Disability in Pop Culture: I know where the Black Stork Comes From

Don and I went to see this great romantic comedy a few summers ago. IMDB tells me we saw it in 2008. It’s called Easy Virtue, and it’s one of those delightful romps where a young upper-class English boy brings home his wild American wife who is older than him, basically to upset his parents. It’s set in 1929 and has all those great things that movies have when they’re set in that time period – jazz music, flapper dresses, British manners, cigarette smoking as sexy and cool, etc, etc etc.

The take-away message was that if you really love someone with Cancer, you’ll kill them if they have to undergo too much chemotherapy.

As this was around the same time as we confirmed Don’s cancer diagnosis, you can imagine that this kinda ruined the awesome movie-going experience for us.

When people tell stories about families like mine – the dude in the wheelchair with omg!cancer, the crazy lady who hides under her desk so nothing can get her – they tend to tell three stories: “Bitter Cripple Who Needs To Be Schooled By Abled-Folks About How Their Life Isn’t Over Yet”, “Overcoming Adversity: A Very Special Lesson”, and “It Sucked, And Then He Died”. The heroes of these stories are almost always the Able-Bodied (and it is very much a “broken body” trope – narratives of madness are different). There never seems to be fictional narratives about the world-famous scientist who just happens to have neuro-muscular dystrophy, or the renowned US historian with the award-winning books who just happens to use a ventilator, or the actor who, after a disabling injury, refuses to become a director and just happens to land a role in a major television series. If these people showed up in fiction, their disability would be the story. Because that’s the story that is told about disability.

Whose life is it anyway?

So I come back to story after movie after very special episode where the person with the disability, the cancer, the catastrophic illness, gets themselves out of everyone’s way by killing themselves or begging others to do it for them. I remember every narrative where disability = evil, where disability = faked, where disability = a lesson, a punishment, a blessing in disguise, a test, a momentary difficulty that is healed when the bitterness goes away, because fictional disability never just is.

This continual fictional narrative of disability as trope is what makes me distrustful of disability in fiction. If I want to watch a show that appeals to me and includes people with disabilities treated realistically, I have to go back to Joe Dawson in Highlander. If I want to watch a fun movie romp, I’m back at Sneakers. If I want to have a long conversation about assistive tech, I’m at X-Men and Star Trek: The Next Generation. If I want to watch something that looks even vaguely like our lives, I’m at Joan of Arcadia. If I want to see a show where someone has some power, a love life, and just happens to have a disability, I’m somewhere in Season 2 of The West Wing.

I don’t want to play Disability Cliché Bingo every time I try and engage with pop culture. I do not want to watch a medical drama because we have enough medical drama, and with three types of narcotic painkillers in the flat I’m not fond of the addiction narrative. I don’t want to watch a show where the creators and show runners cannot type “wheelchair dancer” into YouTube and see what comes up. I cannot stand the idea of watching a show where a secondary character is disabled specifically to punish the main characters. I do not have an interest in US football’s glories.

Tell me stories about the people with disabilities I know: The ones who work hard every year to ensure an internationally renowned con is accessible to people with disabilities, the one who co-founded a successful social networking site, the ones graduating from university this month, starting it next year, struggling through grad school without enough support, parenting their children, advocating for their rights, organizing support in Chicago, running role-playing games, managing businesses, founding a successful feminist website, writing beautiful poetry, publishing academic papers, doing their rounds at the hospital, planning disability-focused conferences, planning tech-focused conferences, cooking dinner, making documentary films, getting through today, planning tomorrow, arguing with their parents, their children, their spouses, their friends, writing blog posts, drinking tea.

We are so much more than this, so much more than tropes, clichés, or tragedies.

6 Comments

  1. I recently watched De-Lovely and when the protagonist has an accident and ends up in a wheelchair part-way through the movie, it’s just treated as something else he has to deal with, albeit a major something, and isn’t nearly as important to the movie as the love story.

  2. I understand that it is a different culture from yours and doesn’t resonate with you, but as someone who grew up in a small US football town, and who struggles with my body not doing what I want, I was intensely moved by the story of Jason Street on Friday Night Lights. As far as I know it’s one of the only US television depictions of disability that deals with the experience of being disabled, not just the experience of interacting with a disabled person.

  3. I’m told FNL is very good by people who watch it.

  4. Yes, yes, yes! To this whole post. Amen.

  5. “…fictional disability never just is.”

    You’re so right.

  6. You know what’s sad about that film, Easy Virtue? It’s actually an adaptation of a Noël Coward play, which doesn’t have the “euthanasia twist.” I’m unbearably pissed at that movie because I thought it could have had a great feminist-style ending where Larita just leaves and doesn’t simply flee with another man (not to mention… the other man is her husband’s father, I mean seriously wtf was with that), but that’s apparently the ending to the original play, and they changed it for the movie. I didn’t pick up on the ableist element you mention here because I was so upset over the end in general, but it’s ridiculously obvious in retrospect. Now I’m even more mad about that movie!