If you spend any amount of time on social media, you’re probably familiar with mega-viral uplifting stories like “A teacher battling cancer ran out of sick days. School employees showered him with theirs,” “Birmingham college student walked 20 miles to 1st day of work so his boss gave him his car,” “Vietnam vet named 'Smiley' gets new teeth after living toothless for 40 years,” and “Little girl desperate to save mom’s life after cancer diagnosis opens lemonade stand.”
These four examples all come from just the past five months, but there are countless additional articles and segments that share the same lessons about never giving up, going the extra mile, and taking care of others. The articles are framed to make you feel good, to illustrate the kindness of others, to show you that things can work out when tragedy hits, and yes, to “restore your faith in humanity.” These are excellent messages that we could probably all benefit from having in our lives, but there’s one thing that gets left out on an all-too-regular basis: the underlying causes.
If the United States followed the lead of other well-off countries, paid sick leave would eliminate the need for co-workers to donate their sick days; if workers were paid a living wage and we invested in public transportation, no one would have to walk 20 miles to work; if we fulfilled the promises made to our veterans, none of them would go 40 years without teeth; if we treated health care as a right, no child would feel a responsibility to sell enough lemonade to keep their mother alive. Each story could be just as easily framed in a way meant to disgust us with the state of the social safety net and inspire us to enact policies that prevent such situations from happening. Instead, the authors tend to isolate each situation from its larger context.
In 2017, writer Adam Johnson coined the term “perseverance porn” to refer to uplifting stories centered around people overcoming long odds and societal roadblocks on the path to happy endings. It makes for an apt name considering how these stories fetishize bootstrapping one's way out of trouble.
Part of what makes perseverance porn so effective, at least when it comes to getting our attention, is that it tends to follow a storytelling structure sometimes known as the “dramatic arc” -- consisting of, in the Florida teacher’s story, an introduction (meet this teacher), a rising action (he was diagnosed with cancer), the climax (he realized he doesn’t have enough sick days), a falling action (he posted a selfie calling for help), and a resolution (within four days other teachers had donated enough days to cover his needs). In these dramatic-arc pieces, we see the happy ending, or are at least left with the impression that there will be one. This is the same time-tested technique, sometimes also referred to as the “hero’s journey,” used in fiction from The Odyssey to Star Wars. (In this case, CNN did publish a follow-up story making similar arguments about the original piece as are being made here, but it was an opinion piece and not the straight-reported version originally published.)
The problem with these stories is that they routinely gloss over harsh realities in order to fit this structure. They lead us to believe that these situations have a way of working themselves out. In fact, many (if not most) people facing these challenges — whether it’s the majority of people whose medical crowdfunding campaigns don’t reach the goal, or it’s someone who dies because they can’t afford their cancer treatment or their insulin — don’t get the the help they need, and things do not magically work themselves out. But these stories buoy the conservative argument that aspects of the social safety net should be trimmed back or abolished altogether in favor of private charity.
During his run for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, Ron Paul famously responded to a question about what responsibility the government should have for an uninsured person facing a long-term medical emergency such as a coma by saying that such a person should “assume responsibility for himself.” When pressed, he suggested that churches, neighbors, or friends would take care of it. In practice, we can see that this just isn’t the case.
Last year, artist Shane Patrick Boyle lost his health benefits after moving from Texas to Arkansas to care for his dying mother. A Type I diabetic, he simply didn’t have the $750 he needed to buy a month’s supply of insulin, so he did what more than 250,000 people do each year: He launched a GoFundMe campaign. Unlike the stories the news media tends to highlight, his doesn’t have a happy ending. He came up $50 short, and less than a month later, he was dead.
Boyle’s story is one of a failed system and the limits of relying on charity to fund health expenses, but it wasn’t until eight months after his death, when The Nation mentioned him in a story and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) shared the article on Facebook, that it gained much traction in the national press. It could be that stories like Boyle’s just don’t generate as much traffic or attention as the ones about a neighborhood coming together to help raise money for someone’s cancer treatment. But in my view, writers shy away from reporting these stories partially out of fear of being labeled political.
Consider the time Jimmy Kimmel used his late-night platform to talk about his newborn son’s health woes. The story contained all the elements of the dramatic arc -- his wife gave birth, his son was diagnosed with a rare heart condition, he had surgery to fix one of the defects, and the family lives happily ever after. It also took aim at an underlying issue: Kimmel acknowledged that people who aren’t millionaire talk show hosts might not have been able to afford the care his son needed. He discussed why protections banning insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition are so important to so many, and he made an argument against passing legislation that would gut those rights.
Several right-leaning media outlets slammed Kimmel’s segment. The Washington Times’ Charles Hurt told Kimmel to “shut your fat trap about partisan politics and go care for your kid, who just nearly died, you elitist creep.” Conservative host Michelle Malkin dismissed Kimmel’s plea, writing, “I feel your pain. But please use your brain.” The Daily Caller polled its readers as to whether it was appropriate for Kimmel to use “emotional coercion for political purposes.”
Yes, Kimmel’s monologue was political, but so is perseverance porn. When journalists leave out details about why people find themselves in desperate situations, or how many people in those positions don’t end up getting the help they need, they’re reinforcing a long-running conservative narrative in support of privatizing the social safety net. More detailed versions of these stories complete with uncomfortable facts about human suffering in the U.S. might not click as well or share as reliably on social media as the current crop of content does, but they would be a lot more honest.
The world needs positivity, and the people involved in these stories deserve all the praise they can get. But positivity without honesty can blind us to the reality of everyday life and build up a distorted understanding of the country’s problems.