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Killing toxic positivity with traumedy

There's been a spike in demand for traumedy, a mix of humour and trauma as seen in Fleabag and BoJack Horseman, to deal with pandemic realities

Shows like Amazon Prime's Fleabag starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, where the lead character or characters deal with some form of trauma and use comedy as a shield, have created demand for traumedy content, 
Shows like Amazon Prime's Fleabag starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, where the lead character or characters deal with some form of trauma and use comedy as a shield, have created demand for traumedy content,  (Amazon/IMDB)

How is life? It’s OK. One-time watch. A little long.

Zindagi mein utaar utaar toh aate rehte hain (Downs and downs are a part of life).

Throughout the course of the pandemic, writer-director Vishal Dayama has been tweeting his thoughts, giving vent to the humour, trauma, resignation, sarcasm and irony that many of us have been feeling. Two months ago, these one-liners were turned into a collection of t-shirts, which seem to be selling like hotcakes.

“My merchandise partner Grow91 and I thought we’ll party when we reach the 100 mark. We sold 170 t-shirts within an hour of me announcing the launch on Instagram on September 5. Now when I push a new design with tweet-text, it fetches 50-60 orders instantly,” says Dayama, who was the co-writer on recent popular ad campaigns like the ones for Cred featuring Rahul Dravid, Kapil Dev and Jackie Shroff, and for Disney+Hotstar with Shah Rukh Khan.

The popularity of his t-shirt line is an indicator of the growing popularity of ‘traumedy’ content in India, fuelled by the past 20 months of living with a pandemic. Psychologists define traumedy, a portmanteau of trauma and comedy, as a genre of content that allows people to articulate their trauma and use comedy to release tension, just before things get overwhelming.

“Covid-19 brought the sense of a vague threat looming over everyone’s head. Traumedy content comes as a relaxant of sorts that has helped many acknowledge their sadness without wallowing in it,” says Anshuma Kshetrapal, a creative arts psychotherapist from Delhi.

Traumedy has been made popular by shows like BoJack Horseman, Fleabag, After Life and Please Like Me, where the lead character or characters deal with some form of trauma and use comedy as a shield. “The pandemic has made me choose to watch such shows,” says Kayem (@atable_forone on Twitter). “Over the last 20 months, our social circles have grown so small that we obviously relied on any content that would make us feel like we're not losing our sanity by ourselves, even though these series were not pandemic-based.”

Meme pages like @SoSadToday on Twitter, and @SirJoanCornella and @Casual.Nihilism on Instagram, which capture sentiments anyone in any part of the world can relate to have more followers as well. “Clients have started sending us screenshots from these shows for reference,” says Kshetrapal. “They send posts from these meme pages, also called dank memes, and point to the number of likes. It allows them to see they are no longer isolated in their depression.” Dank memes are quite popular in the therapists’ circuit as well.

Dayama, better known as @dayamaged to his 28,000-odd Instagram followers, started sharing such memes a few years ago not just to be funny but also to reflect on the reality of our times. He says he “hates motivational people” and posts these notes on social media to counter the flag-bearers of optimism (read: toxic positivity) who celebrate every new day as an opportunity.

Toxic positivity is "positivity given in the wrong way, in the wrong dose, at the wrong time," David Kessler, a grief expert and the author of six books told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “It’s a form of gaslighting,” explained Susan David, a psychologist and consultant at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, to WSJ.

Dayama agrees: “Getting up and feeling positive takes a toll. It’s not normal, especially right now.” His Twitter account, which stood at the 10,000 mark for five years, has gained 5,000 new followers since the first lockdown.

Niraj Kakade, a 26-year-old media professional from Pune, recently bought one of Dayama’s t-shirts. “It’s my way of dealing with a world that’s stopped in its tracks due to the pandemic. You make fun of the situation to take its power away,” he says. 

@Philosophy_fix, a traumedy memes account, gets 20% of its 280,000 Instagram followers from India, says Israeli psychotherapist Daniel Chechick who runs the page. Chechick liberally adds hashtags like #Indianmemes, #Desimemes, and #Bollywoodmemes to draw more of this audience. Some of his posts also include bawdy hashtags like #bakch*di and #ch*tiyapanti, Hindi slang that has 7 million posts on Instagram between them.

Like comedy, traumedy has bad elements. A good traumedian's jokes punch inwards as opposed to mocking someone else's trauma. "I don't even use words like 'depression' in my posts, to ensure they aren't triggering for anyone," says Dayama.

Also read: What the Burari memes say about suicide awareness in India

“Psychologically speaking, traumedy is a wonderful experience for your body to have, as long as it doesn’t exaggerate a pre-existing pathology,” adds Kshetrapal. 

Even Twitter’s algorithm seems to push tweets on these lines now, observes Samrat Singh, a Mumbai-based marketing professional whose despondent and nihilistic tweets get far more traction now than they did before Covid-19 hit the world. “Content that’s simply funny just doesn’t feel in line with what’s happening around us,” he says.

All this increased traction, however, is for international traumedy content. There’s barely anything in the Indian content landscape for fans of this genre. Take the narrative of all biopics on Indian women in recent times. “It is focused on achievers. It constantly forces you to be and feel who you probably aren't,” says Vijayeta Kumar, a screenwriter. “It’s obvious that we are drawn to a character like Fleabag because she is like us, she fails.”

The lack of local traumedy references in pop culture also stops many people from expressing their desire for this type of content openly. Clients send screenshots of traumedy memes to their therapists in private instead of reposting them from their social accounts. People buy Dayama’s t-shirts and send him a picture of wearing one at home, but most won’t post those photos on Instagram.

This is because we don’t talk about our sadness, our depression, our traumas and our tragedies, as openly as we celebrate life as a culture, says Priya Malik (@PriyaSometimes on Instagram), a popular spoken-word poet. “As a society, we are used to laughing at the obvious, the slapstick genre of comedy,” she says. 

The scene is changing, though. Two months ago, Malik, a long-standing fan of the genre, wrote and performed a poem titled, “I found his head in the washing machine” which is very much in the traumedy genre. The likes to dislikes ratio on its YouTube video (3500:47) makes us bullish on traumedy’s prospects.

Also read: Why emotional abuse is often ignored

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