How did the suffering of marginalized artists become so marketable?

By linking an artist's value to the amount of pain they are willing to share, galleries, publishers and media outlets are turning them into trauma clowns

TRAUMA CLOWN as part of CONTACT PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL at Patel Project Studios (184 Munro, unit 6). Opening reception Saturday (May 4), 6-8 pm. Show runs to June 2.

DEATH THREAT and VS. imprint launch as part of TORONTO COMIC ARTS FESTIVAL with Ness Lee and Téa Mutonji at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex). May 10, 7 pm. Free.

The first art I made was inspired by heartbreak and loneliness. I wrote songs about the boys who would never love me, about the beauty I would never possess, with a healthy serving of Jesus metaphors. Typical angsty teenager shit. Like most musicians, these were the themes I continued to sing about when I began recording albums. But when only a handful of people were interested in these songs, I needed to find a way to continue to be creative without the pressure to “break in” or to “make it.” I switched gears and wrote my first book, God Loves Hair. 

When my mom asked me why I wanted to write this book – which details the complexities of growing up with Hindu immigrant parents and my experiences of homophobia, suicide ideation and sexual violence – I told her that I wanted to give young, brown gender-creative kids the kind of book I didn’t have growing up. Much of the art I have produced since has been inspired by a desire to address gaps in the representations that shaped my childhood in hopes of minimizing the kind of loneliness I felt.

What I didn’t express to my mom, perhaps because I didn’t fully know how to express what was happening, was that I began to feel unburdened. In short, writing – and later reading aloud in public – about childhood and teenage experiences of trauma was healing. Once I clued in that art had the capacity to set me free, I wanted to relieve my entire body and its history of every ounce of pain I had experienced through any medium of art available. I also hoped that if I shared my experiences of pain, my art could perhaps even set audiences free from their stereotypes and biases, elicit different behaviours and reactions when they encountered difference off-stage and off the page. 

What I didn’t know was that by writing this book and creating subsequent art projects that explored my encounters with racism, biphobia and misogyny, I was walking into a trap.

When I reflect on my career, it’s hard not to notice the ways interest and institutional support (in the form of art contracts, funding, awards, invitations) have increased as I’ve shared more of my traumatic experiences. While my ability to survive as a working artist depends in part on interest and institutional support, the correlation between trauma and “success” is disturbing. Have I unknowingly been typecast as a trauma clown? 

Unfortunately, this seems to be a common experience for marginalized artists: our value often seems inherently tied to the suffering we portray in our work. What is it about the suffering of marginalized bodies that’s so appealing? 

In 2013, I saw 12 Years A Slave in a theatre packed mostly with white people. As I listened to many of them cry, I wondered if watching this film was somehow cathartic for them, and perhaps even for me as a non-Black person – offering the opportunity to momentarily feel guilty, cry and then be absolved. As I left the theatre, I overheard a couple sorting out their dinner plans, as though seeing a movie about Black slavery was a kind of appetizer. I was grateful to later read Black writers who discussed their significantly different perspectives about the film, including Kara Brown who wrote in Jezebel: “I’m tired of watching Black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against Black people are the only types of films regularly deemed ‘important’ and ‘good’ by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where Black people are subservient.”

When I consider the long history of marginalized suffering being used as a form of entertainment, whether through public lynchings, the egging of queer people on Yonge Street on Halloween, or the consumption of “trauma porn,” I wonder if the demand that marginalized artists repeatedly perform trauma – becoming trauma clowns – in our art is a way to contain and oppress us, politely or indirectly, from the comfort of a seat, hands clean. What happens when the kinds of trauma I have experienced aren’t trendy or traumatic enough to “sell”? 

The more the pain of people from marginalized groups is repeatedly and consistently consumed as a form of ‘entertainment,’ the less potential these images have to effect necessary social change.

In the years since I wrote my first book, when I’ve pitched art projects that were not explicitly tied to trauma or experiences of oppression, arts institutions have attempted to steer my focus back toward trauma, encouraging me to revisit issues and experiences I have explored in previous projects because this is the kind of work that they believe is marketable and that audiences are most eager to consume from me.

Over the past year for example, I have been seeking a publisher for a children’s book I wrote about raccoons taking over in urban settings – a cheeky homage to Toronto’s beloved trash pandas. The feedback I’ve received has seldom addressed the story itself or the quality of the writing. Instead, I’ve been told that the problem with the book is that it doesn’t explicitly tackle sexuality, gender, race and the corresponding forms of oppression. When white, straight authors fail to include these themes in their books, is their work rejected?

More importantly, I have already written a children’s book that celebrates gender creativity. In The Circus Of Cruelty: A Portrait Of The Contemporary Clown As Sisyphus, curator Didier Ottinger observes: “One of the standard devices of the art of clowning is endless and unbearable repetition.” Must I keep creating the same art, featuring the same themes over and over again? What happens when I run out of “new” stories of childhood, immigrant or bodily trauma to tap into and share? These questions are at the core of my new photo series launching at Contact Photography Festival this weekend.

A few months ago, actor Jussie Smollett reported to the police that he had been the victim of a horrific racist and homophobic attack. The news of the attack produced an outpouring of support from celebrities and the public. Smollett was later accused of staging the attack as a way to boost his career, and charged with 16 felony counts. While the charges have now been dropped, my friend Michelle pointed out that if he was lying about what had happened, it is a devastating statement about the pressure that marginalized artists feel to perform trauma publicly in order to be valued.

Arts institutions and audiences can play a formidable role in eliminating this pressure. To give arts institutions the benefit of the doubt, perhaps one origin of the trauma clown can be traced to a misunderstanding of the concept of “diversity.” In response to ongoing calls for more diversity in Canadian arts, some institutions have been actively looking at ways to add more marginalized artists to their rosters. This is a fine action, but it falls dangerously short when “diversity” gets conflated with “oppression” and “trauma,” and when marginalized artists aren’t allowed to express stories beyond our traumas. 

Focusing exclusively on images and narratives of trauma severely limits representations – and by extension, consumers’ perceptions – of people from marginalized groups by failing to show a wide range of experiences, perspectives, interests and abilities. More importantly, the more the pain of people from marginalized groups is repeatedly and consistently consumed as a form of “entertainment,” the less potential these images have to effect necessary social change. And for people in marginalized communities, only having access to trauma narratives can create a narrow sense of their life opportunities. 

A deeper commitment to diversification must not only include diverse voices but also create room for those diverse voices to tell diverse stories, whatever they might be. Any argument that stories that are not rooted in trauma are less marketable is ultimately lazy, inaccurate (see: Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Call Me By Your Name) and negligent, especially when institutions play a significant role in shaping what audiences consume.

This spring, Arsenal Pulp Press is publishing my new comic book (illustrated by Toronto icon Ness Lee) called Death Threat, which is a meta response to a series of unforgettable hate mail I received. Trauma? Check. And yet, I never felt like a trauma clown while we were creating this book. This project allowed me to turn hate into art, an alchemy that runs throughout my career, and which has been personally and vitally restorative. The key difference here is choice – that I chose to tell this story and to tell it in this form. Marginalized artists have the right to explore our pain in our work, but it has to be our choice, not our only choice or opportunity. Because sometimes we would rather choose to write a book about raccoons.


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