Tropes I Despise: Burden Porn

Image © Can Stock Photo / auris

The sorrowful, dramatic, and heartbreaking music swells. The man in the white coat looks at his results once again and steels himself to deliver the bad news. “The results are in,” he says. “There can be no doubt. Your child is… a burden.” She screams and cries, the dramatic sting sounds as she collapses against her supportive other. “I’m sorry,” he might add. “There’s nothing we can do.”

Back in the 70’s that was the favoured plotline pattern of Little Johnny’s blindness/deafness arc. Or perhaps, “Your SO Is Confined To A Wheelchair”. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the burden is… it matters that the abled person is now struggling with this condition that might only remotely effect them. There might be a sappy-happy ending with the Burden approaching normalcy and viewing that as a win.

It’s over-played. It’s been over-played since the beginning of Drama. Well. Maybe somewhere near its invention, it was a shocking thing, but. Let’s face it. The Burden is played out as a shocking thing to happen to a nypical, abled character.

They don’t stop using it. They move the target. Once upon a time, it was shameful to have someone with cerebral palsy in the family. The person in the wheelchair had to cover their infirm legs, lest they give someone the vapours. The blind person always had to be the beggar, etcetera. RIP, Once upon a time…

Now, we have heroes who are blind [provided they have the bullshit ability to see with some kind of radar, or can see the future or whatever negates them actually being blind] and heroes in wheelchairs [as long as they’re a mastermind type], and even people with physical and mental disabilities popping up in media as regular everyday people [they do turn up more often in Procedural Drama as victims, though]. So the writers and producers have to move the goalposts.

For a while, in the 80’s and early 90’s, the Burden was the LGBTIAQ kid who got AIDS for another heart-warming round of Bury Your Gays. So (mostly) gay representation was being both the Burden and then Buried. What a wonderful slice of the cake that was. [/sarcasm] Sometimes, the Burden was the mother who was battling an eating disorder, but the focus was always on her and her brave struggle.

It’s always the mother. Less often, and increasingly in modern productions, the father gets the reins. Nevertheless, the focus is relentlessly on the Brave Parental’s Tireless Struggle Against… insert Burden here. The focus is on the hurdles the Parent has to surmount, the mountains they have to climb, the struggles they go through to get their Burden into becoming Less-of-a-Burden.

It’s always the lengths they go to for the expensive therapy/surgery/retreat and the struggle they have to get their Burden to Comply and Conform. Once something approaching that is accomplished, declare victory, roll credits, and maybe have a little blurb about how the Parent became involved in so-and-so charity for Other Burdens.

Nothing about the kid.

Someone on the internet said it best: We all made a fuss over getting Helen Keller to speak. None of us cared much about what she had to say after that.

For the record, she was an outspoken workers’ rights advocate, suffragette, and defender of disability accomodations in public spaces. I’m a writer, I research things for fun.

The problem I have right now is that Burden Porn is focussed almost exclusively on Autistic Kids. Or, as I prefer to know us, Autistes. The hard focus being on the meltdown and how it’s tormenting the parents, ruining the parents’ marriage, or otherwise causing social friction amongst the normal. The worst thing a parent can have, we’re told to imagine, is a child who embarasses you.

There’s the “Autism Parents” who use this trope to defend their nypical arses every time their autistic child is undergoing some form of torture in order to be able to perform normalcy. Meanwhile, the leading cause of death in young Autistes is Autistic Parents who “just couldn’t cope anymore” and decided to enact a “mercy killing”.

There’s the horror industry, who had the alleged genius to create Brightburn[warning: jumpscares]… a story in which an Autistic Kid is also an alien and a murderous rampage beast. Thanks a bunch, guys. That’s going to do absolutely nothing to stop Autism Parents killing their kids. It might even encourage nypicals to kill their autistic classmates. You’re “brilliant”. Fuck off and die in a fire, thanks.

There’s the anti-vax community, who honestly and wholeheartedly believe that having an Autistic Kid is a fate worse than burying one. Those “harmless childhood diseases” could kill, folks. People would up and die of Measles, Polio, Mumps, and Chicken Pox. Now that they’re back again, the little ones are dying again.

All because Autism is blown out of all proportion as both threat and Burden.

I get it. Autistes are an easy target. We’re strange. We do weird things. We talk funny. We don’t act like regular people. It’s so, so very easy to make us Other. Just like homicidal maniacs, we look like everyone else. You can make the Threat come from everywhere. You can make the Other incomprehensible.

All because you – the nypical writing the narrative – cannot comprehend what it’s like inside an Autiste’s head.

An Autiste’s meltdown is incomprehensible to a nypical because they cannot understand what could cause an Autiste stress. And worse – the nypicals don’t want to. They don’t want to make the effort. They want us to meet them halfway. They want us to explain ourselves, to provide our own protection [whilst laughing at us for doing so] and tell them what they could do to help us out through our days.

And then, like true and compassionate beings, they’ll tell us to “just be normal” and expect that to be a cure. Like only children are allowed to be Autistes because that’s where all the Burden is “supposed” to be, according to the narrative. They don’t expect non-nypical adults. There’s no representation for that.

Given the representation that exists for Autistes like me? I’m not sure if I want it…

3 thoughts on “Tropes I Despise: Burden Porn

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