As I’m sure we’re already aware, I watch a fair amount of television and I really enjoy talking about pop culture through a social justice lens. It seems like y’all enjoy that as well, since those posts seem to spark a lot of discussion. Thus, I’m trying to get less hung up on writing lengthy analysis posts, and will be doing more quick hits like this to give people a chance to chat about depictions of disability on television, from the fantastic to the headdesk.
Don’t worry, long analysis posts are not going away! (After all, FWD’s favourite show, Glee, starts up on 13 April, and there’s evidently another Very Special Disability Episode in the works!) I’m just going to be mixing things up a bit.
Last week’s Lost (‘The Package,’ Season Six, Episode Ten) featured a rather interesting disability-related titbit which I thought I would explore a bit here. Since it was pretty key to the episode, I’m popping this post behind a cut so that no one gets spoiled. Proceed at your own risk and please assume that the comments also contain spoilers through ‘The Package’ (I know there’s an episode airing tonight in the US, but what with time delays and all, I would appreciate it if people could refrain from dropping spoilers about it in the comments). If you aren’t a Lost fan, you still might find the content of this post interesting; it doesn’t get too deep into plot or theory but does talk about the reification of communication methods and how people communicate with each other.
In this episode, the character Sun hits her head while running away from the Man in Black. When she regains consciousness, she has a form of aphasia: She can speak Korean, but she is unable to speak English. Popular Mechanics has challenged the science behind this episode, and it’s entirely possible that the creators want us to think that her aphasia is because of her head injury, but it’s actually the Man in Black manipulating her. They do have a habit of baiting and switching us.
Whatever the cause of the aphasia, the disability narrative remains the same. The English-speaking characters, accustomed to Sun being able to speak English, suddenly don’t know how to interact with her. As they speak to her in English, she makes signs that she can understand, she just can’t respond in English.
Yet, the other characters start treating her as though she doesn’t understand. They shout at her. They talk v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. They are impatient with her. She gets impatient and frustrated right back, going on a tirade in Korean about how she’s being treated. I’ve experienced aphasia myself and I know well the frustration of knowing what I want to be able to say, but being unable to make it come out. Yunjin Kim did, I thought, a terrific job of conveying my experiences with aphasia; the frustration, the fright, the fury at people around me acting like I can’t understand them.
Everyone around her acts as though there’s only one possible way to communicate: In spoken English. Since Sun can’t communicate to everyone’s satisfaction, they shut her out. When they discussed this episode, the ladies of Feministe pointed out that this has some pretty terrible implications from a feminist perspective; Lost is a show which does not have the best record on women and silencing one of the female characters is rather atrocious.
But what about the disability implications?
One character manages to think outside the box. Jack approaches Sun to see if perhaps she can write in English even though she can’t speak it. It turns out that she can, and the two end up having a conversation that way. He talks to her, and she writes to him. It was a small and simple scene, but it really powerfully illustrated the social model of disability: The problem here is not with Sun, but with the people around her.
I’ve give this depiction of disability on television high marks; whether or not the cause of the disability was believable or viable, where they went with it ended, I thought, on a really positive note.