Catharsis vs. Commodification: Exploring Trauma in the Age of TikTok
From invasive trauma-dumping on TikTok to evocative art: is there a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of expressing trauma?
In the real world just like in the art world, personality is currency. By ‘real world’ we mean the digital world, of course, where exposure is amplified tenfold and the possibilities for making it big increase, if you know what cards to play. In many cases, the card is trauma and the game is dumping. With over 200 million views, #traumadump has become synonymous with scrolling through TikTok so much that it has seeped from psychological conversation into everyday talk. The term ‘trauma dumping’ specifically refers to ‘unloading traumatic experiences on others without warning or invitation’.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely at all, the definition of trauma dumping comes infinitely close to the representation and utilisation of trauma in creative disciplines. After all, turning on the TV to see the dramatisation of (insert example here) or letting Spotify shuffle songs into any direction to end up being involuntarily exposed to deeply personal lyrics and real life trauma seems very similar to what we encounter on TikTok, in a more subtle way. In our day to day life, we encounter and are exposed to each other’s hardships and tribulations but the line between creative expression and exploiting trauma for attention or money (or both) is becoming increasingly and at times alarmingly blurred. The question is, is one more legitimate than the other? The importance of context is massively at play in this case, since art, by definition, is a medium for representing the human condition and so it has been, for centuries.
When it comes to expressing the worst experiences of life, creativity and art take the role of a refuge for emotion; paintings, songs and performances become vessels for the transformation of trauma. Art grants the individual the capacity to transcend their trauma and turn it into a form or an object of catharsis that can be shared with others. As much as catharsis is present in trauma dumping, it’s not a catharsis that can be easily empathised with by others as it serves more to the dumper than the dumpee. Psychologists define trauma-dumping as a mechanism used to seek validation and attention, which is what we can witness on TikTok as the darker the trauma-dump: the more views it will get, the more the person can feel validated, both for their experience but also for the way in which they decided to share it with the world. This validation surmounts any potential concern about the possibilities of passing on trauma or triggering others. Despite its potential harm, maybe the popularity of this type of expression of trauma is a callout for more empathy and understanding for traumatic events that can often go dismissed. But trauma should become a free-for-all.
This attitude extends to the creative industry as well; commodifying trauma and horror for viewership and praise is becoming a recurring theme. Back in the fall of 2022, Netflix’s show ‘Dahmer’, a dramatised series about the life and crimes of the infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, came under fire under accusations of exploiting the victims’ horror and their loved ones’ trauma, without their permission. The show has been viewed over 1 billion times on Netflix so far. Many of the victims’ family members and loved ones expressed how triggering seeing the show and its popularity was, bringing back the worst parts of these people’s lives. It’s becoming too easy to praise art and creativity by forgetting the ethics of representation and forgiving commodification for morbid curiosity and entertainment. Somewhere between overexposure and desensitising, we’re losing empathy.
For many, processing and sharing trauma is the first step to healing but the path becomes full of hurdles when a deep personal experience becomes overtly shared and sensationalised. How are we meant to let go and move on when our trauma is out for the world to comment on? Of course, that all depends on how we share our stories and maybe, what #traumadump signals for is a call for empathy. After all, if no one around you wants to listen or understand, there is always an audience online that will, right?
There exists a genuine human need to express trauma in order to let it go and often for artists that means translating the trauma onto a piece of art, but that’s as far as that should go. Commodifying a personal traumatic experience or that of someone else goes beyond the need for catharsis and further healing. Although morbid curiosity is hard to tame, rewiring that attention towards an empathetic approach and more mindful consumption of trauma related media could go a long way towards a healthier general mindset.