My friends, we need to have a conversation about parental exploitation narratives in pop culture. If you don’t quite get what I mean, here’s a rough definition: Works of media and pop culture, fiction or nonfiction, produced by parents exploiting the lives of their children. Hopefully that prompts some examples, like memoirs about how hard it is to have a mentally ill child, or feel-good novels based on exploiting the narrative of your adopted child’s life, or documentaries all about how difficult it is to be a parent, revolving around the complexity of your relationship with your trans child.
These kinds of stories, and this approach to storytelling, give me the heebie jeebies (as do familial exploitation narratives in general), because they often involve telling someone else’s story without consent, for profit, attention, ‘inspiration,’ or to be ‘informative.’ The idea is that the parent’s desire to tell this story trumps that of the child — for isn’t it the parent’s story too? Shouldn’t parents be able to talk about their children if they want to?
This may be unpopular, but actually, no. Children are human beings and they deserve to be treated with respect. Often parents are telling their stories when they are unable to consent, or to fully understand the ramifications of consent. They may be too young to realise what a story really means, for example, or they may have a disability that complicates their understanding of an issue, or they may be estranged and unreachable — should parents be entitled to tell their stories just because they can’t say no?
I always feel a crawling sense of deep proximal shame, embarrassment, and humiliation when I encounter these kinds of narratives, which often reveal intensely intimate, private things about people when I know they might not be aware that these stories are being told, or have no way of knowing whether they’re okay with it. Sometimes they show people vulnerable and at their worst, in almost lascivious, grotesque detail — thus we see a mentally ill child depicted in the midst of a break with reality or a severe bout of depression, with details drawn out and painted in vivid pictures so that we all understand how terrible this is, perhaps with tragic music overlain.
I see photographs of children in the hospital, their secret and private parts exposed, because it’s a valuable learning experience. People freely discuss very personal things that happened to their children, not to them, in a way that exerts power and control and ownership, something especially creepy when we are talking about physical and sexual assault or intimate partner violence.
I feel a sour, bitter, unpleasant taste in my mouth. I don’t want this, I didn’t ask for this — usually these kinds of stories are the things I avoid because I find them repugnant. I think inevitably of the poor child I’m seeing, hearing about, reading about, and wonder how they feel, knowing this is out there. Or I think about how someone who died or committed suicide is treated as fair game for this kind of exploitative media, despite the fact that they were once human, had autonomy.
We live in a culture where parents are treated like children’s owners, not their guardians. In a legal sense, that’s sometimes especially painfully true, as parents can compel their children to do (or not do) a variety of things under the law, especially when it comes to health care decisions. In this haste to make children out like property, people are eager to forget the fact that they deserve autonomy, but also that they have feelings, sometimes complicated ones.
Children who experience struggles in youth may come to reflect on those and feel a lot of very intense things about them. How much more intense are they, knowing that they’ve been objectified in books, articles, documentaries, radio broadcasts, or other media? How horrific is it to to see a parent’s fiction and see yourself in it, knowing that your parent twisted and exploited your story, seeing your parent appear in interview after interview to talk about it with the blithe confidence of a person who didn’t live it? How awful would it be to find something created by one or both of your parents detailing how miserable and awful it was to raise you, what a burden you were?
Telling stories about real lives is complicated, because the things we do most certainly affect each other and shape who we are — I write about my relationship with my father occasionally, for example, and I know he did the inverse during his career. This didn’t necessarily always happen with consent, and sometimes involved parts of our stories that we think of as ours without necessarily realising what they were like for the viewer — what it was like for me to race to an ICU in a distant city to see my father after his myocardial infraction, for example.
But I try to be conscious, when I am writing about the people around me, to obtain consent, and when this isn’t possible, to weigh the story I’m telling, its importance, and whether it’s really my story to tell. I record stories my father tells me as part of my personal and cultural heritage, but I don’t necessarily turn his life into something I use for attention and profit or Very Special Lessons, and he’s certainly never done that to me. There have to be boundaries, lines, points of clarity.
And often I see these being overridden, and it disturbs me. If people cannot be responsible enough to take care with the stories they tell, it’s up to the gatekeepers to decide which stories they should produce and distribute, and they seem to be doing a very poor job of it. Every time I come across yet another book about the tragedy of parenting a disabled child or how difficult it is to parent someone who comes from a different cultural background, I’m reminded that this kind of exploitation is wholly normalised in society, that few stop to question whether it’s really such a good idea, and one reason why is the insatiable appetite for such storytelling, the eagerness with which it is received by the public.
Image: Parenting, Petras Gagilas, Flickr