Category Archives: representations
Spoilers for Farscape: the third part of “Liars, Guns and Money” in Season 2 and, in Season 3, “Season of Death” and something you really really really won’t want spoiled for the second part of “Self-Inflicted Wounds”.
I like to keep DVD boxsets on hand for my study breaks, and my latest show is a 1990s/2000s Australian/US television show called Farscape. It’s a really fun show about an astronaut who gets sucked through a wormhole and is forced to align himself with a bunch of aliens in some far-off part of the universe – watch it, do! – but that’s not what I want to talk about.
Towards the end of the second season, a minor recurring character called Rorf loses an eye to an enemy, to put it in the least graphic terms possible. I started to get a sense of premonition, although I wasn’t sure what it was about just yet. Rorf is killed in battle towards the end of the episode. At the start of the third season, Zhaan, one of the main characters, saves the life of Aeryn, another key character, at the cost of her own health. She’s dying, she tells her fellow crew members for a number of episodes. No, they say, we’re going to get you to a planet, not too far away, where you can be healed. No, she says, I’m going to die. And, good as her word, she ends up sacrificing her life for the good of the crew before they can get her to a planet where she can be healed.
What I got out of these two instances is the idea that injury is a symbolic prelude to death. That, if you’re altered from what you have been, life isn’t worth living anymore, that you’re only good for giving up everything for those who are “whole”. That’s a pretty distressing message to be putting out there.
Have you found similar representations of disability or injury in popular culture?
Late last week, PinkyIsTheBrain on tumblr began a campaign to bring attention to the new Investigation Discovery show “Who the Bleep Did I Marry?”, which equates someone being trans* with being a serial killer, a con artist, or a bank robber.
[Note: If you’re unfamiliar with Tumblr, it can be a bit hard to navigate. “Conversations” or comments or follow-up tend to be nested.]
Music plays in background: “Love and marriage, love and marriage”
The video opens on a scene of a wedding in an idyllic location surrounded by trees with an arbor of flowers. The camera zooms in on the bride, who turns and says:
(Marriage officiant in the background): Join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.
First Bride: Five years from now, I’ll find out that he’s a bank robber.
The camera cuts to a different couple, walking under a portico with their backs to the camera. The bride turns to the camera and says “Serial murderer.”
A zoom in on another couple, standing like they are being photographed with their families.
Third Bride (loud whisper): Russian spy!
Another couple, cutting a cake.
Fourth Bride: Cheater. With three other wives.
Another couple, surrounded by a crowd, the bride sitting on a chair while her husband kneels to pull off her garter.
Fifth Bride: And he’s a… a she.
We cut back to the original couple, kissing at the altar.
The closing shot is of a fancy black car driving away, trailing ribbons, tin cans, and toilet paper. ‘Who the (bleep) did I marry’ is chalked on the back window.
Marriage Officiant (sounding disgusted): Who the bleed did you marry?
Voiceover: Who the bleep did I marry? All new [episodes?], only on Investigation Discovery.
This is not just a ridiculous comparison, it’s a pretty damned offensive one that equates being trans* with being a serial killer – and once again equates being trans* with lying, which is the same argument that murderers make with they murder trans* people.
FuckYeahFTM looked up the contact information for the Discovery Network, encouraging people to get in touch and point out how bloody offensive and shitty this is:
Here’s more info about the show:
Who The Bleep? [Opens with sound & Video]
The other episodes they have include: Married to An Embezzler, The Biggest Con, Married to a Spy, Married to A Bank Robber
And they are including marrying a transman, or in their words “He is actually a She” on that level, with criminals and murderers.
Discovery doesn’t actually make it easy to contact them with concerns (I had to use a search engine to find the Contact page because it wasn’t anywhere on the Who The Bleep? page), so here’s how I did it:
32. How can I contact you with programming comments or questions?
We welcome your e-mail comments and questions, which you can send to us by clicking here.
This is the most efficient way to contact us. Comments or questions directed to anyone else at Discovery Communications will be forwarded to Viewer Relations, which means it will take us longer to follow up.
You can also write to us at:
One Discovery Place
Silver Spring, MD 20910
There is actually a lot of “required information” before Discovery will let you contact them. They want your age, your name, what network you’re writing about (Investigation Discovery in this case), post code, Cable provider, program time, and “information needed” (along with several other pieces of non-required information) before you can fill in your comment. I believe it’s five steps before you can tell them what your concern is, the site is very slow (at least for me), and I have no idea how accessible it is. (It does not like my computer at all)
However, reaching out and making it clear to Discovery that this stuff is not okay, that being trans* is not a crime, is not lying, and is not the equivalent of being a “Russian Spy” or a “Bank Robber”, is important, and I hope as many of you as possible will contact them and make that clear.
This is what I wrote, if you are looking for a template:
Hello Discovery Network,
I am disgusted and appalled at your decision to equate being a trans man with being a criminal, a spy, or a murderer. A trans man is not “really a she”. He is a man who married a woman. The decision of your network to “out” someone like this is especially dangerous, as many trans people are murdered for allegedly “faking” or “lying” or otherwise “cheating” their sexual partners.
I hope you will reconsider your decision to air such an exploitive, dangerous, and abusive program.
Again, here is Discovery’s Contact Form. I emailed them last week and have so far received only a form letter, but if we overwhelm them with numbers, surely they have to pay attention, right?
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. ↩
Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, recommended to me by The Guy, my partner of several years now, whom I thought loved me, seemed innocuous enough. I thought it a simple fantasy series woven with a love story (“woven” here should read more like a nice cudgel to the head), which I was looking for. I thought it would be a nice epic fantasy, like Kushiel’s Dart, or something to sate my need for a good run of fantasy novels.
I however, didn’t heed Anna’s warning, when she asked me whywhyWHY would someone who loves me recommend a book series to me where a chicken is written in as EVIL personified (this is actually a simplification of the storyline, but it is true, nonetheless…), and as it turns out I think Anna may love me more. Who knows. Maybe I was hooked by the way the first two books ended with just the most convenient and precious heterocentric endings ever (there is one brief nod in the fourth book to homosexuality that seems it could be positive, but then it ends sadly, and seven books later there is no happy ending for this character).
The Sword of Truth series, however, does have many good qualities. It has several well written female characters whom I fell in love with, but, as I will write more about at my home blog, all seem to be written to be smitten with and to be in the service of the central protagonist, Richard Cypher/Rahl. They simply fall all over themselves to serve him, to love him, and to swear their lives to protect him with everything they have. Even if they were once evil or if they have tendencies to be evil (it’s just their way, you see, some women can’t help it), they somehow over come it because his presence is enough to ignite a spark to make them want to fight for their own lives him. I mean his cause.
But the Sword of Truth series isn’t just an innocent fantasy series. It isn’t even a series filled with tropes about women characters that I love that happens to beat me upside the head with forbidden romance and a love forbidden to procreate. It is a cautionary tale that warns of the evils of allowing communism to take over your life. This strange story of caring for your fellow man is bent into a monolithic monster of a machination that kills everything it touches. It simply asserts that you must live in misery for that is the only way that everyone can possibly meet the needs of every human evil, and makes the horrible and incorrect logical leap that religion is somehow tied to it, that this life is meaningless and that goodness can only be obtained in the hereafter. I can’t say I disagree with the atheistic themes, but really, a horse can only be beaten so many times before I glaze over and gloss over entire pages of exposition and soliloquy.
To be righteous in this world that Mr. Goodkind has created you must be willing and — key word alert here — able to fight for your own life and protect it with everything you have, up to and including killing those who would take it from you. With sword, with your bare hands, with magic if you are … gifted.
Yes, “gifted”. Being born with the ability to use and be touched by magic is considered a gift, which is not an uncommon theme in fantasy fiction and pop culture, but Goodkind takes it a step further, it seems to me. It is almost as though magic is another sense, an ability above and beyond that makes up for any other sense you may lack. Because if there is one thing that is all but lacking from this world that Mr. Goodkind has created, it is disability on the side of the bringers of good.
Even Adie, the “bone woman” (who oddly enough, having the speech pattern “I be” in the books*, is depicted as a non-white woman in the television series equivalent Legend of the Seeker even though that is now how she is described, but she is All Exotic! with Bones!), who had her vision stripped from her in her youth by a group of anti-magic zealots known as The Blood of the Fold by pouring bleach in her eyes, has learned to see. Her “gift” has enabled her to see. In fact, her vision, as is noted many times in the books, is often better than those who must rely on their ‘non-gifted’ vision.
I am going to drop the quotes from here on out, because it is getting tedious, and I think you get the point.
Adie never had to learn how to access the world around her. She never had to learn how to stumble around and feel with her other senses. She did, however, have to learn how to see with her magic, which made up for the vision which wasn’t there. This gave her the ability to be worthy, in the world that Goodkind created, to be able to fight for her life, and be allowed to live. People should just try harder, as Adie did. If you can’t get by in life, it is your own fault, and you are not contributing properly to the artwork that is the nobility of man!
You can understand why I was having a problem here.
Normally with pop-culture and fiction, there aren’t really absolutes, and I admit that there are multiple ways of interpreting things, but Goodkind has done a unique thing here: he has created a world of moral absolutes. This is right and this other things is wrong. What Richard Rahl (the protagonist) believes is right, and what he is against is wrong. There is clear good and evil, and the lines are rarely blurred. This use of a gift of magic allows people who otherwise have flaws to remain on the correct side of Richards moral compass. Richard, and Goodkind himself, could be described as Objectivists, which I think would clear up my frustrations. It should have set off alarms as soon as the philosophy lessons started to seep into my fantasy novel. Except OOPS! Mr. Goodkind says he is not a fantasy writer, merely a fiction writer he says (fuck you, fans!), so I have been wrong all along…
But Adie couldn’t be useful to the story, she couldn’t be the powerful and badass sorceress that she is depicted as being if she was indeed blind, amirite? Because if she was wasting all of her time trying to adapt to a world that was refusing to make accommodations for her she wouldn’t be able to fight for her individual life, or for Richard’s noble cause of laissez faire Capitalism freedom for all mankind (and I guess some of those womenfolk too).
The only time that her magical eyesight didn’t work was when she was faced with a woman, Jennsen, who was born without even a spark of the gift, called a “pristinely ungifted” person. She can not be touched by or interact with magic. Turns out, that Jennsen is Richard’s half sister, and her being ungifted is the bi-product of Richard’s gift. There can be only one! She has to be ungifted so that he can be gifted. It is very complicated, and there is an entire race of people on whom Adie’s magical eyesight doesn’t work! And Jennsen had to help Richard rally them up, because they were blind (oh the tropes and ableist language abound!) to evil, and their pacifist asses wouldn’t raise a finger to fight for their artwork of individual self interest.
I was just frustrated beyond all belief.
So if you want a nice stew of -ism and fuckery passed off as philosophy and disguised with characters that you will certainly love, I recommend Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. All eleven (soon to be twelve!) books of it!
EDIT: 01 Sept: I forgot a couple of links when I finished this post. Apologies!
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. ↩