Television & Disability: Joan of Arcadia

This post is part of a series about representations of disability in movies, television shows, and books. They contain spoilers.

[Originally Published in April 2009]

Don and I started watching Joan of Arcadia this week.

Basically, it’s a story about a teen, Joan, who starts to get missions and messages from God, for some mysterious purpose. She’s the middle child of three, with a younger brother, Luke, who is very smart and ignored by his parents, and an older brother, Kevin. Kevin was the golden child, destined to go to uni on a baseball scholarship, before a car accident left him paraplegic 18 months before the show’s start.

Unlike every other show we’ve rented and mainlined, we’re watching this show very slowly because the family dynamics around Kevin’s disability ring painfully true to life.

For example, Kevin’s mom, Helen, really reads as the “parent determined to make everything better through force of will alone”. She’s relentlessly encouraging, often overwhelmingly so. When Kevin starts cracking bitter bitter jokes about his disability, his mother reacts with obvious rage, telling him he can’t talk like that because she’d scratch the eyes out of anyone else who did it. (In comparison, Joan manages to give her brother a hard time for his jokes, laughing with him about the absurditiy of it. I’m wondering if we’ll get a “you’re the shopping cart” joke at some point, which is the one we tell ’round these parts because Don’s not allowed to express opinions when we’re shopping. By which I mean people tend to talk to me instead of him because he’s not really there – he’s the shopping cart.)

Kevin’s dad, Will, has no idea how to deal with this son who is suddenly not the son he was expecting, and so relentlessly ignores the whole situation. He doesn’t talk much to Kevin, doesn’t take an interest in what Kevin is doing, and, in opposition to Helen, is often trying to “cut Kevin some slack” – he doesn’t want to wake Kevin to look for work, or help him find a car, for example. He’s very obviously uncomfortable.

There’s been less interactions between Kevin and Luke to this point, but I’m familiar with the direction the show goes, and I know that Luke starts to express some serious resentment for the whole situation. When Kevin was the golden boy, he got all the parental attention. Now that Kevin’s got a disability, he’s still getting all the parental attention, even if it’s not the way he would want it.

Kevin’s reactions are the ones most painful for Don and I to watch. He’s bitter and angry, and although it’s a common trope of the “bitter angry cripple who just needs to be shown that he’s bitter by the giving able-bodied person”, that’s not how things are playing out here. Kevin’s obviously bitter, not just because of his crushed dreams but because of the way his parents and family are treating him. When he was able-bodied, his parents refused to buy him a car. “Be a man, they said, buy your own car.” Now that he’s paraplegic, they offer to buy him a car. “I guess I’m not a man anymore,” he snaps, before wheeling away from Joan. [He also thinks everything’s about him, right now, which I think is both a factor of his earlier golden-child existence, and that his parents’ main concerns are now revolving entirely around him. It’s a bit painful to watch, but again, rings totally true to me.]

The family dynamics playing out here all feel very realistic to me. It’s obvious that they brought in someone to discuss seriously how one lives and recovers from such an accident, and talked a lot with the creators and writers about how disability plays out within a family. The Girardis are not victims of a horrible tragedy, and the focus of the show isn’t on how the able-bodied are recovering from the sudden burden of their eldest child. Instead, it’s a show that includes how families are affected when disability comes into their lives unexpectedly, and the way everyone involved copes, or doesn’t cope. Everyone is an individual, and no one is a prop or a very special message.

This what portraying disability in a “positive” light looks like to me. Making Kevin totally cool with everything that had happened, ignoring the way that families heal after sudden and unexpected changes, would be dismissing the realities of so many people. Showing Kevin as some sort of prop to Joan’s growing self-awareness would be insulting, and he obviously has his own story-line and things he needs to deal with. He doesn’t need to be a hero, or good at everything he tries. He just needs to be a person.

This show is so hard to watch. Don tells me the dynamics are much like they were when he was a child, when the same year he was diagnosed with Marfan’s his father was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Although his mother frustrates me and behaves in ways I find intolerable, it’s not that I don’t find them completely understandable. I see so much of her, even now, in Helen Girardi’s insistence that if she just tries hard enough, she’ll have a “normal” son with a “normal” family again.

For myself, watching this dynamic reminds me painfully of the lengthy adjustment period I had when Don and I started living in Scotland. I didn’t understand disability and how it affected both our lives then. I thought if we just tried hard enough it wouldn’t matter. Although some things I did then I stand by as being the right thing – I demanded Don talk to the doctors there about treatment options, I pushed for the cane, and then pushed again for the wheelchair, I kept pushing on getting government assistance for him – I didn’t do it in the right way. A lot of those things were because they would make my life easier, not Don’s. I see that dynamic playing out in this show as well, with Kevin’s father, and with Joan.

We’re only two episodes on, and so it may end up all going south, so to speak, but at the moment, I really recommend this show if you want to watch a family healing after finding out someone in it has a permanent disability.

5 thoughts on “Television & Disability: Joan of Arcadia

  1. I need this blog. Thank you.

    I hope you wouldn’t mind a request. I am “invisibly disabled”. I don’t yet need an assistive device (cane’s coming up quick, though), so I look fine. And it takes me 3 days to mop 800 sq ft of hardwood floors. Between pain and exercise intolerance, I am incapable of doing what “normal” people do, and because I look fine, they (family members, friends) accuse me of laziness or just not wanting to and using illness as an excuse. “If you just got more exercise, you’d be able to do it.” Actually, I’d just incur more muscle/heart damage, but thanks for the suggestion.

    Have you found an effective way of dealing with this? Even if you haven’t, maybe talking about it will help the nondisabled among us understand this issue.

    Thanks again.
    .-= Personal Failure┬┤s last blog ..Some Things Make Me Stabby =-.

  2. Hi Personal Failure,

    I know that we have some posts on that specific topic upcoming, especially the “But you don’t look sick” aspect of it. Many of the women who contribute to this blog have invisible physical disabilities, including fibro and CFS, so they totally get where you’re coming from.

    I, myself, don’t have any strategies yet, other than the ongoing awareness building. But I’ll ponder.

  3. OMG I looooooooove joan of arcadia! I do not think you will be disappointed. There’s a part where the fact that he’s basically dealing with this fall from overprivilege into (some) oppression is made explicit in this big fight he has with his black employer. And there’s an ongoing dynamic between Luke and Kevin where it’s made explicit that he’s STILL abusing this golden boy status that he STILL has some of, and it’s making Luke really angry. Looove this show. They have an episode about teenage pregnancy done really well and an episode about rape done really well, and, I dunno, I’m just totally enamored. Happy watching!
    .-= Quixotess┬┤s last blog ..IRC 101 =-.

  4. When Joan was on the air, I was an able bodied person. I don’t really think I gave much thought to Kevins struggle. I am sure today I would view it with completely different eyes. Today I am so aware of how little representation in the media PWD’s have. Perhaps I will try and re-watch the show.

  5. The title line totally took me off in the wrong direction :). For me, television & disability is about the continual failure of visual media to be properly captioned. Things aren’t too bad for actual broadcast, but even broad cast clips put online are stripped, extra material in dvd’s are not captioned (so much for all that bonus material) and so on.

    But this show does sound interesting. I’ll have to see if I can locate sync’d subtitles for it…

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