‘Grief porn’ frames emotional intelligence as gendered

Sam Juric

The images of females huddled together, clutching one another in the immediate aftermath of disaster, destruction and war have been the recurring subjects of photography for decades.

Some of the most iconic photographs of all time have depicted bereaved women and girls in the midst of scenes of chaos and carnage.

From Dorothea Lange’s award winning photo of a suffering migrant woman surround by children to Huynh Cong Ut’s photo of the nine-year-old “Napalm Girl” fleeing an American bombing in Vietnam, running down the street naked with a decisive look of fear and vulnerability clinging to her face, the images of women suffering have been burned into our collective memories.

Beyond the basic debate of the ethics surrounding the documentation of such scenes and doing nothing to prevent or assist in these situations is the far less discussed issue of the specific narrative that is being told by the overwhelming overuse of women to represent horror, grief and suffering.

The visual documentation of the Vietnam War, the earthquakes that rocked both Haiti and Japan, the genocides of Bosnia and Rwanda reveal the historical gendered way we view and consume images of suffering. 

This kind of imagery is not isolated to the past.

Even now, in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Lahore the narrative lives on. And it is strong.

The first dominant image of the Brussels attacks was of an injured woman covered in soot, slumped on a bench. The principal images used to depict the attacks in Lahore were overpoweringly of bereaved, inconsolable women holding one another.

These images were vastly and readily consumed by the public through news outlets such as CBC, MSNBC, The Guardian, CTV and others across the globe.

Do we like seeing women suffer? Is suffering beautiful when it’s represented by a woman, is there something sexual or desirable about it?

The idea may sound perverse (and it is) but one Google search of the word suffering will show that we do, as a society, have a morbid fixation with female suffering. It is the silent taboo.

It points to a society that is unable to bear witness to the constructs of the macho male struck down, to reveal a human, vulnerable and capable of feeling.

It creates an unrealistic polarization between the suffering of men and women. One which implies that men are weak if depicted suffering and women cold and heartless if they do not react emotionally.

This continued narrative is damaging. The gendered images of war and suffering have significant weight and leave impressions on the mind. Images assign meaning and significance to abstract concepts. They form identity and conceptions of reality.

It leaves boys and men the most vulnerable and at risk to the idea that women are solely given the role of suffering.

While writing this, I asked my roommate what she imagines when she thinks of suffering. Her answer sadly did not diverge from this destructive cliché.

She is an artist who is training to become an illustrator. Through her art she will help to depict human nature. Whether it is realistic or not. Whether it is a gendered view or not.

The media is one of the largest contributors to this gendered outlook. Since the advent of social media, this kind of ‘grief porn’ is more and more accessible.

Just in the isolated cases of the attacks in Brussels and Lahore, Twitter and Google were pouring with images of women suffering.

It’s time to change the narrative. It’s time to show that men are human too.

Equality and equity are mainly discussed in conversations concerning the wage gap, voting and reproductive rights but it must also be considered in looking at the subliminal messages produced by the media.

It’s the things that go unnoticed that matter, that can have the deepest and most destructive impact.

It is worth mentioning that in an effort to challenge the prevalence of this issue I have chosen not to include examples of the photographs mentioned in this piece.

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