Tag Archives: media and pop culture
Beyond Words is an Australian short thriller directed by Armand De Saint-Salvy, one of 16 finalists for Tropfest 2009. (Tropfest is the world’s largest short film festival, involving more than 600 filmmakers each year!)
The two main, unnamed characters in the film are a deaf woman1 (Charlotte Gregg) and a blind man (Gyton Grantley). The film alternates between their perspectives, which makes for interesting (and probably not absolutely fantastic, but I’ll get to that) viewing/listening. During the deaf character’s parts, the sound adjusts to fit her perspective, and during the blind character’s parts, the visuals adjust to his.
Before we even get to the tension/conflict of the piece, there’s some really well done setting up of PWD perspective. We begin in a gym, in a yoga class that doesn’t really accommodate either of the main characters, so they follow the instructions as best they can. It’s a really lovely centring of PWD without a sledgehammer. As the class finishes up, he tries to talk to her but of course she doesn’t hear him: the motif of communication difficulties has expanded to fit the conflicting communication styles between PWD themselves. He tries to go after her, and the cutting between perspectives is such that we only learn later that this is because she has left her car keys. I quite like that the source of the drama at this stage isn’t a result of the usual dynamic of “brave PWD tries to cope! in an abled world on abled terms! the brave little soul!” Instead, we’ve got a difference in the needs, communication methods and experiences between PWD. We proceed entirely without reference to abled experience, which is pretty novel.
On the way to her car, the woman is grabbed by a man who wants to steal the car. As she scrabbles in her bag to find the keys that aren’t there, our friend from yoga comes by, hearing noises that sound like sounds of struggle. During the struggle, there’s rapid switching between their two perspectives. For me, as a sighted and hearing viewer/listener, it was a fabulous way to heighten tension, a very good climax. Doubtless for some people that would be very confusing or disorientating, which I guess goes to show a limit of the film’s translatability to, you know, actual disabled people. The attacker runs off soon after our main male character makes a noise (so to speak!). It never quite gets the feel of vulnerable woman saved by a man – for me personally, at any rate – maybe because her assailant runs off of his own accord, after the protests of both main characters.
After the attacker runs off, the sound and visuals change again: we’ve got a gelling of the two perspectives, with sound and vision both coming on in a conventional film sort of way. Which is all good with the inter-disability harmony in a way and more accessible for sure. I’m also feeling slightly disappointed about this stage of the film because resolution and harmony seem to equal moving beyond a disabled perspective. That is, resolution comes with film techniques more aligned with an abled perspective. So: here the two find a way to communicate, with the woman speaking verbally, asking the man to show her his lips so she can lip read. They walk back to the gym to get her car keys, the end.
I must admit that I am wanting a yay!disability message here. There are messages other than “we have different experiences of the world, and now we are banding together” to be gained from this film. I am bothered, for example, by the idea that it is entirely possible to read this as “man tries to get attention of woman, who is then punished for not paying attention”.
And then. I know Gyton Grantley isn’t blind, and I’m pretty sure Charlotte Gregg isn’t deaf. (Not because I’ve got any particular evidence of her being hearing, more because I can’t find references to her deafness, which I think would have been emphasized in most references to her I could find!) I think they both do a pretty good job, but it would of course be nice if more disabled people featured in films. On the upside, they actually had consultants on the film, the deaf consultants being Caroline Conlon and Richard Aarden and the blind consultant Zak Nikolic.
I’d also be interested as to how accessible this film is. I myself have a promotional/freebie version from the paper which isn’t very. I’m sure it’d be quite disorienting to some PWD, and I’m wondering about subtitling and such in any official DVD releases and how the film was displayed at Tropfest itself. After all, positive messages about disability oughtn’t to just be for the reassurance of the abled folk!
It’s quite a good film, so do give it a go if you can.
- The film doesn’t make it clear whether the character prefers deaf or Deaf; I’m thinking deaf is the most appropriate usage for the purposes of this review and within context, which is why I’ve used it. ↩
Contains spoilers for A Darkling Plain, so be warned!
I’ve just finished up Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities books. They’re really good, and I’d recommend them to any young adults reading, or anyone else who is into YA. Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain are full of complex female characters in a well-realised world, engaging with lots of ethical meatiness. The story is essentially about a future time in which there are mobile cities that move around finding smaller cities to “eat” for resources. Anti-Tractionists, meanwhile, live in static settlements and fight against the Municipal Darwinists. I have a few problems with the books, but I’ll keep it brief and address the rather irritating disability fail that starts off in Infernal Devices and runs through A Darkling Plain.
General Naga is the head of the Green Storm, which is the dominant Anti-Tractionist force for a good portion of the series. He has sustained war injuries and now an exoskeleton-type device allows him to move around. It’s emphasised that he’s a good and honourable man, gracious to all and working for peace. Well, up until he thinks Lady Naga has been working for the other side, at which point he is violent towards her, imprisons her and turns back to war. Almost inevitably, there is disability fail. To focus on the last book, (because that contains most of the references to General Naga, and because that’s the only one I have to hand!) alarm bells were ringing for me on page 35. Here is what goes through the mind of young Anti-Tractionist Theo Ngoni as he converses with General Naga’s wife, Lady Naga (aka Dr Oenone Zero):
‘He had seen Naga; a fierce warrior who clanked around inside a motorized metal exoskeleton to compensate for his lost right arm and crippled legs. He could not imagine that Dr Zero had been in love with him. It must have been fear, or lust for power, that had made her say yes.’
At this point, I thought, of course not. It’s going to turn out that she really loves him and married him for who he is, and this is just to set up breaking down that perception of unlovableness, right? Wrong. ‘She did not love him. She was just grateful for his protection, and glad that the leadership of the Great Storm had passed into the hands of a decent man. That was why she had been unable to say no when he asked her to be his wife.’ Naturally, a woman marrying for security. Part of my mind says that plays into the complexity of the relationships in these books, and it’s good to read something written for young people in which the happily ever afters aren’t really. Another part is thinking about how this sort of thing happens over and over again in popular culture, you know, where a disabled character isn’t being loved despite their being disabled or something.
And it goes on much like that, really, with lots of references to the crippled man! with his unrequited love! and he’s ‘half a man, wrapped up in clanking armour,’ according to one character, did we mention?
General Naga sacrifices himself in the end for the greater good, which frees young, unblemished Lady Naga from her horrid situation (tripping the sarcasm detector there). This “the cripple must die” dynamic that comes up so much in popular culture is really troubling, because its prevalence is just another betrayal of the societal view that disability is totes the worst thing ever and how can you live like that and why won’t you die and stop messing up my pretty world?! At the same time, he dies a hero, saving the people of London, following an illustrious career. Which is not exactly nice, but something.
What stories like this do is assume an abled readership. At least, I hope so, because consciously putting all this stuff onto young disabled people is a bit much. If a good part of writing fantasy/SF/spec for young people is to assist them in escaping and building up their imaginations and experiences, where are disabled youth to live out fantasy lives? Disabled youth are quite as deserving of an imaginative playground in which to develop their minds and thought as anyone else. In fact, I think it’s particularly vital that people so marginalised in the world be given opportunities to work at rich internal lives. What stories like this do is present full worlds and characters, contrasted with a bundle of cliches making up the one stock disabled character, and in doing so put disabled readers in their place: not deserving of anything more than that, and aren’t you glad you got represented at all? (Hello Doctor Who!) Which is not to mention that one dimensional characters represent another way of talking down to younger people. Younger people are quite capable of relating to characters outside of tired stock character types.
And at the end of the day, I find that these representations take me out of a story and just distract me. It’s poor storytelling, often inconsistent with the quality of the writing otherwise. It’s insulting to the audience, disabled and abled, young and old and in between.
Esté Yarmosh has Cerebral Palsy. She holds a B.A. in English from Eastern Connecticut State University and is currently studying for her Master of Arts degree in English at Simmons College. Her previous guest posts are Cerebral Palsy Humor? Not so much and Disability Dismissed
I’m something of a Sci-fi fan, especially when it comes to the literary genre of science fiction. And when I first heard about James Cameron’s new Sci-fi movie Avatar, I was fascinated, and I watched the trailer(s) right away. In some ways, I was blown away by the visuals, particularly the images of the alien planet “Pandora” and the image of the incubation tank of sorts that holds the main character’s alien body. Even the idea of placing your mind in an alien body to do space exploration initially intrigued me. Also, when I read that the protagonist was a wheelchair user, I was interested.
My doubts started forming, however, when I looked more closely at two sources: the movie’s dialogue and the movie’s synopsis. I want to start with the synopsis. Through about the film’s box office numbers, I understand that Avatar is quite popular with audiences. This synopsis contains profoundly ableist language in the way it describes the protagonist Jake as “confined to a wheelchair.” I don’t use a wheelchair; nevertheless, I was very offended when I read that. We’ve been trying to eradicate terms like “confined to a wheelchair” for a while now, and to see this demonstration of ignorance on such a large scale, since it is mainstream, is distressing.
I wonder if the producers or whoever wrote the official synopsis thought that they were being more politically correct by saying “confined to a wheelchair” instead of, say, wheelchair-bound. The fact is they aren’t being PC by declaring Jake is “confined to a wheelchair.” Actually, wheelchair-bound and “confined to a wheelchair” are synonyms and the writer(s) of the synopsis aren’t helping either people with disabilities or the non-disabled population by using that term. I worry a bit because non-disabled people may think through reading this synopsis that referring to someone who uses a wheelchair as “confined to a wheelchair” is okay – but of course, it’s really not — wheelchair user, for instance, is more acceptable. I’ve checked –I know that this synopsis has flooded the Internet and it is most likely people’s main source of information about Avatar.
I also want to take the sentence (from the plot synopsis of Avatar) “Bitter and disillusioned, he’s [Jake] still a warrior at heart” to task. To me, it smacks of disability stereotypes. First, I think the sentence inspires pity in the reader, which is regressive and entrapping for people with disabilities because it signals the endurance of a vicious cycle of stereotyping – in this case, the pitiable cripple. Another stereotype that can be inferred from the sentence is that of the wounded/disabled veteran. I’ve read in one of the (few, alas) analyses of portrayals of disability in film and TV that a component of the disabled veteran is his jaded and cynical attitude towards life and people – he becomes a bit of a misanthrope.
Now, about Avatar’s dialogue – in one of the theatrical trailers, Commander Quaritch (leader of the mission says to Jake), “you’re going to get your real legs back” or something to that effect. [opens with sound] Yet this piece of dialogue overlooks a fact that’s glaringly obvious: Jake still has his legs! Yes, he has a disability, but what’s the problem with his legs and/or wheelchair? The commander is implying that there is something not just physically, but morally, wrong with Jake’s disabled legs and wheelchair use: it is unacceptable in the military for a soldier to be disabled and, moreover, to show it.
And there is another issue I have with the way Quaritch uses the word “real.” The legs Jake has while in his wheelchair are the ones he was born with, and therefore, are true and natural, albeit he is now in a wheelchair. The commander is being terribly ableist and in denial of disability issues when he makes this statement. It’s a long-held stereotype (and still exists today) that disability is unnatural in people and so must be fixed or cured (an issue brought up by Meloukhia in ou article on Avatar). The thing is, disabilities have always been with us (for both non-disabled and disabled people) and according to Paul Jaeger and Cynthia Ann Bowman, 550 million people all over the world have disabilities, so disabilities are, in fact, quite natural.1
Avatar does not even confront disability in an honest and upfront way. The film, in my opinion, takes the easy way out by putting Jake in a completely different body (the alien) and thus, it completely bypasses any meaningful efforts for dealing with Jake’s disability and the issues that arise from it. I suppose that the film’s whole plot hinges on the fact that Jake enters an alien body to explore the planet “Pandora,” but still, the film seems to willingly ignore the regular experience of Jake as a disabled person in favor of an instance of “how cool is this alien creature!” The aliens really remind me of tigers in their ferocity, tails and stripes (!). The aliens also sort of remind me of elf-like creatures I’ve seen in certain illustrations and I’ve read about in fantasy novels: the Drow. Anyway, Jake is seduced into believing that an alien body is better for him than his real, disabled one and he gleefully decides to participate in the military’s little experiment.
The word experiment brings me to another point: the so-called medical model of disability. This version of the medical model in Avatar is glossed over with fancy and distracting features: advanced technology, a futuristic setting, alien life-forms and magic. Yet when these features are all stripped away, we can see that Jake is still being worked on physically, tampered with, if you will, by scientists—the medical model. In much the same way in real life, people with disabilities are prodded, observed and examined (sometimes exploited) by doctors, who claim they know what’s best for us.
That’s how I got a snapped tendon which is currently floating around somewhere in the vicinity of my knee. It’s the result of a semi-botched leg operation, in which “we overcompensated,” my orthopedic doctor (so helpfully –*sarcasm*) let me know years later. Yeah, you really know what’s best for me. I dislocated my knee twice during the years following the operation, and sometimes I think the snapped tendon was a contributing factor, although I probably will never really know.
Also, why are fictional characters with disabilities often put in films (and TV shows) with Sci-fi plots/concepts? To me, it perpetuates the stereotype that people with disabilities are ‘freaks’ and like I said earlier in this article, somehow unnatural. The instances of disabled characters showing up in Sci-fi movies seem to lump them together with strange Sci-fi creatures like aliens, androids and robots, to name a few; yet, as we all know, people with disabilities are human! However, I think that unfortunately, the writers, producers and directors of these types of films believe that disabled people are interchangeable with said aliens and androids. The creative decision to make Jake into an (albeit artificial) alien displays this belief; it further shows that Jake doesn’t deserve to be human because he isn’t ‘whole’ or ‘normal.’ Why can’t there be films and TV shows about people with disabilities that have a contemporary setting and that take a realistic approach to their subject matter (not counting Glee, which has representation problems of its own)?
Meloukhia’s earlier post about Avatar mentioned the film’s aspects of crip drag, so I won’t go into that, but I’d like to say something about how non-disabled film-makers seem to think that a wheelchair stands for all people with impairments, whether these are physical, sensory, mental, cognitive, learning, etc. This is of course wrong: disabilities are way more diverse in nature than simply having a wheelchair, and not all physical disabilities even require use of wheelchair (such as in my experience). Although if you think about it, we can take issue with the international accessibility symbol, too – it shows a figure in a wheelchair. This is the second (male, by the way) character in a wheelchair featured in a mass media production in the past six months (Glee’s the other). When will film-makers (and TV producers) create a character that has a disability which doesn’t involve a wheelchair – perhaps Epilepsy, or Asperger’s — to replicate the vast range of disabilities in real-life?
Furthermore, it seems to me that there are few, if any, films and TV shows which center around a disabled character that is also female. I’d like to see that, and not in the distant future either. Another thing I’d like to see out of a film or TV show is a female character with a disability that has a significant sex (and/or romantic) life; I guess I’ll have to keep hoping we’ll get that someday. Avatar doesn’t deliver on these fronts (and neither does Glee), because as usual in films and TV shows, the man, disabled or not, gets the girl in the end.
I know I’ve written a really long post, but one last thing. Has anyone seen this [toy of Sully] yet?
- Bowman, Cynthia Ann and Jaeger, Paul T. Understanding Disability: Inclusion, Access, Diversity, and Civil Rights. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT: 2005. 165 pp. ↩
Karen Healey is an able-bodied author of young adult literature and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. You can read more of her musings on reading, baking, and social justice at her blog, Attention Rebellious Jezebels.
Everything Beautiful, Simmone Howell. Pan.
I am the maniac behind the wheel of a stolen dune buggy. Dylan Luck is at my side. We are tearing up the desert, searching for proof of God.
Riley Rose’s mother died two years ago, when she was fourteen, and everything went to hell. Now her father and her new stepmother have sent her to a week-long camp at Sprit Ranch, AKA the Palace of Suckdom.
I decided I would pack only frivolous things: eyelash curlers and costume jewellery and little jars of antipasto. If I had to go to Christian camp then I would go as a plague. I would be more like Chloe: outrageous and obnoxious — call me a plus-size glass of sin! It wasn’t until Melbourne was wavering behind us like a bad watercolour that reality hit. As the kilometres ticked I sank into my seat and practiced holding my breath. On a silo just past Horsham someone had painted an escape button. ESC – ten feet high against a concrete sky. I almost asked Dad to stop the car so I could press it.
There, she meets Dylan, who used to be a bullying jackass before the accident that cost the use of his legs. Now he’s just sort of a jackass, and his old Bible Camp friends don’t seem to know how to act around him in the chair.
Craig came forward. “Here you go, dude.” He clamped a hand on Dylan’s shoulder and handed him a shiny bundle. Dylan was slow to unfold it, too slow for Craig, who moved across and shook it out, and held it up for display. It was a vest identical to his. Craig draped it over Dylan’s shoulders and announced: “So this year there’s two Youth Leaders!” … I whistled and threw my lavender sprigs at the stage. A flower landed on Dylan’s chest. He watched it fall to his lap and then he picked it up. I noticed his cross then: thick and silver, hanging on a thin leather string. As he held the sprig of lavender, his face changed and I had a sudden flash that he looked on the outside how I felt on the inside: Lost. Moody. Superior. Charged.
Dylan smelled the flower and stared straight at me. Then he put it in his mouth and ate it.
HIJINKS ENSUE. Hijinks include [minor spoilers!] (skip)
Daring Escapes, Heartfelt Confessions, makeovers, loveable doped-up friends, the theft of a shroud, Mean (Christian) Girls who turn out to be real girls, and one of the sweetest, hottest, most beautiful love scenes I’ve read anywhere
I LOVE this book. I love that the two main characters have bodies deemed unacceptable by Western standards – Dylan because he’s a wheelchair user, Riley because she’s fat – and yet are developed as a romantic and sexy pair. I love that Dylan is not a Ministering Angel Who Inspires Us All, but a complex person who’s a moody jerk a lot of the time, but charming and wickedly entertaining a lot of the rest. Howell manages to pack a good deal of wheelchair etiquette and disability awareness into the narrative, but not preachily; mostly it comes as Dylan sarcastically noting something that Riley’s never had to consider before.
In fact, every person in this book, however quickly drawn, comes across as a portrait, not a caricature. Characterisation is Howell’s great strength. No! It’s dialogue. No! It’s humour. No! It’s pace.
Wait, maybe it’s description:
The sun dipped. The sky became the near-night blue of shadows and stolen moments. Now the ground was firmer. The land had flattened out and Dylan’s tracks were no longer visible. Here and there, I found little reflecting pools, and then at last I saw one great big one. The lake was a giant mirror reflecting a crazy-paving of tree and sky. Up ahead I saw a monster gum tree with wandering roots that looked like they’d waded right into the water and thought, fuck it, let’s stop here. Dylan must have thought the same thing. He was in his chair, facing the water, a little way back from the edge.
Everything Beautiful is. Highly recommended. I don’t know where it’s available outside Australia, but the Book Depository has it here, although I have Thoughts on that particular cover.