When People Use Diversity to Defend Sameness in Autism Narratives

“It’s just one story” or so people keep telling me when I protest the lack of diversity in both autism narratives and characters in the media. The thing is that’s exactly the problem.

Film and television have basically been writing fan fiction about the same autistic character in different scenarios for decades.

This character is invariably white

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Male

Adam

Image description: a still from the film Adam where actress Rose Burne (a thin white woman with brown hair pulled up in a messy bun) sits on a bench facing and speaking to Hugh Dancy (a white man with wavy brown hair), the autistic character who is sitting faced forward rather than toward the person speaking to him

Have savant-like abilities

rain man

Image description: Cover art for the Rain Man soundtrack. Dustin Hoffman (a white man with dark hair) who plays the autistic savant walks down a path beside Tom Cruise (a white man with dark hair) who walks with his right hand in his pocket while he carries a bag in his left

There is generally very little deviation. Occasionally, overt savantism is replaced with a special skill or focus as in the case of the film Adam. These minor changes are however not meaningful.Savantism and special or focused skills are treated as almost interchangeable personality quirks.

You will very rarely see and autistic character who is not white and even more rarely see one who isn’t male. These characteristics extend beyond the acknowledged autistic character to those who are merely coded autistic. Those whose behaviour and traits are largely indistinguishable from those of the acknowledged autistic character. The only difference is a lack of stated diagnosis. Examples of such characters include Sheldon cooper on The Big Bang Theory and Spencer Reed on Criminal Minds.

Think I’m exaggerating? I made a chart

Title Character Diagnosed Coded Savant-like Abilities White Male
A Brilliant Young Mind Nathan Ellis Y Y Y Y
My Name is Khan Rizvan Khan Y Y
The Accountant Christian Wolff Y Y Y Y
Rain Man Raymond Babbit Y Y Y Y
Mercury Rising Simon Lynch Y Y Y Y
TBBT Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
Adam Adam Y Y Y
Criminal Minds Spencer Reed Y Y Y Y
Elementary Fiona Y Y Y
Young Sheldon Sheldon Cooper Y Y Y Y
The Good Doctor Shaun Murphy Y Y Y Y

It’s not an exhaustive list but it is an informative one. Seriously, if you come across an autistic character in film or television plug them into this chart and see how many boxes get ticked. Another thing that all of the characters have in common. They were all played by neurotypical actors.

And yet, when I wrote yesterday about the continuation of this single white male autistic narrative in the new show The Good Doctor, I was met with this

one story

Image description: a screenshot of a tweet that reads “People with autism take many forms, faces, and stories. this is just one. Showing that capability isn’t exclusive is so important!” (link to original tweet)

I have a couple of problems with this sentiment. First, it is not just one story. It is pretty much the only story we are told. For this to be an accurate defence, there would need to be evidence that there were other narratives available. Where are they? Second, is it really an accurate story. Another common defence of tired repeated disability narratives is “well some people are really like that“. I am however sceptical about the existence of a man with ridiculous medical skills and genius level proficiency in several areas. I’ll wait while you find me a real life stand in for this imagined magical autistic white man.

It is true that Rain Man character Raymond Babbit (though not the story) was loosely based on actual savant Kim Peake (who was not himself autistic) but even then it was more a mishmash of diagnostic traits than a portrayal of the man.

These characters have a fictionalized kind of autism that focus on rare traits like savantism and then sprinkle in more common traits like sensitivity to noise and difficulty with eye contact so that people see enough recognizable autistic traits to get away with an authenticity defence to tell basically the same man’s story over and over. They just put him in different scenarios. The biggest change in autistic characters overall is that they’ve become cuter (if they’re children) or fuckable (if they’re men). Though actually having sex is rare for these characters. They’ve mostly just gotten hotter. This switch to a more appealing autistic male is generally to use their savantism or special skill as a consolation prize. Sure, he’s autistic but it makes him a fabulous doctor and he’ll save that kid’s life.

This leaves little room for autistic stories where savantism or special skills don’t counteract the perceived unpleasantness of the autism for a predominantly neurotypical audience.

Despite this, there is still the idea that stories about marginalized populations should be “authentic” which is where the “This is just one story” line gets pulled out like a weapon to defend these all too similar stories.

During the promotion phase prior to the release of The Accountant, actor, Anna Kendrick

admits she initially had concerns about whether the film would be able to represent autism in an accurate and nuanced way.

“A friend of mine has an autistic child, and I was so worried about telling her I was going to do a movie with this subject matter and potentially getting it wrong,” she said. “She was like, ‘I’m going to tell you something that somebody told me when my son was diagnosed: When you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. To have an expectation that he should act this way or you should act that way — don’t even worry about that. Everyone is different.’”

It is both unfortunate that this line is being used by people in the entertainment industry as a promotion tactic. It is also unfortunate that a parent with an autistic child helped her do it.

The phrase “if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child” was meant to indicate the true diversity of the autistic experience. Not be used as a blunt object to defend a film about yet another magical white autistic man. It does not mean “Do whatever, you want. Autism is basically whatever you want it to be”. Though that is how the entertainment industry interprets it.

Seriously, the next time someone defends a fictional autistic narrative through the diversity of autism. It had better actually be a story I haven’t seen before.

And can we just please put a moratorium on putting white men in those stories because the real diversity of autism goes well beyond diagnostic traits.

 

 

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But You Haven’t Seen it Yet: Why Critiquing Marketing of Future Portrayals of Disability is Important

The Good Doctor

Image Description: Promotional poster for the upcoming ABC show The Good Doctor. The title appears in blue over a grainy black and white image of half of series star Freddie Highmore’s face (he is a young white man with dark hair). In contrast to the black and white, his eyes are a vibrant blue.

Yesterday, I saw promotional videos for two television shows that will be premiering next fall. Both shows deal with characters that are likely autistic (though only one will acknowledge that). They were the trailer for new ABC medical drama The Good Doctor

and a first look video of The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) spin-off Young Sheldon. That video has since been removed so I can’t link to it.

I am concerned about both. I’ve written about my issues with how TBBT theory deals with the character of Sheldon Cooper who is deeply coded as autistic but the creator and writers refuse to acknowledge that (see here). Creating a prequel series focusing entirely on a Young Sheldon Cooper is only going to exacerbate those issues and concerns.

Based on the first look video, the prequel series is unlikely to be faithful to TBBT cannon. Sheldon has had some personal growth on the show but references to his youth generally paint a static picture of a walking autism stereotype. He doesn’t like to be touched, he is rigid in his rule following, he is blunt to a point beyond rudeness crossing the line into cruelty and scientifically gifted to the point of probable savantism.

These aspects are present in Young Sheldon but it appears that the show intends for the young to experience some personal growth or the series will be filled with a child tattling on his much older classmates for dress code infractions (and that will get old really fast).

He is shown possibly cultivating a touching relationship with his father. A character who is wholly absent from TBBT (having died prior to the events of the series) and generally not referenced with much emotion by any of the characters who knew him.

It is unlikely that the series will be able to stay true to a character who would eventually grow up to be Dr. Sheldon Cooper of TBBT without the content getting dry but as a prequel, it is unlikely that the series will remedy any of the more problematic aspects that arise from the staunch refusal to acknowledge that Sheldon Cooper is neurodivergent.

The show is likely to largely ignore cannon but its primary source of humour is likely to be the same as that surrounding his older self, at the expense of his neurodivergent behaviour. We can likely look forward to a show packed with a young socially clueless Sheldon constantly putting his foot in his mouth. I can only hope that viewers get tired of it fast and the show dies a swift death.

In the series The Good Doctor, the character’s–Dr. Shaun Murphy–autism is front and centre. The show is from David Shore who previously created House MD. It looks like he’s trying to recreate the popularity of an emotionally unreachable disabled doctor with this American remake of the Korean drama Good Doctor.

The trailer sets up red flags for a problematic portrayal of autism from the word go. It hits on a number of tired Hollywood stereotypes about autism (many that are shared by Sheldon Cooper)

The character is a white man (ditto Cooper)

He is a savant level genius (ditto Cooper)

He is labeled as high-functioning (for more on why functioning labels are gross, see here)

He is played by a neurotypical actor (ditto Cooper)

To add insult to injury, the show’s summary on IMDB asks this question

can a person who doesn’t have the ability to relate to people actually save their lives?

This plays into the lie that autistic people lack empathy. A myth that is increasingly being debunked.

The trailer also sets the show up to be classic inspiration porn. A story of overcoming the prejudices of a hospital board that doesn’t want to hire him and potentially overcoming autism itself.

The most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination. Believable that is until an advocate for Dr. Murphy (because of course the autistic character isn’t advocating for themself) launches into an impassioned speech about how hiring Shaun will act as an inspiration to others.

We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. THAT THEY DO HAVE A SHOT!!!”

*bursts into tears from being so moved*

I’m kidding. This shit makes me sick.

It makes me sick because this character has been created specifically to be palatable to a neurotypical audience. He has been given special skills that exist entirely to make up for the less palatable autistic characteristics. Sure he’s socially awkward and might react strongly to loud noises but he’ll save your child when everyone else would fail. That but is the problem. We’re unlikely to see a medical drama where the doctor just happens to be autistic without the bells and whistles of a highly fictionalized savantism.

But neither show has been released yet, so why am I already concerned? I know I’ll get asked because I’ve criticized the marketing for media portrayals of disability before.

The simple answer is that the marketing is in and of itself worthy of critique. How companies choose to sell stories around disability can have as much impact as the stories themselves. I find it unlikely that CBS (Young Sheldon) and ABC (The Good Doctor) are catfishing their prospective audiences and that the shows will be drastically different from what their marketing says they will be.

In the case of Young Sheldon, get ready to laugh at an awkward child (who will be denied a diagnosis so you can pretend you’re not laughing at a disabled child) for his awkwardness.

In the case of The Good Doctor, prepare to be inspired by a highly stereotyped and false but comfortable version of autism that tells you that disabled people are valuable only if they can overcome their disabilities.

I want better stories. I’m sick of disability portrayals. I want actual representation but that would require actually hiring disabled people.

 

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Bill Nye Saves the World from Disabled People

Bill Nye Saves the World

Image Description: Bill Nye a 61-year-old white man with grey hair stands atop the earth with his hands on his hips and lab coat billowing out behind him like a superhero’s cape in a promotional image for his Netflix series Bill Nye Saves the World.

When I first heard that Bill Nye would be starring in a new Netflix series, I was initially excited to relive some 90s nostalgia. The show is geared precisely towards us 90s kids who grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. Unlike the show of my childhood, however, Bill Nye Saves the World is entirely geared toward Nye featuring topics that have a global impact. The first episode deals with the politically contentious but generally scientifically accepted topic of climate change. Another episode deals with sex and gender and debunking myths around how sex & gender are binaries.

I, however, became concerned when I noticed that there was an episode on Designer Babies. A concern that was confirmed when I watched the episode.

The episode deals with issues pertaining to in vitro fertilization (IVF), genetic testing and gene editing. All three but the latter two especially have implications for disabled people but Nye and his guests only look at the implications for nondisabled people often in the context of the presumed negative impact of not being able to choose to not have disabled children. There is no discussion of the impact of such technologies on disabled people themselves even though both Nye and his guests acknowledge that not all disabilities can be tested for and thus screened out.

The episode starts badly with a somewhat off topic shoutout to Victorian evolutionary scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. Nye mentions him because he feels that Wallace has gone unrecognized for his contributions to helping create the theory of evolution.

Nye only asks but does not really engage with the question of whether gene editing is either playing God or toying with evolution. It is, however, worth looking at particularly with his shout out to Wallace.

Alfred Russel Wallace like many early evolutionary theorists (Darwin included) used the theory of evolution to shore up arguments of white supremacy. He believed that white people were so superior that eventually, non-white people would die out along with less desirable members of the white population to eventually create a utopia that did not suffer from any social ills*.

John Langdon Down would later expand on that to explain how the clearly superior white race could be tainted with congenitally disabled members. Down theorized that white people were more evolved than other races and that intellectual disability was actually an evolutionary throwback that proved this. He wrote,

Here, however, we have examples of retrogression, or at all events, of departure from one type and the assumption of the characteristics of another. If these great racial divisions are fixed and definite, how comes it that disease is able to break down the barrier, and to simulate so closely the features of the members of another division. I cannot but think that the observations which I have recorded, are indications that the differences in the races are not specific but variable.

These examples of the result of degeneracy among mankind, appear to me to furnish some arguments in favour of the unity of the human species**

John Langdon Down used this theory when he categorized what is now known as Down Syndrome but was originally classified as Mongolian Idiocy.

The history of evolution is full of white men arguing that they are somehow superior and classifying difference as inferior. These classifications had a real social impact on the people being classified. It helped shore up institutional racism. Gave birth to the eugenics movement and has lead to genocide.

This is why looking at the social impact of science on the people being classified as undesirable is so imperative.

Bill Nye however, does not do this instead the only social impact of genetic testing and gene editing given in the episode is the impact on the people doing the classifying. The overall assumption is that disability is bad and that avoiding it is inherently good. So when they consider the potential negative impact gene editing they look at the cost and the people for whom that cost will be prohibitive. They do acknowledge that this disparity in access will almost certainly benefit white supremacy. The downside as it is presented is only that poorer families (who will invariably be disproportionately families of colour) will lack access to the options of gene editing and thus be burdened with disabled children.

The show does not at any point consider the potential social repercussions of gene editing on disabled people themselves.

They do not consider what the ability to choose to not have certain kinds of disabled children (because they do acknowledge that not all disabilities can be tested for) will mean for disabled people whose conditions cannot be edited out.

They do not consider how the economic disparity in access to gene editing technology will expand existing economic disparities for disabled people.

They do not consider what happens when the technology fails because nothing has a 100% success rate. What of the children who were supposed to be born “healthy” but weren’t.

What will this mean for people who acquire disabilities (a population that exceeds the number of people born disabled)?

In a world where disability is not only almost universally considered bad and which contains options to opt out of having disabled children, will support for accessibility legislation like the ADA or AODA continue?

Bill Nye considers none of those questions because they are social ones, not scientific ones. This is the problem with a purely scientific discourse. It ignores the social impact.

At the beginning of the episode, Nye acknowledges the possibility of a slippery slope but he dismisses it by saying that a slope needn’t be slippery. He, however, does this despite forgetting to acknowledge the humanity of disabled people or their very real stake in this conversation. We are to Nye best served by not existing in the first place. It somewhat robs his argument of weight.

No disabled people were included in the episode.

 

 

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD. Or if you just want to support an actual person with cerebral palsy in Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month.

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*Wallace, Alfred R. “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of “Natural Selection”” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London 2 (1864): Clviii-lxxxvii. JSTOR [JSTOR].

**Down, J. L. H. “Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots.” London Hospital Reports 3 (1866): 259-62.

Open Letter to the Autism Society Regarding Your Decision to Honour Ben Affleck

AutFest

Image Description: Aut Fest Logo, the words Aut Fest appear in white on a black clap board (like they use to differentiate takes on film shoots)

 

Dear Autism Society and Organizers of Aut Fest

I am writing to you as an actually autistic person who is very concerned about the fact that you have chosen to honour Ben Affleck at Aut Fest. Beyond the fact that The Accountant is full of horrific stereotypes. Affleck’s opinion of the role and how autism should be portrayed is deeply problematic (see here and here). Affleck’s inclusion not only hurts autistic people it suggests that you as an organization are ok with that in order for the attention his name will bring.

As a woman, I am also concerned about celebrating Ben Affleck in light of the fact that he actively shielded his brother from accusations of sexual assault & harassment. I want to live in a world where that kind of behaviour is not tolerated and where people who exhibit that behaviour are not honoured in ways that suggest that they are humanitarians.

It is of course also utterly ridiculous to honour a neurotypical actor for playing an autistic character as though this is groundbreaking humanitarian work. It is not. It is not brave. It is not a sacrifice. He did an acting gig for which he was paid. An acting gig that as I’ve previously mentioned utterly threw autistic people under the bus. It was an acting gig that as a consequence of being performed by Ben Affleck was not performed by an autistic actor. This further normalizes the idea that Hollywood should not actively seek to employ autistic actors or disabled people in general. It also solidifies the idea that it is appropriate and beneficial to have neurotypical people at the helm of telling stories about autistic people.

So, what then are you honouring Affleck for?

Is it because he said nice things about autistic people while he did media appearances for the film?

You know that’s actually part of his job, right? It’s advertising, not activism. It would not have been helpful to the film’s bottom line if he didn’t mention the film’s gimmick plot point.
It wouldn’t have gone over well if he had said that autistic people were evil. Particularly, because they were trying to sell the lie that his performance was authentic. The research and visiting autistic people was part of the PR campaign. It’s just unfortunate that the content of the film undermined those public assertions but again it was advertising, not activism.

So, I’m generally just confused as to what you are honouring for as he is just someone who did a job for which he was paid. As a result of doing that job, he reinforced stereotypes about autism, took a job that should have gone to an autistic person and told a story about autism that wasn’t his to tell.

The fact that you would capitalize on Affleck’s star power despite these concerns suggests that you are more interested in donations than you are in actually helping autistic people. I hope that you will reconsider your decision but know that as long as you don’t that you are not only not helping me (an actually autistic person) and are actively misrepresenting me.

Sincerely,

Kim Sauder

PS: Further reading on this

How ‘The Accountant’ Victimizes The Autistic Community

Autism Society Celebrates … Ben Affleck?

From Amy Sequenzia

 

 

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I have Cerebral Palsy and I Tried the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s New Fitness App

March is as I’ve been repeatedly made aware Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month–please take a moment to pause and simply be aware of my existence–as a result, there have been awareness campaigns (usually in the form of patronizing memes) that pop up in my social media feeds.

There has been one that I was particularly interested in, though. The Cerebral Palsy Foundation announced early in the month that they would be launching the CPF Challenge, a fitness app which would include modified exercises for various mobility needs.

I have written before about my own difficulties in finding accessible fitness options and about how disabled people are used as examples of the things that will happen to nondisabled people if they don’t maintain healthy lifestyles. So I was cautiously excited about this app.

Video Description: The video features both a personal trainer and two individuals with cerebral palsy demonstrating various interval style exercises. There is text that advertizes the CPF Challenge and it’s daily 7 minute workouts.

I was only cautiously optimistic because the app was not simply something to fill a need for more accessible fitness options but also a fundraising exercise for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

I have been sceptical of the CPF ever since it launched it’s deeply patronizing and seriously ill-advised “Just Say Hi” campaign. A campaign that they still advertise on their website.

The CPF Challenge is supposed to be undertaken over 21 days with participants joining online teams to compete to raise the most money while doing the 7 minute workout every day.

Beyond the fact that my feelings toward the CPF are ambiguous at best and I’m not particularly bothered about raising money for them, the three week timeframe has me concerned.

This is clearly a fundraising initiative for them so I worry about the long-term usability of the app. While I hope that it will still be possible to access workouts after the campaign has run its course, the CPF has not confirmed this. This is also the sort of thing that could be useful long term and benefit from ongoing updates but it is also unclear whether the CPF are going to continue investing in it as a tool to help people stay fit rather than a simple fundraising tool.

I downloaded the app yesterday as the functionality only started on the 25th in keeping with its function as a fundraising tool. I immediately hit a problem, despite the fact that it was the 25th of March yesterday and it was also the day I downloaded the app, the app was out of date and was convinced that it was still the 24th and would not work.

I was so confused by this that I didn’t trust my own knowledge of the date or the calendar on my computer. I actually googled the date just to confirm that I was, in fact correct. After receiving confirmation I checked the app store for an update which there was. My app was finally ready to use.

It is clear just by opening the app that it’s primary function is as a fundraising tool and not a fitness app. This is the opening screen.

2017-03-26 12.55.06

Image description: Home screen of the CPF challenge app. It has blue text on a white background and is separated into three sections. The top is for personal workouts completed while the second is for workouts completed by the user’s fundraising team. Both sections include a workouts completed status bar and a fundraising status bar. The bottom third is topped by a large Fundraise Now button which is followed by options to look at achievements and a challenge calendar. The very bottom has a blue button with white text that reads “begin today’s workout”

In order to make the workout accessible, users have to go to the workout library and unselect the options that are inaccessible.

2017-03-26 12.55.34

Image description: CPF Challenge exercise library that lists various interval exercises and a toggle on the right to indicate whether the user can do that particular action or not. On the bottom is a blue button with white text that reads “review all exercises”

In case you aren’t familiar with what the exercise name means you can choose to review all of the exercises which leads you to a silent video run through of them all with buttons that let you say yes or no to each. There is no audio description of the exercises in the exercise library.

While the app simply categorizes the exercises as a yes or no, I took a slightly different approach in which I classified them as

Yes, I can do that

No, I can’t do that

I think I can do some approximation of that without dying (We’ll see if I was right about that or not)

One of the first things that I noticed is that there are significantly more standard exercise options than ones that have been modified to consider different mobilities. Only 14 out of 57 exercise options are classed as “modified”. While I was certainly able to select yes or a tentative maybe to options from both the standard and modified offerings it was disheartening to see how few were specifically geared toward disabled bodies. And while it is entirely possible that other disabled users will like me find accessible options from within the standard list, it would have been nice to see more modified options. It’s also not clear whether CPF expects there to be crossover because all of the standard exercises are demonstrated by the nondisabled coach. Neither of the disabled demonstrators show anything but the modified ones.

It is, therefore, unclear how much actual functionality CPF expects disabled users to get from the app because not even all of the modified options were accessible to me and I expect that I won’t be alone in that. So disabled users are by design offered fewer options which is disheartening.

It is day two of the challenge and I have now done the 7 minute workout twice and I have some early observations (I might do a follow-up after the full 21 days let me know in the comments if you’re interested in that).

The workouts are 7 minutes which is broken down into 12 different exercises.

The workout is surprisingly effective for all that it is only 7 minutes. My thighs and calves are still in pain and I was even reticent to do today’s set because I was genuinely stiff from yesterday (yes, I know I’m really out of shape). Hopefully, I build up a resistance soon or I’m going to have to quit from the pain.

One thing I really wish was different and makes the workout inaccessible is that there is too little time between exercises. I am able to transition from a standing action to one that requires me to lay on the floor (and vice versa) but I can’t do it quickly. Particularly today because on top of my general lack of coordination I was stiff and sore from yesterday’s workout. I actually sat out of an exercise because I didn’t think I would be able to get down on the floor, do the action and get back up in the time allotted. The workout would be improved by doubling or even tripling the interim time (or by offering it as an option).

So far both workouts were identical but I expect that to change in the coming days as I did set more than 12 activities as things I was able to do.

I am unfortunately not optimistic as to how much functionality physically disabled users will get out of the app. I get the feeling that the CPF challenge is more something to be done on behalf of people with cerebral palsy than by people with it. The modified options feel more like a publicity stunt than something functional in its current form.

The app concept does have potential if they decide to continue investing time in the app by adding more modified activities, having the workout time lengthened to consider slower less coordinated bodies and showed the disabled presenters doing more of the demonstrations, showing where even the standard activities might be accessible.

I certainly hope that the Cerebral Palsy Foundation see this as a genuine opportunity to create something that could be useful to disabled people and fills a real need for more affordable and accessible fitness options. I hope that this isn’t just a publicity and fundraising campaign.

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD. Or if you just want to support an actual person  with cerebral palsy in Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month.

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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

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.