We Need Diverse Authors: A Review of Dancing With Ghosts

dancing-with-ghosts

Image description: Book cover for the novel Dancing with Ghosts by Emily Gillespie. The bottom two-thirds of the cover is black with the title and author’s name in white text. The top features a galaxy background with pinks, purples and blue speckled with stars. On the left side, three ballet dancers are captured in silhouette.

I have written before on the dangerous and problematic pitfalls of people writing about marginalized experiences that they do not experience. I am a huge supporter of not only diversity in books but more importantly diversity of people writing those books. So I was pleased to hear that my friend Emily Gillespie had written a book and that it was going to be published.

Emily has lived experience with mental health* and wrote a novel that deals directly with a character who is experiencing what is possibly depression and anxiety.

The synopsis from Goodreads is,

Freshman year of university was supposed to mean freedom.

It was supposed to be her escape from parents who didn’t understand her – who turned Patricia away every time she reached out for help. New city, new school, new friends, fresh start – wasn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Instead, when Patricia moves from her small, isolating hometown to the bustling, sprawling cityscape of Toronto, she finds herself more alone than ever. When she meets Derek – an intriguing yet mysterious classmate – she’s instantly drawn in by his worldly knowledge and easy charm.

For a while, things between them are perfect. For a while, it’s thrilling being invited into a world unlike anything Patricia’s experienced before.

But this isn’t a love story and not everyone is what they seem.

Dancing With Ghosts is technically classed as adult fiction, though could be considered a young adult novel. The protagonist, Patricia is eighteen & nineteen throughout the novel and though the book does deal very frankly with issues of mental health, sex, and various kinds of abuse (sexual, emotional, medical); the story is very much something that can and does happen to young people.

The book is a first-person narrative written in semi-journal style (by which I mean the narrator will occasionally address the reader directly). As a result of the casual narrative style, the protagonist occasionally breaks off into tangents. This was a bit jarring at first but as you get to know the character it becomes natural and I eventually stopped being aware of it.

I really appreciated the way Emily approached mental health in the novel, from how it isn’t always strictly labelled as a specific diagnosis but the impact is still real. This indefinability is not only realistic it also really highlights the issues that Patricia has in trying to set up official support systems when she doesn’t fit neatly into a box. The book also challenges that smug Canadian lie that seems to crop up anytime that a Canadian is trying to prove their moral superiority (usually to an Americal) “Yeah? Well, I’m going to have my feeling checked for free”.

Emily effectively weaves a story about someone who tries and fails to seek timely and meaningful healthcare and the emotional fallout of being failed by a system that horribly ill-equipped to deal with the volume and reality of the needs it should be meeting.

Dancing With Ghosts is not the kind of book you read all in one sitting. Not because it isn’t good or engaging. It is both but it deals with issues of abuse so head on and frankly that sometimes I had to take some time to sit with what I had read before I could continue.

This is the benefit of a writer who has experience of the thing they are writing about. Eve when they write fiction, it feels more real. I feel the shared frustration of a medical system that frequently underserves or fails disabled people. I struggled with Patricia’s frank attempts to make sense of how the various factors in her life contributed to what happened. I searched for those answers with her.

This is why we need more voices from the margins. Not people speaking for the margins.

 

 

Dancing With Ghosts is currently available for purchase in ebook form through Kobo.

There is currently no official print release date (I will update when one is available) but print copies will be available on Amazon and at the York University Bookstore in Toronto.

Dancing With Ghosts is being published through Leaping Lions Books a small independent publisher run by York University’s fourth-year Professional Writing program.

The official book launch will be on March 9th. If you are in Toronto and are interesting in attending you can find information here.

 

 

 

*Her current preferred label

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If You’re Disabled in an M. Night Shyamalan Film, You are either a Villain or a Supercrip (Mostly a Villain Though)

I long for the days when M. Night Shyamalan was still mostly associated with his flops. Only making movies because of a vain hope that he would rediscover his Sixth Sense heydey. I look back yearningly at that moment I was sitting in a movie theatre and the collective groan of disappointment that the audience emitted at the end of the trailer for Devil (2010) because all hope that it might be good had been spoiled when it was revealed that the story was created by M. Night Shyamalan (though he did not actually direct or write the screenplay)

Shyamalan has recently recaptured some of his earlier success with his most recent film Split (2016). The film centres on a villain, Kevin (played by James McAvoy) who has Dissociative Identity Disorder and 23 distinct personalities (with a supernatural 24th). He kidnaps and terrorizes three girls. The film epitomizes the trope of to be mad is to be bad. I am not going to go into a long breakdown of how awful this is. Many others have already done so and likely better than I could have.

kevin-split

Image description: Still from the film Split. The character Kevin (played by James McAvoy) walks dow an empty street at night. He is bald with glasses and is wearing black pants and a jacket. His hands are in his pockets (image source)

I am instead going to talk about how Split’s Kevin fits into a pattern of stereotyped disabled characters in M. Night Shyamalan movies. Characters who are usually bad but who occasionally also fill the supercrip role.

Split is actually (as it is revealed in the end) a sort of sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable. Unbreakable is another film that relies on a disabled villain. Elijah Price AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition that causes brittle bones. Price is inspired to villainy by comic books (Isn’t Shyamalan Meta he creates a superhero universe where the villains are inspired by comic books *sigh*). He makes it very clear that his disability is a catalyst for his villainy. He reasons that if he is so fragile then there must be someone is as impervious to injury as Price is prone to it (because logic I guess). He goes around causing disasters with mass casualties until he finds his opposite. He discovers David Dunn (Bruce Willis) after Dunn is the sole survivor of a train wreck.

elijah-price-unbreakable

Image description: Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) sits in a wheelchair in the aisle of a comic book store. He is holding up a comic in his right hand. He is wearing a grey sweater over a black turtleneck (image source).

Disability is so linked to villainy in Unbreakable that the hero is literally impervious to injury. He can never become disabled.

By linking Split and Unbreakable, Shyamalan has essentially created a superhero universe in which disability is synonymous with evil.

Shyamalan’s use of disability is not limited to these two films. It is also a theme in his biggest success The Sixth Sense (1999). The initial meeting between Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is set up as Crowe being Cole’s psychiatrist. But fear, not Haley Joel Osment is not another Shyamalan supervillain. He is not mad. He can actually really see ghosts. The film does not, however, avoid the insinuation that mad is bad. In the scene where Cole finds the evidence that a child–who had presumably died of some unknown prolonged illness–had been murdered by her mother through long-term poisoning. The film subtly suggests that the mother has Munchausen’s by Proxy and was carrying out the prolonged poisoning not for the direct goal of killing the girl but rather for the attention having a sick child provided her.

Funeral guests can be heard musing about how long the girl had been sick, how many specialists were consulted to find the cause of the mystery illness and sadly explaining that now that the older child was dead that the younger sister was also begun to exhibit similar symptoms.

So while Cole Sear is not mad. Madness in the Sixth Sense is still dangerous.

In the film The Village (2004), Shyamalan manages to include both someone who is dangerously disabled and a supercrip.

alice-walker-the-village

Image description: Still from the film The Village. Alice Walker (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) stands in a doorway in a white nightdress. She stares blankly in front of her while reaching her right hand imploringly through the door (image source).

Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is blind. Her blindness isn’t particularly extraordinary until she is forced to take on the supercrip role after the intellectually disabled and sexually frustrated Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs her beloved in a fit of jealousy.

Ivy’s blindness is a bizarre plot device because I never could fully understand why she was the only person who could leave the village in search of medical attention. It appears to mainly be a plot device to add tension to jump scares and an odd scene where she finds a miraculously well-tended gravel path in the middle of a forest. Allowing for a moment of “Oh look at how the blind girl recognizes the change in terrain without sight”.

Noah Percy is a standard movie caricature of intellectual disability. He his presented as a perpetual child. His violence is a direct result of sexual frustration which reinforces the idea that the sexuality of disabled men is dangerous.

There may be other examples of disability stereotypes in Shyamalan’s work but I admit that I have not seen all of his films. I can only hope that Split was an anomaly and that Shyamalan returns to his standard of flops because unfortunately as history has taught us failure does not stop him and he is unlikely to learn and stop using dangerous disability narratives. They are far too ingrained in his work.

 

 

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I was inspired to write this piece by David Perry who wanted a proper write up of a Twitter rant I wrote earlier in the day.

When Social Justice Media “Allies” Get it Wrong

On Jan. 6th Seriously.tv–a social justice focused video producer–put out a new instalment of their series “Shutting Down the Bullshit…”. The series is characterised by host Dylan Marron confronting either a noted activist or a group of people who are linked by a shared experience (race, religion, sexual assault) with stereotypes that they encounter as a result of their work or lived experience. The videos give those being interviewed an opportunity to respond directly to those harmful stereotypes.

The Jan. 6th instalment was Shutting Down the Bullshit about Autism. It, unfortunately, ends up reinforcing more stereotypes than it debunks and displays some very problematic advocacy on behalf of a grout that Marron and presumable the rest of the Seriously.tv crew do not belong to.

The “interviewee” is Avery. I put “interviewee” in quotes intentionally because, for the most part, he isn’t really the person responding to the stereotypes that Marron brings. His answers often give little information that is often problematic.

Avery brings up Autism functioning labels which are a contentious and problematic way to categorise Autistic people. People who are labelled high functioning are generally seen as being more “normal” and thus more human. People who are labelled low functioning as a consequence are seen as less human (for more thoughts on functioing labels go here).

Avery seems not only unaware of this controversy but also buys into it. Marron prompts him to divulge his functioning level to which he proudly responds “very high”.

This reinforces a dehumanizing hierarchy that posits that the more “normal” you seem the better you are. It is a harmful hierarchical structure that extends beyond the Autistic population to disabled people generally and serves primarily the place varying disabled people onto a spectrum of social value (more on that here). Now that is some bullshit that needs to be shut down.

Ultimately, though, the interview isn’t really with Avery. The interview is really with his father which brings up a host of other problems.

Much activism has been done to try and centre Autism narratives from within the Autistic community. Much of this activism comes as a direct push back against the prevalence of parent narratives. This is an issue that extends beyond the Autistic community to the wider disabled community. Consider the pushback against the website the Mighty which centres a lot of parent narratives (see here, here, and here).

Avery is really little more than prop to give a visual for his father’s input. This isn’t even thinly veiled. Avery is clearly unable to answer some of the questions, so they are clearly designed for someone else. Marron asks Avery about the film Rain Man. A film Avery hasn’t even seen so he is unable to even understand the stereotype being referenced. Not that his father does much better when the video cuts to him, he says,

“Rain Man is a lovely movie about a man’s relationship with his brother. It is not a movie about Autism”

This answer is dismissive bullshit.

Rain Man epitomises a harmful and prevalent media stereotype about Autism. It is a caricature that utilises stereotypes about  Autism and savantism that are seen in many films that include Autistic characters. It features a character that is often parodied and involves the use of cripping up. The discriminatory practice of a nondisabled actor playing a disabled character. It is a film that has very much informed the cultural consciousness of what it means to be Autistic.

The lack of mentioning of the Autistic savant stereotype is even more telling when the video decides to highlight Avery’s “special skill” he has perfect pitch. His demonstration of this skill along with a lot of video of him talking is really just a backdrop for his father’s voice over.

The focus on Avery’s father is not just problematic because he’s taking up space that should really be filled by an Autistic voice. The video basically applauds him by including an old myth that Autism was caused by bad parenting. This moment seems more like a moment to say “oh look at this nice parent of a disabled child” than actually challenging a stereotype that needs debunking.

While the “Autism is caused by bad parenting” myth did exist it is hardly prevalent now. It is far more common for people to believe that Autism is caused by vaccines. Which is some bullshit that has already been heavily debunked but it still far to widely believed. It is a belief that actively stigmatises Autistic people and threatens people’s health and lives.

Patting Avery’s father on the back for not being a shitty parent is also problematic because it obscures just how much abuse parents of disabled children are forgiven for.

Consider the conciliatory tone the media took with Kelli Stapleton who tried to kill her Autistic daughter Isabelle.

A video that is ostensibly about challenging Autism stereotypes is no place for “yay, parents of disabled kids”. Regardless of how good of a parent Avery’s father. His experience and old stereotypes focusing on parents should not be the focus because it feeds into a dangerous “saintly parent” stereotype which is some other bullshit that needs shutting down.

This visual silencing of an Autistic person in favour of a neurotypical voice is actually hard to watch. It is also not in keeping with the other videos in the series which clearly centre activists speaking for themselves.

In other videos in the series where a single individual is interviewed, they are always an activist (with the exception of a less serious instalment where Marron speaks to a toddler). When multiple voices aren’t being heard, the individual is someone who it is easy enough to look up and fact check. It is possible to see where they fit into the experience they are speaking to and find out any criticisms of them and their opinions.

This is not possible with Avery or his father for whom we are not even given a last name.

Marron sought to defend his choice to use Avery’s dad in the video with a statement on facebook that he later shared on Twitter.

dylan-marron-excuses

Image description: A screenshot of a Facebook comment by Dylan Marron which reads “Hey all, I’d like to publicly address my decision to open up the conversation to include Avery’s dad Joey. Thank you to those who have asked about it (Thanks Jaden!). I work hard to make sure that ‘Shutting Down Bullsh*t’ gives a platform to those directly affected by the bullsh*t so they can shut it down themselves. This topic, however, provided a unique challenge as we were dispelling myths about a condition that inherently inhibits communication – not intelligence or capability, but communication. Avery is a friend of mine and I personally know how brilliant he is, but I also know that there were some social barriers that would prevent him from expressing the detail that he wants to convey. Joey, his dad, is also a friend of mine. We talked about this interview for a while and carefully discussed what would be best to make sure Avery was speaking for himself, but also how to make this video accessible to those who know nothing about autism. I figured that rather than relying on stats and graphics to complement Avery’s responses, I would also give that platform to someone who not only knows a great deal about autism, but someone who deeply loves a person with autism and could help illuminate more about this person to a neurotypical audience. The way I see it is that Joey wasn’t speaking for Avery, but rather was complementing him. Shutting Down Bullsh*t takes huge, gigantic, and complex topics and squeezes them in to a three minute video. None of my guests can speak for *all* people affected by the bullsh*t they are shutting down, but they can present a reflection of what *some* folks in that community *might* be feeling. Since I wasn’t able to interview all folks on the autism spectrum, this video is about autism through Avery’s eyes. And to honor that I thought the best thing to do would be to include the voice of someone who loves him deeply and has spent his entire fatherhood ensuring that Avery speaks for himself as much as possible.”

This defence is itself full of problematic Autism stereotypes that Marron is using to defend himself. Even though the video itself does (through Avery’s dad) mention the diversity of Autistic people, Marron says

“I work hard to make sure that ‘Shutting Down Bullsh*t’ gives a platform to those directly affected by the bullsh*t so they can shut it down themselves. This topic, however, provided a unique challenge as we were dispelling myths about a condition that inherently inhibits communication”

So much for diversity of the Autistic experience. Apparently, we are all incapable of speaking not only about our own experiences but responding to the stereotypes and stigma we experience. I must assume my entire post is gibberish then. You probably haven’t even read this far it must be such an incomprehensible mess.

Basically, the problem isn’t that Autistic people need to have neurotypical translators or spokespeople but that Marron chose the wrong interview subject.

Avery is clearly not knowledgeable about major stereotypes or issues within the Autistic community. How is he supposed to respond to things with which he is unfamiliar? It is an unfamiliarity that his father largely shares. He is not an appropriate replacement advocate.

The video format is also inaccessible to Avery. It is very adversarial and there was not attempt made to modify the format to make it easier for him. This is unsurprising as the video is so clearly geared towards speaking to his father and not him.

There are absolutely Autistic people who can and do regularly shut down bullshit ableist stereotypes. (like Lydia X.Z. Brown as just one example). There are entire organisations set up to promote Autism self-advocacy. (see here and here). It is more than possible to find Autistic people who don’t need an interpreter. It is possible to find Autistic people who can be researched so that like the other people featured in this video series, viewers can learn more and see how they fit into a larger activist framework.

Marron basically rejects that possibility. He also uses the “well not everyone is going to agree” cop out.

“None of my guests can speak for *all* people affected by the bullsh*t they are shutting down, but they can present a reflection of what *some* folks in that community *might* be feeling. Since I wasn’t able to interview all folks on the autism spectrum, this video is about autism through Avery’s eyes. And to honor that I thought the best thing to do would be to include the voice of someone who loves him deeply and has spent his entire fatherhood ensuring that Avery speaks for himself as much as possible.”

While of course, no one in this video series speaks for everyone in their movement at least it is usually possible to situate them within it. Marron wants it both ways, to argue that making a video about Autism stereotypes featuring an Autistic person is inherently difficult (because he generalises that Autistic people have difficulty communicating) and then defend his choice of subject as just a particular point of view. A point of view that by featuring in a video, he is supporting.

By framing it this way Marron puts the Autistic community into a box that we don’t fit into. By choosing to interview someone who has no clear public presence it is impossible to situate him in a wider discourse on Autism and advocacy and give a very singular view of Autism that doesn’t centre Autistic people and spews more bullshit than it shuts down.

I know I’m Autistic but hopefully, I communicated that effectively.

 

Update:

Seriously.tv and Dylan Marron have released a new Shutting Down the Bullshit about Autism video. This one uses only Autistic people and includes multiple voices.

Marron also directly responded to the criticism from the Autistic community in a tweet and on Facebook.

A screen-readable version of the text in the tweet images can be found at the bottom of this post.

It’s great to see a more accurate Autistic people shutting down the bullshit for themselves.

The text in Marron’s response reads

Being called out publicly when you think you’re already “woke” sucks. But it helps, too.

In a recent episode of ‘Shutting Down Bullsh*t’ I sat down with my friend Avery to dispel myths about autism. I also included an interview with his father to help illuminate more about autism from the parent’s perspective. I had no idea that allistic (non-autistic) parents speaking over their children is a harmful trope in the representation of autism. I should have taken the time to know that. That’s on me.

While many in the autism community reached out with thanks for beginning to tackle the issue on my show, a great number also expressed frustration with the video – even deep anger. My gut response was to say “No, this can’t be! I’m woke! I speak up against ableism!” But as the messages continued to come in, I realized that I had presented the autism community incompletely at best and, at worst, I had fallen into a pattern of silencing that folks on the spectrum are far too familiar with.

This was particularly tough for me to come to terms with as someone who has been so aware of the silencing that has gone on in my own communities; the centering of cis white masc-presenting men in LGBT representation, the favoring of light skin and Eurocentric features in Latinx culture… the list, sadly, goes on.

The messages pointing out the shortcomings in my video – especially from longtime fans – hurt to read. But ultimately it was for the better. And I’m thankful to those who took the time to explain to me why the episode missed the mark.

Through this all, I’m understanding that “wokeness” is in fact a process, and not a photo-friendly finish line. I still have much more to learn but I’m listening.

To all of us who identify as “woke”, may we not get too proud of our awareness. May we take a deep breath when we’re called out by the communities we’re seeking to serve, and offer a helping hand when we see others “miss the mark.” And finally: let’s accept that we will inevitably Get It Wrong sometimes. What matters is how we evolve after that.

Let’s keep making and let’s keep listening. We can’t afford not to.

The Real Problem with “Drive-By Lawsuits”

On Dec. 4 the show 60 Minutes featured a segment on “Drive-By Lawsuits” hosted by Anderson Cooper. A drive-by lawsuit is a lawsuit filed by a disabled person based on an ADA (or other accessibility law depending on country of origin) violation. These lawsuits are framed as a nuisance as they are sometimes filed by people or law firms who do this regularly.

There are a number of problems with the segment.

It utilizes stigmatizing footage of disabled people

The segment utilizes background footage of Ingrid Tischer who has this to say about seeing herself in this context,

You know what’s awesome? Seeing yourself — excuse me, parts of yourself, the non-mouthy parts — on The TeeVee showing how disability access in built environments are achievable and cool in a segment where the talking parts of other people — excuse me, men people — explain the horror of running a business that doesn’t break the law or limit their customer base. Courtesy 60 FoxNews Minutes

The footage does not include her head. She is completely depersonalized.

It doesn’t delve into why there are so many ADA violations

There is no active monitoring of ADA compliance. Dealing with infractions of laws governing accessibility (in the US & many other countries) is often primarily done through complaints. So while the law may say what needs to be done, unless someone actually complains there is little incentive to actively comply. There is no independent body doing regular inspections and meting out fines for noncompliance.

The segment doesn’t question why so many of the people hit with these so called nonsense lawsuits are ignorant of the law but it shows that ignorance as reasonable. No one questions why business owners are so unaware of their responsibilities.

It suggests that compliance is only necessary if people are complaining

One of the questions that every business owner is asked is whether anyone has either actually used an accommodation or asked for it prior to the lawsuit. The answer is invariably “no”.

This is framed to seem as though the accommodation has been up till now unnecessary and that the request was ultimately frivolous. Ingrid Tischer provides insight into why disabled people don’t make requests and don’t forcefully complain if an accommodation is unavailable.

You know why I never used to ask for a pool lift and maybe never even sought one out? (Despite excellent legal reasoning that ought to render the issue moot.) Because I’ve been hardened by the indifference of business owners. You know – the people who admit on national television they weren’t following the law and somehow are the sympathetic victims of rapacious crippled people.

This segment ultimately frames accessibility law as overreaching legislation that demands things that are unnecessary but fails to look at the reality of living in a world that is routinely inaccessible. There is very real truth to the idea that if you aren’t expected to show up then you will simply learn not to. Particularly if your presence and needs are treated as an inconvenience.

It frames people who file these suits as nuisances

One of the glaring omissions of the 60 minutes piece is that it doesn’t look at how these ADA infractions would be ameliorated if not for these lawsuits (in fact it none to subtly suggests that maybe there didn’t really need to be accommodation in the first place).

The ADA is law and yet it is widely overlooked by the people who are supposed to be subject to it. The segment points out repeatedly that proprietors don’t think that the people filing are actual customers but my question is; so what? These accommodations aren’t supposed to be things people have to ask for. They are simply supposed to be available. Why is it relevant who points it?

Cooper also talks about the lack of warning before a lawsuit but he doesn’t actually look at whether warnings are effective. In fact, they go out of their way to make accommodations seem inconvenient and excessive. They point out both the specificity of the requirements (though brief lip service is paid to the importance of this) and the costs. Then they go out of their way to say that the expensive accommodation goes unused.

It basically undermines the very purpose of the ADA.

It doesn’t look at how poor enforcement of the ADA has led to the abuse of disabled people

The segment also looks at how unscrupulous lawyers recruit disabled people to use as claimants and then cheat them out of the proceeds. This is a real concern. The segment however, points at the ability to sue over ADA violations as the major contributing factor in this kind of economic abuse. However, if the ADA was actively enforced it would do away with the very need for widespread filings and thus make this kind of abuse less likely to occur. Suing over ADA violations would be less lucrative.

It puts the blame for societal stigma against disabled people on disabled people who demand access

Perhaps the most egregious part of the segment is that it makes a point of voicing the idea that demands for access breed ill will toward disabled people. The problem is that this ill will already existed. The proprietors just had plausible deniability. They didn’t accommodate because they just didn’t know any better and they didn’t know any better because they didn’t take time  to think about the needs of disabled people and their legal obligations towards them. This lead to the creation and maintanence of inaccessible spaces.

Ill will doesn’t only exist when people acknowledge it. It was just subversive and deniable. Having it pointed out and there being a financial ramification is not disabled people’s fault. Saying it is, only serves to encourage disabled people to stay silent.

***

It would be far better if government took an active role in monitoring and enforcing accessibility legislation. It would likely create a more accessible environment. It would also remove the need for mass lawsuits. It would also remove the proprietor as victim narrative because the law would be enforced more uniformly. People would not be able to opine that they had been hit with an infraction when the guy down the street did not.

Complaint based systems are not useful in enforcing legislation that is designed to help a marginalized group. It creates an adversarial environment where the marginalized are somehow always to blame because they can’t see and force everyone to comply equally.

Creating a law meant to create more equality but not including a substantive way of enforcing it says a lot about how unimportant that equality really is.

The real problem with drive-by lawsuits is not that they happen but that we live in a world that makes them so easy and in some ways necessary to create accessible spaces.

I only wish Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes had considered that before airing that segment.

People Are Scared of What’s Different & Other Revelations From The Accountant

The following will contain comprehensive spoilers of the new film The Accountant which opened today.

I am going to start with a brief synopsis of the film, followed by a review based solely on the plot. Then I will dig deeper into the portrayal of disability (specifically Autism but not exclusively). Bare with me the plot is convoluted.

Synopsis

The film is about Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) an Autistic mathematical savant who works as a forensic accountant for organized crime. Some of the promotional material for the film also describes him as either a hitman or assassin. This is less clear in the film though he is certainly very skilled at multiple forms of violence. He’s an unbeatable sniper, his hand to hand combat skills are unparalleled etc (you get the point).

When Wolff realizes that his less legal accounting activities have drawn law enforcement attention, he decides to let heat wear off while he takes more conventional legal accounting work.

He is hired to determine the source of millions of dollars which have gone missing from a robotic prosthetics company. He is paired with Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) the in house accountant who discovered the financial discrepancy.

As Wolff comes closer to discovering the source of the financial anomaly, the company’s CFO is murdered by being forced to overdose on insulin. It is seen as a suicide and the company’s president Lamar Black (John Lithgow) fires Wolff saying that the CFO’s suicide was an admission guilt.

Wolff can’t let it go. He can’t stand unfinished puzzles. He keeps digging and concludes that more is going on. His suspects keep turning up dead and he and dana Cummings are eventually targeted for assassination.

Wolff Thwarts these assassination attempts and takes Dana somewhere safe before returning to get to the bottom of the fraud.

In the meantime law enforcement is closing in and the film is interspersed with flashbacks of Wolff’s childhood. His father refusing conventional treatment in favour of immersive martial arts training for Wolff and his brother.

Wolff eventually determines that Lamar Black is behind the whole scheme and goes after him. Black is protected by his hired assassin & various goons. Wolff makes short work of the goons, realizes that the assassin is his brother (hey, I warned you that the spoilers would be comprehensive), they have a half-hearted sibling fight, reconcile and Wolff kills Black.

Review

There is to much going on in the movie. It would be better is the law enforcement angle had been cut altogether. It seems to be there only for the sole purpose of giving an excuse for unnecessary exposition and to set up the possibility of a sequel.

It turns out that the lead agent knew who Wolff was all along but set the junior agent on him anyway so that she could see how he functioned and realize that he’s really a criminal with a heart of gold (he’s been tipping the older agent off on some of his employers more nefarious dealings). The older agent is retiring and was the younger agent to continue taking the tips (she does).

Without that the movie would just be a cat and mouse plot, Wolff chases Black’s assassin who in turn chases Wolff right back.

The law enforcement angle just adds a dog into the mix, a dog that really just wants to play with the cat anyway so it’s kind of redundant.

The action sequences are underwhelming. Mostly because Wolff is set up to be such a good fighter that they lack any tension. There is no moment where you genuinely think he might be in mortal peril.

I also managed to figure out the twist before the reveal. That the opposing assassin was his brother so I wasn’t remotely surprised by the outcome.

So, from a purely plot based review it was convoluted and predictable.

Portrayal of Autism & other Disability References

The movie couldn’t really figure out if it wanted to have progressive message of accommodation and inclusion or an Autistic superhero who overcame his Autism through brute force. For some reason they tried to do both which was mostly just confusing.

The film opens with Christian Wolff as a child (in the 1980s). The family is visiting a treatment centre for children with developmental disabilities. Christian is sitting at a table doing a puzzle at extraordinary speed. His parents are talking to the proprietor  who refuses to diagnose Christian because “I don’t like labels”. He recommends leaving Christian there for the summer so that he can learn to adapt in an environment designed to accommodate his needs.

Aside from the cringe worthy remark about not liking labels labels this is actually pretty decent. Particularly if you consider it was supposed to have happened in the 1980s. The emphasis was absolutely on Christian’s comfort and he made a point of saying that stimming ( a common self-soothing technique involving repetitive motion) was completely normal and nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile, Christian has misplaced the final piece of his puzzle and begins to have a meltdown (it’s a common theme throughout the movie that he doesn’t like not being able to finish things). Another child locates the piece for him and the camera pans to an overhead shot of the completed puzzle. It is completely grey. It is the first visual indication that Christian is really good at puzzles.

Christian’s father interprets accommodation as coddling and determines that if over stimulation is stressful for Christian than the best treatment is to subject him to as much over stimulation as possible (don’t do this, no seriously don’t do this).

So instead of giving Christian individualized care that recognized both his needs and his humanity, Christian’s father made him live a transient existence (he tells Dana that they moved over 30 times in 17 years) full of martial arts training. Even the martial arts masters think the father was taking it overboard but he just says they’re my kids (Christian’s brother was subjected to this too) I’ll decide when they’ve had enough.

This approach is infuriating for  several reasons. Not least of all that it’s actually abuse. There’s also the fact that a lot of harmful things have been done to disabled children because parents exert total dominion over their children (even if they’re not having martial arts masters pummel their children for hours). The most damaging thing of all though is that in the movie, this treatment works (again, seriously don’t do this).

Not only does christian grow up to be an unbeatable fighter, he also regularly overstimulates himself with audio and visual input. He turns off the lights, turns on loud music which is clearly stylistically different from the music that he likes while also using a strobe light.

The message appears to be that overcoming the issue beats “coddling” and yet the final scene is back at that treatment centre. That same proprietor is talking to parents. He no linger shies away from the word Autism and continues to advocate for individualized care and not placing unnecessary restrictions or expectations on an Autistic child.

Basically, it’s like the opening and closing scenes should be on a different movie and very likely a better movie. It’s like the writer really wanted a “and the moral of the story is…” ending but the content of the film simply does not lead to the final scene. In fact it utterly contradicts it. So any good that might come from what is really set up as preachy exposition is hollow because nothing that is said is modeled in the film. The entire body of the film actually serves as an active rebuttal. The film mostly just tells you that you can mold an Autistic child’s behaviour through violent regimented force.

Christian Wolff’s character is the ultimate supercrip. He’s only Autistic in the sense that he maintains a number of physical behaviours of a fake Hollywood Autistic. He has the movie monotone that is almost universally present in fictional portrayals of Autism but never present in any of the many real life Autistic people that I know. His only stimming is a pretty innocuous tapping of his fingers. He does have an eating ritual in which he must blow on his fingers before commencing. These things are really just an actor trying to physically act something that you can’t actually see and the effect falls pretty flat.

The two big stereotypes are that he’s socially awkward–the movie even includes an “I’m Autistic and have difficulty connecting with others but totally want to” speech–and he is of course a mathematical savant. He and pretty much every other movie and TV Autistic are sitting over there with their ridiculous math skills and I’m sitting over here in the social sciences cringing at my pretty solid D- high school math grades (I got a B in math once but it was an anomaly) and happily never taking math ever again.

Why does my sad history with math matter? Because even in the Autistic population savants are rare and I’m willing to bet my story is more common than the math geniuses we Autistics inevitably become when we end up on screen.

When I wrote about my concerns on how the film was being promoted, I mentioned my frustration with Ben Affleck’s excitement over having a role where his character didn’t get the girl. Admittedly the chemistry was lacking between Affleck and Kendrick but it confirmed my fear that the romance would be aborted as a direct result of Christian’s Autism. He decides to leave her right after a flashback in which his father forces him to use his exceptional fighting skills to beat some bullies who had broken his glasses. His father told him that he was being bullied because he was different and that difference always becomes frightening. To which the logical solution is to prove to them just how scary you can actually be and beat the ever loving shit out of them or something, I guess.

It is not his capacity for violence that makes him leave Dana but his father’s words that people always come to fear what is different ringing in his head.

This is just one more in a long line of movies dealing with disability where the character’s sexuality is acknowledged but ultimately unsatisfied as a direct result of their disability. So Fuck That.

It’s hard to determine how he feels about killing people. He does it so dispassionately that he appears unfeeling and yet he supposedly has a very strong though poorly defined moral code. Is it that he only kills bullies? or criminals? I mean he’s technically a criminal so I’m confused. All I know is that you know that he’s never going to kill any of the people that the film has set you up to like. So that nice elderly couple who hired him to do his taxes. They’re safe even though they watch him kill at least two people. So there are people that he’s clearly fond of and willing to protect but beyond that all bets are off, there’s no restraint or remorse until it comes to fighting with his brother. He also doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that his brother is a mercenary commanding assassin who tried to kill him and the girl he has a crush on? is kind of fond of? (I really don’t know).

I know movie ethics are different than real world ethics but this takes it a bit far.

Interestingly, the film moves somewhat beyond Autism with the villain. No, thankfully Lamar Black is not disabled but his company makes robotic prosthetics. So in the climactic scene when Christian faces Lamar, Lamar gives a “I did the crime for the greater good speech” pointing out all the people who are helped by his technology. While he’s far from the first villain to try the “for the greater good” defense, there was something satisfying in Christian not falling for it. People being portrayed as saints for being nice to disabled people is something of an insidious real world trend.

Conclusions

So, I clearly think this movie is objectively bad (a lot of critics agree with me), so why does any of this matter.

Even if this movie completely bombs at the box office (it’s to early to tell) this film did something different, not in its content but in how it marketed the film. Disabled people have become much more vocal about calling out Hollywood for harmful stereotypes and demanding better stories and more meaningful representation.

The marketing of this film was an obvious response to that. They emphasized how much research went into the role, they emphasized how honest it was. They spent a lot of time saying that the story was original and that the portrayal was honest. This authenticity trolling was not only inaccurate but it shows that instead of working to better incorporate disabled community into the film industry that they would rather build discrediting it as a part of the the promotion process.

The fact that they did this with an action movie which would normally be defended on the grounds of it’s general unbelievability –hey shouldn’t the protagonist have died seven times already?–actually co-opted a lot of activist language to try and preemptively absolve it  from accusations of stereotyping. Then they went on their merry way and stereotyped & regurgitated hackneyed story lines to their hearts content.

And that is why it is important to care about how bad the portrayal of Autism is in this movie even though the movie isn’t even good.

 

Disability as Sensationalist Narrative

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. I’ve just finished the first year of my PhD studies and was feeling burned out. Today however, David Perry wrote about a “news” story in which the reporter profiled the mother of a young autistic child.

It is just another drop in the ocean of horrible parent narratives about disability which frame disability as the scourge that ruined the poor parents lives. These narratives are always framed as universal even though the profile sample is restricted to very few and often only one example. The article (if it can really be called that) reads like bad film noire narration. author’s sole source of information is the child’s mother. This is why I find it surprising that the piece is found in the “news” section. There is no actual research involved. He didn’t seek to find out if the woman’s experience is common. He just assumes that it is. He doesn’t talk to doctors or service providers to see if more assistance is available. Most importantly he certainly doesn’t speak to any actually autistic people. The reader is supposed to take his third hand retelling of the reality of autism as universal truth. He describes autism as an “epidemic” and a “genetic devil”.

He also seems to reject the idea that different people with autism might actually display different behaviours. He scoffs at a generic and very medical definition of autism:

Autism is a disease with a broad spectrum of symptoms that can start in the womb and last into adulthood. In one common definition, it is “characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.”

he follows that up with “That’s putting it more nicely than it deserves.”. He completely rejects any concept of spectrum or individuality in the experience of autism, preferring instead to assume the single experiences of one mother is more widely applicable than an actual medical definition.

The thing is, this isn’t reporting, there was no research involved. Rather it is just another example of a centuries old habit of third person sensationalist narratives about disability that depend more on literary tropes than reality in order to frame real world perspectives of disability.

While I have no doubt that the mother profiled is expressing her genuine feelings. The writer fails to give them any context be it from medical professionals or disabled people. Both groups would likely frame the realities of autism differently but I have no doubt that they would agree on one thing. This one woman’s reality (or interpretation of her reality) is not and should not be taken as indicative of the broader realities of autism.

Even a more tempered description of his encounter with the mother might have been less offensive. He never met the son (whose full name is disclosed in the article thus violating the child’s privacy) but talks about him as though that isn’t necessary to really “know” him.

When I said the piece reads like bad film noire narration, I wasn’t exaggerating. the author used florid language, metaphors and similes. He is absolutely framing autism as a monster.

[the child] is not a criminal; rather, a crime has been committed against him by a genetic devil called autism. It’s an affliction that seems to be growing in society like mushrooms under an autumn moon. (emphasis mine)

He talks about autism as though it’s a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde scenario as though the child exists without it. As though it took him over and if only autism could be gotten rid of the “real child” would emerge. this is reinforced by the rhetoric of disease and epidemic that he uses.

There are two things wrong with this. First and most importantly that child without autism is a figment of his imagination. He doesn’t exist and never did. the author acknowledges that autism is genetic (so at least we’re not dealing with a vaccine reactionary. Which is something I guess) that means the child has always been autistic. There is no nonautistic child in there.

Which brings us to the second problem a lot of autistic people, myself included don’t actually want to be cured. My reasons for it are primarily selfish. I like myself. Autism impacts everything I do and how I interact with the world. If I didn’t have autism, I would be a fundamentally different person. This is a pretty common sentiment but others will also be slightly less self-absorbed than me and point out that autism is a natural part of human diversity (for more perspectives on this see here, here, and here).

The thing is the author doesn’t really care about nuance or wider realities because he’s to busy creating his own where not only is the child he’s talking about a monster but so are basically all autistic people.

He appears to make random innocuous observations about the woman he’s profiling and her home and they inevitably have a horrible autism anecdote to go along with them. Like when wonders why this nice lady has tattoos–because apparently there is an identifiable “type” of person who gets tattoos and it’s not mothers of four–she has them to cover up the scars from where her son has bitten her.

Even the lack of towels in the bathroom is suspect. The explanation for which was a level of parent oversharing that I won’t recount it (the website Ollibean has guidelines about writing about your disabled children that I with the author and mother had considered). The fact that the lack of towels was worth even mentioning much less questioning is odd. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been a guest in a house where the bathroom was inconveniently lacking in towels. In houses where there is no autistic resident. I always chalk it up to the host’s forgetfulness or lack of consideration. It’s never been worth questioning.

All of this is shared with the pretense of education but not everything gets a detailed expectation. When discussing the breakdown of the woman’s marriage he says this:

She also has a long-term marriage that is coming to an end. Her husband, Rene Juarez, loves his wife and his children. But after 10 years of living with autism …

He. Just. Can’t. Stay.

I didn’t add the ellipses. He’s actually put them in there to invite the reader to draw their own conclusions. After very conveniently setting up autism as the monster under the bed.

No other contributing factors are considered.

The child is then summarily blamed not only the breakdown of his parents marriage but also his mother’s drinking and experiences of depression. The fact that his grandfather suggested he be exorcised is added in as well. To you know really drive home the fact that he’s a monster.

The mother’s statement that her son deserves understanding and compassion is treated more like the request of an altruistic saint than something that should be taken seriously.

Basically every sentence could be dissected so I’ll skip ahead to the end where in an odd non sequitur the author jumps from discussing the woman’s charity  to her single relationship status.

I tread lightly here. I’m just going to be straight with you, Sonia: You must know the chances of a new marriage are not great. Few men would step into this situation.

“Absolutely true. I know that. To be honest with you, I have accepted that my life revolves around my son and my girls. But I also have another mission to fulfill. I feel this in my heart. I will help other families that live with autistic children.”

It comes out of nowhere but seems tacked on the end to really drive home how much of a martyr she is.

The fact that this piece was published at all is troubling. The fat that a newspaper actually classified it as “news” is even more so.

It’s sensationalist trash with very little basis in reality even if we assume the mother is being honest about her opinions and experiences because of the spin the author gives it. It’s directly in line with the fictionalized biographies of historical disabled people were written to frame them as other and the people who exploited them as benevolent.

Consider Dr. Frederick Treve’s memoir about his relationship with Joseph Merrick (known as The Elephant Man) which frames the adult Merrick who Treves repeatedly misnames John as a child.

Or the promotional pamphlet for Krao Farini (known as the missing link) whose race and physical difference were used to rob her of her very humanity.

This really is just another additional to a long line of sensationalist writing about disability which serves to make those around the disabled person seem like saints while leaving the disabled person as either object of pity or horror.

It is most certainly not news. It doesn’t even have the veneer of objectivity and any concept of research was clearly not even considered.

That child deserved better. Disabled people as a whole deserved better.

 

 

 

Can We Talk About that Paralympics Ad?

British Broadcaster Channel 4 (which has the broadcasting rights for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio) recently released their trailer for the games and it’s getting a lot of positive attention.

Here it is

Here’s a version audio described by Australian comedian Adam Hills

I’ve actually been trying to write this piece for several days and have been having difficulty. Not because I don’t know how I feel about this ad but because I don’t know how to articulate it. I’m still not sure that I do. I have found that when I criticize the media representation of disabled people. I am often accused of criticizing the disabled people in that media.

I want to make it clear that this is not what I’m trying to do. I am trying to talk about the implications of how disabled people and their accomplishments are framed and disseminated for a majority nondisabled audience.

I want to like this ad. It has so much that I love. It has an almost entirely disabled cast and so many of them are doing bad ass things to appropriately themed music. If that was all this was, I would probably be sharing it all over social media to the point of annoying everyone connected to me.

There are two things about this ad that just end up making me cringe. The use of the term Superhumans to refer to Paralympians and the song “Yes, I Can”.

The term Superhumans is not new to the Paralympics. The commercial that Channel 4 used for the 2012 London Paralympics is called “Meet the Superhumans”

You can see it here,

There was no audio described version of this ad. Which I guess speaks to a degree of progress in this year’s advertising and general disability awareness.

So why do I dislike the fact that the Paralympians have been labeled Superhumans? It’s not because I don’t think they are phenomenal athletes. They absolutely are. In a way calling them Superhuman detracts from that fact.

It’s ironic how closely the term Superhuman is to the term Super crip.

Super crip is a term used by disability media critics to describe the phenomenon of celebrating disabled people in either a way that lacks meaningful context or in a way that seeks to effectively erase their disabilities except to add emphasis to the extraordinariness of their accomplishments. It’s not just that they’re amazing athletes. It adds a degree of “Can you believe someone like that could do this?”

The 2012 ad is particularly guilty of this with its juxtaposition of scenes signifying how people became disabled (often violently) with images of them succeeding as athletes.

It does from A to B without looking at any of the context of how people get to B or for that matter who CAN get to B. Because athletic success, particularly for disabled people is not just a matter of having the desire to do it.

Which brings me to the repeated refrain of “Yes, I can” from the 2016 ad, which buys fully into the “to believe is to achieve” stereotype. It is not just a group of musicians, dancers, and athletes showcasing their skills. They really sell the myth.

Consider the scene in the career counselor’s office where the counselor tells a wheelchair user “No, you can’t” which is immediately followed but by that young man playing wheelchair rugby while screaming “YES, I CAN”.

The thing is “No, you can’t” is far more than just the words of an individual who has vastly underestimated your potential. It is a systemic reality. It is far more accurately an expression of “No, you can’t because we won’t let you”. Wheelchair Rugby Clubs do do not appear fully formed just because someone has the desire to play.

Getting to be a Channel 4 “Superhuman” is in many ways as much about luck as it is about skill and hard work. The reality is that access to athletic training for disabled people is limited to those who have physical and financial access to it. If there is no training available in your area or even if there is but you can’t afford it, all the desire and willingness to work in the world is not going to get you to the Paralympics.

In many ways the oversimplification of “yes, I can” actually undermines the extent to an athlete’s success. It ignore the work they put in not only training but also in getting access to that training.

It also erases anyone who doesn’t have access to that training because as I mentioned it’s selling “to believe is to achieve” hard.

The video also delves pretty deeply into inspiration porn territory with it’s images of disabled people doing everyday things. Like looking after children or brushing their teeth. Considering that disabled parents still face the threat of losing their children solely because they are disabled and not from any identified inability to provide care, including Canadian Paralympian Charles Wilton. Wilton did eventually get to keep his son but that doesn’t erase the fact that it was considered acceptable to plan to remove the child before he was even born or before actually assessing it his parents could care for him.

The erasure of systemic barriers in favour of an “overcoming” disability narrative is  misleading. It not only erases the reality of succeeding as a disabled athlete–the need for specialized adapted training and coaches who are willing to work to make those changes–but it also erases the people who don’t have access to those things and completely ignores the reasons why.

It is a disservice to the real work put in by Paralympians whose work and not just successes deserve to be celebrated.

It also promotes social complacency by putting all of the onus for success on disabled people and letting nondisabled people of the hook for the perpetuation of an inaccessible world that actively limits rather than supports our success.

I want to see more bad ass disabled people doing bad ass things but I want those stories to contain context which holds society accountable for why there aren’t more bad ass disabled people being allowed to do bad ass things.