-audience are those who do not seek to learn anything about certain social issues, or at least do not wish to see them starkly portrayed. They are realism-avoiders.

Such people, if they have no particular love for prostitutes, will connect the grit to the prostitution, and decide that the portrayal of the damaged, wretched woman wholly represents prostitution in its entirety. They will overlook any subtle character representation, instead focusing on the issue itself; they will form no connection to the character, and gain no empathy with that character or the social group of which they are a member.

This gritty portrayal hindrances social understanding rather than aids it. It will not incite compassion or even pity in a realism-avoider, who does not like to see unpleasantness of any kind. Instead, realism-avoiders become angry with the media that shows them the grit, which in turn becomes an aversion to the represented group itself. The realism-avoider does not like to see wretchedness, which causes them to meditate of their own life and depressing thoughts about how bad it could conceivably be.

Their response, to make themselves feel better, is to tell themselves that such a thing couldn’t happen to them, because they do not suffer from the deficit they perceive is a fixed feature of the other group. For example, they could not be assaulted in the street, because they are not a jerk. They could not be mutilated by vigilantes, because they are not a dirty pervert. They could not be raped, because they are not a slut. They could not be destitute and miserable, because they are not stupid and uneducated. They could not possibly be imprisoned or stuck in death row for years on end, because they are not a despicable criminal. They could not be held against their will and tortured, because they are not an evil terrorist. They could not be abused and trapped by an abusive pimp, because they are not a filthy whore.

Much as these common judgements are as harsh as they sound, and betray a distinct lack of awareness of social structures, they are more internally-focussed than externally; they are cathartic judgements, a tonic to the unpleasantness realism-avoiders experience when they observe human suffering. It is the same process, albeit a more extreme form, that we go through when we step over homeless people and avoid looking at charity ads on our morning commute. Faced with despair all around, it is often more comfortable to assume that people are unfortunate due to their own mistakes or even volition, else their own character flaws that make them a person less worthy of consideration.

To avoid feeling wretched, you must disassociate yourself from the wretch, and construct a fantasy land whereby you could never be one of the wretched, because the wretched are practically a different species. This attitude helps explain a lot of the anti-welfare sentiment and anti-immigration sentiment, too; it’s easier to say that no one needs to claim benefits or seek asylum when you have never had to, and comforting to think that world can’t be that bad – individuals must ultimately be in control, must be able to bend the world to their bidding with enough willpower, must be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps all on their own.

This reaction is not as unreasonable as it looks. The rationale is that human beings, as conscious-decision makers, must have some influence over their own lives. I think the biggest pessimist in the world could probably accept that much. The middle ground then at least is to acknowledge that even if people do not deserve every single misfortune that befalls them, people are the agents of their own will, and that being an agent of your own will means that at least some of the things that happen to you in your life will be things that you want. This involves representing people’s autonomy over choices that some of the population may not necessarily agree with socially or morally.

Consider Channel 4, which has gone out of its way to air several frank documentaries on sex, including sex work. People who are anti-prostitution accuse these of sanitising the issue, since they tend to focus on prostitutes who are on the happier end of the scale. Frankly, I think this is most likely because they make more articulate and more willing interviewees; if they are a public face of sex work in the UK (as several are), they have politicised their own decision, spending a fair proportion of their time formulating defences and supporting statements for their work. They also, of course, have more control and more freedom to accept or decline clients than the average streetwalker, thanks to their status and wealth; they can therefore minimise the less appetising part of sex work experience, and speak about it freely without experiencing discomfort from the memory of their experiences.

As partisan pro-sex as Channel 4 is, I think it is honest in its own way. It lets people involved speak for themselves, and their experiences are indubitably more interesting by far than loose feminist theorising about how prostitution-is-patriarchy, or hearsay from anonymous sources about how terrible being a prostitute is. Documentaries give the audience a pre-packaged, varied set of views from different individuals and therefore an automatically more nuanced picture. But even if it did not, even if it was fiction as fanciful as Pretty Woman, it would still be serving an important social purpose; showing that sex workers have autonomy.

This beats forcing grit down people’s throats. Showing viewers what they don’t want to see is a waning media obsession. For the most part, preachy programs have faded in favour of oddity fascinations, reality TV and fly-on-the-wall. While some may decry this dip in content quality, it is questionable to what extent showing people what they don’t want to see changes their mind; if the approach is wrong for the audience, the audience will respond in the opposite way to the intended. This is why I personally value soap operas even though I don’t myself enjoy them; they are entertainment shows that present social issues in a manner that a mass audience responds to.

Hyperbolically, yes, but also euphemistically; they are not gritty and not graphic. They want you to love their characters, or love-hate them – as do reality TV shows, which hand pick the most extraordinary personalities or modes of being. Love characters, and you will love what those characters are: gay, trans, prostitute, criminal. You will support them and forgive them. This gives endless affirmative action possibilities to producers, who exploit them gleefully and create trivial but often pleasantly surprising dialogues about the various minorities involved. What’s significant about these portrayals is that they’re positive because they’re characterful, not because they are rose-tinted. Characterful portrayals change perceptions for the better, because familiarity and likeability are the better friends of empathy than pitiable wretchedness.

I will conclude by hastily adding that I am not against gritty dramas. I suggest that each fiction writer owes it to represented groups that each character within the group is made into a likeable character, one with humour and tenacity – as opposed to trembling victims, however terrible the abuse. Any potential victims themselves will see themselves more clearly in that portrayal, and it will have a positive knock-on effect. I think it’s a mistake to represent graphic violence, which inflames social issue avoidance and prevents even strong-stomached people from wanting to watch dramas that could otherwise prove both enriching and seminal in their insights. For the sake of media as well as positive representation, I hope future writer-directors take stock of this.

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