Trauma in television

Ruby Osborne assesses the representation of trauma and mental health in TV

Ruby Osborne
17th February 2020
Credit: IMDb
Trauma is one of those taboo subjects that is either skipped over, or completely misrepresented in television. However in the past three years, we have seen an influx of more realistic portrayals of how people deal with trauma in everyday life.

In television, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder have commonly been portrayed as over dramatic. Coincidentally, this article focuses on three Netflix original shows: Anne with an E, Spinning Out, and Sex Education

Anne with an E, based on the 1908 novel by L. M. Montgomery, focuses on how 11 year old orphan Anne Shirley adjusts to her new life with the Cuthberts, after being thrown between the orphanage and working as a servant for local families. In the novel, we never see the orphanage, or Anne’s flashbacks to it. Instead, we are introduced to Anne’s overactive imagination and love of reading, and left to infer the reason behind this escapism. The series however, delves into Anne’s head and the thoughts that plague her mind, behind her sunny smiles and stories. These flashbacks to scenes of the grey, dimly lit orphanage are heavy in season one, demonstrating how even after escaping an abusive situation, people still face the repercussions of their maltreatment far into their life. In season two, the flashbacks become less regular, but are still there. However, in season three, we see the memories rush back for Anne as she revisits the orphanage where she spent most of her childhood. We see how small, seemingly insignificant things, such as stirring tea, or the word “freak” can trigger a flashback.

Kiawenti:io Tarbell as Ka'kewt. Credit: YouTube, Netflix

AWAE also explores how these flashbacks don’t just affect the individual and their thoughts, but their behaviour, especially towards those closest to them. We see this in Anne’s character, but also in Ka’kwet, a Mi’kmaw girl who Anne befriends. Ka’kwet is sent to an Indian Residential school, through little choice of her own or her parents. Even including this storyline itself is a positive of the show, as this dark piece of Canadian history is often completely avoided in media. Furthermore, we see how after Ka’kwet’s escape from the ‘school’, she doesn’t escape the trauma. She lashes out at her parents, and demonstrates how she has internalised the racism of the institution after it has been drilled into her. The lasting effects are detrimental, and despite her escape, she is forced back, and, controversially, the series is cancelled before we can see the resolve to her storyline. 

Kaya Scodelario as Kat Baker. Credit: IMDb

Abuse is not the only cause for trauma though, and we see this in Netflix’s Spinning Out. Kaya Scodelario (Skins) plays Kat Barker, a figure skater whose dreams of the Olympics are shattered when she suffers a severe head injury after falling during a competition. Spinning Out is positive in the way it demonstrates how trauma can stem from anything, and also how it can affect someone with a pre-existing mental health issue, in Kat’s case, bipolar disorder. 

The injury and trauma that follows cause break Kat’s chances at the Olympics, triggering her to stop taking care of herself and her wellbeing, including stopping taking her medication. However, after the first few episodes, and the last episode, Kat’s flashbacks are rarely seen. Of course, trauma can manifest itself in ways other than flashbacks, but it is definitely shelved while the focus shifts to her relationship with her boyfriend, Justin. Furthermore, her recovery from her injury, in terms of being prepared to jump again seemed suspiciously fast, taking only an argument with Justin and a montage for Kat to regain her confidence, despite almost dying the last time she jumped. 

Aimee Lou Wood as Aimee Gibbs. Credit: YouTube

Possibly one of the best representations of trauma we have seen in recent television is the storyline of Aimee in season 2 of Sex Education. Aimee experiences sexual assault on the bus to school, and the series follows her as she comes to terms with her experience. Unlike Kat's story, we see episode by episode the effect that the assault has on Aimee’s daily life. It hinders her from being intimate with her boyfriend, open with her friends, and most importantly, getting on the bus. All these things are realistic for people who deal with trauma, and this portrayal of how inconspicuous trauma can be in other people. One of the most poignant moments of Sex Education is the scene on the bus, where Aimee’s friends and classmates join her on her journey to school, reminding her that “it’s just a stupid bus”. This scene reminds the audience how important support from other people is in dealing with trauma, and that sometimes just being there with someone makes all the difference in their healing process.

This problematic nature needs to be addressed as it sets a standard that only this group of people can be affected by trauma.

Despite the progressive representation of trauma within these shows however, there is still one glaring issue. Apart from Ka’kwet, who’s storyline is not even finished, all characters mentioned who deal with trauma are white, straight women. This problematic nature needs to be addressed as it sets a standard that only this group of people can be affected by trauma. Of course, this is not the case, as trauma and the situations that cause it can happen to anybody. However, we need to see this on television more, as representation is the most important thing. Hopefully, the progression we have seen recently with the portrayal of trauma on television will continue to grow even further over the next year.

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