Tag Archives: disability on television

‘Selfish’: House, Disability, and Agency

I’ve been rather behind on my television viewing lately, and I only recently caught up on ‘Selfish,’ the second episode of the new season of House (please be advised that this post contains significant spoilers for said episode). After watching it, I needed several weeks to ponder it before I could write about it, because it was an awful episode, and it had a whole lot of problems going on with it. I knew I wanted to open up discussion about it here, but had trouble getting a handle on how to begin.

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)?

Recommended Reading for October 6, 2010

RMJ at Deeply Problematic: A feminist reading of Achewood, part one: disability and Roast Beef (trigger warning for discussion of ableist jokes)

Roast Beef’s depression is a major theme of his character and the strip. At the outset of his appearance in the Achewood universe, he expresses the wish to commit suicide repeatedly, though he has not mentioned past his first year in the strip. His actions and words (in a distinctive smaller font) are often explicitly steered by his low opinion of himself; depression is a simple fact of him. While sadness is a constant in his his characterization, the portrayal of his disability is far from static: his emotions are fluid, dependent on context, an advantage at time and a palpable pain at others.

Julia at a l’allure garconniere: cultural appropriation: still refusing to see the truth

rather, it’s that images of models, of clothing catalogues, and of white girls in headdresses at concerts that attack and offend us: those of us who feel like these conversations are important to be having, that we have to ask these questions. i am fed up with it. fed up with seeing “Othered” cultures reduced to shitty stereotypes for uncritical (mostly) white people to buy into, as a product, and then to attack me when i ask them to think about what they are wearing, when i ask them why they choose to wear what they wear. is that such an offensive question? is it really us who are so hypersensitive and who take things “too seriously,” or is it you who just wants to refuse to think for two seconds?

mycultureisnotatrend on Tumblr: I received a flood of angry notes and messages after that last post. . . (trigger warning)

We are multifarious people, and no one native cultural symbol can represent us all. It is impossible to dress like “an Indian” without reverting to stereotype. This does not mean all native related things are off limits. But be wise with your choices, stay away from things of great religious significance, and don’t play “dress up.” Moccassins = okay, Warbonnets = not. The line between the two is grey – use caution and respect if you near it.

Roya Nikkah for the Telegraph (UK): Channel 4 criticized for new reality “freak show”

A recent advertisement in Fame Magazine, a celebrity magazine, seeking recruits for the six-part series said that the show “will place two people who are defined by the way they look … in close proximity to each other”.

It added: “Our participants will get to live together in a specially constructed space. Over a number of days, they will explore each other’s lives in the real world.

“They will be challenged to look beyond the mirror and step into the shoes of someone for whom looks have a completely different meaning.”

Gary Marx and David Jackson for the Los Angeles Times: Pact to decrease number of mentally ill in nursing homes

A Chicago federal judge has approved a landmark agreement that will enable thousands of people with mental illness currently living in nursing homes to move into community settings that experts say are more appropriate and less expensive.

If you’re on Delicious, feel free to tag entries ‘disfem’ or ‘disfeminists,’ or ‘for:feminists’ to bring them to our attention! Link recommendations can also be emailed to recreading at disabledfeminists dot com. Please note if you would like to be credited, and under what name/site.

Recommended Reading for Friday, 30 April 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not necessarily safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

Three dancers, dressed in teal and purple, lined up in a row in performance. The front dancer is kneeling, the middle dancer is seated in a wheelchair, and the rear dancer is standing.

From front, Kong Veasna, Kim Sathia and Mao Tipmony performing at the Spotlight festival in Phnom Penh. (Vandy Rattana/Epic Arts Cambodia) (Creative Commons License, Cambodia Trust)

Reminder: Tomorrow is Blogging Against Disablism Day! You can check in at Diary of a Goldfish to see all the submissions (and submit your own work if you are participating). Many, many thanks to The Goldfish for all of the organising work which goes into this.

Mia Mingus at Leaving Evidence: Interdependency (via curate)

Being physically disabled and having mobility needs that are considered “special,” means that I often need people to help me carry things, push my wheelchair, park my car, or lend me an arm to lean on when I walk.   It means that much of my accessibility depends on the person I’m with and the relationship I have with them. Because most accessibility is done through relationships, many disabled people must learn the keen art of maintaining a relationship in order to maintain their level of accessibility.  It is an exhausting task and something that we have had to master and execute seamlessly, in many of the same ways we have all had to master how to navigate and survive white supremacy, heterosexism, our families, economic exploitation, violence and trauma.

Wheelchair Dancer: Arizona’s Immigration Laws

Two questions: what kinds of offenses make people removable? (Note: even the very word choice — removable — makes it sound like you are taking out the trash.) Turns out that besides the biggies, like you know, murder, the case for removability can be built from smaller things such as traffic offenses. Without a warrant? Perhaps that’s one thing if you see a person on the street robbing a bank, but I can see it being used as an excuse to enter homes, to conduct raids, to begin to hunt people down. I can see it being used as a way of legalizing the immigration equivalent of witch hunts.

Tanya M. Luhrmann at the American Journal of Psychiatry: The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (book review, warning, some problematic word use)

Perhaps the explanation is that it is so morally distressing to confront the costs of human social life. This, after all, was the story of the 1965 Moynihan report—a report that documented the real challenges of African American life in the inner city and was roundly criticized as racist and dismissed. Racial prejudice, after all, is something that readers of a book like this can act on or at least believe they can alter. Deep social inequality that leaves its marks on the body and mind is far more difficult to uproot. There is little doubt, however, that those marks are real.

Kavita Ramdas at TED Talks: Radical women, embracing tradition (video and transcript)

Why is it that women are, on the one hand, viciously oppressed by cultural practices, and yet, at the same time, are the preservers of culture in most societies? Is the hijab or the headscarf a symbol of submission or resistance? When so many women and girls are beaten, raped, maimed, on a daily basis, in the name of all kinds of causes, honor, religion, nationality, what allows women to replant trees, to rebuild societies, to lead radical, non-violent movements for social change?

Denise Grady at the New York Times: Second Opinion: In Reporting Symptoms, Don’t Patients Know Best?

“There is a sensibility among some old-school clinicians that they have a better sense of their patients’ experience than patients do themselves,” Dr. Basch said. “But doctors and nurses bring their own biases to the evaluation. They might say, ‘Mrs. Smith always exaggerates her fatigue — she says 9, but I rate it a 6.’ ”

Kaitlyn at Oh Money Trumpets: Medication for Bipolar Disorder and TV Shows

But with my mood swings, the “alien” idea made more sense. A better metaphor is a switch. A switch is flicked, I get so pissed off. Switched again, I don’t want to do anything. Switched again, back to baseline. No control. Which got a bit annoying, because I’d be mad at somebody. They’d get mad at me for being mad at them for no reason. Then I’d get mad at them for being mad at me when I had no control over the original anger!

Recommended Reading for 14 April, 2010

Warning: Offsite links are not safe spaces. Articles and comments in the links may contain ableist, sexist, and other -ist language and ideas of varying intensity. Opinions expressed in the articles may not reflect the opinions held by the compiler of the post and links are provided as topics of interest and exploration only. I attempt to provide extra warnings for material like extreme violence/rape; however, your triggers/issues may vary, so please read with care.

A smiling Vietnamese woman pictured in a seated position in a doorway with her prosthetic leg standing up next to her. Her right arm is amputated at the hand and her left arm is amputated at the elbow. Behind her, two older adults are seated.
Huol Srey Von (21) is a multiple amputee who has lived with her grandparents since her family house collapsed last year. The Cambodia Trust provides her with prosthetic limbs to improve her mobility and to enable her to participate in community life. Photo: Simon Larbelestier (via Cambodia Trust on Flickr)

Adam Hetrick at Playbill: Next to Normal Creators Kitt and Yorkey React to Pulitzer Win

“We wanted to do something that would shake things up a bit. I saw a television report about ECT, about shock therapy, and I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that still goes on.’ So I called up Tom and said, ‘What about a musical about a woman who suffers from depression and has to go through shock therapy?’ And Tom agreed, I don’t know why. But thank God he did!”

I haven’t seen this musical, and I’d be curious to get reports from readers who have. I want to be excited about representations of disability winning Pulitzers, but this quote does not exactly inspire confidence.

Steve Esack at The Morning Call: Ready, Willing, and Disabled

Cameron has reached the maximum schooling age for special education students, forcing them to leave the safety net that is the Bethlehem Area School District. His minimum-wage job will shift to another student. His family will have to navigate myriad social programs to help him find new employment that will allow him to keep the dignity he feels when he cashes his paychecks.

T. R. Xands at Adventures of the TV Addict, the Wannabe Writer, and the Should-Be Famous: I’m sure that attitude will get you everywhere

You think it’s pointless to talk to POC because you fuck up every time? Why were you expecting it to be easy? Why don’t you sit back and learn a spell before you become the great Crimson Advocate Avenger. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever get a hang of this disability & gender thing, and at night I often wonder to myself if I’ve accidentally said anything ableist today or if I could have stopped someone from doing likewise. Sometimes I think I’ve internalized homophobia or racism without even realizing it before. But the LAST thing I do is throw my hands up and get mad at the group I’m trying to learn from for not “teaching” me properly. They get enough shit, they don’t need my ignorant self roaming around looking for cookies and pamphlets; about as much as I need our plentiful campus feminist heroes sending me fliers to diversify their group.

Michelle Diament at Disability Scoop: Down Syndrome Takes Center Stage On Fox’s ‘Glee’

Disability Scoop: What do you think of the fact that Glee is including a character with Down syndrome?

Lauren Potter: I think it was a brilliant idea. It tells Americans that it’s really good to have a daughter or son who has Down syndrome.

C. L. Minou guest blogging at Feministe: We Are the Dead (content warning, discussions of sexual assault and murder)

Even though a trans woman, like many other women who have been assaulted, might long for an all-female environment to aid her recovery, there is no guarantee that she’ll be accepted there. And often no guarantee that anyone else will have her. Even in large cities, finding a trans-positive or even trans-accepting victim center is likely to be impossible. There is nowhere to turn for many trans victims of rape or assault, which is why the sexual assault numbers for trans women–high though they may be–are almost certainly drastically underreported.

Lisa at Happy Bodies: Portraying MS

In addition to being rather inaccurate to most people’s lived experiences of MS, I find the “expiration” language to be offensive. Things that are “expired” are dead, trash, not fit for consumption, over and finished with. Just because people with MS may have limited use of some parts of their bodies, or experience pain or other sensory phenomena in their extremities does not mean that their bodies have “expired”.

I’d like to end this roundup with a special shoutout to a Jezebel commenter, somedisaster, who wrote this really lovely paragraph in a comments thread in which ableist language was challenged:

The only reason words like “lame” and “retarded” function as insults is because people consider there something to be inherently bad about BEING “lame” or “retarded.” If they were really divorced from ableism, they wouldn’t work as insults, because they would be neutral words. You can’t claim a word is divorced from its offensive context when its offensive context is the sole reason it is used as an insult.

How about you? Have you been reading (or writing) anything of interest lately?