Beware Adversity Porn

With the current high-profile coverage of Stormy Daniels in mainstream media, the public is bombarded with subtle (“adult-film star”) and not-so-subtle (“porn-star client”) attempts to slut-shame Daniels through her profession in the porn industry.

This obsession with Daniels, reducing her always to porn star in order to keep our eyes on here and not Trump, reveals much about the inherent sexism and Puritanical love-hate relationship with sex that characterize Americans.

While the evidence is not as clear as many think about the dangers of pornography, something else insidious confronts the U.S. in our media and pop culture—adversity porn.

ESPN’s E:60 episode, “Letterman,” offers but one example of what I mean by adversity porn:

As TJ Cotterill reported when the episode premiered in 2015:

The first-year Lincoln coach said the inner-city schools – one in Tacoma, the other Los Angeles – share similar issues with drug abuse, poor grades, low incomes and single-family homes. Only Lincoln has a support system that didn’t exit at Bernstein.

But his endeavor to change Bernstein’s culture – symbolized though emotional letters of love he asked parents to write to his team’s players that they were surprised with and read on their own before the team’s practice – will be featured at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday on ESPN’s “E:60.”

Viewers meet and come to empathize with several boys and men of color who all share some highlighted characteristics—the absent father, socio-economic hardship, struggles to succeed in traditional settings such as school.

In one moment, a featured boy at half-time of a football game implores his teammates to play like inner-city players; he is shouting, much as the coach, who the episode stresses has a similar background to his players, does throughout footage of his coaching.

This is adversity porn, the romanticizing of people who find themselves in adversity and then demonstrate the nearly super-human will to scream at and fight their way above that adversity.

The Coach plays the role of “I have overcome” and proceeds to be the savior for the boys and their parents, who are framed as passively negligent or unaware until the coach asks them to write letters to their sons.

Designed to be inspiring, adversity porn such as this (and examples can be found almost daily across the U.S.) depends on and perpetuates some ugly messages about people of color and people trapped in poverty; they are flawed people who need to be changed, and that problem is cloaked in code (“culture”).

Adversity porn accomplishes what much of mainstream media and pop culture sell constantly by keeping the public gaze on individuals, those who bend to adversity and those who somehow rise above adversity.

But isn’t this just a feel-good story about these boys, their coach, and their families?

The “feel-good” part is the problem because it is the soma, the Novocaine that numbs us to the real problem that adversity porn helps avoid—the adversity itself.

Adversity porn is about flawed people, and it normalizes the outliers who seem to overcome adversity. Adversity porn matches well the urge to turn our schools into fortresses instead of addressing the larger gun culture that threatens our students’ safety.

This is our rugged individualism myth that is both a lie and a distraction.

Of course, heroic and exceptional people are compelling. We love the gods of our mythologies and the superheroes of our Marvel and DC universes.

But those expectations imposed onto all humans serves only to erase any recognition of our shared and individual humanity. To live in adversity is shamed, and then to fail at rising above that adversity is more shame.

Adversity porn’s focus on the individuals and not the adversity is its ultimate corrosive influence.

New stories that acknowledge and unmask the adversity and then create hero narratives about the people in privilege who use their privilege to end the adversity, not to shame and “fix” the people who are victims of adversity—this is what we need.

No white saviors or white-savior stand-ins, no finger wagging at parents who labor under the weight of poverty, no romanticizing abusive behavior (screaming, berating) and toxic masculinity masked as “tough love.”

“Porn,” broadly, represents that which we are in some compelling and possibly even obsessive way drawn to, attracted to. The porn content itself may not be the problem, but the obsession and the distorting impact that obsession produces are likely the real problems.

Adversity porn creates overly simplistic pictures of the people trapped in adversity; then it callously ignores the adversity itself, sending a deformed message about the fatalism of adversity and the lottery that is surviving or thriving.

Ultimately, adversity porn argues that we need to instill in people trapped in adversity the grit and tenacity to overcome, but a more humane goal would be to seek ways to end the adversity itself, a goal that may be less sexy because it would require the sort of grit we demand of the poor and oppressed in those with privilege who rest on the fact of adversity themselves.

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