This post has been percolating for a while.
A question that I (and other FWD contributors, and other social justice activists in general) get asked a lot in the context of discussions about pop culture is “why aren’t you upset about [this]?” “Why are you focusing on XYZ when someone else did ABC over here?” And I’m really tired of this. I’m tired of it because, well, for one thing, I do find many things problematic and I write about them; you can see some examples of discussions about harmful representations of disability in pop culture right here in the FWD archives written by myself and other FWD contributors. For another thing, I am not actually up on every single aspect of pop culture, and thus sometimes I am not aware of things which I would probably write about if I knew about them, but I don’t.
But let’s set this aside for a moment.
Let’s examine the premise there. This argument comes up in response to critiques of disability in pop culture. It’s often accompanied with the assumption that the writer doesn’t think that it’s ok to portray disability in pop culture ever, or that the writer thinks that only disabled actors should be in disabled roles. This line of thinking, which focuses on which representations of disability people happen to be critiquing at a given time, ignores the structural nature of the critique. It is also accompanied by the implication that it is necessary to do everything at once when it comes to critiquing pop culture.
It also, of course, assumes that the writer is not already writing about the issue which is supposedly not being covered. Which, you know, I find it deeply amusing when people get up in arms because people are “not talking about” something which they DID talk about, often quite recently. FWD contributors have written here and elsewhere about harmful depictions of disability in Lady Gaga’s music, on Glee and 90210, in the currently trendy repurposings of Jane Austen novels, and in the Twilight Saga. That’s just for starters.
And it ignores the fact that not every instance of depiction of disability, including depictions done by able people, pisses disabled activists off, in addition to assuming that all people with disabilities respond in the same way to depictions of disability. In fact, I happen to think that some depictions of disability are great. It’s not the depiction of disability which is offensive, it is the way in which the disability is depicted which can be offensive, and that includes the framing which surrounds it.
Let me repeat this for emphasis: I am not inherently upset by the depiction of disability in pop culture. I am upset about bad depictions of disability which I think are harmful. What bothers me are bad tropes; one dimensional, stereotyped characterizations. These characterizations are unimaginative, not transgressive, illuminating, exploratory, or revealing; showing the same thing on endless repeat does not do anything to enrich the larger discussion.
For example, with Glee, I would be annoyed by Artie’s characterization no matter what. But I am furious with the way his character is handled because the creators are framing the show as brave and courageous and breaking down stereotypes and really saying something about disability. Thus, I am holding them to a higher standard. The creators are making a claim which they are not living up to, and that is a big part of what bothers me about Glee. What bothers me isn’t that there is a disabled character played by an able actor. It’s that there is a troped disabled character played by an able actor in a show which makes sure to pat itself on the back constantly for being progressive. If you don’t consistently subvert a cliche? It’s still just a cliche, people.
Someone recently got on my case for not being up in arms about a theatrical casting decision in which an able actress was cast in a role which is (sometimes) performed in a wheelchair. Note: This is a role which is often played in a wheelchair, but does not need to be. The argument was “well, if you’re opposed to crip drag, you should be angry about this.” This despite the fact that I didn’t even know about it until it was mentioned, but apparently if I am going to critique pop culture, I am required to know about everything which is going on at all times ever anywhere in the world.
But I wasn’t angry after I did a bit of research to learn more about the actress, the role, and the production. I wasn’t angry because the creators of the production were not making any bold claims about the depiction of disability. I also wasn’t angry because I know casting for live shows is tricky and there are a lot of constraints. Given the limitations of the character and the demands of the role, it would have been very difficult to find a wheelchair user who met the specs for the role. Furthermore, finding a person with disabilities who could deal with the grueling rehearsal and performance schedule while also being suitable for the part? Would have been VERY challenging. So, no, I wasn’t upset at all by the decision to use an able actress.
To return to Glee, I am angry about Artie and about the crip drag because there’s no reason not to use a disabled actor; there are disabled actors who do meet the specs for that role. And I am grumpy because of the claims being made about the show; if Glee wants to congratulate itself for making social commentary, than it actually needs to make that commentary. One really good way to do that would have been to cast a disabled actor in that role. It is the discourse and framing which surround Glee which concern me.
There are lots of instances of crip drag on television right now. Terry O’Quinn, playing John Locke on Lost, is not a wheelchair user. Locke uses a wheelchair at times. Am I angry that they didn’t use a disabled actor? No, I am not, because, again, there are some particular limitations on that role. John Locke is also depicted as extremely physically active in scenes which I think would be very challenging for a part time wheelchair user to do, especially for six years. Not at all unreasonable for the Lost casting crew to make the decision to hire a (presumably) able actor for the role.
I can probably think of other instances of crip drag which are not pissing me off right now, just as I can think of a number of instances in which disabled actors are playing disabled characters whom I think are problematic. See what I did there? This issue is not just about crip drag, it’s about the depiction of disability. If there’s a show in which a disabled actor plays a disabled character and I think that the characterization is troped and harmful, I am not afraid to say so. One instance floats to mind immediately: Lauren Potter playing Becky Jackson on Glee.
Oh, and also, before you tell me I have something “more important to do” than critiquing pop culture: Critiquing pop culture is no more or less important than any of the many things I do, most of which you do not know about. It’s important and valuable to talk about problematic depictions of disability in pop culture because, among many other things, it gets at the origins of some very harmful ideas about disability which are perpetuated in our society. These ideas? Have real world impacts. The same goes for discussions about harmful depictions of women, of people of colour, of trans* people.
I’m also curious to know why it is that social justice activists are constantly being asked why they aren’t critiquing something while at the same time they are informed that they are “just looking for a reason to be offended.”
One further note: I am deeply disturbed by the implication that people critique things because they don’t like them. For the most part, I only write about the things I do like and am interested in. My critiques, and those of many activists? They come from fellow fans of the work under discussion.