Why I Am Not Riled About Every Instance of Crip Drag

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.

15 Comments

  1. This post is stellar. I don’t think it should be at all a controversial idea that what matters is how something is depicted, but I still expect there’ll be some backlash, alas…

    Anyway, thank you so much for writing this. It’s really, really lucid and awesome.

  2. Thanks for this post.

    I’m an aspiring storyteller, and, my goodness, sensitivity is a minefield. When I write, I want to write a diverse cast of characters, but potential backlash over poor depictions of minorities frightens me. (Or poor depictions of women! And I am one!)

    A couple years ago I wrote a comic script that (in a fantasy-type setting) depicted a society of people without legs. It was, I suppose, a metaphor for something going on in my life, and I was fond of the short story. Then, about six months ago, I saw a pop-culture critique, with something (I don’t rememer what) being labeled as “ableist”, and it reminded me of the story I wrote. Looking back, I asked myself “Is this ableist? Is this insensitive to amputees?” and unable to answer my own question, shelved the project.

    Just last night, after spending the day reading about the AFP/EE outcry, I was wishing there was some kind of guidebook, like “Sensitivity for Storytellers”, that, beyond individual call-outs of what’s good and what’s bad, gave a general outline of practices. Maybe there is, and I just haven’t found it yet.

  3. Stellar post. Absolutely stellar. You nailed so much, not just about Glee but about the way people respond to this sort of criticism.

  4. Great post. I think the fact that disability–unlike, say, race–can be acquired or lost later in life makes for both interesting storytelling and complications in casting. So many of the characters that you mention as positive portrayals of disability (Locke, Gaeta, Tigh and Roslin) are all ablebodied at points in their respective storylines. I don’t think it is necessarily disrespectful to have an ablebodied actor play a character who is, at various points, ablebodied and disabled.

  5. Annie, it is not a complete guideline that perfectly covers all potential problems and issues, but I still find “Writing the Other” by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward to be an extremely usefull book to read. Amazon US shipped it to Germany, so there is a good chance you could get it wherever you live.

    Regarding the post: I had a conversation with my mom about two different aspects of crip drag.

    One being the fact that there are limited roles (offered) for actors with disabilities and so the few there are shouldn’t be given to able bodied actors. And in cases where the character is only sometimes disabled because of the story being told, a role might require an able-bodied actor, so like you said, these cases are not as problematic, because if playing the part would have been impossible or very difficult for an actor with a disability, then that’s not a job being taken away.

    And the other aspect being that actors with disabilities would be able to point out mistakes or problems with the ways their characters are being portrayed, in a way that able bodied actors often can’t because they do not know any better. And by not giving the roles to actors with disabilities, not only are the people in charge taking away yet another of the few roles they would be allowed to play, they are also hurting the overall product by avoiding to really try incorporating the perspective of real people with disabilities. Isn’ there a rule that, if you do not have personal experience with what you are writing (talking/singing/painting/acting), you should at least try to learn as much as possible about it? What better way to do that than to hire actual people with disabilities to play the characters?

    Really, even if they don’t care about being inclusive (and sadly, they often don’t) the people responsible should care about the quality of their product.

    It is sad to know that to many of them, a fair portrayal of characters with disabilities is not a requirement for a good programm. Abled privilege in action, to not even consider that members of the community might have a different (and more accurate and aware) understanding than those just “looking in”.

  6. So I can’t do a full comment because I just finished reading the entire comment thread on Evelyn Evelyn at Amanda Palmer’s blog and am therefore totally exhausted, but yes, yes and yes. Exactly what I needed to read.

  7. Yeah, I think it’s Glee‘s constant cookie-requesting that really turns me off that show. They say, “Look! We have a wheelchair dude, and a fat chick who’s also a black chick, and some Asian people and maybe a lesbian! Cookies, pls (even though they’re barely in most episodes and the main characters are all TABs, white and apparently straight)!” Oh, fuck off, show.

  8. What’s your opinion about House? To me it’s a fairly realistic portrayal of the anger and resentment that comes along with suddenly being disabled.

  9. Bella – I always got the impression he wasn’t a lovely ray of sunshine before the accident.

    I don’t watch that often, but I do remember an episode where his parents were coming to town and he was not pleased, to put it lightly. Also, his dad was in the military. There seems to be two narratives for former military brats – join and go rah rah pew pew or get all bitter about it. I’m going down the second route myself, but I’m sure my sister is not – she won’t join, but she’s not going to become bitter (about that).

    I do know House has been covered here before, going into the various attempts to “cure” him, discussing his pills, but never in “cripdrag” discussions.

    House is a touchy show for me – the previews for when he was going into a psych ward pissed me off, because it’s not some joke and if I shuddered every time they came on, what about other people who’d been through similar things? Plus, I don’t need more reason to fear dealing with Dr. Ego. He’s only gotten close to House once (do not bring any book of a political nature to an appointment, I learned too late. Of course, should he have commented on it?). If House were real, I told my mom to knock me out so she can hear his lovely bedside manner.

  10. Bella, I’ve always had a difficult time figuring out if House’s personality was harsh before his leg pain or if it started because of the disability. I’ve been under the assumption he’s always been an angry, cynical person, especially when they’ve brought up how his dad treated him when he was little.

  11. [possible spoilers]

    There’s also a lot more than just the character House to discuss about that show regarding disability (like various one-time patients, the time he spent in the psychiatric ward of a hospital just recently in the series, etc). From what I’ve gleaned from the backstory, he was always rather like this, and also that he’s been disabled for a pretty long time now. They seem to put his personality down more to his father/childhood and just how he is than what happened to his leg.

  12. Since everybody seems to want to talk about House here, I thought I would point folks towards OuyangDan’s post, “The Pain of House,” which may provide interesting further reading for some!

  13. Urgh, I hate the portrayal of disability on House. I gave up watching after the first episode this season because of the persistent ableism.

    I think the show went from portraying him as a guy who was unpleasant and abrasive both before and after becoming disabled to portraying him as someone whose unpleasantness was largely the result of being disabled. See how they portray him in the “miracle temporary cure” episode of season 3 (I think?). The show has also been inconsistent in outlining what his disability actually is, but that’s the least of its problems. There is a lot of treating House’s physical disability as a tragedy with the sad music, etc. To me (in what I’ve seen of the show) the character never seems to move beyond the phase of grieving his disability. Real people who acquire disabilities do not generally act like that beyond the initial grief, but the show portrays his internalized ableism as only natural.

    Psychiatric disability is also hugely problematic on the show. It basically takes a pro-institutionalization stance which is completely abhorrent to me. The show was supporting a model of psychiatric care in which doctors exercise complete and total control over their patients; patients who dare to disagree (like House) are just being difficult and don’t really know what’s best for them. Once they listen to super-controlling psychiatrists, they become all better and normal. Normality (or something close to it) are the end goal. It’s a very anti-neurodiversity message.

    Then there’s the issue of the patients’ disabilities on the show. There are an awful lot of episodes which end with House figuring out some miracle cure for the disability, and of course that’s a good thing because of course people prefer to be “normal”!

    The worst episode in this regard was the episode at the end of season 5 (?) with the Deaf teenage boy. In addition to being completely inaccurate with regards to cochlear implants, the show was disparaging of Deaf culture and identity, and basically suggested that it’s okay for a doctor to give a sixteen-year old Deaf person a cochlear implant without his consent. No, no, no.

  14. I stopped watching before the psychiatric hospital episodes which is probably good; from what I heard I’d likely have found them wildly uncomfortable. I found the episode where Dr. House — along with the hospital and the surgical team and whoever the hell else was complicit in this shit — forced a cochlear implant on a Deaf patient who had made it very clear he did not want one to be highly troubling.

    Not that Gregory House M.D. hasn’t been doing stuff that should have cost him his license to practice medicine since, oh, the show started, but this was just so blatantly, appallingly unethical ableist fucking wrong. He and the hospital and everyone else should have been sued for every last penny of actual and punitive damages that could possibly be wrung out of the New Jersey tort system. That would be a neat story arc! But no. We — I identify with the patients more than I do the professionals on these things especially when they are disabled (and when they are mentally ill well!) — supposed to be bloody grateful for House’s genius and gift for lateral thinking despite his being a completely awful bigoted abusive unethical selfish shit.

    And yes. Mr. Laurie is indeed using the cane wrong.

    The actor who plays the medical examiner on CSI, Robert David Hall, uses prosthetic limbs and crutches or a cane. I’ve heard, but can’t find a source for this, that the character is a disabled person only because they wanted to cast Mr. Hall for the role.

  15. 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.

    I love this whole post, but those two last paragraphs are completely yes, yes, underline this.