Today in Journalism: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…SUPERCRIP!

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good Supercrip narrative, which is why I settled down with a bowl of Chex Mix to enjoy this delicious piece, ‘Provo woman finds blessing in hardship,’ originally published at Mormon Times. This delightful local profile of a woman with disabilities who doesn’t let her disability stop her! has got it all.

Tragedy struck! She’s inspirational! She refused to give in! Miracles! Determination! You can do anything if you try! Seriously, I think this article managed to hit every single square on the disability bingo card. I’d like to commend Doug Robinson for coming up with a tough act to follow. I’m sure I couldn’t possibly find another article even close to the amazingness of this one. It is just not possible. The world would collapse if there were two, you know what I’m sayin’?

Writing about the Supercrip stereotype at Bitch, Annaham said:

The myth of the Level Playing Field holds that American society gives everyone—no matter what their background or present circumstances—equal chances to succeed, and that most of the problems that marginalized groups have traditionally faced have already been solved. All folks have to do is work hard, have a good attitude, and their success will be imminent! Therefore, if there’s a Level Playing Field, there is no reason that people with disabilities can’t do superhuman things and succeed. Of course, the Level Playing Field is not real (hence its mythic status). Yet, many people who are effectively not marginalized regularly tell those who are that they, too, can “make it” if they just work hard and/or visualize their success. And so Supercrip remains the exception that many abled folks like to bring up; using similar logic, non-fictional Supercrips throughout the ages—along with many other people from marginalized groups who have “made it”–supposedly “prove” the existence of the Level Playing Field.

This profile of a woman with disabilities hits all of these issues right on the nose. Readers are reminded again and again that she refused to give up, refused to listen to doctors, insisted on doing things ‘the hard way.’ She used a manual chair instead of an electric one. She pursued a degree in singing even though her mean voice teacher said her voice was ugly. She won’t sit back and live high on the hog of government benefits, nosiree, she’s not the handout-taking type.

If you just try hard enough, you can accomplish anything. You just have to want it enough. These narratives are particularly pervasive in US society, where we are trained from a young age to believe in the American Dream and Bootstraps and other cultural myths so internalised, we often don’t even recognise them when we express them. Many of us believe, on some level, that people who work hard get what they deserve, and people in trouble got there because they didn’t work hard enough. These attitudes contribute directly to resistance when it comes to combating discrimination, because apparently if we just tried harder, ableism and discrimination would go away.

Curiously enough, she doesn’t mind handouts from G-d, just things like antidiscrimination laws and government benefits. This emphasis on spirituality is not a terribly surprising thing to see in a Mormon publication, but the piece is rife with references about how ‘blessed’ she feels, and it sets up a classic and unbeatable narrative: Why can’t you be more like her? She’s not angry and bitter like you! Why can’t you just get a job already? She did it!

“I was told a long time ago by a friend that feeling angry will stop your progress,” she says, “that if you feel sorry for yourself, if you’re going to feel bad, just give yourself 10 minutes, and then it’s over and you go on. Some things you can’t change.”

Quotes like that never get used to beat us up and remind us we’re being bad people, of course. They never are weaponised in the form of demanding questions asking why we can’t be more like that nice, inspirational lady who doesn’t let her disability get her down. Women like this are never pointed to as role models and are never used to abuse the rest of us for not just being better good cripples.

Depictions like this are actively harmful. As Annaham pointed out, Supercrip narratives are also extremely common. The media loves stories like this and eats them up, presenting them to readers and viewers with a pre-packaged narrative that everyone knows and understands because they have seen it before. When nondisabled people encounter the same story over and over again, they expect all people with disabilities to be like this, and they find the reality, that we are unique individuals with different types of attitudes and bodies and approaches to disability, highly unsettling.

These narratives hinder conversations about disability discrimination, and for many disabled readers and viewers, they are highly alienating.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

4 thoughts on “Today in Journalism: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…SUPERCRIP!

  1. If you don’t feel sorry for yourself, how will notice what is wrong with society and fight to change it?

    And anger can be good, if channeled right. I guess not anger at your situation, but anger at the barriers placed by society can be powerful.

    My father believes in the bootstrap, I don’t need no government BS – he’s never had a job where he wasn’t working for the government – Navy, and now policeman. The government is okay if it’s paying ME for my job, but that’s it. /bitter

    I’d like to see a super-crip story that chronicles how xie worked hard to get disability, only to discover that the payments were too small to live on independently, then ran for office (while living with xer parent(s)) so that the safety net in America would be stronger. (I’m sorry, the anti-tax rhetoric in political ads makes me feel like punching things – but since my mom voted R once, we get their mailers and I get to rip them apart merrily.)

    Do “level playing field” people realize that their type of thinking is the reason there are stories about super-crips? They wouldn’t have to fight so much if society wasn’t chock full of barriers.

    I think the saying “he was born on 3rd base and thought he hit a triple” applies to a lot of people.

  2. As an ex-mormon with a disability, I can tel you the mormon attitudes about these kinds of things (adversity, disability, etc) are extremely messed up.

    As kind of a folk belief, they tend to think that god gives people lives based on how noble they were in the ‘pre-earthly existence’. People are lucky to have difficulties.

    Their culture is also pervaded by stories about how people are being made stronger by god when they have disabilities or any other kind of thing. And of course, He would never give you more than you can handle! Everything is according to plan.

    The level playing field thing plays right into their conversion/indoctrination techniques though: if you don’t feel the holy spirit and have a testimony that the church is true, you’re not being righteous enough!

    It very much mirrors the very American bootstraps and level playing field myths.

  3. Reading this, I was definitely annoyed to see some of the usual tropes about disability used without any irony. That being said, between reading the post and looking at the bingo card, I have to wonder whether it’s possible to have a narrative, either fictional or based off real events, about disabled people overcoming the odds without it coming off as condescension or Bootstraps. If it is possible, how much attention should be given to the disabled person’s status as having a disability and how this factors into their motivations, and how much should his or her disability be ignored? Is the problem with this storyline the characterization of the disabled person involved, namely the “saintly” disposition and unwillingness to “burden” others with their concerns, or does it go deeper than that? If the “overcoming obstacles and achieving (insert goal here)” narrative and all the associated tropes should be scrapped entirely, what should replace it? And, for those of us who have grown up hearing these things or who have otherwise heard them again and again to the point of internalizing them, what would be a better way to think about ourselves, our goals and our experiences in the world as disabled people?

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