Category Archives: media and pop culture

The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture

Last week s.e. smith and several other members of the disability community, including Alice Sheppard (a dancer with AXIS wheelchair dance company), TK Small (a lawyer and disability rights activist), Christine Bruno (who works with the advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and Maysoon Zayidd (an actor and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy).

came together on the WBAI show The Largest Minority to discuss Glee and depictions of disability in popular culture. This particular episode of the radio show was inspired by s.e.’s post, A Very Glee Christmas.

You can download directly from their site: This is a direct download link to save-as. Alternately, you can play it on the WBAI site by going to their archives and scrolling down to Shared Timeslot Wednesday 10pm to 11pm on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 10:00 pm. Alternately, you can read the transcript.

The actual show itself doesn’t start until 3:52 in to the program slot.

It’s taken me a while to get the transcript of this done, for which I apologize. I did mean to get this up far faster than I did. I also should note that I had some difficulties always identifying who was speaking, and there are points in the program where the show’s audio cuts out terribly and I’m unsure what they’re saying.

Read more: The Largest Minority Round Table Discussion: Glee and Disability in Pop Culture

Inspiring Music

The song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant is one of my favorite songs. I regard it as a disability anthem. Here is the music video of the song in which the singer and many women and girls sing along to the music. The women and girls are a variety of ages, body types, and races. At least one of the people in the video has Down Syndrome. I love everything about this song. It is joyful, it centers the narrative on the disabled girl/woman’s experience, and it pokes back at the abled people–doctors and journalists– who are so fascinated by her.

Read more: Inspiring Music

By 28 December, 2010.    introspective, media and pop culture, Videos   

FWD Retrospective Week: Pop Culture Edition

Welcome to FWD retrospective week! We’ve taking a look back at some of our favourite posts on a variety of themes over the next week.

Read more: FWD Retrospective Week: Pop Culture Edition

By 27 December, 2010.    media and pop culture, recommended reading   

Disability & Self Esteem: Advertising

I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.

I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.

As we’ve said before, disability never just is.

I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.

Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.


The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..

The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.

The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….

The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”

They kiss!

The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.

The singer croons: Together! Forever!

The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.

The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”

That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!

[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]

Berlitz: Bait & Switch


Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.

Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.

The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”

I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?

Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)

[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.

“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”

Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?

The entire advertisement is in ASL:

Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.

Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.

Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.

Driver: Which house is Bob’s?

Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!

Driver: Great!

He shrugs and starts honking the horn.

Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.

One house stays dark.

Driver: That’s it!

Passenger: Yeah, ya think?

They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.

Bob: Sorry.

PepsiCo EnABLE
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.

Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!

[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.

[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.

[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.

[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.

[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.

What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?

Oh, Six Feet Under, I Just Can’t Get Enough of You

I’m in a marathon rewatch of Six Feet Under right now because I’m working on an ongoing series over at I Fry Mine In Butter on the show’s depiction of the funeral industry1. One of the recurring themes of the show is mental illness and a number of regular characters including Billy Chenowith and George Sibley are mentally ill. Right now I’m wrapping up the third season, where a number of mental illness-related topics come up, including depression in the case of Vanessa Diaz, who is struggling after the death of her mother, and Ruth Fisher, who is experiencing disorientation as all the people around her go through huge life changes.

Usually mental illness on television leaves me cold. When I’m lucky, it won’t actively enrage me, and when I’m not, it will leave me writhing on the floor in a state of extreme infuriation, because it seems like television series invest pretty minimal energy in actually researching mental illness and talking with mentally ill people about their lived experiences to, you know, get the depiction even vaguely right. Writing about this issue at Bitch earlier this year, I said:

Given the distorted image of mental illness that the media puts forward, it is perhaps no wonder that depictions of mental illness in pop culture rely heavily on some really harmful ideas about us, people with mental illness. We are dangerous. We need to be medicated for our own good. We are out of control. We are irrational. We lie, cheat, steal. We use our mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour. We are burdens on our families. Our lives are tragedies. We will never know love, because we can never be good enough for romantic partners.

The show’s handling of mental illness is not always pitch-perfect, but it does a better job than most in terms of providing a more honest depiction of mental health issues. It feels like the writers and actors actually know what they are doing. Either they are reflecting their own lived experiences, or they researched and paid attention to the outcome of that research. It’s the kind of show I feel comfortable recommending to people and it’s also a show I really like mining for the depth of its content. Even as on the one hand we have throwaway lines like ‘when he takes his meds, he’s fine,’ the show also has great little exchanges like this, where characters exert autonomy and also have a little fun in the process:

Billy: Oh read that part out loud.

Brenda: You’re sick.

Billy: If by that you mean suffering from bipolar disorder with occasional psychotic episodes than yes I am.


Both mentally ill characters and caregivers come up over the course of the series and I appreciate that it avoids putting either one in a box. When Rico and Ruth are dealing with mental illness in their partners, they are not depicted as selfless saints sacrificing everything to care for their partners. They are real. They are frustrated and angry sometimes and they love their partners deeply and they try to establish boundaries and they struggle with assumptions from others. Sometimes they snap and say or do things they regret but the show also manages to avoid positioning Vanessa and George as burdens with no personality; both characters are very humanised and we see situations from their point of view instead of solely seeing them positioned as objects on the screen, like props to be moved around to advance the plot.

Like I say, the show is not always perfect; I find a lot of Billy’s handling to be difficult to take, for example, primarily because the show often strips him of agency and shows him to us primarily through the lens of caregivers and people around him, rather than allowing Billy to speak for himself. In the overall balance, though, Six Feet Under is solid in its depiction of mental illness more than it’s infuriating, which is better that a lot of pop culture.

I’m so used to seeing partners and caregivers positioned adversarially, where we only see the caregiver perspective and the partner is just a lump off to the corner of the screen. In Six Feet Under, we see both perspectives and the show does things like giving people their own scenes! And monologues!  And interactions! It’s almost like it thinks people with mental illness are human beings! Sure, the show also evokes stereotypes like ‘the crazy, you know, it makes you soooo creative,‘ but sometimes it subverts and plays with those stereotypes also, challenging viewers to think beyond their assumptions.

  1. If you’re longing to read some examples, ‘Six Feet Under and the Funeral Rule‘ and ‘Marketing To Death‘ give you a taste and there are upcoming entries planned on exciting topics like the show’s depiction of independent funeral homes and natural burial. Yeah, ok, you kinda have to be a funeral nerd to appreciate this series, I suspect.

“There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair”: BBC Interviews Jody McIntyre About His Assault By London Metropolitan Police Officers

I would like you to take a moment to imagine the look on my face when I realised that the BBC interviewer in the following clip (transcript below) actually asked Jody McIntyre, a 20 year old man who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, whether or not the fact that Jody is a “revolutionary” is reason enough for the police to have assaulted him twice during the London riots last week. The following interview is full of similar gems, including a rather pointed “appear to show” what the actual footage shows.

I want to salute Joey for his calm yet firm responses throughout the interview.

BBC Jody McIntyre interview

[This is an interview conducted by an unidentified male BBC reporter Ben Brown with Jody McIntyre, a man with Cerebral Palsy who was pulled by police officers from his wheelchair during the recent protests against tuition fee increases in the UK. There is repeated footage of McIntyre being pulled from his chair, which was being pushed by his brother. The footage shows multiple London police officers pulling McIntyre from his chair and dragging him across the pavement and away from his brother and his chair while outraged bystanders shout in horror at what they’re seeing. The clip shown is a cleaned up and enhanced version of the clip that went up on YouTube – the original is full of a lot of cursing and screaming from bystanders which has been edited out by the BBC.]

Interviewer: Pictures of a disabled man being dragged from his wheelchair by police officers during the protests in London over the tuition fees have emerged online. Now these pictures appear to show Jody McIntyre, 20 year old fiscal activist and blogger who suffers from cerebral palsy being pulled out of his wheelchair and dragged across the road to the pavement. While the Metropolitan Police have released this statement on that incident, saying

In connection with the incident shown on YouTube of of a tuition fees protestor in a wheelchair the Metropolitan Police confirm that the man involved, Jody McIntyre, has not launched an official complaint. The issue has been referred by the Metropolitan Police to the Directorate of Professional Standards and the Met Police say they will contact Jody McIntyre directly.

That is the statement from the police that we’ve received, and we can speak to Jody McIntyre now whose in our Westminster Studio.

Interviewer: Good evening to you.

Jody (JM): Good Evening.

Interviewer: Could you just explain what happened to you?

JM: Well, during the demonstration I was attacked by and pulled out of my wheelchair by the police on two occasions. The footage you have just shown is of a second incident. One of the police men who had dragged me down the road in the first incident obviously recognized me, came running over, pushed me out of my wheelchair on to the road, and then dragged me across the road.

Interviewer: The police say you haven’t made any kind of complaint, so why not?

JM: I haven’t made a complaint yet but I’m in contact with a lawyer and I will be doing so.

Interviewer: It’s been a few days since this happened. Why haven’t you complained before?

JM: Because I wanted to consider my options before taking that step.

Interviewer: There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair. Is that true?

JM: I think justifying a police officer pulling a disabled person out of a wheelchair and dragging them across a concrete road is quite ridiculous and I’m surprised that you’ve just tried to do so.

Interview: So that’s not true, you were not wheeling yourself towards the police.

JM: Well I can’t physically use my wheelchair myself. My brother was pushing me. I think it’s quite obvious from the footage that I was 100% not a threat to anyone.

Interviewer: In the Observer newspaper you were described as a cyber radical and you were quoted as saying you want to build a revolutionary movement and that can only happen through direct action on the streets. Do you classify yourself as a revolutionary? [Anna: I think this is the article he’s referring to]

JM: I don’t classifying myself as anything but I think we all have a right to fight against what the government are trying to do. They’re trying to tier education system whereby only the rich will be able to afford it. That is something that I think we should all be fighting against.

Interviewer: Now the police have said that they have referred this incident to the Directorate of Professional Standards… what’s your reaction to that?

JM: I don’t have a reaction to that but I will be making a complaint in the near future. I would say that it’s very important not to see this as an isolated incident. This is the police’s role at demonstrations. To incite and provoke violence. They’ve done it in the past and they’re continuing to do it now. I am not the real victim here. The real victims are the students, like Alfie Meadows, who is in hospital within an inch of his life after a policeman struck him on the head with a truncheon and he needed emergency brain surgery. Now imagine if it was Prince Charles, or Camilla, or a police officer who had been within an inch of their life.

Interviewer: But I have to say, I was in Parliament Square covering that demonstration and I saw protesters throwing lumps of rock at the police, throwing missiles, various missiles, at the police. Were you throwing anything at all at the police that day?

JM: I wasn’t throwing anything at the police during that day or during any [unclear] But what is clear is that the media are trying to distract the public from the real issue, which is the cuts that the government are making.

Interviewer: Were you harmed in any way in that incident with the police?

JM: Not in that … incident, in the incident that’s being shown. There was also another incident around 45 minutes earlier when a police officer struck me with a baton and yes that did cause some injury.

Interviewer: And why then, do you think– Are you saying the police picked on your twice. Why do you think they did?

JM: I have no idea. I mean, to make one suggestion, I think in the second incident at least, I think there’s a clear element of trying to provoke protesters into violence. Personally, I see myself as equal to anyone else, but I do understand that I could be perceived as more vulnerable, so I think there was an element of trying to provoke violence from others.

Interviewer: Did you shout anything provocative or throw anything that would have induced the police to do that to you?

JM: Do you really think a person with Cerebral Palsy in a wheelchair can pose a threat to a police officer who is armed with weapons?

Interviewer: But you do say that you’re a revolutionary.

JM: That’s a word, it’s not a physical action that I’ve taken against the police officers, a word that you’re quoting from a website. I’m asking you: do you think I could have in any way posed a physical threat from the seat of my wheelchair to an army of police officers armed with weapons? This whole line of argument is absolutely ludicrous because you’re blaming the victims of violence for that violence. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the way the BBC report on the Palestinian conflict–

Interviewer: When are you going to make your compalint to the police?

JM: I will be making my complaint very shortly, in the near future.

Interviewer: Okay, Jody McIntyre, thanks very much for your time, thanks for talking to us this evening.

JM: Thank you.

Further Reading: Jody McIntyre’s blog, Life on Wheels

[ETA: Thanks to various people for letting me know the interviewer is Ben Brown.]

5 Ridiculous Big Pharma ads

I have an ongoing peeve that relates to medication and social attitudes surrounding it: often, for some people on various sides of the political spectrum, trashing Big Pharma translates into trashing people who use prescription medications at all, for a variety of health conditions — especially for chronic conditions, both of the mental health and physical varieties. As a woman with multiple disabilities — a few of which require me to be on medications manufactured by Big Pharma (OOOOOH, SCARY) — I am not, how shall I put it, too excited about this. It’s really nice that stereotypical Extremely Naive Hippie Liberals and Rugged, Anti-Government Bootstrapping Conservatives can, theoretically, bond over how much they mutually hate those of us who take medications for legitimate medical reasons — but even those of us who, normally, would like and/or encourage all of this talk about “building alliances across the [political] aisle” have limits.

In short, there are a lot of things for which you can take Big Pharma to task without also treating the people who depend on these medications like total shit. One of these things is advertising and direct-to-consumer marketing, at which Big Pharma seems to be really quite good! And by “good,” I mean totally ridiculous. Let’s take a look at five different ad campaigns that should never have left a pitch meeting, much less been made with gargantuan budgets, professional actors, and voice-overs that calmly inform the viewer/listener of possible side effects.

5. Cialis: Yes, the one with the make-out music in the background and the couple sitting side-by-side in the bathtubs out in a meadow or something. Why is it so difficult for these folks to find a tub big enough to fit them both?

4. Uloric: Granted, this one may not be as ridiculous as some of the others on this list, but the visual of a dude carrying around a giant beaker of green liquid (which looks suspiciously like it should be in some sort of fancy alcoholic drink that costs upwards of $7) is pretty bizarre, as is the voice-over that helpfully informs viewers that side-effects may include flare-ups of the very condition that Uloric is used to treat. This might be the entire point of the ad, though; since Uloric is a medication intended to help with Gout symptoms, wouldn’t it be more accurate to have the guy wear shoes to which giant beakers are attached? Perhaps we could see a live-action depiction of the 16th-century drawing included in the Wikipedia article on Gout, instead of a guy with a big beaker of neon-green energy drink? That would be awesome, and might get the Gout-is-horribly-painful-and-this-medication-could-help message across in a way that actually makes sense.

3. Lyrica: Every time I see this one, I want to yell at the TV, particularly when the one featuring the classy middle-aged lady who bakes bread has somehow made its hellish way into my precious rerun of Dirty Jobs or another show that I don’t like to admit to enjoying. The actress in this ad pronounces “Fibromyalgia” like it’s a seasonal root vegetable or something (like “FYE-bro-MY-al-GEE-AH”) and all I can do is give the television my most hateful death glare. Oh, and even better is when she says that “My doctor diagnosed it as FYE-bro-MY-al-GEE-AH muscle pain,” and I want to scream, “Lady, IF YOU KNEW what fibro was actually like, you would not be saying that. You would probably be in too much pain on some days to do very much.” Or baking loaves of crusty bread en masse, for that matter. As someone who’s dealt with fibro for the past few years of my life, I only wish I had enough energy to bake many loaves of bread, like the woman in this commercial. Sweet, delicious carbs might help my pain, or at least give me something to focus on other than constant pain and fatigue.

2. Cymbalta: My personal favorite moment is when a kid runs up to hug the woman (presumably a relative?) and the camera focuses on her face, and she just looks so sad that the explanation just has to be terrible acting (or depression, according to the good folks at Eli Lilly). Depression’s symptoms are much, much more complex than walking around looking like the emoticon for sadface [🙁], but you wouldn’t know it by watching this commercial. I think someone should make a parody of ads like this, except that some other person approaches the woman, tells her to “Snap out of it,” and then the woman gives that person the finger–or, more accurately, gives them the 😐 face, because that is what certain aspects of depression make you feel like doing. You’re not only sad all of the time, but often you feel too hopeless to respond to people’s asshattery when they feel the need to comment on your depression and/or tell you that you Just Need To Buck Up.

1. Viagra (“Viva Viagra” spot): Truly the stuff of nightmares. The first time I saw this ad, I was awake at 3 or 4 AM due to pain (go figure, right?) and thought I was hallucinating when the opening chords of “Viva Las Vegas” started up in the opening seconds of this ad. I was, at first, confused as to what that particular song had to do with a medication used to treat erectile dysfunction. And then four middle-aged dudes–one playing a guitar–appeared on the screen and started to sing “VIVA VIAGRA!” to the tune of a song that most people associate with Elvis Presley, or any buddy comedy that has some sort of drunken Vegas montage. If you’re sure that this one won’t give you nightmares, I urge you to find it on YouTube, because it must be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, it’s been replaced in recent months with 30 seconds of yet another middle-aged white dude driving a car around in the dark. The penis = car association makes more sense than hanging out with your best buds and singing about Viagra, I suppose, particularly if you know anything about psychoanalysis.

Readers, what are your least favorite Big Pharma ads, and why? Short descriptions (and links to videos, if you have them) can be helpful for people who may have not seen the ads; please include them, if possible, so that we may all share in the unintentional hilarity.

Book Review: Lasting Treasures by Julie Ellis

This piece contains lots of spoilers.

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.

I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.

But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.

At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.

So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.

But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?

So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.

It’s Only Wrong if You’re Sane: Pop Culture And Institutionalisation

Note: This post is going to discuss representations of psychiatric abuse in pop culture.

Have you ever watched a genre-show where the main character is one you know, for certain, is sane, because you’ve been watching them for a season and a half, and yet the episode opens with them being in an asylum, accused of heinous crimes, drugged up, and undergoing treatment they scream their way through? Whether it’s Will Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation loudly insisting “I may be surrounded by insanity but I am not insane!”, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day screaming the truth at Dr. Silberman, or Priya Tsetsang/Sierra of Dollhouse describing the asylum as “hell, I’m in hell”, storylines of characters we identify with and know are sane are pretty common. And no matter what the purpose of the particular scene is, there’s one thing all of them have in common: What happens to the character is terrible because we, the audience, know they don’t deserve it. They’re a sane person stuck in an insane asylum, and that’s what makes it creepy.

I hate this plot.

Not because the shows or movies are poorly written: I am still a huge fan of ST:TNG, and Terminator 2 is still one of my favourite movies. I was not a fan of Dollhouse, but can see why many fans of the show were quite taken with Belonging. They’re also typically quite well acted, and even with my dislike of Dollhouse I gotta admit that Dichen Lachman was amazing as Sierra.

No, no, I hate this plot because there’s never any real attempt to discuss that what makes this plot work is the very frightening idea that what happens to these characters would be in someway okay if they were actually diagnosed with the mental health conditions they are accused of having.

Description follows
Image: Will Riker, out of uniform and scruffy looking, walks down the corridors of the Enterprise insisting he’s sane.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Frame of Mind”, the opening teaser is of Commander William T. Riker explaining to an off-screen interrogator that he’s not crazy, that he understands his actions, and that he’d like to now be released from the asylum. This scene is repeated throughout the episode, both as a scene from a play that Riker is performing with Commander Data, and as scenes from the actual asylum that Riker has been forced into by the antagonists of the episode, the hospital administrator on Tilonus IV.

Memory Alpha sums up the episode as “Riker thinks he is losing his mind when reality keeps shifting between an alien hospital and the Enterprise, where he is rehearsing a play.”

Throughout the episode we see scenes of Riker being taunted by the staff at the asylum. We also see a few other inmates, with the implication that these people, unlike Riker, are actually crazy, since one of them uses a spoon to attempt to contact Star Fleet. Finally, we see Riker strapped down, forced to undergo treatment that will permanently alter his personality and change him into a different person. In the end, he’s rescued by his shipmates. There’s some implication that the asylum may be shut down, but it’s not clear by the ending.

ST:TNG was pretty episodic, and only rarely touched directly on previous episodes. (This isn’t a criticism!) My issue isn’t really with the fact that the Enterprise may have warped away from an abusive asylum without a second thought, since that wasn’t really the point of the show. It’s just that this episode is pretty much predictable in how it plays out, and manages to reinforce the idea that yes, what happens to Riker is terrible, because Riker isn’t crazy.

I really enjoyed this episode when I first watched it, and thought it was very powerful. Since then, I’ve become a lot more aware of forceable institutionalization and the practice of forcing people into Electroshock Therapy against their will, and the episode is a lot less enjoyable.

More recently, of course, is Dollhouse and “Belonging”. I was actually asked to watch and review this episode when it first aired. I watched it with a few friends who weren’t familiar at all with Dollhouse and found the entire idea of the show – Wikipedia sums it up as “The show revolves around a corporation running numerous underground establishments (known as “Dollhouses”) across the globe which program individuals referred to as Actives (or Dolls) with temporary personalities and skills. Wealthy clients hire Actives from Dollhouses at great expense for various purposes” – very very creepy. I ultimately ended up not reviewing it because the episode left me so angry and drained that all I wanted to type was “arg arg arg arg I hate you show I hate you”.

I have some distance from that now.

Description follows
Image: Topher and Sierra from Dollhouse. Topher is dressed in “regular” clothes, while Sierra is in a hospital gown, her hair disheveled, and obviously quite distressed.

In this episode, it’s revealed to the audience that Sierra was sent to the Dollhouse to become an active because she was diagnosed with a mental health condition. Topher describes it to another character, Boyd, as “I helped Sierra, you know. She was a paranoid schizophrenic, psychotic. I helped her.” This idea of having “helped” Sierra is very important to Topher’s sense of self. When it’s later revealed that Sierra wasn’t actually psychotic, but had been drugged to the point of appearing that way, that’s when Topher suddenly believes that tying her down to a chair and forcing her to undergo painful treatment that she kicked and fought against might have been a bad idea. Because doing that to an actual crazy person is okay, but doing it to a sane person is wrong.

As I said, I wasn’t a fan of the show, and this was the only episode in Season 2 I watched, but I did follow what else happened in the series. I know that this is a pretty pivotal episode to Topher’s arc, and it’s in realising that he’d forced a sane person to undergo this horrible treatment that he begins to really question what’s going on with the Dollhouse and what his role is in it all. I also think it’s pretty clear from the show that we’re supposed to view the folks in the Dollhouse as being people who are “morally suspect”.

I still hate the episode.

I hate it because there are so many genre-shows that do basically exactly this, and this episode is part of that trope. Despite the fact that the characters are presented as morally ambiguous, they’re still our point of view characters, and they’re still saying “What happened here is wrong” as being directly tied in to Sierra not having been “psychotic” in the first place.1 They’re also not unique in this view, and it’s a pretty common idea that it’s okay to force people who are “crazy” into treatments that would be considered torture if they were done to anyone else.

What I hate about this trope is that it’s done all the time, it’s very rarely analyzed in a way that discusses the message of “It’s okay to do this to a crazy person, but it’s off-limits if the person is sane” as being problematic, and because it implies that these sorts of things don’t happen in real institutions. Except that, in many (but by no means all), these images are not exaggerations, but understate the amount of abuse and forced treatment.

I think that this trope, like yesterday’s one about Crazy Roommates, comes from an exaggeration of the natural fear of being forced into medical treatments you don’t want because somehow you’ve lost control. The problem with this particular trope is it’s not based on fiction: this is the real experience of thousands of psychiatric patients and survivors. This is frightening to me because it’s true, and I wish that particular truth wasn’t used as fodder for genre shows to add depth to their characters.

  1. I really really really want to find the time to write about the repeated trope of fear of institutionalization in Whedon’s work. It’s on my list of things. My list is long.

By 7 December, 2010.    media and pop culture, mental health, movies   

Today in Journalism: The Film Critic Who Wouldn’t

Pity Jeannette Catsoulis. This poor New York Times film critic recently faced quite a conundrum when she was sent out to review Me, Too, written and directed by Álvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro. I’ll let her tell you about it:

Fiction films with disability as a central theme (especially those that feature disabled actors) are not only tricky to assemble but also minefields to critique. Praise can sound patronizing and criticism cruel, the disability casting a bulletproof cloak of political correctness around the entire project.

I always love it when people make sure to bring up ‘political correctness’ in this context, because it’s such a nice little codephrase. The art is suffering! It’s because of them! Those politically correct people over there. A poor critic can’t even talk honestly about something without fear of being harried by a horde of angry crips. I know, I’m sniffling too.

Now, criticism in the sense of art criticism is a bit different than the type of critique we tend to focus on here, which is specifically analysing the depiction of disability in art. My discussions about, for example, Covert Affairs focus not on the quality of the show (terrible) or whether I think it’s a successful piece of art (no), or even its place within a larger artistic context, but specifically on how disability is handled. And obviously, what we do  here is also aimed at a specific audience, people interested in talking about disability in art and pop culture, rather than the general community.

I say this because I don’t want to conflate what I do with what Catsoulis does; her job is to look at works of art and criticise them as creative wholes, considering their influences, the genre, similar works, the history, and a myriad of other topics. This is not a sour grapes ‘I could do this better than her’ post, because we do two different things. That said, I don’t have very much sympathy for her. I think that good criticism stands for itself. If she’s being attacked for being ‘patronising’ or ‘cruel,’ she’s doing something wrong. Like, maybe her reviews actually are patronising or cruel.

I’ve read a lot of art criticism in my day, including critiques of pieces featuring disability. Those have indeed included discussions that were clearly patronising along with evaluations that were needlessly cruel. But they’ve also included good, solid criticism that actually engages with the work and tells me something about it, coming from people who don’t fall into the trap of only thinking about the disability and the ability status of the actors or creators. It can be done, I know, because I’ve seen it, and I enjoy reading it, whether the critic is shredding the piece or praising it.

Her attitude suggests that critics shouldn’t engage with works involving disability, and that if they do, they should not be honest. This does a service to absolutely no one. People with disabilities are just as interested in good criticism as everyone else. We make decisions about the art we want to consume on the basis of a broad assortment of characteristics, including things like critical response, and we don’t regard works featuring disability as inherently unassailable and would like to know, for example, if a film is just bad and we shouldn’t bother going to see it. Disability is not a free pass to do whatever you want in a creative work and that’s an attitude we spend a lot of time pushing back against.

I’ve noticed this attitude popping up in a lot of areas of media and pop culture. People are acting like it’s not fun anymore because of ‘political correctness,’ implying that a bunch of humourless people with no appreciation for art and culture are running around destroying creativity as we know it. Apparently, asking creators to stop relying on tired tropes and poor depictions of, say, disability, is ‘ruining art.’ Engaging with common tropes and the history of those tropes in art and asking why they keep appearing is ‘politically correct.’ Now the critics are joining in to complain about how legitimate complaints from people who don’t like hackneyed ‘criticism’ of the way their lived experience is portrayed is ‘ruining things.’

The snide remarks Catsoulis added to the top of her review didn’t really add anything to the discussion, other than serving as a warning that I shouldn’t trust her as a reviewer when she’s discussing works where disability is involved.

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