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Does Hollywood have a pain problem? Study of Netflix finds that depictions of pain in TV and movies could be reinforcing stereotypes

There are notable differences in how characters of different genders and races either experience or respond to pain in some of the most popular movies and TV shows, a Northeastern researcher says.

A screen capture of a character experiencing pain in Stranger Things.
“Stranger Things” had the second most instances of pain (95) of any of the Netflix shows included in the study, trailing “Outer Banks” (145). Image via Netflix

Some of the biggest movies and TV shows are exercises in pain for their characters. But how often do audiences think about who is experiencing that pain –– and what it’s telling us as viewers?

A recent study from an international team of health science and psychology researchers took an in-depth look at Netflix content to answer that question for one specific but important group of people: adolescents.

Idia Thurston, a professor of health sciences and applied psychology and associate director of the Institute for Health Equity and Social Justice Research at Northeastern University and part of the team behind this research, says the study reveals notable differences in how characters of different genders and races experience and respond to pain in adolescent media, effectively reinforcing certain stereotypes.

“Adolescents consume media –– they’re one of the biggest consumers of media,” Thurston says. “If we’re using stories to tell people how to behave or people watch these stories and it gives them ideas about how to respond, if you’re mostly portraying girls as not really responding, hanging back, not being the savior, then you’re sending these messages that we need to wait for men to help us, to support us, to rescue us from these entities, these experiences.”

The study focused on 10 movies and the first seasons of six TV shows that are widely available and viewed on Netflix. Spread across 60.16 hours of media, which included everything from Netflix originals like “Stranger Things” and “Outer Banks” to popular movies like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” there were 616 verifiable instances of pain, about 10.24 pain instances per hour.

The majority of these instances involved violent, extreme examples of pain, not the kind of chronic or medical pain, e.g. getting a shot, that young people are more likely to experience.

When it came to gender, boys were more likely to experience pain on-screen, particularly pain caused by other people: they accounted for 77% of pain instances. However, Thurston says what’s even more interesting than who is experiencing pain on-screen is who is responding to it –– and how they’re responding to it.

Girl characters were more often distressed or scared when witnessing pain than boy characters who observed pain. Notably, boy characters were twice as likely as girl characters to help someone who was suffering from pain. In general, observers were less likely to ignore boys’ pain, even if they were less likely to provide physical comfort to boys who were suffering from pain.

“It’s this idea of the heroic boy coming to save the day,” Thurston says. “Then when girls responded to pain, it was more emotional or there was less of helping the person address the pain. … Girls were more on the sidelines and not really intervening in any way, [while] boys were.”

White characters accounted for 78% of those who experienced pain on-screen, which Thurston says is far from surprising given ongoing conversations about on-screen representation in Hollywood. But she was surprised by the differences between how characters of racialized identities and white characters both experienced and responded to pain.

Characters with racialized identities –– a term used by Thurston and the researchers because they are simply observing the identities of characters without the ability to confirm them –– were more likely to experience pain caused by other people.

In terms of observer responses, observers with racialized identities were more likely to respond positively toward someone suffering from pain and were more likely to express vocal sympathy, notable given that the majority of characters who experienced pain were white. Meanwhile, observers were more likely to help characters with racialized identities who were experiencing pain.

While Thurston says the passive nature of their responses to suffering and how much they are helped by others speaks to another stereotype in media portrayals of non-white characters.

“When you look at that 22% of racialized individuals [in this study], often it was other people helping that person to respond,” Thurston says. “That falls into the trope … of the minoritized person as the helpless person that always needs saving.”

Regardless of gender or race, characters generally didn’t respond to other people experiencing pain in an empathic way or with prosocial behaviors like distraction, sharing, helping, vocal sympathy, physical comfort. In 85% of pain incidents depicted, observers had what psychologists would define as a maladaptive response.

“It’s sending these messages about what role we should be playing when really, we should all be responding to pain with empathy and being supportive,” Thurston says.

So should you or your children just stop watching your favorite movies and TV shows? Thurston says it’s less about turning off the TV and more about supporting young people in consuming media in a way that’s helpful to them.

“I think there’s some hotter topic areas where we know we should respond, but these more subtle ones around pain, knowing that one in five kids is experiencing some kind of pain, for me it at least tells me that I need to be more alert to pain experiences and how people respond so that my kids and other kids are not learning that when someone else is experiencing pain we just let it go and don’t respond,” Thurston says.