It’s strange to see myself in Wanda—a red-headed white woman with magical powers—but as a Black woman with PTSD, I understand her use of sitcoms to escape her trauma.
This piece includes discussion of domestic violence, trauma, and mental illness. It also contains spoilers for WandaVision.
By: Tatiana Johnson-Boria
The first couple of notes of the Family Matters theme song always left me suspended. As the camera zoomed into the Winslow house in Chicago, I felt myself submerge into an experience that would be my sanctuary, one of my favorite shows. It was certain that I would be dropped right into the shenanigans of Steve Urkel. I’d hear the heartfelt music when Laura or Eddie Winslow learned a lesson. I’d sit in a small grief when the episode ended, because the compact half-hour universe of Black joy would end, only to start again another day.
I would later learn that those moments when I drowned out my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s symptoms of schizophrenia, and our life living in poverty with sitcoms was actually a trauma response. Whenever I let myself get lost in the world of Family Matters, it was an experience of dissociation, avoidance, and emotional detachment from our home. Decades later, I would see a therapist and learn about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that there were terms to describe the symptoms I’d been experiencing most of my life. The way our bodies internalize trauma often works as a way of dismantling how we might normally respond to the world, replacing our responses by building new, trauma-infused structures instead.
What Wanda Maximoff does in Marvel’s WandaVision is incredibly similar. The Hex, as we learn in episode three, is another dimension or a structured place controlled by Wanda. It replaces contemporary life with a new structure, and in this case, the structure is the American sitcom. From nods to I Love Lucy, Bewitched and I Dream of Genie to more contemporary allusions to Full House, Growing Pains and Malcolm in the Middle, we watch how the structure of the American sitcom provides solace for Wanda, who is deep in grief and suppressing the memory of her past. She brings a version of Vision along with her, into this new world that replaces the old one that has only brought her pain, the one in which Vision is dead. Even in the midst of the uncanny, saccharine world where Wanda and Vision now live, we begin to understand along with the show’s other characters the trauma behind it all.
Throughout the show, we see more and more of how Wanda’s disturbing and traumatic past—filled with death, violence and war—is informing this new world she has created. We watch her consume sitcom after sitcom to disassociate from her grief. In Wanda’s story, I see myself. I feel an overwhelming understanding. I see my own home, it’s abuse, intimate partner violence, and neglect.
It’s strange to see myself in Wanda—a red-headed white woman with magical powers—especially as a Black Woman diagnosed with PTSD trying to survive each day as best as I can. In her rendering of her own world, we see how easy it is for Wanda to envision herself in the classic American sitcom. Her whiteness allows her to transcend into episodes with people who look like her. We see just how much sitcoms can inspire solace, even in its fabrication.
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I find myself enthralled by Wanda’s journey as she is led back in time through her memories by a fellow witch. It reminds me of my own journey into my traumatic memories during EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. My experience of using tapping, small buzzers of energy in my hands, along with following my therapist’s fingers felt eerily similar to how Wanda uses her eyes, hands, and body to gesture and rewrite the world around her. In my EMDR treatment, I have seen the ways in which diving into the archive of my memory with these tools has allowed me, in some way, to rewrite and somehow reckon with all the trauma that I’ve lived through.
When I think of trauma, I think of fragments. Whenever my therapist and I meet, we work to piece together memories. We look to restore an archive of my life through the lens of healing. There is no structure to the way these fragments, these memories, show up, yet we try to work through them as they come. Sitcoms are the opposite. They are formulaic. They are an equation in which everything tends not to vary. Sitcoms rely on expectation and familiarity. They work within our awareness of knowing how they work. They are predictable, and that makes them safe.
The “situation comedy” or the sitcom was developed in the 1940’s. It exists as a container where “characters of markedly different types are thrown together by circumstance and occupying a shared environment such as an apartment building or workplace. Sitcoms are typically half an hour in length; they are either taped in front of a studio audience or employ canned applause, and they are marked by verbal sparring and rapidly resolved conflicts.”
It’s no wonder that many of us gravitate towards these types of television shows. We see problems and watch them get solved. We hear laughter in the midst of it all. We see characters rally together by the end of each episode. It’s no wonder that, amidst all of my parents’ fighting, I could lose myself in Family Matters or Full House or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In these shows, I am always guaranteed a pre-packaged experience of joy. There’s no uncertainty of what might come next.
Life, on the other hand, couldn’t be further from a traditional sitcom. When we learn that Wanda’s immense grief and reckoning of her long history of trauma activates her ability to create her own world, our plane of understanding expands. As someone who has also experienced trauma, I understood Wanda’s choice instinctively. Who wouldn’t want to throw the chaos of one’s internal world into a space defined and free of any future hurt?
Even in this process, we continue to watch Wanda’s journey and notice the many cracks and fissures in her creation of her own world. We learn the capacity she has to hurt others. We see what happens when the world of the sitcom—defined by its limits—collides with the real world.
I see myself in Wanda’s coping. In the building of a fantasy world to hide in. In isolation from the world. In the incessant TV watching. In the building of a world that uses the exact structure of American sitcoms to survive. The structures we build for ourselves are often ones responding to our need for safety and sanctity. A sitcom is one version of a structure that we can use to protect ourselves, even when we know it isn’t real.
Tatiana (she/her/hers) is a writer, artist and educator. Her writing explores identity, trauma, especially inherited trauma, and what it means to heal. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College and is a 2021 Tin House Scholar. She’s received honorable mention for the 2020 Academy of American Poets Prize, is a 2020 Best of the Net Finalist, and a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. Find her work in or forthcoming at Ploughshares, New Delta Review, Foundry and others. Learn more about here: http://www.tatianamrjohnson.com/
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