Why Is Netflix Drawn Towards Emotional Pornography?
Harry and Meghan and The Cultivation of Public Voyeurism
Why is it that when I watch the trailers for Netflix’s Harry and Meghan, I feel more than a little exploited and manipulated? It is not because I have such strong views about the family they are trying to take down. Nor is it about the creepy enthusiasm with which they wish to project themselves as the hard-done victims of a Palace coup. Rather it is the studied manner with which Netflix’s Harry and Meghan aims to turn us into voyeurs through their offering of emotional pornography.
In the trailer, Harry complains that ‘there is a hierarchy of the family’ before promising to reveal all the dirty secrets of Westminster Palace. As expected in our therapy-oriented culture, the show is all about feelings and emotions. Meghan and Harry have turned emotional exhibitionism into an art form. And the mainstream media – especially in the United States – loves their sob stories
Meghan and Harry’s behaviour is best characterised as a form of emotional pornography. They continually flaunt their concern with mental health-related issues. They present themselves as not just victims but as sufferers of the psychological trauma inflicted on them by the bigoted and oppressive culture prevailing in Westminster Palace. That is why this pair of chancers have been described as ‘incredibly brave’ by Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. At a recent gala held in New York, Kennedy stated that she was ‘proud’ to honour them for their ‘heroic’ stance against the ‘structural racism’ of the British Monarchy.
‘They've stood up, they've talked about racial justice and they've talked about mental illness in a way that was incredibly brave,’ stated Kerry Kennedy, before adding that ‘for Meghan to get out there on national television and normalise discussion of mental health, at this point, is incredibly important and very brave’.
The representation of the Sussexes as champions of mental health is important. What used to be described as emotional incontinence is, in the current era, portrayed as a desirable character trait by the anti-stoic brigade. From this perspective, the aspiration to keep private affairs as just that, private, is depicted as a form of mental health deficit. The refusal to cry publicly and exhibit your vulnerability is now decried as a marker for buttoned-up toxic masculinity.
The commanding influence of the ideal of an emoting personality has been paralleled by the cultural devaluation of the ‘stiff upper lip’. This long-standing British metaphor for the demonstration of fortitude in the face of adversity is ridiculed as a symptom of emotional illiteracy rather than endorsed as a model for enduring disappointment and pain. The refusal to acknowledge fear and anxiety publicly is often diagnosed as both the cause and result of psychological problems.
Indeed, the ‘stiff upper lip’ is routinely condemned and portrayed as a major threat to public health. Writing in this vein, a group of researchers argue that one reason why the UK lags behind other countries in the fight to beat cancer is because of its ‘stiff upper lip culture’.[ii]
The act of opening up is frequently presented not as a personal option but as a public duty. Kathleen Lowney’s study of American TV talk shows finds that ‘guests are chided until they agree to enter therapy or go to a 12-step program or some other support group’.
Popular culture celebrates voyeuristic behaviour. ‘How do you feel?’ is now the only question that matters on reality TV shows, where the more you disclose, the more you are respected. The imperative of disclosing your private life informs the entertainment formula of a culture where disclosures of individual troubles masquerade as a public service. ‘Sharing problems’ has assumed the character of a civic virtue which is affirmed with the obligatory refrain, ‘thanks for sharing’.
Politicians and public figures can no longer refuse to answer a question on the grounds that ‘it is personal’. The public figures' emotional orientation through radio and television defines an event. ‘Capturing a sob, seeing tears flow down cheeks, looking into the eyes of the interviewee during tight camera shots merged as critical features of the message and, in some cases, the most important part of the report,’ writes the sociologist Davis Altheide, in his provocative study of media news in the US.[iii] This preoccupation with public figures’ feelings has inexorably led to more and more questions being posed about their personal lives.
Like pornography stars wearing no clothes, stripping bare to disclose true emotions is just a performance. But unlike hardcore pornography, its emotional cousin enjoys great cultural affirmation.
There are many problems with emotional pornography. It undermines stoicism and reticence. It encourages the ‘it’s all about me’ culture of narcissism. In the case of Netflix’s Harry and Meghan, it also defiles everything it targets. After watching their performance, you cannot help but feel it is time to shower.
[ii] Michelle Roberts ‘Cancer fight “hampered in UK by stiff upper lip”’, BBC News; 30 January 2013.
[iii] Altheide (2002) p.108.
Spot on! "disclosure of individual troubles masquerade as a public service." I think that captures the situation perfectly. The world as kindergarten. Heaven help us.
I think that most Americans (at least I HOPE so) prefer "stiff upper lip" as opposed to this phony ,maudlin description of their lives. Ugh!!