Subverting the “Trauma Porn” Genre: Ita Segev’s Knot in my Name

“Take your trauma, and turn it into DRAMA!” Ita Segev exclaims to a cheering audience and close-up camera. It’s a blatant callout of the way in which marginalized people are expected to regurgitate their pain for a mainstream audience, in exchange for a moment in the spotlight.

There is nothing wrong with art that reflects personal trauma, only with how salacious “trama porn” is an unspoken requirement for getting programmed and funded as a marginalized artist. Absent is any acknowledgement that artists might have personal boundaries, interest in making work unrelated to our oppression, or multifaceted lives filled with joy as well as hardship.

Segev’s evening-length solo Knot in my Name reflects upon her departure from assigned narratives of gender and nation as an anti-Zionist Israeli trans woman. But her approach also had me reflecting on who is given burden of re-performing a trauma, and why. We expect Segev, as a trans woman, to display trauma she’s experienced. And (with tongue in cheek) she does. We also expect her, as someone who served in the Israeli Defence Forces, not to display the trauma she’s inflicted. But she does.

Segev hits most of the beats expected from trans women’s personal narratives. She does so with a critical eye to why we expect this from her — close-up cameras and giant projections highlighting the invasive sensationalism of the media — but she delivers nonetheless.

She delves into her psychological struggle with identity (albeit not the “I always knew” story most favored by the media), her mental health and substance abuse history, her experiences with sexual abuse and public harassment. She displays and describes her body in detail, in both sexual and medical contexts. She strips and puts on gowns and wigs and strappy lingerie (trans women in the public eye, she notes, must be as glamorous as they are tortured). She tackles it all with a dark and glittering sense of humor.

The audience is generally content to laugh through her comedy act, even as the subject matter includes abuse and violence. We seem to draw the line when she recounts her conscripted time in IDF. In one much-too-playful anecdote, she describes a contingent shooting up a residential building in Gaza, only realize they accidentally picked the wrong one.

The style of humor is oddly familiar to me. I didn’t grow up around bombs or shooting, but I grew up with lots of bomb jokes and shooting jokes. Coming from the people who got and shot at, they were sickly hilarious and highlighted the absurd banality of violence under war and occupation.

It’s less funny from the perspective of the shooters. Segev lets the joke fall flat and sit with us. Then she describes the violence she and her friends committed in more sobering terms.

She doesn’t whitewash the cruelty of what she participated in (or pinkwash it — her story about the arrest of a gender-nonconforming Palestinian teenager eschews any narrative of Israel as the savior of queer people). I appreciate the realness, but that kid sounds too much like people I know for me to immediately forgive her.

Palestinian artists often describe the same violence, displacement, and arbitrary arrest at the hands of the Israeli state — that’s often the trauma performance expected of them in exchange for time on stage. Yet, I at least am less accustomed to hearing these stories so vividly from the perspective of the oppressor (even a reluctant, questioning, not-quite-suited oppressor as Segev was).

The latter perspective is harder to digest. Perhaps because we’ve become numb to the former. Perhaps because behind pseudo-woke spectatorship is just sadistic voyeurism of marginalized people in pain. Perhaps because it attaches human responsibility to oppression we’d rather see as abstract and unchangeable. I question whether the perpetrator has the right to use this story in her show. But I also question why the survivor must always have the burden.

But the binary between survivor and perpetrator is a false one. Segev makes this clear in recounting how her grandmother survived the Holocaust only occupy an evicted Palestinian’s house. There is nothing so typically human as taking the harm we’ve experienced and, without even noticing, inflicting it upon others.

Yet she demonstrates that we can end this cycle if we choose to depart from the paths we were prescribed to. By exchanging comfortable ignorance for authenticity. By owning the hurt we cause as well as the hurt we feel, maybe with some hope of healing.

It’s not the trauma porn the audience asked for, but perhaps it’s the trauma porn we deserve.

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Note: Segev’s calls for accountability and healing take material, as well as artistic, form. She co-created T4Palestine, a resource to help trans people access hormones not produced by the Israeli monopoly Teva Pharmaceuticals. Additionally, Segev’s performance ended with a call for donations to alQaws, a queer activist organization in Palestine. I’d also like to mention Aswat, another Palestinian organization with an emphasis on LBTQI women. Both are facilitating important advocacy, community support, and artmaking. Check them out and donate.

Written by

Dancer, choreographer, writer, filmmaker, drag artist, and general menace. www.Nadiak.tk

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