Category Archives: media and pop culture
Back in May, I wrote about the rampant slashing of the sections of California’s budget pertaining to disability services. abby jean has also written about how California structures social assistance programs and their funding. These are issues seen not just in California, but across the United States, where states are struggling to come up with ways to provide services while facing falling revenues and funding shortfalls in every direction. The most vulnerable populations in many states are the first to face cuts, and some of those people have decided to fight back.
Which brings us to Arnieville1. In June, disability rights activists occupied a traffic island in Berkeley to fight budget cuts. The Arnieville protests continued off and on throughout the summer and protesters led demonstrations in other areas of the state as well, leading to things like arrests in Sacramento.
Arnieville put disability rights issues front and center. People passing by couldn’t help but notice a large encampment of people with disabilities, and their numerous signs, protesting policy and budget cuts. It was a very in your face protest, and it makes sense that such a thing would take place in Berkeley, a city long known for its active disability community and disability rights activism.
Yet, if you rely on mainstream media for your news, you wouldn’t know about Arnieville. A search on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the largest Bay Area newspapers, for ‘Arnieville’ returns no results. Likewise with the Press Democrat, a smaller regional paper that still manages to find time to cover other local news. The Los Angeles Times, an award-winning California newspaper with a long history of investigative journalism and coverage of both disability issues and the California budget, also has absolutely no coverage of Arnieville.
If you don’t follow the disability community in the Bay Area closely, you probably wouldn’t know about Arnieville. Unless you happened to read independent media like IndyBay, The San Francisco Bay View, The Berkeley Daily Planet, or New American Media. Coverage in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and San Francisco Bay Guardian, three farily large independent media outlets? Nil. Zero results. Coverage on radio and television news is a little more difficult to track as I can’t search through months of broadcasts as conveniently as I can through months of print media, but I suspect coverage has been relatively minimal, if not nonexistent, with the exception of KPFA in Berkeley.
Arnieville is news. People with disabilities camping out in a traffic island to protest budget cuts, to demand independence from institutionalisation, to challenge social policy, is news. Yet, most of California’s media is completely ignoring the Arnieville protest, let alone its implications. This is typical. Disability issues are rarely covered in the media and when they are, it’s usually in a very patronising, frustrating kind of way. An article on budget cuts, for example, might focus on interviewing parents of children with disabilities instead of interviewing the children themselves, or interviewing adults with disabilities.
Activists from other movements are profiled in the news in California. Protests demanding everything from clean energy to better accountability in police brutality cases are covered, extensively, as they should be. Because protest is one of many legitimate forms of communication with the government, and newspapers have an obligation, and a mission, to report on issues of interest to citizens. Disability rights is an issue of interest to many California citizens, not just people with disabilities, yet, the media seems very disinterested in covering it.
What about Arnieville isn’t newsworthy? The Los Angeles Times had no problems covering a tent city in Sacramento in March of 2009. A whole series of articles was run, including profiles of members of the encampment and a number of very strongly written editorials about social responsibility, budget crises, and public shaming. But a disability rights protest in the form of an encampment on public land? Not even a stray word.
One of the reasons our lack of visibility in the media makes me angry is that the general population is often unaware of the issues that affect us, and of the long history associated with many of those issues. It’s extremely hard to fight social attitudes when the media either ignores us or reinforces its social attitudes with its coverage, instead of debunking those attitudes through news stories. Arnieville conflicts with a lot of beliefs about people with disabilities, and I suspect that’s part of the reason why it hasn’t been covered in the media, because it threatens established social attitudes.
To cover Arnieville might suggest that the protesters have a legitimate grief and have something important to say. It might even hint that some people with disabilities are not happy with the current state of social services. That people with disabilities do not want to be institutionalised and have the capacity to live independently. That people with disabilities have a right to live, have a right to participate in governance, have a right to voice their objections to policy that harms them. These are scary, scary things to many nondisabled people, which is why they are being swept under the carpet.
- A reference to encampments established during the Great Depression by people who lost everything, nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’ after President Herbert Hoover, blamed for the policies that led to the catastrophic economic collapse; in this case, the camps are named for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. ↩
People with disabilities, especially women, have all the same pressures currently non-disabled people do to look “good enough”, with added bonus of being either non-sexualised or hyper-sexualised, as well as having people infantize them to an incredible degree.
Talking about disability and self-esteem and body image is very difficult for me. People look at me and see a woman without a disability (or a woman with a non-evident one), and I pass. I don’t get the odd looks that a woman of my age (or younger, or older) using a cane or crutches would. I don’t get the pats on the head that women who use wheelchairs report, and I don’t have people leaping out of the way when I’m using a motorized scooter.
But at the same time, women like me are often used as stand-ins for “horrible”. Whether that’s the simple of “she took off her glasses and suddenly she was beautiful!”, or the more complicated of “oh my gosh! the woman I had sex with is actually a crazy person! Quick, let us make many movies about crazy = bunny-boiler = grotesque!”, I’m well aware that women like me are bad, ugly inside, and unacceptable.
These things add a whole other layer to the conversations that many women, feminist and non, have about self esteem and body image. We are all inundated with the constant barrage of White, Long-Haired, Slender (But Not Too Slender), Tall (But Not Too Tall), Unblemished, Healthy-looking, Young women in most advertising and fashion spreads, television shows, movies, and even on our book covers.1
At the same time, though, poster children and the pity parade are a fairly common image of disabled children – whether with visible or non-evident disabilities – that present people with disabilities as weak, as undesirable, as needing of pity – and always, always, always, as children. Very rarely are images of self-possessed, happy, disabled adults shown, unless they are in one of the “he’s so brave” “look at what she’s overcome” news stories.
I don’t know how this affects other people, or how they deal with it. I know that when Don first got his cane, and then his wheelchair, his self-esteem and image of himself took a hit, and it took a while for me to convince him that yes, I still found him attractive (and I can’t tell you how much I love that wheelchair, since my sexy sexy husband now has energy!). I know for me it would be nice to see images of Actual Crazy Women who aren’t mockeries of women like me, but treated like actual people. It would be nice to see casual fashion spreads with people with evident disabilities in them, rather than only seeing “diversity matters!” posters that include maybe one (male) wheelchair user, usually white.
As I said, I find these things very hard to talk about, because in many ways I don’t even know where to start. While to some extent discussing pop culture and representations there is important, how do we, as individuals, deal with our own self-esteem issues? How do we, as a group, tackle the constant attacks on people with visible disabilities to hide parts of themselves? Make yourself more approachable by putting sparkles on your cane! Soup up your wheelchair and maybe someone will ask you a question! Hide your obvious aid-devices so that they don’t offend people! Cake on make-up so no one can see your scars!
I think there’s so much here to talk about. Please, tell me your thoughts.
- The last one is so ubiquitous that until just now I didn’t realise that of all the non-fiction books on my desk about disability, only one has an actual image of visibly disabled people on it. Most of them have very plain covers, or abstract-type art on them. ↩
Gentle Readers! It has been a long time and I know you were afraid that I had forgotten to read and review Ann Brashares’ third installment of the much beloved YA series The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants! Well, fear not! I managed to fit it in whilst chewing my way through Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series (don’t you worry, I have something for all of you on that, as well!), which is not a small feat. Sometimes it is nice to read a book that isn’t beating me about the head with an Ayn Rand-ian philosophy cudgel.
*stops derailing her own post*
For those of you who haven’t read The Sisterhood of the the Traveling Pants series, I can give you my brief brush up, and if you have, feel free to skip ahead to the rest of this post.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is a wonderful series about four young women: Bridget (Bee), Carmen, Lena, and Tibby, born withing seventeen days of each other. They are more than just friends, having grown up together due to their mothers being best friends, and having grown so close that they forget where one ends and the other begins. It is not uncommon to find Tibby tapping her foot on Lena’s leg or Bridget leaning her chin on Carmen’s shoulder while playing with her hair. They can tell when each other are hurting or hiding something or bubbling over with joy or exciting news. They have grown up sharing in each others’ joys, triumphs, losses, and sorrows. They have experienced growing pains and growing up as a unit and have leaned on each other for support through things like Carmen’s parent’s divorce, Tibby’s parent’s decision to have more children when she was much older, and Bridget’s mother’s suicide. Even as the other three mothers drifted apart, they seemed to hold tighter to each otherRead more: Girls in Pants: The Very Special Lesson on How to “Draw the Chair”
Content note: This post contains spoilers for season one, episode seven of Covert Affairs, ‘Communication Breakdown.’
I am nothing if not scrupulously fair to shows I enjoy shredding, so when numerous people informed me that I had to watch this week’s episode of Covert Affairs and write about it, I complied, although I confess I armed myself with a bowl of English peas first so I would have something to throw at the screen. (Loki stationed himself eagerly by my chair in the hopes of hoovering up any dropped peas. He is so helpful.)
As it turned out, this week’s Auggie-centric episode was less enraging, and more encouraging. This episode has been in the can for a while, I suspect, so I can’t credit the change to responding to criticism, which means the show’s developers decided all on their own selves to do more with Auggie’s character, and to take him to some interesting places along the way. I still think that I would prefer to see Auggie and Annie working together, not least because Perabo and Gorham share star billing on the show, so I’m hoping we get to that point instead of ‘five Annie-centric episodes in a row, and then an Auggie-centric one.’
This week took Auggie out into the field. Along the way, we met his Russian ex-girlfriend, and got a little bit more of Auggie’s backstory. One thing I have always liked (and clearly stated, sorry, drive-by trolls, you shall have to look elsewhere for fodder!) about Auggie’s characterisation is that he’s depicted as sexual, and not as a figure of pity or curiosity because he’s sexual. He just, you know, is, like most sexual people in the world. I like that the show isn’t dropping the ball on that, and that in fact, we got to see him being explicitly sexual on multiple occasions in this episode. Yes, folks, a disabled character got to have (implied) sex on screen! Not only that but a tattooed sexual character, which is something I always enjoy seeing, as a tattooed person. So, go Covert Affairs, go.
Auggie also got a fight scene, which I was not expecting. I’m used to seeing the show depict him as a helpless character who does hapless things like not being able to find his obviously carefully positioned cellphone, but, instead, he got a fight scene. A good fight scene. Where he kicked ass. Can I say how awesome it is to see any disabled character get a fight scene, but especially a blind character, in a scene that didn’t amount to ‘his blindness gives him special ass-kicking powers!’ but was, in fact, chaotic and turbulent and messy? Because it was awesome.
This episode did a much better job, I thought, of integrating references to his blindness without making it central to the episode, or central to his characterisation. There’s a scene at a briefing where we see him reading the briefing in braille, for example, but it’s not a ‘and NOW the camera shall ZOOM IN so we can all NOTICE, do we all SEE THE BRAILLE? Ok, good.’ sort of scene. There’s another scene where he goes to drop a can in the recycling, but someone has moved it, and the can ends up on the floor. The sighted lead scenes are starting to look more natural and less contrived, as indeed is his character in general. Little nods to the way disability can be integrated into your life are scattered in the episode, but aren’t played pointedly or for laughs.
I’d say that, if this episode is a sign of things to come, Auggie’s characterisation is improving. He’s filling out more, he’s far less stereotyped, and I didn’t squirm viscerally watching this episode (well, ok, I did, but I’m pretty sure that was something I ate). I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of Gorham, the producers, and the writers getting more comfortable with the character, or all of Gorham’s research paying off, or what, but things are starting to seem like they might have a chance on Covert Affairs.
This fall, we’ll be seeing a number of disabled characters returning to television, including Artie on Glee, Dr. Fife on Private Practice, and Dr. Hunt1 on Grey’s Anatomy. I’m curious to see where all these characters go, and I’d note that two of them have depictions I feel pretty darn good about, which I feel like is a good sign for television; we’re still underrepresented, but at least every disabled character on television doesn’t make me want to scream.
- He’s not explicitly identified as a person with disabilities, but he does have PTSD, so I’m naturally interested in his characterisation. ↩
Last night, The Learning Channel in the United States aired a special on JoAnne Fluke, a dancer from Kansas. Since I’m writing about this on FWD/Forward, I think you can guess that JoAnne Fluke is a disabled woman. Fluke has caudal regression syndrome, a congenital condition of the lower spine. She was given a prognosis of less than three days at birth, and at 34, she’s winning wheelchair dance competitions. She’s a highly competitive dancer and she’s also interested in promoting wheelchair dance and raising awareness about the disabled dance community, two topics highly relevant to my interests.
She was profiled by a number of news outlets in the publicity ramp up to the TV special, and it’s really…interesting to see how journalists choose to depict her. The TLC special is called ‘Dancer With Tiny Legs,’ and thus it comes as no surprise to see titles like ‘The Tiny Dancer: Despite Small Webbed Legs, Woman Dances, Dreams.’ I see this kind of narrative a lot when it comes to talking about disabled dancers; there’s shock and surprise that, gee willickers, they can, like, dance and stuff! And set goals and work to achieve them! It’s so…wait for it, it’s in the first paragraph of the article…
…this amazing woman who suffers from a rare birth defect has gone against all odds and become a competitive ballroom dancer — and an inspiration to all those that she meets.
Inspiring! Of course, the illustration the article chooses to use is not an action shot of Fluke dancing. Instead, she’s posing on a floor with her dance partner, with the angle of the shot emphasising her partner’s long legs.
What’s fascinating about this particular profile is that it includes a sentence that’s actually quite neutral:
But while most people let their childhood dreams slip away…
I like that the article makes a point of simply saying ‘most people.’ Not ‘people with disabilities.’ ‘Most people.’ Because, the truth is, yeah, most people do let their childhood dreams slip away because they lose interest in them as they grow older, or for a variety of other reasons. Most articles about people with disabilities doing ‘inspiring’ things stress that their disabilities should have precluded their chances at ‘realising their dreams.’ This article points out that disability has nothing to do with whether you achieve your dreams or not.
Alas, it goes downhill from here. She has an ‘amazing story.’ ‘Despite’ her disabilities, she has ‘managed to create an able-bodied life for herself,’ because, as we all know, the nondisabled life is the thing that all of us aspire to, right? We all want to be normal. She puts on makeup! She drives her own truck! Wow, she really is just like a normal person! Who knew people with disabilities could drive, right? And put on makeup!
Fortunately, Ronnie Koenig at AOL Health stops writing at this point and lets Fluke answer some interview questions. The questions all read like a pretty common array of supercrip and good cripple stereotypes; how are you so strong? How come you never seem bitter about your disabilities?
Fluke’s responses are kind of a mixed bag, for me as a reader. I like that she points out that actually she’s not ‘super optimistic’ about her disabilities all the time; she talks about having a pressure sore, for example, and finding that frustrating. But she also reiterates a bit of some old narratives about disability. She talks about how she could have had it worse, and she gets her strength from G-d, etc.
But she also stresses that her disabilities have nothing to do with her being a dancer. It’s not despite or because of, as she puts it: ‘I’ve been a dancer since I was two years old. It has nothing to do with having disability or not having a disability.’ She also points out that achieving goals is about identifying those goals, getting to know yourself, and then working towards those goals, sound advice for anyone, of any ability status. And she points out that her goals don’t stop with dancing and promoting wheelchair dance, that she’s interested in becoming a Paralympic athlete.
However I feel about her responses, I do like that this profile gave her an opportunity to speak for herself, instead of filtering information about her through a lens. I got to learn about how she personally feels about her disabilities. So many profiles of people with disabilities I read feature interviews with family and friends, with everyone talking about the subject of the profile. In this piece, the usual narrative was reversed, and the subject talked about herself, which is the way it should be.
I’m not stoked about some of the language used about her in the intro, along with the rather patronising nickname that gets reiterated through the article, but I’m glad Koenig chose to profile her by allowing her to profile herself, for the most part. This is a step in the right direction, although I would have loved to see more neutral interview questions that didn’t set her up as a Supercrip from the very start.
I’m watching “Dating in the Dark,” an ABC show in which contestants, yes, date in a completely dark room. They go on some number of group and individual dates – all in the dark room, all displayed to us with night vision goggles or somesuch – and then decide whether or not they will date each other. It will totally show us whether or not true love is blind! And force people to focus on personality rather than appearance!
Well, not so much. First, all the relationships are of course hetero and all of the contestants are conventionally attractive. Conventionally very attractive, actually. And then they spend the entire time speculating about what the other people look like and outlining, definitively and without a sliver of compromise or doubt, their exacting requirements for the physical appearance of their potential mate. One man talks only about weight, saying that a previous girlfriend “blew up like a tick” and so he had to dump her. (This is what he’s saying to a potential girlfriend. On a “date.”) One of the women is thrown completely when her beau is revealed to be a chiseled lifeguard male model looking guy and wearing a small earring that she finds wildly objectionable.
All I could think, over and over again, was that at least they hadn’t cast anyone with a visible disability to serve that topic up for clearly well informed and considered discussion by these contestants. This is one show on which I’m more than happy to accept the underrepresentation of people with disabilities.