Coping mechanisms are an essential part of life for everyone, whether you have any sort of a disability or not. Humans have learned to try and cope with various things that can be harmful or upsetting to them. For example, I tend to internalize every negative thing that someone says to me and make every little comment into something about what a worthless person I am, which greatly contributes to my low self-esteem. This is not healthy, and it is why I see a therapist, who attempts to help me develop a healthy coping mechanism to deal with my negative self-image. Good coping mechanisms are essential to living a healthy life. However, coping mechanisms can also be bad. For example, drinking to deal with depression is a bad coping mechanism because it is ultimately harmful to your health and well being.
Comics, unfortunately, tend to show characters coping in harmful ways, like having Batman deal with his grief by having him beat up on other mentally ill people. Other characters are shown just powering through their issues by sheer force of will and totally overcoming them by the next comic. This is not only a false representation of how to cope with trauma or other issues, but it’s also an extremely dangerous one, because it can convince people who could benefit from counseling that they should be able to overcome things by themselves. Deadpool, however, is not one of those characters. The recent Deadpool movie really shone in its portrayal of trauma and mental illness. We see both Deadpool and Vanessa trying to cope with grief, trauma, and mental and terminal illness by using humor as a coping mechanism.
Spoilers for the Deadpool movie below, and trigger warnings for rape and abuse.
At the beginning of the movie, we learn from the banter between Vanessa and Wade that they both had tragic childhoods and how they deal with the psychological trauma of that is to try and turn it into a joke. We see this near constantly used as Deadpool’s main coping mechanism. Everything terrible that has happened, or is happening to him, he turns into a joke. At the end of the movie Deadpool and Vanessa start playing the same game of trying to one up each other on how crappy their lives have been. Deadpool clearly makes something up that isn’t true and Vanessa plays along, which could lead you to believe they have been joking the whole time. However, this is not the case. Deadpool is famous for using humor to deal with basically all of his issues. And while he and Vanessa may have exaggerated or even made some stories up, it’s clear that certain ones are true and this is simply their way of coping. Deadpool dealt with some severe trauma even before he became Deadpool and we see him and Vanessa actively trying to cope and move on with their lives. Lindsay Ellis, from The Mary Sue, explains:
In fact, a big factor in how forgiving you might be of Deadpool’s humor is whether or not you read this conversation as sincere, whether Wade and Vanessa are making up their Tragic Backstories or are just improvising mistruths that sound horrible. “Rough childhood?” he asks her after initial introductions.
“Ever had a cigarette put out on your skin?” she coos. Rather than backing down, Wade takes this as an opportunity and the two engage in a sort of joking trauma-off as to who had the worse childhood.
“I was molested by my uncle,” says Wade in a joking-not-joking manner, to which Vanessa counters in a similar fashion, “Uncles.” The two then drop the facade and laugh—there seems to be a genuine moment of empathy here. Regardless as to whether or not they’re telling each other the truth, I find this interaction interesting, because it echoes interactions I’ve seen in the real world. The baggage of trauma is awkward, and it’s difficult to let new people in on the experiences that have informed you as a person. How do you introduce to someone the fact that something horrible has happened to you in your past?
Easy: You joke about it.
This is the fine line that must be walked when it comes to making jokes about terrible things—sexual assault, terminal illness, personal violation, and torture—all things that Wade has experienced, and all things he deals with, at least in part, using humor. There’s something novel, even therapeutic, about seeing a character deal with his own personal grief by laughing at it.
Ellis describes how difficult it is for someone who’s gone through a traumatic event like sexual assault or terminal illness to deal with that pain and to talk to people about what they are going through. Deadpool is very clearly a character who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to a difficult past. We see him have panic attacks and flashbacks, but we also see him cope with humor. This is something I have experienced firsthand. I know more than one person, sadly, who has been a victim of sexual assault. And I was surprised that some of those same people were defenders of jokes about rape. Only jokes that don’t turn the victim into the butt of the joke, of course, but nevertheless, I was still surprised. But ultimately it was explained to me that it was because of my friends’ need to be able to find humor in this awful traumatic situation—to be able to tell jokes that poke fun at rape culture or point out how terrible rapists are. Not everyone is comfortable with making light of situations like these, whether they are a victim or not, and such humor needs to be handled carefully. But it is still a legitimate coping mechanism that people should be allowed to use and see reflected in the media.
Deadpool’s use of humor as a coping mechanism isn’t always healthy, however. We also see him use humor to avoid actually talking about and dealing with his issues. Deadpool is not a healthy character; he is deeply flawed and dysfunctional, and even if we can understand why, we still have to acknowledge that Deadpool does not always cope well. Deadpool suffers from deep issues involving his self-worth, identity, and self-esteem, because of how he was tortured and deformed by Ajax. After that traumatic event, he has such a low self-image that he constantly avoids Vanessa and doesn’t even give her the opportunity to love him as he is now. Blind Al criticizes him for this and tells him that he should just go talk to Vanessa instead of avoiding her and going on this revenge murder spree. While Deadpool attacking Ajax and his men is definitely part of his wanting revenge, it’s also the ultimate avoidance in dealing with his own issues and facing Vanessa. He keeps putting off these issues and convinces himself that after he gets Ajax, he can be fixed. Deadpool isn’t just looking for Ajax to fix his body, but in a lot of ways he is attempting to undo what happened to him, and thus, he continues to avoid his issues. He thinks if he can look normal he can just forget what happened to him, go back to Vanessa, and have everything be as it was before.
If Deadpool’s negative coping mechanism is avoidance, then his humor is an essential coping mechanism for his recovery, because it’s only through humor that he is actually able to face and deal with what happened to him and what was done to him. Deadpool certainly isn’t perfect and doesn’t always deal with things the right way, but he’s portrayed as a real person who is struggling with severe trauma. He avoids his issues but then tries to cope. He fails and he tries again. He is attempting to recover from what happened to him and it is a long and difficult process. Deadpool is one of those characters that gives a voice to people who are using humor as a coping mechanism, and potentially, even helping others find a way that they can cope. The movie also points out harmful coping mechanisms that are not conducive to a person’s recovery. In this way, at the very least we can say that Deadpool is one of the most realistic portrayals of a character coping with trauma.