I Wish Bones had Killed Off Dr. Jack Hodgins

This post contains spoilers for this season of the FOX series Bones, it also discusses plot points from past seasons.

 

In the last episode of Bones before the series went on an extended midseason (The Doom in the Boom) hiatus Dr. Jack Hodgins and FBI Special Agent James Aubrey were caught in an explosion leaving Aubrey (who shielded Hodgins from the explosion) seriously wounded and Hodgins apparently unscathed.

In what I’m sure the writers saw as a twist but I saw coming immediately Aubrey makes a full recovery, to the point of fulfilling that overdone macho trope of returning to work well before anyone who had actually survive an explosion and hours of life saving surgery would have been able to. As the episode appeared to be winding down Hodgins collapses and is hospitalized in critical condition from an unnoticed complication from the explosion. It is left unclear whether he will die or be left paralyzed.

I saw this coming a mile off and was left hoping that Jack Hodgins would die. Not because I dislike the character but because I knew that the alternative would inevitably lead to cripicature. Where nondisabled actors (like Hodgins actor TJ Thyne) pretend to be disabled. This tends to come along with deeply inaccurate portrayals of disability and a reliance on tired and harmful media stereotypes about disability. Better he die than live and perpetuate those stereotypes.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when the season finally resurfaced and as I feared, Jack Hodgins survived but is now paralyzed from the waist down, necessitating the use of a wheelchair. The series which is winding down (it will finish with one more shortened final season) and this development can end one of three ways; Hodgins, who is currently angry and pushing people away will use his anger as an excuse to exit the show, he will be miraculously cured (most likely by Dr. Temperance Brennan who will discover something anomalous that led to a misdiagnosis), or there will be a tale of overcoming where Hodgins stays disabled but somehow everything end up heartwarming.

The first option seems unlikely because they could have simply used the explosion to kill him off, though shows have avoided doing this to beloved exiting characters to spare the fans (though the show hasn’t shied away from this before, killing off both squintern Vincent Nigel Murray and FBI psychiatrist Lance Sweets). The other two are more likely, in both cases they are problematic.

The disabling of a previously nondisabled character is problematic generally and the case of Jack Hodgins is no different. It is clearly a plot device, originally to create a cliffhanger and now to create tension between Hodgins and basically everyone else. He started out in denial and has graduated to full on hostility. I’m not going to comment on the accuracy of the characterization of acquired disability, it’s not an experience that I share. I am going to say that it just feels horribly contrived and makes for a less than pleasant viewing experience (the fact that the latest episode had a generally cringeworthy plot didn’t help to offset this). The whole things play like unnecessarily fabricated drama. Which for disability representation is just harmful. Disability, when used solely as a plot device to ad tension is inevitably going to do nothing but play on old tropes and have nothing authentic to share.

So we are left with the two overly sentimental stereotypes, the miraculous cure and overcoming disability. The former is problematic for its complete lack of realism and subtle reinforcement of the idea that people who haven’t been cured just haven’t tried hard enough or explored enough options. Now, I will be the first to say that particularly in the realm of disability that doctors get prognoses wrong. People exceed medical expectations all the time. The problem with media miracle cures is not that they don’t happen in real life, it’s that they are almost inevitable. The disability disappears as soon as the tension it was scripted to create is no longer needed or because a cure will create more tension (consider the disablement and almost immediate cure of Felicity Smoak on CW’s Arrow). Cures on TV don’t resemble the medical improvements of everyday disability and are frequently just as much a plot device as the disablement was. Disability in television is never something that just is, in the same way that nondisability is. It always exists to further the plot or character development. Its presence or removal are never inconsequential.

Removal of disability in media is also almost always complete, it is rare to have a television character sustain longterm effects of an injury. Just look at how quickly Aubrey bounced back from being nearly killed in an explosion not to mention how often Boothe is injured on the job. At most you get the occasional offhand comment about back pain or a twinge but it ultimately never stops the character from getting into the next harrowing situation. Even nondisabled characters have an unrealistic level of able-bodiedness, free of the wear and tear of aging and physically demanding jobs.

The final option is that Hodgins will eventually have an epiphany and overcome his bitterness about being paralyzed. You know that is will be sudden because there aren’t enough episodes left in the season much less the series for a more natural and realistic coming to terms with/acceptance to take place.

If they go for the overcoming bitterness angle, my money’s on Hodgins realizing that life has value following something nearly killing either his wife Angela Montenegro or their son Michael Vincent because if you can’t use miracle cure as a plot device, nothing beats a newfound joy for life following a near tragic loss.

There is of course a fourth, though very unlikely option for Hodgins. He might simply remain bitter for the remainder of the series and we’ll watch his relationship with Angela implode. That however would make for horrible television so I don’t see it happening.

Bones is in its eleventh season now, so it’s hardly surprising that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel to inject tension into the show. So it is unsurprising that they’ve pulled the put someone in a wheelchair move but this is hardly the show’s first foray into problematic disability storylines. This even the first time it’s affected Angela and Hodgins.

First though, let’s talk about Seeley Boothe, a man so perfect that the show had to contrive a flaw for him or he would just be a good looking, deeply principled, crack shot with unbelievable physical stamina. In order to balance that out he was given a gambling addiction. It is only mentioned to either counterbalance his otherwise flawless perfection. Even on the rare instances that it is relevant like during a relapse, it is at most a short few episode plot arc to offer short term tension between him and Bones. After this has served its purpose it is shelved. Unless he is in the midst of a relapse it has no affect on him except to remind the audience that he’s not perfect.

Of course there is Bones herself whose character is heavily coded as autistic, though there is some suggestion that her difficulties in social situations may stem from the trauma of her childhood of being abandoned by her parents and her subsequent abuse in the foster care system. The biggest issue here is less that these questions are never directly dealt with but rather the fact that her behaviours whether stemming from autism or trauma are simply used to set Boothe up as her social saviour.

Then there is squintern, Colin Fisher whose clinical depression exists as comic relief. Actually far to many of the squinterns have either autistic coding (Zach, Vincent Nigel Murray, etc.) or other not so subtle characteristic which seem designed to make the viewers question whether they are neurotypical (Daisy Wick). Basically, the behavioural coding is used to reinforce the scientific nerd stereotype and they always appear like caricatures next to characters with actual developed personalities (Finn Abernathy, Wendell Bray, etc.)

Finally, let us return to Hodgins and Angela. In season six when Angela was pregnant both she and Hodgins discovered that they were carriers of a genetic mutation giving them a one in four chance their baby would be blind. It was just another disability as tension plot device though as the couple struggled to come to terms with this possibility, which they of course did only to have their child born with sight. This erased the possibility of having an actually disabled character on the show and saved the writers from actually having to figure out whether Angela and Hodgins’ prebirth coming to terms with the possibility of a blind child would translate to the reality of one (excuse me while I vomit over this entire plotline).

Oddly, right before Hodgins’ paralysis, the couple was discussing trying for more children. This had me wondering if the writers had forgotten about that season six subplot. Hodgins’ paralysis neatly avoided that rehashing though as even if he’s still able to father children, I doubt the conversation will resurface for the rest of the series unless it’s to suggest that the paralysis made him sterile.

While all the plotlines to do with disability in Bones are problematic it is the ones associated with Hodgins and Angela that I find the most infuriating because they so clearly depend on disability being feared and overcome (or possibly in the case of Hodgins’ paralysis, the source to continued unending bitterness). They, more than any other storyline that touches on disability in bones either directly or through suggestion, says that disability is a tragedy and one that is best avoided. There was no exploration of the idea that Michael Vincent might have had a fulfilling life if he were blind. They payed lip service to the idea but ultimately undercut the sentiment with the joyous moment when he was revealed to be sighted. I also have no faith that they will do better with the paralysis of Hodgins even if they eventually bring him out of the bitterness he is currently in. With so few episodes left to deal with the issue and the lack of actual disabled people in the show, I have no doubt they will fall back on empty feel good stereotypes.

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The Media and the Imaginary Disabled Person

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I get it, as far as popular culture and the media are concerned disability doesn’t exist. Disability isn’t real, it’s just a metaphor. You know how I know this? The complete lack of actual disabled people in the media. Yet the media doesn’t ignore disability. They make movies about “disability”, they have “disabled” characters in TV shows. All without using actual disabled people. I mean there might be a couple behind the scenes consulting but we rarely if ever get to see them.

I disabled in quotation marks above because those stories are almost never (with some rare and debatable exceptions) accurate. Not only are they not accurate in representation (using actual disabled people), they are wrong in presentation (the stories don’t accurately portray the disabled experience. Disability is far to often reduced to a few recognizable physical identifiers (wheelchairs, white canes, etc.) and stereotypes (the charity case, the supercrip, the embittered cripple and the mad villain, etc.).

Neither the physical presentation or the stories told around them are in any way an accurate presentation of the diverse experience of disability. I mean there are over a billion people on the planet so they probably represent a few people but certainly not all or even close to most.

The biggest problem here is that people don’t understand that they’re being lied to. They don’t understand that disability is more diverse and more nuanced. These stereotypes are perceived to be true.

Just consider the recent pictures of reality TV star Kylie Jenner in Interview Magazine. Two of the images show Jenner in a wheelchair even though she is not disabled. One image (shown above) shows Jenner seated in a golden wheelchair in a corset and high heels. Her face is passive and her hands are on the wheels. One leg is lifted as though she is either about to get up or perhaps fall backward. The second below

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shows Jenner in the same outfit and wheelchair looking for all intents and purposes like a lifeless doll.

The thing that makes this situation so relevant is how Interview Magazine responded to the inevitable backlash saying

“At Interview, we are proud of our tradition of working with great artists and empowering them to realize their distinct and often bold visions. The Kylie Jenner cover by Steven Klein, which references the British artist Allen Jones, is a part of this tradition, placing Kylie in a variety of positions of power and control and exploring her image as an object of vast media scrutiny.”

The wheelchair was used as literal metaphor and a metaphor about limitation. If anything proves that as far as the media is concerned that disability is an imaginary construct to be used however they see fit it’s this.

The problem is that disability isn’t imaginary. This metaphor of limitation doesn’t work in the real world unless you’re talking about inaccessibility (at which point I promise you the chair isn’t the problem).

As people have been eloquently pointing out wheelchairs aren’t inherently limiting. As Ophelia Brown points out

My wheelchair is not a limitation — it is my wings. It lets me go to school, go out with friends and live life like a “normal person.”

She also addresses the problem that relying on and defending those media stereotypes causes

Do you know what that lack of representation means? It means that 9 year-old Ophelia is embarrassed about having to sit out from gym class. It means that 12 year-old Ophelia would rather die than go to school in a wheelchair. It means that 17 year-old Ophelia has been told too many damn times that her disability makes her ugly. I want you to know how much power that wheelchair gives you, and how, honestly, you don’t deserve that power.

An able-bodied media figure has more power to define the disabled experience than actual disabled people. It is a power they should absolutely not have because they are using it to harm (even if they can’t seem to understand that).

All aspects of the media need to realize that disability is real and that we deserve better than the lies they are telling. Lies they have told for so long and so often that they actually believe them.

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.