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.
Starts at around 3:52 on the download
Announcer: Good evening, Babylon. Welcome to the Largest Minority, WBAI’s program focusing on the news and views of people living with disabilities. Our aim is to increase communication within our community, and to facilitate understanding with society above labels and beyond classifications. Largest Minority airs right after [?] computer show at 9pm on the Second and Fourth Wednesdays of each month, alternating with the Joy of Resistance, Multicultural Feminist Radio. And we like to think of it since this is the season as WBAI’s Island of Misfit Toys. And today, stranded with me on the island is Attorney TK Small in studio and we have, rockin’ the board tonight, our friend Sydney Smith.
For tonight’s show we are going to have a round table discussion with Lawrence Carter Long and a number of different activists and actors and media personailities, talking about the popular television show Glee. Which… and it’s somewhat controversial and also in some ways typical misrepresentation of the disability experience and people with disbailities as well as other minoiryt demographics.
TK Small (TK): I should throw in… this is TK Small by the way. I should throw in that the inspiriation, or the idea behind this segment about Glee related to a very powerful blog that I read that talked about the Christmas Episode where there was reference to Tiny Tim, curing disability and all that, and that’s how the segment around Glee came about.
Announcer: And, we just want to… the discussion, as you’ll hear, will unfold, but there are a number of different ways, I mean personally, I like to think of it as one of the reasons people with disabilities don’t get invited to your fun type of parties is because we may have some sort of a reputation of being a bit of a downer and taking the joy out of things and so we want to dedicate tonight’s show before Christmas to doing exactly that with everybody’s favourite t.v. show, Glee. In fact, TK and I were going to try and ruin everybody’s Christmas by doing an a capella version of, I don’t know if it was going to be Holly Jolly Christmas or Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree but we decided to show you all a little bit of mercy. But before we go into that, we wanted… I wanted to point out another friend of ours, who’s actually part of one of the successful clips of our previous show’s discussion of the life of Laura Hershey on her Facebook Page she made a comment about the use of term “lame duck” to discuss the outgoing 111th congree and wndering whether that was somehow denigrating–
TK: Congress or people with disabilities? [laugh]
Announcer: Right, exactly, that’s just the thing, but I wanted to point out for those of you who maybe want to think a little bit differently about the concept of “lame duck” or “disabled waterfowl” in general – differently abled waterfowl in general – that the news is full of the fact that this is a unprecedented successful and effective congress and among other things we should..I think it is most appropriate that one of the most popular songs is “Donning our Gay Apparel” because your Gay Apparel may include a combat helmet, and you can go into battle for the United States army, navy, marines, as well as the coast guard.
TK: I wonder if I would have to tell them that I’m disabled.
Announcer: Yes. I don’t think you do, I think you could just sneak right in.
TK: They don’t have the same rules of people with disabilities?
TK: I can hide my wheelchair while I go into the TIme’s Square recruiting station.
Announcer: We don’t generally– We do not ask, and we rarely tell on this show when someone has a disability. That’s one of the calls we get —
TK: That is an illegal question when you go for a job interview. Your employer is not supposed to ask any questions.
Announcer: Hmm. That’s interesting.
TK: Although as an attorney I used to get that all the time when I was applying for jobs. You’d think that the legal firm would know not to ask that question but apparently not.
Announcer: [laugh] Well, in any event, we wanted to make a point of that… that sometimes the disabled waterfowl can be quite effective and just to note the historic passage of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In any event, it is now 9:08, about to be 9:09, and now its time for the news headlines.
[I have not transcribed the news headlines.]
Announcer: And we’re back listening to the Largest Minority on WBAI. And, on tonight’s show, as promised before, we’re going to have a round table discussion about the popular television show Glee, which features, among other people, a character portrayed by an able-bodied actor who is in a wheelchair. In the most recent show which re-aired again last night, he has a Christmas wish granted by gaining one of these new apparatuses which enables him to stand up and walk, and it’s portrayed as kind of a Christmas miracle and it’s extraordinarily patronizing and a lot of people with disabilities found it extremely irritating, including people on our panel.
TK: And if anybody walks up to me on the street and says I should get an exoskeleton and make me walk, I’ll kill them.
Announcer: Well, you’ll have to get a killer exoskeleton first and you know what? Someday they’re going to make it. [TK laughs] And so without further ado, our own Lawrence Carter Long is leading this discussion, and here it is.
[Music – theme song. I’m afraid my hearing problems have come back and I can’t hear it clear enough to transcribe it which is unfortunate because I think it sounds awesome, but I don’t want to get the words all wrong.]
Lawrence Carter Long (LCL): And you’re listening to the largest minority on 99.5 WBAI and on the internet at WBAI.org. I’m Lawrence Carter Long and we’re here talking today about everbody’s show that they love to hate within the disability community, Glee. With TK Small.
TK: Lawrence, it’s good to have you back.
LCL: It’s good to be back. You know, nobody thought when the pilot episode of Glee premiered back in May of 2009 that the series would become the phenomena it is now. Glee features on-screen performace based numbers which are selected by Ryan Murphy, who gained previous success with the show Nip/Tuck, and aims to maintain balance on the show between show tunes and charted hits. The music with Glee has been a commerical success with over 13 million digital singles sales and 5 million album sales. The series merchandise also includes DVD and BlueRay releases, a Young Adult book series, an iPad appilication, and a Kareoke game for the Wii. During it’s first season Glee received generally favourable reactions from the critics with Metacritics weighted average based on the average rating of 18 critical reviews at 77%. The season was nominated for 19 Emmy awards, 4 Golden Globe awards, 6 Satellite awards and 57 other awards that we won’t get into, with wins in the 2010 Golden Globe award for best t.v. show, musical or comedy, and Emmy awards for Lynch, guest start Neil Patrick Harris, and Murphy’s direction fo the pilot episode. The second season has been nominated for 5 golden globes, including best tv series in comedy as well as a number of nominations for cast members.
But the feel good show is not without its critics, particularly from the disability community. While media reports in such high profile outlets as People Magazine and US Magazine and trade publications like Hollywood Reporter and Variety have centered on the casting of Kevin McHale as paraplegic wheelchair-using Artie, deeper criticisms regarding plot, tone and representation have received minimal coverage in comparison.
With us today on the Largest Minority we have s.e. smith, who is a feminist and a disability rights activists based in Northern California, who rights for the This Ain’t Livin’ blog, and FWD in the Jewish Daily.
s.e. smith (SE): I am, and I should quickly correct you. I do not write for the Jewish Daily FWD, I write for a feminist website also called FWD.
LCL: Feminist website FWD! Thank you for correcting me.
SE: It’s a very common confusion.
LCL: And also with us is Alice Sheppard who is a Dancer with AXIS Dance company based in Northern California. She’s also a disability advocate. Welcome Alice.
Alice Shepard (AS): Hey Lawrence, it’s good to be here.
LCL: We also have Christine Bruno who’s a Disability Advocate, a actor and director, and works for the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. Welcome Christine.
Christine Bruno (CB): Hello.
LCL: And fresh from the Keith Olbermann show, the co-creator of Arabs Gone Wild [OPENS WITH SOUND], going on tour again, January 20th, starting in NYC to 8 different cities, Maysoon Zayidd. Hello Maysoon.
Maysoon Zayid (MZ): Hello, Lawrence and TK.
LCL: So. Glee! Let’s talk a little bit about the casting side. Everbody wants to talk about the casting first. What’s the problem with casting a non-disabled guy to play a wheelchair user. Come on, it’s acting! Isn’t that what acting’s about?
CB: How long do we have?
SE: Well, I think you have a situation where you have someone who does not have the lived experience of having a spinal cord injury playing it and it’s very obvious to anyone who has such an injurty or knows people who do that he’s playing it very badly.
LCL: So we’ve got some wheelchair users, and we’ve got some disability advocates. What do you mean by “playing it badly”? How do you play disability badly? I mean, all you gotta do is sit in a chair, right?
AS: If it were only that easy. There’s an understanding of embodiment that’s just not physical in McHale’s portrayal of Artie, and for me, what I see is a huge gap between the body and the chair. He doesn’t even understand how to push that thing. There’s a kind of sweet roll that those of us who use manual wheelchairs can find and use and McHale is always shown shoving and pushing. There’s no rhythm, there’s no feel, there’s no understanding of the chair as part of his body.
LCL: Alice, you know of which you speak because you use a chair and you’re a dancer.
AS: I do.
LCL: You tour professionally, you’re a working dancer. In terms of their choreography none of it really shows the kind of work that you’ve done.
AS: That’s right. The choreography shows Artie just sort of waving his arms, bending a body, behding a head. There’s no integration. And the sad thing about it is that McHale is a beautiful dancer, he’s a really gorgeous mover and, you know, he just can’t make it work in the chair.
LCL: Maysoon, you wanted to add something?
MZ: I just I feel like there’s a couple of different problems with the casting of Artie. One is that, as an actor in the disabled community trying to do my own script, which I wrote, I can’t even get directors to screen test me in my own role as a character with cerebral palsy. As I go from producer to producer, director to director, they do not want to give disabled actors a chance to play disabled parts. Not to mention non-disabled roles. So my first problem with Artie is that I simply do not believe that Ryan Murphy exhausted all options in finding a singer who could sing and dance miraculously and gorgeously, that he couldn’t heal. And I think they intentionally chose an able-bodied actor so they could get him out of the chair to sing and dance whenever they wanted. There’s a problem in Hollywood, there’s a problem in television, that is disabled actors are not given a chance to play neutral roles, and we’re also not given a chance to play our own roles, and we think that only someone mimicing it can win an Oscar. I have Cerebral Palsy. I think Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal in My Left Foot was absolutely disgusting. So what we see and what the other people see are not the same thing. And when Kevin McHale commented “why can he play gay”, it’s not the same thing. Anyone can play gay, but I can’t play Oprah because I’m white. And he should not be–
LCL: So there’s a certain physicality that comes from playing a disabled character that more often than not people get wrong. Now, Christine, why don’t you talk about this. The Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. What the Alliance does is help casting directrs, teleivison shows, movie production companies, cast disabled actors. And you work as a sort of go-between between the industry and the working professionals. What is it that you see within the Alliance that shows this problem or illustrates this problem.
CB: Well, basically, I was just gonna say exactly what Maysoon said, we have to start there. There are disabled actors who can play that role, first of all, first and foremost. Alice is absolutely right. The portrayal is faulty at best. I’m trying to be diplomatic. We are on radio.
LCL: You don’t have to be diplomatic with us.
CB: So, Alice is right, but before we even go to the portrayal of a non-disabled actor playing that role let’s go where Maysoon just did and there are actors who can play those roles. In my role as a disability advocate we see this every day all day. We get calls for actors, disabled actors, specifically to play disabled roles. We next to never get calls for disabled actors to play non-disabled characters. Sometimes it happens if a disabled actor goes in a “wows” a producer just in general and they say “We have a part we think you would be great for” and it doesn’t matter that they have a disability but that’s very few and far between.
LCL: Let’s talk about… play devil’s advocate for a bit because some criticisms I’ve seen around Glee have been met with basically the statement “They have a character named Becky who has Down Syndrome, who’s part of the cheer-leading squad. So what about Becky?” And in addition to Becky, in May 2010, Zack Weinstein guest-starred on Laryngitis where he basically was there helping Rachel, who had lost her voice. He was there to serve as the inspiration for Rachel and to help her accept her lot in life. So they have hired disabled actors. What’s wrong with that?
SE: And totally … And totally troped stereotypical roles that pretty much evoke every hateful stereotype about people with disabilities imaginable. I mean, the episode with Zach Weinstein we see him lying in a hopsital bed wearing his football jersey longing for everything he’s lost. He’s just there literally as a prop in an inspirational narrative to make non-disabled viewers feel better about how they think about disability.
CB: And I also think, you know, just to jump ahead for a second. First of all let me address really quickly about the point you’ve made about they’ve hired disabled– They have hired some disabled actors. I mean, at the rirsk of again not being diplomatic it’s true that there’s really two disabilities that can’t be portrayed by other than the people who live those disbailities. One is a little person, and the other is usually a person with Down Syndrome, and there are very distinct physical reasons for that. I mean, can they absolutely not be portrayed, I don’t know. Maybe they could in Avatar Land.
LCL: But again you’re taking jobs away from disabled actors.
CB: That’s right. That’s right. But the other thing is the issue that I wanted to address. I’m sorry, your name is s.e. on the phone, is that right?
CB: I think that Glee, unfortunately, casting aside, has missed so many opportunities to, for lack of a better word “right the wrong” of casting a non-disabled actor as a disabled character. They could have done so many things with story-lines that they have chosen, knowingly now, not to do. Because they have been put on notice from the disability community, from the Disabled Arts community, from the unions, that while the casting is said and done and there’s nothing we can do about that we’d like to see the ortrayl and the representation of disabled people and the lived experience of disability be more accurate and authentic.
AS: Can I just speak for a second to the audition for the Cheerios that the character Becky gets? This strikes me as possibly being emblematic. There’s a way in which Becky… we don’t actually find out if Becky can or cannot do what the Cheerios require. She’s given the part, or at leat a place on the team because it looks like Lynch takes care of her or feels sympathy for her or uses the fact that she cannot appear to do that, or is made to seem that she can’t do that, so it’s a sort of pity gag in the audition on the show, and it makes me wonder, what did that mean in the actual audition and casting process?
LCL: And I’ve seen people with Down Syndrome who are on cheerleading squads. Anyone can do a search on YouTube and you can find that sort of thing. One of the things that I think that some peole have brought up in criticizing the disability community is “Well, she refuses to coddle her”, right? She sort of has her there and she kind of, you know, doesn’t treat her differently, but the down side of that is she’s not doing the basic things that most of the squad is doing. It creates this dilemma on how to portray disability in a way that emphasies both honesty and accuracy over sentimentality and false messages, and I think that’s what you’re getting with the Becky character.
MZ: Can I also just interject before I leave, because I have to run, unfortunately, even though that’s difficult for me to physically do. I also feel like growing up in the states watching movies as a child was really traumatic for me, because I was always watching characters who were either healed or pathetic, and Glee is continuing that saga of either the character has to be pathetic with the one goal in life, finding anyone so charitable as to love them, because no one can love someone who’s disabled unless they also heal them. Or, watching people who couldn’t walk on screen suddenly in heels strolling down the red carpet. Glee is definitely trying to bill itself as a show for the youth and it’s yet another place where people look and go “Oh, I guess I can’t become an actor. I guess I can’t do anything. Maybe if I was just Downs they’d give me a chance.”
LCL: So the sense here–
MZ: I’m a comedian by the way, sorry.
LCL: So when we talk about the Artie character, on Dream On. Let’s talk a bit about specific episodes. We’ve got the major plot line in Dream On, where Artie begins doing research on new treatment and he starts to get hopeful that one day yes, he’ll be able to be able to be quote unquote “a real dancer”, that he’ll get out of the chair and dnace around. This suggests a theme of empowerment, that people with obstacles should not be deterred from their ambitions, yadda yadda, but the guidance counsellor tells Artie that his hopes of walking again are unrealistic and he should plan on talking to her on a regular basis and it sort of focuses. So the message that it seems to me that this sends to disabled viewers is not that there are real disabled dancers, using chairs aside, but because of one’s disabilities, your dreams are impossible.
TK: And Lawrence, it might be helpful for our listeners to explain that Alice, sitting righ tnext to you, is practically having a conipution fit as you describe this.
LCL: I thought that was part of her condition [laughter]
SE: I’m not in the studio but if I was you would see me having a small conipution fit myself. I thought the message of that episode was people who use chairs A) never get out of chairs, part time wheelchair users are never acknowledged as existing ever, and b) can never hope to do anything. That’s, like, a huge slap in the face to the disabled dance community to be told that wheelchair users can’t dance in that episode. I mean…
AS: Truly, absolutely. And the thing that really really catches me is one move, the one thing that really could… Aaron Fotheringham is the disabled stunt artist and he pulls that awesome one rear-wheel wheely. I mean, the irony of hiring a disabled stunt artist to actually execute the role of a non-disabled actor. It bites. It just… bites.
LCL: So adding insult to injury.
AS: It did.
LCL: By hiring somebody who can actually pull the move off play the stunt double when it came time to film the episode.
SE: And if you saw any of the press for Wheels, the producers were acting like they had invented this super cool new thing called “Wheelchair Dancing”.
CB: Yes they were.
LCL: There’s no acknowledgement of things like AXIS or Dancing Wheels or CanDoCo or any of the companies who have been out there an in existence for decades.
CB: I mean, they didn’t even look. Not only did they not have a wheelchair dance consultant on the set. Those articles came out, I remember there was one in the Daily News that was sort of framed in this “ha ha, isn’t this sort of funny that we all thought this was going to be easy and simple and then when we tried to wheel up on the ramps in the set we fell over and hit our heads.” [Here’s an example in the NY Post]
LCL: You’re talking about the other cast members in the show.
CB: Yes, the other cast members in the show. In an effort to, and I’m using little quote marks with my fingers in the studio, in an effort to “identify” with Artie’s “plight” as it were, they thought they would stick themselves in wheelchairs and try to dance. But, you know, I want to bring up something that I have heard in my role as disability advocate in the Alliance, the pushback, from the producers, and the creative team on Glee is that, “Okay. So now here we are, we’ve created this diverse group of Gleeclub members, one of whom includes is a character with a disability. You complain complain complain that you don’t see any characters with disabilities on t.v. here now, we’ve given you one, and you’re still complaining.” And let me point out that they’ve won a diversity waward for Glee. So–
LCL: Who gave them that diversity award? Come on, let’s call ‘em out. They gave them award.
CB: I’m not going there.
LCL: They get the criticism.
SE: I’m hitting the internet, I gotta tell ya. The other thing, speaking of the so-called diversity of the show, (while looking this up very quickly) if you look at the other cast members you have [?] Mercedes– [this gets really disjointed in the recording. se mentions the fat activist community] what is going on with Lauren Zizes, you have stutters who are furious about the decision to fake Tina’s stutter, and the gay community is not that stoked on Kurt’s storyline either.
LCL: So this is not restricted to the disability community in general.
CB: Except I have heard good things about the portrayal of the gay narrative. I’ve heard good things about it, only because that’s the one that’s the most well-rounded at the moment.
SE: It’s the most well-played and I think it’s because Ryan Murphy and Chris Colfer have that experience. The award came from the Multi-Cultural Motion Picture Association. I also note it’s been recognized by a Television with a Conscious award, which– some of us disagree on, and that would be from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
LCL: So, I think, it points out one of the problems that we get into in doing criticism or having honest criticism of a show like Glee is when people push back, they’ll say, “Hey, wait a minute!” and try and ignore these criticisms that are more in depth about these questionable areas of depiciton and try and reduce the conversation to “you’re just mad they didn’t used disabled actors” instead of really engaging in what advocates are saying and what the people doing those critiques are saying.
SE: Well, it gets back to “any representation is good representation!” complaint, and I think most members of minority groups say “No, the tropes and stereotypical representation is harmful.” And most of the messages that Glee sends about disabilities are actively damaging to the disability community, whether there are disabled or non-disabled actors.
CB: Yes, and that’s sort of the point I was making. Yes, from our point of view, and from the disabled actor point of view, and the disabled person’s point of view, they made a mistake by casting Kevin McHale. From our point of view, but they cold be taking active steps to use these as teaching moments, and really portraying the lived experience as it exists, even with Kevin McHale in the role, if they hired consultants, if they had scripts that were… the accurate portrayal of what we live with everyday. I could live with that a little more than this continuing of the myths and assumptions and perceptions of people with disabilities, and how we live.
LCL: And let’s talk about the common threads within those misconceptions. One of the common misconceptions that get played out over and over and over again on Glee is that Artie seems to be focused on walking agian. He’s only going to be happy if he walks again, and they has been shown now on a third episode, even so far as having a dream sequence where he does get out of the wheelchair and is dancing around with himself [YouTube link to live performance by McHale]. I mean, those things we see over and over again, and again on the Christmas episode which sparked this converastion. He gets the ability to use this machine that costs million of dollars and is not going to be available to anybody, this exoskelton which affords him the ability to wlak again, which he does. [?]
[?] The whole Christopher Reeve thing.
AS: [These whole section is completely incomprehensible to me. What I caught out of it was about Tina and Artie breaking up, something to do with Mike Chang, and then his girlfriend giving him the ability to walk] a kind of emasculation in the protrayal of disability there.
SE: [Something else incomprehensible] The implication is that everybody’s mocking Brittney for being stupid for believing in Santa Claus and her perceived stupidity is a kind of a running joke in the series which definitely makes me uncomfortable in the “dumb blonde stereotype”, that only Brittney would be stupid enough to think that Santa could give him the ability to walk again.
LCL: And it’s played again as comedy. So, as the show that positions itself, and the producers have certainly done this time and time again when the critisims have been brought out, as a quote unquote “progressive show” with a message, and we’ve talked about how that’s not really the case with any of the characters, and I like to get into that a little bit. Why is it perceived as a progressive show? If it’s a show that depicts minorities through a majority lens – I mean, we’ve got non-disabled actors and writers handling a disabled characters, we’ve got white folks writing for Black and Asian folks. Maybe the exception to this rule is Kurt, Ryan Murphy’s alter-ego, why do you think that most people, despite these criticisms, have continued to laud it or applaud it as a progressive show?
SE: Because it’s the majority that gets to decide whether or not it’s progressive. If you compare reviews of Wheels, which got a lot of press, you see a lot of non-disabled people praising the show for sensitive, honest depiction of disability that shows you what it’s like, and you saw a huge swath of the disability community going “Um… no”.
SE: So, I feel like the dominant majority is– those are the people writing the pressers and giving out the awards and getting to decide what is progressive or not, and it’s notable that a show written and performed through a majority lens, so it’s nice and safe and comfortable for progressives, is [unclear].
LCL: So i’s a safe kind of portrayal, it’s a cookie-cutter form of progressive, it’s something that allows the viewers and the writers and producers feel better about themselves.
CB: That’s right.
TK: As a disbaility rights activists that does not come from the right side of this issue, that’s what I find so insidious about this type of program, because where the vast majority of able-bodied people get their understanding of disability is through this stupid show.
CB That’s right.
LCL: If it’s reinforcing or reiterating the kind of non-sense people already believe, we’re not going to get beyond that.
TK: Which further leads to “it’s better to be dead than to be disabled“, and forces people to make horrific terrible decisions, like going to somebody like Kevorkian for physician-assisted suicide, because the idea of being disabled is just too scary.
AS: And we’re right back at Million Dollar Baby.
CB: That’s what saddens me and perpelexes me so much about this particular show. I thnk TK is right. It’s really insidious because of its position right now in the American vocabulary and how popular it is. It has so much opportunity to do so much good for so many under-represented groups. And you know what? Audiences are smart. They’ll swallow what you give them if its believable. I blame the producers for taking cheap shots and being lazy. Lazy lazy lazy.
LCL: I think most producers probably are lazy. You don’t see a lot of new things coming out of network t.v.; that’s my own critique. Maybe sometimes on cable. There’s Breaking Bad.
SE: Or Friday Night Lights, yes.
LCL: In terms of their portrayal of disability. I would wonder, why do you think that those push backs on, you know, the disability centered critiques have been done on Glee. s.e., I know when we were communicating about the show and doing this program, you said that you received rape threats, death threats, and all sorts of things for critiquing the show and actually writing about it on the blog, people calling you r#tard and all sorts of things. What do you think, and what do others here think, is so scary about people with disabilities challenging the depictions of us in pop culture and mass media?
SE: We’re making the narrative messy. I have had a piece on Glee go up at the Guardian over the summer, and that’s where probably the majority of the rape threats came from; they’re very friendly over there in the comments I must say. What I found is that people have a very simplistic, sacchrine view of disability that Glee reinforces for them, and things get really complicated when you start talking about things like, say, wheelchair users who dance and actually don’t spend every waking moment wishing they could walk again. It deconstructs the narrative to find out that we’re individuals who experience our disability differently. Some of us may hate them, some of us may love them, and people don’t like having their views of minorities complicated that way.
LCL: That;s more nuanced, that takes a lot more work as an audience. You can’t just sit by and passively watch the show, you might actually have to think about it.
SE: You have to engage with it.
LCL: I just wanted to, before we go a little bit further, I just need to say you’re listening to a very special edition of the Largest Minority radio show, on WBAI. I did say that with a wink and a nod just so everybody knows.
AS: Thank you, Lawrence, I’ve always wanted to be special.
CB: I am special.
SE: Where’s Tiny Tim, that’s what I want to know.
LCL: That’s actually not very far, let’s talk about the Christmas episode. It’s actually not very far from Tiny Tim, is it?
SE: No it is not.
AS: Not being fully aware of all of the American traditions, can somebody just remind me of that movie, is it Miracle on 34th Street–
CB: Which, Tiny Tim?
AS: No, the t.v. movie that plays every year around the holiday season about miracles and the Christmas season.
CB: You mean all of them?
AS: Yes, all of them, oh, It’s a Wonderful Life, that one!
SE: There’s a lot of telvision about that.
AS: And so the thing that really gets me about the Very Special Christmas Episode is this is directly in that tradition. It’s a direct continuation of Christian narrative about sin, illness, miracles, disabilities, healing and cure. It’s that holiday time, we’re right there. I can’t believe they went there, and they did.
LCL: So, right with your eggnog and your fruit cake, you get a cure narrative.
AS: You don’t get a cure narrative, you get… it’s very interesting to me that they don’t heal him, they don’t cure him, they just make him walk. It’s flying a very careful edge, I want to be careful and say it’s not a cure narrative, it’s miraculous.
CB: It’s a miracle.
LCL: So we get the Christmas miracle.
AS: But we don’t get the cure.
SE: And note that the preson who is rewarded in this narrative is the believer, which is a very old Judeo-Christian concept. Everbody mocks the person who believes and in the end she is redeemed for her faith.
LCL: So let me ask you this. We’ve gone around and I want to make sure that everyone, if they have burning questions or burning comments about the show, but I would ask, first, as a contrast, what are some of the things that you’ve either seen, or would like to see, regarding depictions of disablity that we haven’t quite seen yet. What are the options, what are the alternatives, to the kind of things that we’re seeing on Glee that we’re pushing back against and we’d like to see alternatives to?
CB: Lawrence, I just want to say one thing about, it speaks to that, but I’m not giving an example. In July, I participated in a day-long conference with the unions, with AFTRA and SAG, called Lights Camera Access.
LCL: Tell people what AFTRA is.
CB: Oh, it’s the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I participated in a day long conference with AFRTA and SAG.
LCL: And this was in Hollywood.
CB: This was in Hollywood at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
LCL: The folks who do the Oscars.
CB: Yes, the Emmys, I think. And Glee, the producers of Glee, Ryan Murphy et al, were invited to the table as one of the panels was “best practices”, so we had representatives there from Breaking Bad, and —
LCL: Breaking Bad showed up, Brothers showed up.
CB: I mean, it was amazing, and basically they were talking about their experience in making television with disabled characters and disabled story lines–
LCL: And you even had people from Family Guy.
CB: Yeah, Family Guy showed up.
LCL: So if the cartoon cahracters can join–
CB: Yeah, we did.
SE: And Seth McFarlane is not known for progressiveness.
LCL: Right, but he was willing to have the conversation which says something about him in relation to the producers of Glee.
CB: Right, yes, and it was a very conscious decision on the organizer’s part to ask Ryan Murphy and the other producers of Glee to come to the table. And they chose not to. I don’t know if there was any response or if they just ignored the request but that to me is very telling. That to me tells me that there is something they’re not doing that they know they should be doing that other people are doing successfully. There is no denying that Breaking Bad is incredibly successful and the way that they’ve handled the storyline with RJ Mitte is amazing because it’s understated and it just is part of the fabric of the show.
LCL: Right, so rather that have a converastion with people who know something about the topic, and can have a focused discussin about the issue and take it a step further it seems they might be more inclined sticking with people who don’t know anything about these issues and enforcing the narrative–
CB: That’s right. And we’re tired of preaching to the converted. I mean, we’re all sitting here, all of us here are sitting in the room talking about these things that we talk to each other about all day every day. It would have been nice to have someone like Ryan Murphy sharing practices that those people, like the Breaking Bad people, sharing their best practices with those who could learn something. But, it didn’t happen.
TK: We need to know where he goes to get coffee and just dog him with scripts and ideas and real gimps doing real things.
LCL: Hey, we can sing, we can dance.
SE: I would note too that Glee has actively thumbed its nose at critics. The embedded meta commentary that you see in various episodes, and especially from Mercedes, tends to be kind of the voice of that, but I mean they’ve basically out and out insulted the disability community with some of the lines in the episodes that are basically, I think there’s one eisode where Mercedes basically says “Oh, tee hee, I’m not suposed to do that, am I, because it’s not PC.”
LCL: Oh, right, she was talking about her, and something, she was talking about Artie and she used Handi-Capable or something like that.
CB? AS?: Ha.
SE: So Glee is obviously hearing us, they just don’t care.
LCL: They’ll do the meta-narrative inside the show, critiquing us, but without us actually being at the table. That whole handicapable is bizarre to me because it sounds like a kitchen utensil. It slices, it dices, it makes fries, but it doesn’t really describe us, the real humans tied in to the issues we’re talking about. So, what would you like to see? What is something that you’ve seen? it is the Christmas season, what would you like to see, on a high note, or what have you seen, and what would you like to see more of? Is there enough out there?
SE: More depictions of disability where it’s not the central focus of the character. I mean, I think you have.. oddly enough, and if everbody here watches Private Practice because I think Doctor Fife is a great example of a character who happens to be disabled.
CB: Yes he is.
LCL: There was another character who was back on ER who did a similar thing, back when ER was on.
LCL: The woman who was post-polio.
CB: Oh yeah, Dawn. That was short-lived. There’s another one and it just went out of my head.
SE: Bonnie on Jerico, played by Shoshannah Stern, is another great character, she actually– she auditioned for a non-disabled role and they liked her so much that they brought her on and made the character deaf, which I thought was so awesome.
LCL: CSI with Robert Davis Boel’s character, who is always there. I know shows like Weeds had Linda Bovine as the social worker, and Shosanna in the first season. Basically it’s not described or gone into details about her disability at all, just showing them.
AS: Or even the Private Practice guy.
CB: Yeah, she just said– Oh, she can’t hear. Alice doesn’t have headphones so she didn’t hear what you just said.
LCL: We said Family Guy earlier, what about South Park? Can you do edgy and do disability?
TK: Edgy is good.
LCL: Edgy is good, we can do edgy.
SE: Edgy is good, especially when it’s coming from disabled people who are owning their own experiences.
LCL: I think we saw that even in Family Guy when we had the character with Down Syndrome who was portrayed by a young woman who actually has Down Syndrome. There have bene these steps taken throughout the industry but we haven’t seen shows with the profile or notoriety of Glee taking something on board.
SE: I think something else I would lik to see, Glee’s handling of mental illness is absolutely deplorable. For the most part pop culture depictions of mental illness makes me actually want to throw things at the television.
SE: It is so very rarely done at all well, and pretty much every stereotype you can possibly imagine about people with mental ilness being dangerous and scary and sexually promiscuousness and every thing just get thrrown at us,and very rarely do I see out, proud, capable mentally ill characters.
CB: I will say one thing abot the United States of Tara, which is on Showtime, oh I don’t know if anybody has seen this show, but it is about a woman who has DID and they are very proactive. They are proactive in their marketing of really protraying mental illness in an authentic way. They have on their website a lot of information about DID and where people can go to find infomraiton and they have a consultant on the show as a regular employee, all of the time, so I think if you’re going to talk about mental illness you really have to do right, and I think the’re a show doing their due diligence.
SE: I think Six Feet Under, when it was airing, had some really rocky patches wit mental illness, but at other times the depictions were very honest and real, especially, I’m re-watching it right now. In the third season there’s a storyline with Vanessa having depression that I think was done really really well.
LCL: We’ve gotta wrap it up now. Are there any final thoughts you want people going away with, either thinking feeling or doing regarding Glee and Disability on t.v.?
CB: Don’t watch.
LCL: SE, why don’t we start with you first.
SE: Oh gosh. You know, honestly, the outcome I would like from Glee… I would like to talk to Ryan Murphy personally about what he’s doing, and I’d really like him to come to the table with members of the disability community to have serious conversation with representatives of the disabled actors, disabled dancers, to talk about how damaging Glee is and how to fix it. I mean, the show is still airing. It got a renewal for another season. There is time to turn this bus of sadness around.
LCL: That’s your Christmas wish, we’ll sit down with SE and Ryan Murphy. We’ll have TK moderate. Alice?
AS: I want them in the audience for one AXIS show, and then I want their minds completey opened. Short of that, we have to keep watching as a community, we have to keep talking and writing and calling and sharing and pressing because that’s the way change happens.
LCL: So, it’s a popular show, don’t give up on it.
AS: Keep up the fight.
CB: I’d like to see them really meet with some disabled actors and really entertain the thought of casting disabled actors and just listening to the lived experience of what it’s like to be an actor with disability, with other people in the room so at least if they’re not going to cast disabled actors, whatever, they’re doing what they do right.
LCL: So we can do something with a disabled characters so they’re not just stuck in a box the entire episode.
CB: That’s right, change the narrative, please.
LCL: Alright. This is Lawrence Carter Long, TK Small.
TK: I’m really impressed with the conversation we’ve had here. What I’ve taken away from this is there’s important work being done. It may not be possible to fix Glee, but I do believe through advocacy and script writing, and the ideas of performers with disabilities taking on ownership of the craft and the art, and the presentation itself, that positive things will come out of it.
LCL: Thank you, and I think that’s what we’re all hoping to achieve here.]]>
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.”
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!
He shrugs and starts honking the horn.
HONK HONK HONK
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.
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?]]>
The A storyline in ‘All in the Family’ involves a woman believed to be in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband thinks she can be revived1 and asks for a consult with Amelia. Amelia does some screening, Addison notes that the test results reveal the woman is pregnant.
I thought ‘is Private Practice actually going to talk about rape and abuse in long term care facilities?’ And then I looked at the way the husband looked at his wife during the ultrasound and thought ‘oh, no, they are not.’ (Although Sam did helpfully tell us ‘this isn’t that kind of place’ when supporting the institution’s director in his pleas to not call the police to report the rape of a patient. Fail the first, Sam.)
Addison can’t even bring herself to say the word rape. She says ‘had sex with’ and ‘impregnated,’ but she doesn’t say ‘rape.’ The R-word did not cross the screen once during this episode, although at one point Addison mentions ‘consent.’ This is an episode that revolves around rape, and no one ever says the word.
Here’s where things start to get infuriating. Addison maintains that this is wrong, full stop. Ultimately, she calls the police to report that the husband molested his wife. If you are in a coma, you cannot freely consent to sex. If you are married to a person in a coma, your marriage license is not a marriage license for sex any time you want it. Georgie, the patient, was raped. No one says this, and everyone fights Addison on it and vigorously opposes her decision to pursue this to the fullest extent of the law.
Sam attempts to separate work/home life, not understanding why Addison is so enraged. In one scene, she tells him to go home because she has no intention of having sex with him while he’s being a disgusting rape apologist (I would say ‘I do not plan on having sex with you ever again‘ myself, but, hey, that’s just me). But, don’t worry, at the end of the episode, they kiss and make up, even after Sam informs her that she was wrongity wrong wrong and that poor husband was just a troubled man who needed some counseling, that was all. He’s not a rapist or anything, ew! (Although of course they don’t say that word.) And makes sure to let her know how angry he is, and how they will fight about it later.
Personally, I find the thought of being in the same house with someone engaging in that level of rape apologism (or any level, really) utterly abhorrent, let alone having sex with that person. The takeaway from this episode was that Addison was just being oversensitive and unreasonable; Sam says over and over again that she was wrong, the director of the institution wants to avoid culpability for a rape that occurred in his facility on his watch, and Sheldon even says ‘[Georgie’d] be appreciative about everything you’re doing’ to the husband, because evidently there’s nothing women appreciate more than being raped.
Private Practice completely stepped over and elided the very real problem happening right now of rape in institutions, where pregnancies of institutionalised women do occur, when the facility doesn’t insist on sterilising them or putting them on birth control against their will. It completely ignored the very real problem of martial rape, suggesting that marriages and relationships are like sex contracts, whether you are Georgie, comatose and unable to consent, or Addison, having sex with your partner even though he is a dirty dirty rape apologist scumbag. The conflict between Sam and Addison is treated as ‘a work-related spat,’ instead of what it is, which is a fundamental ideological problem; Sam believes it is ok for people to rape people, and Addison does not.
The episode closes with a scene of Charlotte King being pulled into her office by a stranger, who hits and abuses her. As the lights dim, the implication is that she is being raped. The following episode is All About the Rape and How Everyone Deals With It, and even involved consultation with RAINN, evidently. This makes this episode all the more horrifically distasteful; you do an entire episode about rape and apologism in which the word ‘rape’ is never used and the characters identifying it as nonconsensual sex are pooh-poohed, and then you follow up with a Very Special Rape Episode For Ratings and Awards?
Spot the differences here: One episode involves marital rape, the other involves stranger rape. Private Practice, trolling for ratings and praise, goes for the stereotypical stranger rape storyline (featuring, as an added bonus, a mentally ill rapist) while completely erasing a marital rape, even though it’s estimated that less than one third of rapes involve strangers (and that people with mental illness are far more likely to be rape victims than rapists). Thanks, Private Practice, for reinforcing the idea that the only rapes that ‘count’ involve mentally ill strangers who physically assault you.
Are you fucking kidding me, Private Practice?
Watching the House episode ‘Massage Therapy’ and approaching the grand denouement, I got ready to be infuriated. The storyline involves a character, Margaret, with schizophrenia. She conceals it from her husband and when she gets sick, the medical team spends an extended period of time puzzling over what’s going on until they finally figure it out. What I expected from this episode was much brouhaha, followed with a brisk round of ‘you can totally leave your partner for being disabled!’ What happened surprised me.
Now, I am not a fan of keeping secrets. I am, in fact, fairly strongly anti-secret. And I do not think that concealing very significant information from your spouse is an ok thing to do, even if I understood exactly why she did it, fearing the stigma associated with schizophrenia. It wasn’t really explored deeply in the episode, but it seems possible that they started dating and she never brought it up, and it got to a point where she couldn’t figure out how to say anything. So, I sympathise with what the character did, even if I don’t agree with it.
I expected House, who is kind of known for being a jerk, to support the husband in wanting to leave his wife because of her mental illness. But that’s not actually what occurred. Instead, when the husband follows House out of the room, looking for justification and vindication, House basically gave him a stern talking to. He pointed out that, yes, marriage and love and relationships are hard, and that, no, it’s actually not ok to decide to leave your partner because you just found out she has a mental illness.
‘This is not who I married,’ the husband says. House points out that this is wrong; Billy, the husband, married a woman he loved very much and shared a lot in common with. That hasn’t changed. She’s not a different person now that he knows about her mental illness. She’s the same person, and she’s someone who could probably really benefit from the love and support of her husband right now, while she works on finding a treatment method that works for her.
‘It’s too hard,’ Billy says. Well, I’m with House on this one. Life and relationships are hard. Concealing information is definitely a problem, but it’s worth exploring why she felt the need to conceal that information for so long, why she tried so determinedly to hide from her husband. Given his reaction, of wanting to leave her because of her mental illness, I think it could be argued that she had pretty sound reasons for her decision; this is something I have encountered myself, and that some of our readers probably have too, that once you disclose a mental illness, suddenly you’re not as desirable. You’re ‘too much work.’ And the person who was happily dating you, who had a lot in common with you, who was really excited about being with you, stops calling.
I’m not saying here that people should be forced to stay in relationships they don’t want to be in. What I am saying is that wanting to leave your partner because you just found out about a disability is a shitty thing to do. Wanting to leave your partner for keeping a significant secret, being concerned about the lack of trust there, is valid, but deciding you want to leave not because of the secretkeeping, but because the secret was a disability? Not so much.
Disability complicates relationships, for all parties. Recognising when a relationship is not working and being honest about the role disability plays in that does not make people bad people. In this case, though, the husband just decided that the relationship wouldn’t work on the basis of his wife’s schizophrenia, and wasn’t even willing to try and put in the work; despite the fact that their relationship had been working well before, he suddenly determined it wouldn’t any more.
Granted, I disclose before I’ve been married to someone for several years, because my mental illnesses are an important part of who I am and I want people to know about them. But I can certainly understand why some people choose not to disclose. What surprised me in this case was an incidence of pop culture showing a nondisclosure in a sympathetic light, and reinforcing it with House’s speech. Usually, episodes like this end with the husband marching off into the sunset, Deeply Wounded, and everyone castigating the evil secretkeeping wife and talking about how she deserves it.]]>
One thing that seems to be very important: YouTube videos! Each of the parties maintains their own YouTube channel, and they stock these channels with videos. Every week or two, I get another email from a political party that really wants my vote (or at least my money), and they often include links to the YouTube channel, or even embedded video. And every week or two, I respond like clockwork, asking them to please provide captioning and/or transcription of the video.
So far, the response has been silence.
I wonder if the reason for this is simply because there’s the new Auto-Captioning service at YouTube, which attempts to automatically subtitle a video a video. Surely this will provide a good working set of subtitles, right?
Ha ha. Ha ha ha.
In alphabetical order, let me show you what the YouTube auto-captioning displays when I try to watch political messages from my current or potential political representatives:
The Conservative Party of Canada:
Image: Screen capture of a YouTube video, with subtitles that read “You don’t think that’s a whole group called american this country and you have to decide”
Actual quote: Voice Over: “Adopted Britain as his home. Called America his country.” Ignatieff: “You have to decide….” (This advertisement is discussing Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s past.)
Here is leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May:
Image: Screen capture of a YouTube video, with subtitles that read “we’re on Friday evening breeze through across Canada will gather”
Actual Quote: Elizabeth May “…Where on Friday evening Greens from across Canada will gather.”
I will totally admit the Green example is not as terrible as the others. The Greens don’t have a lot of advertising at the moment. (Non-Canadians, this is in part because they’ve not got an actual member in the House. I count them as a national party because they run in all 308 Federal ridings, and May participated in the Federal Leadership Debate.)
The Liberal Party of Canada:
Image: A screen cap from a YouTube vid. Caption reads “the prime minister’s their lives for stroger’s we have a garden”.
Actual quote: “… The Prime Minister is there to inspire us to do our best, and we have a guy who….”
The New Democrats:
Image: A YouTube screen capture. The caption reads “costs are skyrocketing so why does is Stephen harper dead”
Actual Quote: “Heating costs are skyrocketing. So why doesn’t Stephen Harper get it?”
This is what I wrote in one of my last emails to my MP about this issue:
I know disability and accessibility are things you care about too, Megan, so I hope that you will pass along my concerns to the NDP Leadership: Transcribing and subtitling/captioning of video and audio content is an accessibility issue. Providing both a transcript and subtitling allows for more Canadians to be able to access the message of the NDP. As well, it shows a commitment to accessibility and to including Canadians who prefer or require transcripts and subtitling, for whatever reason. As this is something I believe the NDP values, it would be helpful for the party, at all levels, to provide transcription and subtitling for all the videos that they produce.
Of course, subtitling your video (and providing a transcript) are not only for people who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. They’re also for people who have audio processing disorders, who have difficulties understanding spoke English, who don’t want to turn up their volume, or even don’t have speakers or headphones on their computer. They’re for people who just want a transcript or subtitling because it makes their lives easier today. (For example, I have an ear infection and subtitles are the order of the day.)
Every political party in Canada “cares” about “the disabled”. They really do. Each one has a little subsection of their website dedicated to explaining how they “care” about “the disabled”.
I think it would be awesome instead of telling me how much they cared, they’d show it. And one way of doing that would be subtitling their ads, so everyone can know what their message is.]]>
The episode opens with a scene of a skateboarder in an indoor facility, showing off tricks for a group of wheelchair users and seemingly nondisabled adults. ‘Shredding for a Cure,’ a banner hanging in the facility alerts us. The skateboarder comes to a halt and volunteers to push one of the wheelchair users, who turns out to be her brother, around.
My hackles went up pretty much immediately. House, like seemingly every other show on television, can’t wrap its head around the idea that wheelchair users play sports. A quick YouTube search turns up a whole slew of videos of wheelchair users skating, and the opener would have been dramatically different if we’d seen someone using a wheelchair instead of a skateboard. But then, of course, we wouldn’t have had the neat hook, allowing the skater to collapse while pushing, thus setting up the medical mystery for the episode: What’s wrong with her?
Over the course of the episode, a series of diagnoses are tested and discarded. At one point, they think she needs a bone marrow transplant and a discussion about harvesting marrow from her brother is held. He, of course, is naturally excluded from this discussion, and she refuses to ask him for a donation because she thinks he ‘has it hard enough already.’
Eventually, it is determined that she has sickle cell trait. She also needs a lung, because during her rapid onset of illness, one of her lungs was very badly damaged and replaced with a transplant that started failing almost immediately. Lo and behold! Her brother is a match for a partial lung donation, but is a poor candidate for the procedure because he has muscular dystrophy, and losing a lung would shorten his life and probably degrade his quality of life.
Della, the skater, insists that she doesn’t want to ask her brother for a lung. He eventually overhears an argument and insists on donating a lung to her. Ah, how heartwarming!
Throughout the episode, her brother is repeatedly denied agency. He is told to leave her room when they discuss the need for a lung, and the parents of the children have a ferocious debate about whether they should ask him to give a lung to his sister; no one considers approaching him to talk to him about the situation and ask him how he feels about it. I am reminded that in the United States, minors have no rights when it comes to medical care, and can be compelled to undergo procedures even if they don’t want to.
There are a whole slew of issues with the framing of this episode. Let’s start with Della, who claims to be ‘living the life her brother can’t,’ reminding us all that being a wheelchair user is The Worst Thing Ever and you are Completely Useless for Life if you use a wheelchair, but, hey, at least you’re inspiring. Obviously he could never do things like joining the science club or playing extreme sports! House reflects social attitudes when it comes to framing and thinking about disability, and this episode is a prime example of exactly the kind of message I wish pop culture would stop sending: That disability is a tragedy, that you will never be able to live the life you wanted if you are disabled, that everyone around you will have to live for you because obviously, you can’t live your own life.
And then there’s the issue with the complete denial of autonomy and agency to Hugo, the brother. He is excluded from all discussions about his sister’s medical situation that might involve his participation. People talk about him, about whether he should be asked for marrow and later a lung, about how they feel about it, but they do not talk to him. He is left to sit in the corridor. They say this is for his ‘protection,’ completely eliding the fact that he is a human being, capable of making his own decisions. Likewise, Della is denied a lot of agency; House refers to her as a ‘mindless teenybopper’ and says she’s clearly incapable of making decisions about her body and medical care.
This is not the first time House has depicted minors as patients and has made sure to remind viewers that minors are all clueless and completely unable to make sound decisions, even if they were legally able to exercise control over their medical care. It usually goes very badly, and there’s usually something infuriating and disability-related going on too; I’m reminded of the episode featuring a Cochlear implant, for example, where the patient’s mother forces her son to go through surgery even though he doesn’t want the implant. On House, disability is always terrible, and minors are always subjugated by their parents ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’
I’ve barely scratched the surface with this episode here, in the interests of not producing a small novel; if you watched it, what did you think of it? What other issues in the episode troubled you? And was the week of 27 September the worst week ever for disability on US television (House was not the only show running a disability storyline and doing it very, very badly)?]]>
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?]]>
One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.
And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!
Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.
Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.
The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!
I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.
Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or how he acquired it.
These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?
When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?]]>
The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon (also known as The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon and The Jerry Lewis Stars Across America MDA Labor Day Telethon) is hosted by actor and comedian, Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). It has been held annually since 1966. As of 2009, the telethon had raised $2.45 billion since its inception. It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States.
On the surface this probably looks like a good thing, but digging a bit deeper: For many people, this is one of the few times they’ll see images of people with disabilities on their t.v. screen (and from a noted authority and beloved celebrity), and the entire thing is one drawn out pity parade.
Since 1991, protesters, including Laura Hershey and Mike Irvine, have tried to raise awareness about the way that the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and Jerry Lewis himself, treat actual adults with disability, and have discussed how these sorts of pity parades affect the public perceptions of people with disability. In 2001, Hershey wrote:
As we in the disability-rights movement keep trying to explain, our biggest problems come not from our physical conditions, but from a society that fails to accommodate us. Lewis’s telethon plays up the problems, without suggesting their sources or solutions. For instance, those sappy vignettes will make much of an “afflicted” person’s inability to wash his own hair, or get herself to the toilet, without any discussion of the urgent need for publicly funded personal assistance, or of the problems posed by the architectural barriers designed right into the layout of most private homes.
Trouble also arises from the fact that thousands of families dealing with disabilities in the U.S. and Canada are denied adequate medical care and equipment – necessities which should be basic human rights, not handouts accompanied by a drum roll and tally.
I’ve written about my disdain for both the Telethon and for the praises Lewis gets despite referring to people with disabilities as “half-persons” who should “stay at home”, and I think this is still an idea that people find very challenging. It’s easier to view these sorts of fund raising telethons as doing Good Things. They are supposed to, after all. That it’s still leaving people with disabilities begging for basic rights, access, and assistance that shouldn’t be necessary in this age of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Accessibility for Ontarioans with Disabilities Act (AOWD) isn’t comfortable to think about. That the main use of these funds is for finding a “cure” – by which they mean a pre-natal test – rather than assisting families in purchasing wheelchairs or renovating a home to make it wheelchair accessible, or in assisting people with disabilities in getting support during or immediately after a move seems to surprise people. Your money isn’t going to help actual people with disabilities. It’s going to help the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and to aid Jerry Lewis in his continued insistence that he’s a humanitarian. These are not really the same things.
Many people with disabilities have written about their perceptions of these telethons, and the damage they do, as well as the issues with giving a humanitarian award to a man who treats actual people with disabilities with such disdain. Hershey’s most recent columns are Speaking Out against the MDA Telethon and Laura’s Labor Day Weekend Column. Liz Henry wrote last year about her dose of morning rage regarding the telethon, and there are many links there that highlight the issues around Jerry’s Kids. There’s also the 2007 Blogswarm, Protest Pity, which features more than 35 blog posts about the Telethon and the Protests. You can also read From Poster Child to Protester, which may be the first thing I ever read about the protests and the Issues with Jerry Lewis.
Sometimes, though, the best way to combat the pity parade is to show people with disabilities talking about their lives, and their lived experience. Laura Hershey made this video as part of the “It’s Our Story” Project. Transcript follows:
The ‘It’s Our Story’ titles roll while tinkly piano music plays. White symbols of sign language and a person in a wheelchair flash against the background, which is suggestive of a US flag, with the continental United States in the blue square instead of the usual 50 stars.
The video opens on Laura Hershey, a powerchair user wearing a nasal cannula and glasses. The title of the video is “Jerry’s Kids”, and I believe she’s referring to the group “Jerry’s Orphans”.
Laura: That’s actually a group that was started in Chicago by Mike Irvin, Chris Matthews, and several other people. And I worked with them a lot organziing these protests nationally. I think what the name says is that Jerry Lewis doesn’t have the right to claim us as his quote “kids”, especially as he’s not interested in our perspective. He completely trashes people who question or challenge the telethon approach. He’s attacked us in the press, calling us ungrateful, claiming that he bought us our wheelchairs which is, you know, completely untrue.
You know, whatever ego trip he gets thinking of himself as our saviour, or our daddy, or whatever it is he thinks, we reject that.
We’re not his kids, we’re adults, and we’re our own people. We don’t belong to him.
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.]]>