The Sun, Tits and Tragedy

Doctored image of different headlines

The Sun is known for many things, but one of its now regular features which escapes immediate notice – understandable, really, behind the barrage of tits – is its use of the word ‘tragic’. Tragic is a word with a venerable tradition and a nigh-on infinite array of meanings. It spans the ancient days of sacrificial slaughter (‘tragos’ means ‘goat’ in Greek, and ‘aoidia’ means ‘song’ – hence a song sung whilst the animal was sacrificed) and the art-form that arose out of that ritual, giving us the likes of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, through its next high-point with Shakespeare all the way to the latest most rigorous attempt to get to grips with it as a concept: Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence. Along the way, ‘tragic’ can mean anything from ‘very sad’ to ‘the downfall of a great man thanks to an inherent fatal flaw’. It is a veritable cocktail of destiny, free will, suffering and obscure glory. It can also be a fairly humdrum affair: Hamlet was a prince, but the young working-class mother who dies prematurely of meningitis is no less deserving of the ‘accolade’, if one can be so perverse as to call it that.

What is novel about The Sun’s use of the word is that it becomes a personal attribute; ‘tragic’ is no longer an adjective ascribed to a certain situation, but something a person seems to be: ‘tragic Stephen Gately’, ‘tragic mum is knifed’, ‘eight tragic soldiers killed’, and so on. Now, what I certainly don’t want to suggest is that these people are not important enough to be associated with the high gravitas of tragedy. My problem with The Sun’s usage is that it is deeply ideological. By ascribing ‘tragic’ to an individual person rather than to the network of relations in which they are ensnared (causal, social, economic, political, familial, miltarial) it suggests that what happened was somehow destined and inevitable, it was ‘in their nature’. Whereas what is really tragic about many of these stories is that the people who suffer and die in them do so as a result of potentially avoidable systemic violence of which they are the victim. What is tragic about a British soldier being killed in Afghanistan is not something inherent in the soldier himself, but rather in the world economic and political system which has landed him there as an illegal occupier, paid him a shitty wage to be there, encouraged him that it is in his and our immediate interests to murder supposedly ‘evil’ enemies, and then – to top it all off – has got him massacred in the process. By attributing the tragic to the soldier himself, this larger narrative is kept nicely out of view.

The Sun is a wonderfully inventive and funny newspaper. If it wasn’t the ideological handmaid of murder, hatred and mass exploitation, I’d be able to laugh at its jokes that little bit more easily.

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3 thoughts on “The Sun, Tits and Tragedy

  1. Richard L. Floyd says:

    Thanks for this.
    I note from time to time in my local paper that some young person, often drunk, fails to negotiate a turn at high speed on one of our rural roads and kills himself (usually a him.) The word tragic is often employed. Sad, yes; tragic, no.

  2. Daniel Hartley says:

    Hi Richard. Thanks for your comment.

    If you read my post carefully, you’ll see that I don’t quite agree with what you say, though I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. My argument is not that certain situations obviously merit the label ‘tragic’ while others don’t (though of course there must be limits on what can be called ‘tragic’ otherwise its use as a concept is void); rather, my problem with The Sun’s reporting is that it attempts to reduce tragedy to a personal innate quality, and that this consequently obscures the wider array of social forces that are at work in some horrendous situations and which might be challenged.

    The danger with playing the classifying game (i.e. ‘this is tragic, but this isn’t’) is the criteria we choose. Your example is a classic case: what criteria are you using to judge whether a young person drunk driving who ends up accidentally killing themselves is not tragic? What constitutes a tragedy for you? As soon as we start to rethink the presuppositions of what we mean by tragedy, we come across all sorts of hidden forces at work – often class, snobbiness, and unwitting hard-heartedness rear their ugly heads.

    What if one of the youths you mention were a young God-fearing Catholic who just happens to be a king-in-waiting in the midst of a tumultuous affair with his equally God-fearing chamber-maid? Perhaps they have agonised and prayed together for hours over their predicament, on what Godly action they should take to make themselves right with the Lord. Perhaps he’s been to confession, has opened his soul to the priest but is racked with guilt, bursts from the cathedral and jumps straight into his Ferrari, drinks himself blind and drives like a madman just to lose the feeling of terrible grief for his misdeeds. If then he misses the turn and dies, is this still not tragic?

    You see what I mean? An exaggerated example it may be, but it puts into perspective a few of the pitfalls of the classifying approach.

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