Have you heard the one about this guy in California? He’s unemployed right now, and he’s currently homeless. But instead of asking people for money, he’s out there on the street handing out copies of his resume. The takeaway from this story, according to Channel 7 News: #NeverGiveUp.
How about this one, from Good Morning America: “The new trend is to give a pregnant coworker some of your own vacation time to add days to her maternity leave.”
We don’t have federally-mandated maternity leave in the United States, making us one of the only nations on the face of the Earth to deny our citizens this basic and vital thing.
But that is not the focus here.
The point is not the broken system that created the need for this collective, self-sacrificing workaround. The point is that a woman’s colleagues are so, so generous. The point is that Kansas City’s Angela Hughes did not take off a single day of her entire pregnancy just to save her own vacation time for after her baby was born. Then her boss was like, “…what the hell are we making this woman do?” (paraphrasing here) and donated 80 hours of her vacation time, and then Hughes’ coworkers followed suit, until Hughes amassed a grand total of eight weeks of paid leave.
Stories like this keep popping up on Twitter like zits on a prepubescent forehead: The sunshiney announcement about the GoFundMe for the guy with leukemia who can’t pay for his own medical costs. (He is employed by an organization whose owner has a net worth of $5.2 billion.) The dad who works three jobs to support his family saving up to buy his 14-year-old daughter a dress for an eighth grade dance. The college student who ran 20 miles to work after his car broke down and whose boss rewarded him for this effort by giving him his own car.
Do you get a sinking feeling when you read these stories? This feeling like, while of course you are impressed by the tenacity and generosity on display, you still want to vomit?
Behold, the rise of the feel-good feel-bad story.
Feel-good stories are a fine part of any media diet; nothing inherently wrong with elevating what is decent in this increasingly indecent world. The feel-good story tells you about the hyperactive puppy that knows to gently nuzzle a boy with disabilities, or the puppy who saves a woman from a rattlesnake. (Approximately 98 percent of feel-good stories involve dogs.)
But the feel-good feel-bad story is different. It is a sneaky, insidious thing. It is a news item spun to you, the reader, by some ostensibly authoritative source — a serious publication, an official spokesperson — as an inspirational tale, but that, when you think about it for even like .02 seconds, you realize is depressing at its core.
These are dispatches from the darkest, dankest cesspools of late-stage capitalism, where a person enduring a financial hardship through no fault of their own — like, say, you have leukemia — must be wholly dependent on the charity of others, and the spotlight is thrust on the charity, not the circumstances that caused the dependence.
These stories provide cover for the powerful by masquerading as three cheers for the underdog. They’re gross, is what I’m saying, made all the more disgusting by efforts to spin them as anything other than gross.
All feel-good feel-bad stories share a few key components. First, they describe how hardworking and humble the subject-slash-martyr is in near-pornographic detail, with emphasis on how they never complained, never asked for anything, never made any demands of anyone or anything ever in their lives, et cetera.
Usually there is some tidbit about their scrappy, bootstrapping spirit, how they refused to be dissuaded by the obstacles in their way. Take these lines from the piece on Walter Carr, who planned to run 20 miles to get to a new job as a mover after his car gave out:
He searched the route from his apartment in Homewood to the house in Pelham, and according to Google Maps, it would take eight hours on foot. As a former high school cross-country runner, he knew he could do it in less…
“I’ve always been that person who figured things out on my own,” Carr said. “I went out walking.”
Upon arrival, Jenny Lamey, the homeowner who needed Carr’s moving services, offered him a nap and food. He declined: “No, I’d rather get started.”
“He’s such a humble, kindhearted person,” she said. “He’s really incredible. He said it was the way he was raised. Nothing is impossible unless you say it’s impossible.”
Lamey called Carr’s supervisor, then started a GoFundMe to raise money to help him with his car troubles. The next day, Carr’s highest-up boss, Bellhops chief executive Luke Marklin, gave Carr his own 2014 Ford Escape. “We set a really high bar for heart and grit and … you just blew it away,” Marklin said as he handed over the keys.
Which brings us to what might be the most unsettling element of the feel-good feel-bad story: The implicit moral tends to be that, rather than fight for a society that is more empathetic and humane, everyone just needs to be more self-sacrificing, and then all our problems will be solved.
We don’t need higher wages; just have an amazing CEO give you his car! Who cares if you can’t support a family on one job? The fix is simple: Get two more jobs! Are you a college-educated person who is experiencing homelessness? Pick yourself up, dust your resume off, and grovel for employment on the side of a highway! Why fight for paid maternity leave when you can have colleagues who are willing to go without vacation — especially in a country where the average worker takes less vacation time than a Medieval peasant?
In the feel-good feel-bad story, irrefutable proof of an institutional failure is sold as a celebration of individual triumph. And it’s the desperate, cloying attempts to trumpet the latter as a means of obscuring the former that gives these pieces their distinct, acrid aftertaste. These headlines, and the stories beneath them, attempt to distract you by shouting, “Look over here at this shiny act of kindness, bravery, and fortitude!” so that you do not turn to your left to notice and question the structures that made such kindness, bravery, and fortitude necessary in the first place.