Yes, I know it’s Fiction, and Yes I’m Still Going to Criticize it

Any time I criticize the representation (or lack thereof) of disability in fictional media, I inevitably get all three of the following responses either in the comments here or on Twitter.

This is fiction, it’s not real, lighten up (often not worded so politely)

If you don’t like it, don’t read, watch or listen to it.

If you don’t like it, write your own book, produce your own movie etc.

All three are silencing tactics and I’ve experienced them all repeatedly as I blog about disability on TV (here, here , here and here) in movies (here) and most recently in my essay criticizing the book ( and soon to be released movie) Me Before You. I think all of these responses are worth looking at in more depth.

This is fiction, it’s not real, lighten up.

Whenever I get this response three questions always occur to me.

  1. Has this person ever taken an English class (or other language class focused on literature).
  2. Do these people also send these messages to university English Departments
  3. Do literary journals get this sort of feedback against other literary study and criticism?

Admittedly the last two are facetious but I do seriously wonder about the first. As I recall of English class after basic literacy and reading comprehension was obtained, we were asked to look at literature in the context of when it was written, what it might mean for today, what is its social impact, etc.

Fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum divorced from the social context from which it was created. It reflects that social context and the biases of the author.

This is why people who study the play The Importance of Being Earnest for homosexual subtext despite the fact that the play closes with three heterosexual couples becoming engaged and the fact that homosexuality was illegal at the time of the play’s release. They do this because the playwright (Oscar Wilde) was himself gay and the very successful first run of the play was ended early when his trial for homosexuality began.

Wilde’s private life is presumed to have affected his writing even when he was writing about people unlike himself.

Similarly, people find deep seated colonial views in the fictional writing of Rudyard Kipling whose most famous work is The Jungle Book but is also famous for his poem The White Man’s Burden. A poem which clearly dehumanizes the people in colonized places. A poem which was written to expressly defend and promote imperialism.

The ideas he espoused in that poem are identifiable is his fiction including The Jungle Book, to the point that people are concerned that the book continues to be adapted into film (see here and here).

Fiction has also been used to make a point about society and culture, consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Academics read Jane Austen to get a glimpse of social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They do this because they feel her books lend real insight into the social orders of the time. Let me remind you, Jane Austen wrote fiction.

To fall back on a cliche “The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword” The written word has power, it has the ability to highlight reality or tear down a misconception. But just like a sword in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, a pen in the hands of someone writing about a group of people to whom they do not belong–and did not particularly attempt to research– can do harm by reinforcing false and negative ideas about those people.

I’ll focus on Me Before You as an example because it is the most current book/film to be criticized by disabled people.

To say that Me Before You stands separate from culture or that its status as a romance novel exempts it from having a social message (another common argument) is plain false. the ideas around disability in Me Before You are nothing new or unique. Consider

Stories that involve disabled people seeking assisted suicide

  • Million Dollar Baby (2004)
  • The Sea Inside (2004)
  • The Bone Collector (1999)

Stories that position disability as an insurmountable tragedy (this list is assumed to contain the above mentioned stories)

  • Jane Eyre (1847)
  • Heidi (1881)
  • The Secret Garden (1910)
  • A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

This kind of story line is far from new and my list far from comprehensive. So I ask at what point does fiction stop reflecting societal and cultural ideals? Because I don’t think it does, particularly when these stories are the dominant ones and alternatives are few and hard to find.

Fiction also doesn’t always stay that way, it has been used to justify horrible abuses against disabled people. In 1920 Canadian Eugenicist Helen MacMurchy published a book call The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. The entire premise of the book is that literature rather than science is the best place to find real understanding of people who would have at the time been labeled feeble-minded. She opens the book by saying,

Sometimes the poet sees more than the scientist, even when the scientific man is playing at his own game. The novelist can give a few points to the sociologist, and the dramatist to the settlement worker. Had the voter and the legislator studied with a little more attention the works of William Shakespeare and Walter Scott we might have come sooner to some of the alleged discoveries of the twentieth century.

Take the case of the feeble-minded. They have been drawn from life more than once by the great masters already mentioned, as well as by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Charles Reade, and many other writers, and yet so far at least we do not seem to have taken mentally defective persons in the world as seriously as the great writers who immortalized Wamba, Quasimodo, Barnaby Rudge, Young Sparkler, Mr. Toots, and others, by giving them the entry to that stage which the world may always watch from the windows of the Library.(pp. 1-2)

MacMurchy was no minor character in Canada’s eugenics movement either, she was appointed as Ontario’s Inspector of the feeble-minded in 1906. She is considered to be the individual who had the strongest impact on Canada’s history of eugenics which saw the forcible sterilizations of thousands of people (primarily in Alberta and British Columbia).

So the idea that fiction stays on the page and never impacts how someone sees another group of people, is an argument I can’t get my head around.

Also, if people are unaffected by these stories, why are we still telling them? I’m not seeing a lot of variety in story lines centuries later.

But moving on…

If you don’t like it, don’t read, watch or listen to it.

This argument is mostly answered by my response to the last argument. This is not a matter of simply not liking something, that’s why I don’t eat kidney beans. The thing is, the existence of kidney beans has no real effect on my life as long as I avoid them. However, as I have explained fiction doesn’t work that way, it reflects and reinforces social views and those CAN hurt me and others if ignored.

So np, I won’t be ignoring fiction or media of any kind that perpetuates negative and bigoted stereotypes around disability. NEXT!

If you don’t like it, write your own book, produce your own movie etc.

There are a couple things wrong with this, first of all in most cases this is much easier said than done. Secondly if done it’s generally not done at a level that can compete with the message it is trying to counter.

Let’s tackle the actual doing first. In terms of making movies, people can’t just go do that. You need equipment (which is expensive), training to use that equipment (training that is often also expensive and also offered in ways that are inaccessible to disabled people.

I actually had a guy on Twitter say to these concerns “Just apply for funding, there is so much funding for disabled people”

um… BAHAHAHAHAHA… *sobs* sir please cite your sources.

I personally know so many disabled creators that want to have their work translated to the screen. They lack access to funding, training and the support that is required to make that happen and I assure you it is not for lack of trying.

Writing a book is somewhat easier and appears easier in a time where the internet makes self-publication available to anyone who churns out a book. Which brings us to the next problem, it’s available to anyone who churns out a book. This isn’t just an issue of oversaturation but the fact that a lot and I mean a lot of self published books are terrible, poorly written and poorly edited (if they are edited at all). It’s hard to get noticed in that kind of environment.

Succeeding as a self-published novelist is hard because it’s difficult to get noticed in the deluge of other self-published books (even if yours isn’t one of the ones that suck).

In the context of writing a novel to challenge the messages  of more mainstream books, telling someone to just write there own book,only works of they can compete with books like Me Before You. A book that has sold over five million copies and is now a film. That’s some stiff competition.

You can’t just write a book and drop off the manuscript at Penguin Books or Harper Collins. And access to an actual publisher is necessary to be competitive because, they offer not only the editing needed to make a book the best it can be. They have marketing departments. A little book that is self-published does not. As Penny Pepper points out writing about disability in ways that deviate from stereotypes is hard.

I’ve been writing disabled characters into my work since my teens. Yet the more I wrote about disabled people who loved and fucked and birthed and died, and all the mess and joy in between, the less my work succeeded.

Fighting the status quo has never been as simple as showing up and offering an alternative. People have to want that alternative. Saying that fiction has no power is a way of making people comfortable maintaining their enjoyment of problematic stories without making them think about it. So yes, it may be fiction but it is never just fiction. Ask yourself “what stories aren’t you seeing and why?” ask “whose stories aren’t you seeing and why?” and “who is writing the stories” Because the answers to those questions are important and are very much worth asking.

 

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When is Language Ableist or Offensive

Comedian and disability rights activist Maysoon Zayid was recently featured in a Think Big video where she advocates for disabled people being given opportunities to be cast in film and television roles where the character is disabled. Currently the most common casting decision is to give those roles to nondisabled actors. The video is well worth a watch.

Since the video is on YouTube it has garnered a lot of comments and as with most comment sections on the internet many of the messages are offensive. Oddly this post is not about ignorant commenters but rather a conversation Zayid had on Twitter regarding one specific comment.

She begins with this tweet

ableism language 1

She is paraphrasing for the brevity required of twitter. In this tweet shat has used #retard to draw attention to the original commenter’s offensive language.

The first response agrees that the comment is both ignorant and offensive and concludes by calling the commenter a #moron.

ableism language 2

For context, here is a little history of the linguistic evolution around intellectual disability.

Words like idiot, moron and imbecile used to be medical terms but by the late 19th century had been widely adopted by society as general insults. In a move intended to find terms the medical community could use to describe intellectual disability without resorting to insults, a new medical term was adopted. It was retarded. Until then the word retard had been used to mean slow down or impede. Since its adoption in relation to disability however, it has become a slur that easily rivals the offense caused by its predecessors in offensiveness.

Likely because she was aware of this history one respondent questioned the use of language.

ableism language 3

While it was established that the use of #retard was in fact a direct reference to quoted language from a YouTube comment, the use of #moron was not.

This led to a conversation about whether moron is still ableist and when language is ableist, It seems to have concluded with these three tweets

ableism language 4

ableism language 5

ableism language 6

After this Mills no longer participates in the conversation and it moves on. Whether her absence is because she feels the matter is settled or is no longer comfortable questioning it, is unclear.

I am not going to take a stand on whether terms like idiot and moron are still offensive in an ableist way. Quite frankly it isn’t my call. Those words have never been connected to me medically so I am not directly oppressed by their continued use. I do however know that there are people who are affected by those words in ways that extend beyond their synonymous connection with stupidity.

I would however like to comment on the idea that ableism is only present when in the direct context of disability or when directed at disabled people because that just doesn’t make sense.

Words mean specific things. I can’t make the word ugly mean beautiful just by how I use it in a sentence.

The word retard does not stop being offensive or ableist when it is directed at someone or something that isn’t disabled. This was eloquently evidenced by John Franklin Stephens when he challenged Ann Coulter for calling President Obama a retard.

This is not just a disability issue. Just look at how the word gay which now most commonly refers to homosexuality but others have used it as a general pejorative. When someone calls an outfit or a situation gay, they are associating being gay with all things negative. The fact that no actual gay people are present is irrelevant.

Using words that reference a group of people and directing as a negative insult is harmful whether or not the people referenced are present to be directly hurt by it. This is because it culturally normalizes negative associations with that marginalized group and adds to systemic oppression.

I realize that it is impossible to have this kind of in depth discussion when limited to 140 characters, which is why I’m responding here.

I think particularly when considering ableist language when it discussed by disabled people, it is important to remember that disability may be the largest minority group but it is also one of the most diverse. Even if you ignore intersectional identities like sex, gender identity, race, sexuality, religion, etc. Disabled people are diverse in their diagnosis and sometimes this one identifier has social repercussions that are not shared with the whole disabled community. What may be offensive to one group could be unimportant to another. It is essential that while fighting for equality and an inclusive society that we don’t leave part of the group behind. The hierarchy of disability is real and it is often internalized.

When deciding if language is ableist please consider more than its effect on disability as a whole or if perhaps there is a group that you don’t fit into that may be differently affected.

Update

I have been asked by one of the people involved to remove their name and image. I have done so

Update 2

Amanda Mills has contacted me via twitter to confirm that she did leave the conversation because she no longer felt welcome there and felt as though she was being treated as overreacting.

I make this update with her permission.

While Outlander is a Real Winner for Women it Totally Fails Disabled People

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Colum MacKenzie complete with CGI bowed legs on able-bodied actor Gary Lewis

Outlander is returning to the Starz Network today. It is a popular series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon. I admit I like the show. I read the books first so of course I cringe where the show deviates from the original.

The show is well made and truly entertaining. It has also been lauded for its complex portrayal of women and female sexuality. These assessments are pretty accurate though I take issue with the casting of the female lead. Jenny Trout describes her like this;

“[Caitriona] Balfe is slender, but her stomach isn’t flat and her breasts are natural. The lack of body hair is a bit disturbing, given the time period, but watching the actors together, the viewer sees two people being intimate with each other, instead of two sculpted dolls switching between acrobatic positions.”

So she not totally perfect but she is very slim, which is the standard for women on TV and in movies. In the books however, Claire is repeatedly and consistently described as curvacious. Something Balfe is decidedly not. It might have been nice for them to have diversified the bodies of their female cast but they only non thin women are either extras or characters over forty-five. So I guess it’s only a partial win for women.

The show does however completely throw disabled people under the bus. The story contains the character of Colum MacKenzie who is both disabled and the Laird. The character is in many ways a major step forward for disabled characters in television.

Colum is not a stereotype. His character is complex, his role in the story is not completely defined by his disability, though it is informed by it. He does not fall neatly into the almost universal boxes of being a saint, villain, victim or inspiration. He has both good and bad qualities and none of his character flaws or virtues are a result of his disability.

And yet despite all of that, I cringe every time he is on screen. It is extremely disappointing that the producers of this show opted to cast an able-bodied actor. Particularly because none of the usual excuses for passing over a disabled actor apply.

The character is never shown as able-bodied. There is no transition to excuse the use of cripface.

The actor Gary Lewis is not the major draw to the series and is in fact almost unrecognizable due to the hairstyles and clothing. So his star power is not required for the show to be a success.

His disability is entirely created through the use of CGI and can therefor the portrayal is not the result of acting skill.

In fact as you see in the image above, which I obtained from an episode review, the author added the word Yo in between the bowed legs to draw added attention to them. The author had this to say about the physical presentation of Colum’s disability.

“the Laird shows up at the door, surprising [Claire] with both his abrupt entrance and CGI legs. Seriously, what in the world? The special effects here are maybe a little extreme, but sure. Let’s roll with it.”

The author is presumably able-bodied as she hasn’t indicated why she would have any expertise to judge the reality of the portrayal. So by have an able-bodied actor in computer generated cripface, the show destroys its own ability to claim a realistic portrayal of disability by giving viewers the ammunition to question it.

If a disabled actor had been used, this argument would not exist. You can’t argue with the reality of a person’s actual body. rather than a picture superimposed in post production.

This is a prime example of why there needs to be actually disabled actors cast as disabled characters. Realisn cannot be achieved through imitation or computer generation. It also shows that regardless of how accurate those CGI legs were (and I’m not competent judge), they allow nondisabled people to dismiss the possibility that for someone, that this might be their real body and real lived experience.