In real life, traumatic events blow up our lives, twist them inside out, and light them on fire. Traumatic moments are so horrifying and destructive that our bodies will often erase our memory of it or disassociate and let us escape the moment to protect us.
But on TV, traumatic events are ratings GOLD. We salivate to watch the murder, mayhem, rape and other carnage. All those cop, lawyer, doctor, and superhero shows bank on the fact that TV audiences are THIRSTY for trauma.
That thirst has not been quenched. In fact, it has expanded to now include a hunger for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The realities of PTSD are messy and tragic. Symptoms include depression, night terrors, panic attacks, anxiety, dissociative episodes, suicide and more. And that is when someone is managing their PTSD.
When people self-medicate with alcohol, sex, or extreme exercise and diet, the reality can become even more horrific. PTSD is not pretty. However, when the TV machine chews up PTSD and spits it out on screen, you better believe it is gorgeous.
Even at first glance, the PTSD packages on screen are attractive. John Krasinski as Jack Ryan has a taut body and bedroom eyes. I’m not sure people get better looking than Richard Madden as David Budd on Bodyguard. His jawline could get its own The CW show, he’s that hot. Heck, even hellacious murderer Ted Bundy is being given the hot-guy glisten as he’s portrayed on Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile by sex symbol Zac Effron.
The problem with PTSD made gorgeous isn’t that it appeals to our vain and vapid natures. The problem is that the gorgeous makeover that PTSD gets on screen delivers and propagates very harmful messages about what it looks like to have PTSD, who is entitled to suffer from it, and, probably most importantly, how PTSD should be treated.
Rather than shine a light on the decidedly dramatic and worth telling story of suffering from PTSD, TV takes the topic and obscures it with dark shades of misogyny and ableism. The result is portrayals of PTSD on TV that are overly sexualized at best, and likely to lead to someone not getting help and therefore dying by suicide at worst.
The Broken Soldier
The earliest PTSD trope that spawned a thousand PTSD tropes is the Broken Soldier. The Broken Soldier enters our TV screens oozing sex appeal and a barely suppressed anger. He (almost always HE) has returned from war a hero but harbors a darkness. A hot, hot, darkness.
After, we are introduced to the sexy but repressed Broken Soldier, the trope continues as follows: Broken Soldier tries to hide his sweaty (i.e. SEXY) night terrors, but She, the woman acting opposite of him, finds out. She also learns that the shady, dark past Broken Soldier is hiding is the very reason why he is so very talented in his work (and his werk in the bedroom, wink-wink ladies).
Broken Soldier resists telling her the truth, but eventually, she finds out that Broken Soldier faced terrible atrocities in the war. Their relationship, and her willingness to stay with him through his violent, and disturbing and, of course, SEXY, outbursts, is the thing that saves him. And that’s it. He’s saved by her boundary-less acceptance.
But, at the end of it all, who is she? She is forgettable. Her identity is never very important beyond showing how worthy, sexy, and broken Broken Soldier is. She is a soft place to land.
A quick review of this season’s hit shows reveals a plethora of Broken Soldiers from Jack Ryan on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, to David Budd on Bodyguard, to, much less obviously, Walter Cruz on Homecoming. Broken Soldiers are all over our screen and it is beyond time to unpack how this trope is hurting us.
The Broken Soldier trope is toxic because it tells us that suffering in silence from PTSD is a real panty-dropper. Broken Soldiers are never forthcoming about their scars; the marks of trauma that pepper his sinewy back are always discovered by his female counterpart, usually in the midst of sex. The scars are always on hot parts of the body like the back. They’re never disfiguring to the Broken Soldier’s outward physique.
On Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the scars are an extra indicator of the intimacy of a moment, but never actually impact Jack Ryan’s life. The scars are coded as a vulnerability, something that is supposed to showcase how human and broken the Broken Soldier is. This is not true vulnerability. There is zero risk or exposure to having invisible scars that are easily covered and impact absolutely no one.
This is deeply harmful. The way TV uses scars in the Broken Soldier trope gives us a false idea of what vulnerability is. This, in turn, makes us think that if you are actually hurt by your trauma, and the pain continues after, perhaps in chronic pain, or the scars change how you go about your daily life, that your scars don’t count. Broken Soldiers make people with quiet, hidden scars the only kinds of people that are fuckable. That’s a problem.
It’s not the only problem. The way the Broken Soldier trope handles the classic PTSD symptoms of flashbacks and night terrors is also wildly problematic. Broken Soldiers muscles their way past night terrors and flashbacks. These deeply disturbing symptoms that are disruptive to the DAILY FUNCTIONS OF PERSONHOOD are treated like sassy little secrets.
Sure, he’s panting and out of breath, but even when these occurrences lead to violence, like on Bodyguard when Budd chokes Julia, the symptom is treated like a deeply sexy personality trait. When a Broken Soldier has a flashback or night terror he is nearly naked and in a bed. The event is coded as overtly sexual. It is no wonder then that violence and a man’s disturbing flashbacks are treated like some kind of foreplay, rather than a very dangerous affliction that needs immediate treatment.
The overt sexualization of flashbacks and night terrors leads to the harrowing message: Don’t leave an abusive relationship if he is a Broken Soldier, fuck the pain out of him instead. And that’s just what the Broken Soldier does in these situations. The woman stuck in this is afraid at first, but in (short) time, she comes back all soft and full of wonder. It is here that he finally accepts her love.
And by accepts her love, I mean he bangs her. Because as we all know, sex is the best therapy, right?
THERAPY is the best therapy, and alongside group therapy and medication, can be very effective at treating PTSD. The Broken Soldier shouts from the top of his chiseled lungs that he is TOO STRONG to take medication, go to therapy, or get healthy. The Broken Soldier showcases trauma and PTSD as a sexy bad-boy problem that can be overcome by strength-of-will and sex.
This trope does monumental damage to the thousands of people who are recovering from PTSD and feel like they can’t ask for help because it is a sign of weakness. Furthermore, night terrors and flashback are not actually sexy. Night terrors are so strong that they can make you vomit. They are nightmares so horrendous that you sweat like someone going through chemo, not someone about to perform on Magic Mike.
Don’t misunderstand me – the experience of PTSD night terrors and flashbacks is absolutely worth sharing on TV. The minor character Victor Polizzi on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan does a decent job of showing how crippling and, well, gross PTSD can be. But, it is significant that he is not the star of the show, nor does he “get the girl,” as Jack Ryan does.
His way of approaching PTSD, without the sexualization, isn’t the preferred way according to the messaging on the show. Thus, the dominant view of PTSD is sexualized and harmful.
Special Set of Skills
The other way that the Broken Soldier trope hurts us is by telling us that if the Broken Soldier heals from his trauma he will lose the special set of skills he has been given to save us all.
I blame Taken for this one.
I imagine this part of the Broken Soldier trope existed before, but one little phone call solidified this dastardly trope.
If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
After this iconic phone conversation, it became culturally acceptable knowledge that a dodgy history with the armed forces that included great violence and killing was GOOD because it gave the Broken Solider the ability to save everyone.
Basically, all Broken Soldiers have gone to some Hogwarts Bootcamp that gives them magical lifesaving gifts. Their PTSD is NECESSARY because it is so enmeshed with their magic powers.
If the Broken Soldier gets help and heals from his trauma, he will lose his special skills. David Budd says this flat out on Bodyguard. Other Broken Soldiers whisper it. On 24, there is no way Jack Bauer (so many Jacks!) would be able to apply his precise skills if he didn’t have his shell shock.
The trope repeats it over and over: your PTSD makes you the badass that you are, without it, everyone will die and you will be a boring blob of unlovable flesh. This message is wrong for many reasons.
One, that is not actually how PTSD works. PTSD does, in fact, sometimes create hyper-vigilance. But, that hyper-vigilance is NOT HYPER ACCURATE! Real hyper-vigilance PTSD symptoms look like paranoia and startle reflex, not Liam Neeson. PTSD looks like thinking the librarian’s loud stamping is a personal threat to your family, not uncovering a Russian plot to fix the elections.
Killing Eve is guilty of this aspect of the trope, even though the characters are women. Villanelle was subjected to great trauma and forced to fight. Her Broken Soldier character is a sociopath who is somehow wildly skilled at assassinating. This very trait, her killing skills, is what attracts Eve and leads her to care about Villanelle.
That. Is. Messed. Up.
Ultimately, startle reflexes and hyper-vigilance get in the way of normal processing. They are disruptive, frightening to witness, and embarrassing to experience. But, the Broken Soldier trope tells us we need our trauma for us to be worthy and useful in society. According to this trope, we should certainly not seek out treatment and help because that would take away our core access to identity and meaning.
It’s impossible to know how many viewers have internalized this trope. However, if even one person has taken the message of the Broken Solider to heart and therefore avoided getting better, the results could be deadly. Avoiding help and treatment doesn’t just lead to embarrassment and not getting laid, it leads to death by suicide.
The Broken Soldier may prance on our screens as an award-worthy performance. But, make no mistake, it is a bastardization of the realities of PTSD and should be avoided on all fronts.
The bravest thing you can do if you or someone you love is suffering from PTSD is reach out for help. Here are resources to help you:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): (800) 950-NAMI (6264). Available Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST, hotline staff are prepared to answer any mental health questions you may have. If you prefer, you can also text NAMI to 741741 for free support.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): (800) 662-HELP (4357). Available 24/7, 365 days a year, the professionals on the phone can provide treatment information and referrals in English and Spanish to people who have questions about mental health or substance abuse disorders.
- MentalHealth.gov: (877) 726‑4727. This hotline is available between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST to provide mental health information and treatment referrals.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (also affiliated with Mental Health America): (800) 273-TALK (8255). Available any time of day or night, 365 days a year, this toll-free PTSD helpline has trained volunteers standing by to provide crisis intervention, to offer support for people in distress, and to give information and referrals to people with PTSD and their loved ones.
- Veterans Crisis Line: (800) 273-TALK (8255) and press “1”. This toll-free hotline is available for veterans and their loved ones. You can also send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential, free support and referrals.
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741. This service is available 24/7 and provides free crisis support and information via text.
What do you think about the Broken Soldier trope and the different shows that it shows up on? Join this important conversation in the comments!