Disability Tragedy Porn, Defined

It occurred to me the other day that I frequently reference the concept of disability tragedy porn (which I often shorten to just tragedy porn or disability porn), but I haven’t actually taken the time to sit down and define it, to discuss what, precisely, it is, and why it’s a problem. I sort of assume that this is something people know and can recognise, but that’s not necessarily the case, so clearly it’s time to remedy that, because this is an important social phenomenon that could benefit from closer and more detailed discussion. In defining things, it becomes easier to identify and talk about them, and to pinpoint their origins and why they’re harmful.

So, and thus, disability tragedy porn. This is a particular type of narrative about disability that can appear in fiction and nonfiction, in a wide variety of media. It conceptualises disability in a very specific way, tragedising the lived experience of disabled people and underscoring the idea that disability is the worst thing ever, the most awful imaginable thing that could happen to someone. It collapses all disabled experiences into one umbrella of misery.

It can take a lot of different forms, but basically it starts with a story about a disabled person that lingers on the details of how the disability was acquired; maybe it’s congenital, maybe it was a tragic accident, maybe it was an illness or unexpected injury. These details are important, because they underscore the idea that disability is an out of control happenstance that could strike anyone at any time. While this is true, in tragedy porn, it’s not stated as a simple fact but more like a threat: disability is a roll of the dice, and also it’s, to a certain extent, a ‘bad luck’ event. Very rarely in tragedy porn do I see discussions about the possible prevention of things like severe workplace injuries, congenital disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to pollution, and so forth.

The only time you ever see prevention referenced is when the acquisition of the disability is meant to serve as an object lesson, and this most classically appears in tragedy porn surrounding the victims of drunk driving incidents. Whether they’re drivers, passengers, or people in another vehicle injured because someone was drinking, they and their disabilities are paraded as a reminder that driving drunk is bad and wrong. Which, again, it is, and it is indeed true that these are fully preventable disabilities, but the presentation is highly objectifying; show us your scars and let us use your body as a model of something disgusting and awful to show people the consequences of drunk driving. Look at how hideous you are, how broken, how undesirable.

Pity must be provoked. This is key. The viewer is supposed to feel sad for the disabled person, who is not actually a human being in this narrative, but an object. A broken one, at that, something that cannot ever be repaired. The next stage in the tragedy porn, act II, as it were, must linger on all that the disabled person has lost or can never do. These serve as reminders that disability makes a person useless and incapable; she’ll never walk again, he’ll never know a lover’s touch, she used to enjoy soccer so much, he can’t paint anymore, her brain injury makes it impossible to write, he won’t ever be able to dive.

These are all about a lack of, a want, positioning impairments as representations of incapability. Rather than looking at what someone can do, they are about restriction, and, by extension, misery. While loss and a mourning period are common with acquired disability, disability porn isn’t about that; it’s about suggesting that disabled people live in misery throughout their entire lives, longing for the things they cannot have. This, the viewer is reminded, is tragic. It’s awful! And it’s all disability’s fault; there is no distinction between impairments that change the way people function (true, yes, a paraplegic is unlikely to walk again) and disabling situations created by society (that doesn’t mean she can’t play soccer—she could use a sports wheelchair and play adaptive sports).

But then comes act III, the redemption! A nondisabled person has swooped in to save the day and put an end to the unrelenting misery. Just by being disabled, the object of our interest has become…inspirational! Suddenly, our disabled person has a new purpose in life, a meaning, and that is as an object of prurient fascination and much discussion among nondisabled people. Maybe you’re going to roll on school stages across the country and lecture people about drunk driving. Maybe you are going to heroically (and, naturally, with the help of nondisabled people) be able to find new things to do, new things to love, and then you can talk about all you’ve lost…but oh, how much you’ve gained! You never really liked diving anyway. Perhaps you’re going to inspire just by being alive in the face of incredible hardship.

Porn complete! You have a tragic disabled person (because of course disability is tragic) who is able to find redemption through inspiring nondisabled people, and you have leveled up to inspiration porn, which becomes a whole different kettle of fish. Throughout this process, the fundamental humanity of the disabled person is utterly stripped. It’s not relevant, nor is it of interest. What’s important here isn’t who this person is, but how this person can be exploited in service of making disability seem terrible.

Thus, there’s no distinction between genuine suffering experienced because an impairment is miserable and it sucks, and living your life as a disabled person. There’s no acknowledgement of the fact that there’s a significant different between not being able to do something because of an impairment, and not being able to do something because society is preventing it. There’s no acknowledgement of the fact that disabled experiences are hugely variable. And nowhere in there is the idea that disabled people are people, humans, individuals, not object lessons or things to be gawked at.