A Brief Rant About Pain on Screen

We all have our pet peeves when it comes to the media we consume. Mine has to do with how pain, injury, and treatment are portrayed in film and TV.

For context, I am in pain most of the time. Small injuries that normal people recover from in a matter of weeks can linger for years. I also get micro-tears in my major muscles, leaving me aching and weak in my arms or legs for days at a time just from emptying the dishwasher or walking my dog. I’ve had a couple surgeries, so I also have a lot of experience with the recovery process.

Which brings us to how pain is (or often isn’t) shown on screen. Though this is a habitual problem, the particular scene that made me want to write this post is from the new live-action Cowboy Bebop. This is by no means a knock against the show in general (I really enjoyed it!), but is emblematic of the issue.

In S1 Episode 4 (“Callisto Soul”), Faye Valentine is shot during an attack by eco-terrorists. Her injury is in almost the exact place on my own shoulder where the surgeon sliced me up years ago. Not only is she able to blithely point her gun above shoulder level a few moments after being shot, but she also slides into a booth with Spike a few minutes later and nonchalantly puts her arm across the back of the booth, her wound clearly on display but miraculously no longer bleeding NO. FREAKING. WAY.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for suspending my disbelief. When her injury is repaired almost instantly once they get back to the Bebop, I am willing to give her the easy skip over the recovery process (which would be months of agony in real life) because this is sci-fi so whatever. But before that, she shows basically no recognition of the pain. Granted, I’ve never been shot, but considering how much more damage a bullet does than a scalpel, I think I’ve got a good grasp here on what she’d be going through.

I haven’t seen the script, so I don’t know how much of her actions were on the page vs. a choice by the director or actor, but somewhere in there, someone should have noticed this was an issue. One easy fix would be to have her shot in her left shoulder instead, which wouldn’t impede her shooting arm. Then she’d be free to throw her good arm up on the back of the booth to get the shot they wanted of her and Spike sitting side by side.

Why Does This Matter?

Beyond any questions of whether media should be an accurate representation of reality, the way characters respond to pain, especially pain caused by violence, affects our perceptions.

I don’t love the term “desensitized” because even though I watch a lot of action movies and adore the Assassin’s Creed games, real-life violence and pain such as bodycam footage and monks setting themselves on fire in protest make me sick to my stomach to watch. And actual good portrayals of violence on screen has the same effect. I had to leave the theater during the end sequence of Gangs of New York, for instance. Perhaps I am the outlier here, but I wouldn’t say I have been desensitized by any stretch.

And yet, I can see how this can happen. If all you ever see is the fantasy of violence rather than the reality, it can certainly skew the perception of how pain works. (I’m only talking about physical pain at the moment, but of course, there is also a whole slew of mental issues violence can cause as well.) I know we like to see heroes overcoming their pain in order to accomplish their goals, but to completely brush off all injuries as the special effects makeup that they are totally dismisses reality and also takes away from the power of the overcoming itself. One of the reasons Die Hard is such a fantastic movie is that John McClane regularly shows fear and pain, making him more human and the stakes that much higher. By glossing over pain, characters (and by extension the viewers) are robbed of these moments.

There can also be totally unintended consequences for the viewers who actually do suffer pain on a regular basis. Despite the fact that my health problems began at age 20, it took me about 10 years before someone took me seriously enough to prescribe me medication. And even then it was a young, female nurse practitioner who advocated for me rather than a doctor. The look of mirrored pain on her face when I described my experience still makes me tear up to this day because she not only believed me, she gave a damn.

Beyond the fact that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s to start with, I can’t help but wonder if those doctors who wouldn’t listen to me were swayed by the portrayals in the media that treat pain as no biggie. I have moved several times since my pain started, and it is a battle to get treatment every single time I meet a new doctor. By minimizing the experience of pain and showing characters “toughing it out” all the time creates the illusion that the person in pain is the problem, not the pain itself. And it can do real harm to those of us that live in reality rather than on screen.

So, What Can Writers Do?

As I said, we can’t control what directors and actors do with our words, but there are still things writers can do to help create more realistic portrayals of pain. As a caveat, it isn’t unusual to see side characters or love interests in pain. However, rather than reinforcing the fact that pain is real, it usually serves to motivate the protagonist. Then they go on some kind of rampage and never feel pain themselves because they are just so much better, stronger, more motivated, etc. than the loved one (often a woman) who gets hurt.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re writing:

  • If a character is going to take a bullet, leap off a building, get hit by a car, or any of the other action movie mainstays, don’t just have them brush off the dirt and walk away after a snappy one-liner. Have them show surprise, fear, confusion, or any number of emotions that accompany pain.
  • Learn about anatomy. Depending on the injury, some things may become physically impossible for your character. When the tendon in my shoulder was severed, it not only hurt to lift my arm, I was physically unable to. Any injury should have lingering effects that follows them from that point on. If a character is battered, they will move slower and more carefully. They will wince from certain movements. Or use their weaker hand. Rather than being limiting, these considerations can give you a chance to come up with more creative solutions. A character who is accustomed to shooting their way out of things but suddenly can’t lift their gun can be way more interesting than one who just shrugs off a bullet wound.
  • Sometimes taking one character out of commission can give another the chance to shine. In the series finale of Lost in Space, for instance, the sibling who has been the major driving force for the entire series is too injured to save the day. It’s up to another member of the ensemble to step up and it is SO gratifying. Leaving someone on the bench led to a far more interesting turn of events and character arc than if they’d made some kind of miraculous recovery.
  • Get them treatment. Let them take medication. Give them crutches or a cane. But remember, a bandage doesn’t mean the injury goes away. It just means that it is more stable and the person is less likely to bleed out. There should still be echoes of the pain long after the scene where they get their wound tended to. If they overexert themselves later, they should start bleeding again.
  • An aside about pills – one pill won’t “cure” the pain. Furthermore, they usually take 30-45 minutes to take effect and only last a limited amount of time. It is painfully common to see a character take a pill and immediately see it take effect. But if you’ve ever had a headache, you know it feels like forever before that pill will even make a dent.
  • In the last year, I’ve discovered the benefits of kinesio tape. Seriously, when this stuff is applied right it is downright miraculous when it comes to relieving pain from tendon, ligament, and muscle issues. If you watch pro sports, you’ve probably seen it on on athletes to stabilize their joints. It comes in bright colors, making it ideal for the screen, too.
  • People with chronic pain probably won’t talk about it much. Over time, it’s hard not to feel like you are burdening other people with your problems and they are bored of hearing about it. (It was a seriously big step for me to feel like I could write this post at all, to be honest.) And perhaps that explanation works for some characters we see just shaking things off. On the other hand, I have found that people who are unaccustomed to being in pain or inconvenienced by an injury rarely keep it to themselves. Not to mention the ones who revel in getting extra attention. So there can be a spectrum, and having different characters react in different ways can add interest and depth to your story.

Ok, </rant>. I hope it wasn’t too… painful <wiggles eyebrows> to read.

If you’ve got any strategies I missed or experiences writing about pain that you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment.

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