As I turned on Dear White People Vol. 2, the last thing I expected to hear was the word “Misophonia”. I had to go back and listen again, certain that my overly sensitive hearing had failed me. Unfortunately, it had not.
The conversation between Sam and her best friend Joelle as they walk through their satirized Ivy-league campus. The show makes a point of zooming in on flipflops, the noise frustratingly unbearable for those of us that live with Misophonia in real life.
“When does the constant drone of flip-flops become background noise?” Joelle asks. A strange question for anybody suffering with Misophonia, as we know, it never will. Joelle continues and exclaims, “My Misophonia is triggered as fuck.” As Joelle complains, there is no obvious pain on her face. Joelle does not seem to freeze, a particularly telling sign of the fight/flight/freeze reaction. In-fact, Joelle seems relatively fine.
“Oh, Misophonia? She does braids out of Waller, Right?” Sam quips.
“Oh, look at you, making jokes,” Joelle says, barely offended, she continues, “It’s a hearing condition, and also a great name for an Outkast album.”
Just like that Misophonia has been made into a quick, witty, original joke. Those who haven’t heard of Misophonia might be intrigued – what a strange fact – people are bothered by flip-flops? Joelle’s reaction, and the subsequent banter between her and Sam make for a funny exchange. Misophonia is not funny. Misophonia is rarely so easy to tolerate. It is not an annoyance at flipflops, chewing, or any other sound. Misophonia involves a great level of emotional fatigue and pain.
As I continued to watch the episode, my awareness now heightened, I wondered if this plot point would come up again throughout the episode. I wasn’t surprised that it hadn’t. Our character Joelle, supposedly having Misophonia, is now living with Sam in a dorm room. I am sure there are persons with Misophonia that have roommates – but I personally cannot imagine living in such a small space with a potential trigger. Sam’s phone notifications go off constantly, she types on her computer all night. Joelle says nothing and sleeps blissfully throughout the ordeal. Joelle later eats chips (a major trigger for many with Misophonia) with Sam, also chomping down on the crispy snack. Joelle later goes so far as to buy Sam a pair of flip flops for the shower – the same item used as a plot device for our one-off joke on Misophonia. There is almost no representation of Misophonia in popular culture. I’d argue it has never once been accurately portrayed.
The problem with the Dear White People Misophonia reference to is that their character likely does not have Misophonia.
Joelle and Sam’s conversation about Misophonia is telling. There is a very real conversation that sufferers have with their friends when bringing up Misophonia for the first time. It is rarely a calm conversation – it is a hard talk, often filled with heightened emotions and pain. Many are met with disbelief far worse than a joke. Misophonia is not about annoyance at flipflops, there is much more. The misery of Misophonia sufferers, including the isolation, is hard to show on television. However, Misophonia is more than a quick joke. We are real people that are suffering.
While it’s great that we are starting to get more awareness, without context, this does little more than cause people to question if that’s even a real thing. I think back to Kathie Lee and Hoda making fun of Misophonia on live TV, “it sounds like Misophoney” they said as they laughed.
Coming so soon after the Criminal Minds episode, which wrongly attributed misophonia as a psychological disorder, I find this deeply concerning. Awareness for Misophonia without context might very well prove to be damaging. As the IMRN (International Misophonia Research Network) continues their scientific journey, Misophonia in pop culture may become an interim threat to truth before accurate information can fill the gap. While exposure to the name “Misophonia” may cause sufferers that have no idea what’s wrong with them to discover the name, at what cost?
Out of all the representations of Misophonia – which are few and far between, Dear White People didn’t do too bad. The problem was a lack of context. Misophonia is not necessarily a “hearing disorder” but the general public won’t necessarily notice a large difference between a “hearing disorder” and a neurological disorder involving auditory processing. This is understandable. The representation falls flat when the character exclaims brazenly that her, “Misophonia is triggered as fuck”, the same way a person who is frustrated that their car keys weren’t left in the right place might say their “OCD is acting up”. Neither have the condition they are mirroring.
While Dear White People trivializes Misophonia, I am thankful that they did not focus on the rage and did make an earnest attempt to mention Misophonia on live TV. I am also thankful that the writers did not focus on chewing rage. I however, am not happy that popular culture is starting to use a very real condition as the brunt of a joke. Sufferers of Misophonia need to keep talking about Misophonia from a real perspective. Sufferers must ensure that when they speak of the disorder they are encouraging an accurate representation. Unfortunately, in today’s society it’s very easy to create a meme about how “frustrated” we are and we end up being minimized to the following soundbite: