Faulting the Hollywood-ization of FIOS: A Critical FemCrip Perspective

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Alright, here it is: The Fault in Our Stars is not only a very moving novel in which readers laugh, cry, and keep asking for more, but it’s also a narrative in which the characters actively confront and speak against traditional “disability tropes.” I’m completely aware that there has been (and still is) somewhat of a contentious relationship with the categories and experiences of “illness”/”disease” in relation to the category/identity of “disability.” Let’s just say that I know that… and I’m planning to leave that debate at the front door. While that discussion is hugely rich and can tease out a great number of nuanced experiences, I’m arguing for a *reading* of disability (i.e. reading through a disability “lens” or “framework”) of The Fault in Our Stars, both because I think such a reading will be hugely productive and because the characters themselves use words like “disability” to describe their experiences, so why not let them claim it?

Image reading: "We may not look like much (between the tree of us we have five legs, four eyes, and two and a half pairs of working lungs."

love this “claiming crip” graphic

Let me just say here that this book contains some great moments when the characters (particularly Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac) speak back to and/or are active agents in creating their own “disabled experience.” Here are a few of the (arguably) most poignant examples:

First, let’s start with Isaac, a faithful friend of both Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace. After the surgery that results in his blindness, he wryly tells Hazel, “people keep saying my other senses will improve to compensate, but CLEARLY NOT YET… Come over here so I can examine your face with my hands and see deeper into your soul than a sighted person ever could” (74). In not-so-many words, Isaac is critiquing the figure of the disabled “super-crip”—a person with a disability who has so far overcome their disability that they’ve surpassed both temporarily-able-bodied and disabled folks by developing something “extra special.” This is an unfortunate and problematic figure, because many people with disabilities do not, in fact, develop “extraordinary” abilities and are simply people.with.disabilities. full stop.

My second favorite comes from good ol’ Gus who is so moved by the injustice of the persecution of the innocent at the Anne Frank House that he tells Hazel they should “team up and be this disabled vigilante duo roaring through the world, righting wrongs, defending the weak, protecting the endangered” (202). She indulges his fantasy, quipping,” our fearlessness shall be our secret weapon” (202). Again, though Hazel and Augustus don’t articulate it as such, they’re calling upon time-honored tropes of “disability as super-power” (think, for example of Professor X, Batgirl, Daredevil, the Hulk, etc.) and turning it on its head by continuing, “ when the robots [of the future] recall the human absurdities of sacrifice and compassion, they will remember us” (202).

We’ve now gotten to my third, and final, critical disability example: The parallel between An Imperial Affliction and The Fault in Our Stars. Sidenote: what is with Hazel’s borderline-obsession with An Imperial Affliction (AIA) anyway? Is it a metaphor or parallel for all of the little obsessions of nondisabled American teenage girls? I don’t think so. Partly because Hazel does have a number of average-teenage-girl interests: she goes to the mall with her best gal friend, watches America’s Next Top Model religiously, fights with her parents, and enjoys sleeping in in the mornings. No, Hazel is infatuated with AIA for another reason altogether. Hazel explains that Peter Van Houten seems to “understand [her] in weird and impossible ways” (34), articulating the experience of a young person experiencing illness in a way completely antithetical to the traditional tropes of “disability as metaphor,” “disability as tragedy,” “disability as charity-case,” or “disability as overcoming/inspiring.” Indeed, Anna, the protagonist of AIA, is so hyper-aware of her of these tropes that she “decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera” (49). Brilliant. This girl sounds like a bad-ass and a smart-ass. It’s no wonder Hazel finds such affinity in with her. Let’s pause here and think about this for a minute: A “cancer book” where the main character doesn’t start a charity, “overcome” some insurmountable obstacle to be an “inspiration” to others, and who’s illness isn’t portrayed as a “tragic” event; instead, simply a part of one’s life experience and a variation of human existence? Sounds a lot like The Fault in Our Stars, am I right? Very meta, John Green, very meta indeed. Which brings me to the actual point of this blog post (sorry, I know, if you’re still reading this you’re probably thinking: it’s about damn time!), but seriously if all of these breadcrumbs are sprinkled throughout the text for readers to follow and eventually wind up thinking at the end: well that was a moving story in which people did interesting and meaningful things, then why did the Hollywood-ization of the story erase these moments of “talking back?”

I’m not a conspiracy theorist (I don’t think?) but I do think that Hollywood has a very specific idea about what sells, which in turn creates very specific ideas in the minds of the generally able-bodied public about “the real” experience of disability. Why might the lines about Hazel and Augustus being disabled vigilantes be left out? Yes, it cleans up the dialogue a bit, but it also makes their portrayal as star-crossed teenage lovers more direct. If they aren’t articulating agency in their roles as cancer patient/amputee, then their passive acceptance of the tragically fated love is all the more palatable to audiences. If Isaac doesn’t make a snarky comment about his other senses making up for his blindness, then his character is much more easily read as a sympathetic one that requires the sympathy and charity of Augustus and Hazel.

This isn’t the first time a Hollywood rendition of a novel has erased some of the most critical representation and articulation of disability (for another example, see Disability: Lost in the Translation of the Hunger Games), but it is a particularly unfortunate erasure because the very nature of the novel itself. Much like the nature of An Imperial Affliction that Hazel idolizes so much is wrapped up with the critical reflection of the main characters. By skipping these moments of critique and hyper-awareness of the ways in which disability is often represented in popular culture, Hollywood is not doing the general public (disabled and non-disabled alike) any favors.

Green, J. (2012). The Fault in Our Stars. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

RoboCop 2014 — A Life Not Worth Living?

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Transition of Alex Murphy to RoboCop

Transition of Alex Murphy to RoboCop

While I was personally a bit disappointed by the 2014 reboot of the 1987 “classic” RoboCop, I’m willing to hold my tongue on the laborious dialogue and frankly uninspired storyline. What simply must be mentioned, however, is the clear articulation of the kind of life worth living.

While I have to give the film its due and recognize that there was a gesture toward larger social and philosophical questions, such as what constitutes a human, where do the boundaries between human and machine lie, and to what lengths will society go to protect the “safety and security” of its people (albeit this gesture was not made very strongly), I can’t help but get hung up on this issue of ability.  While there were many forces at play, what it boils down to is that after a car bomb explosion, Alex Murphey’s wife is told that her husband sustained burns over 80% of his body and, if left in fully human form (as in, not transformed into “RoboCop”), will be blind in one eye, have an arm and a leg amputated, and “likely be deaf.” This grim prognosis is enough to convince her to acquiesce to the RoboCop transformation. Full stop.

Let’s back up a minute here. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I’m fairly certain that a large number of people sustain burns and have lifelong disabilities as a result of car explosions, house fires, grenade detonation, and the like… every single day in our modern world. Instead of restoring Murphey’s body as much as possible, providing him with rehab, and allowing him to adjust to his new life (as is usually done for survivors of the aforementioned incidents), the doctors in the film remove even the parts of his body that were undamaged to turn him into a robotic man. Yes, this is all precipitated as part of a capitalistic and extreme nationalist agenda, but the quick decision of his wife to approve such a procedure is clearly indicative of the types of lives society sanctions as “worth living.” Instead of living with skin burns (which I concede can certainly be a cause of extreme discomfort and pain), loss of eyesight in one eye, and potential deafness, the most morally righteous character of the film allows her husband to be mutilated by doctors (really people, a screen shot of his “after” effects is included in this post) and turned into a machine, rather than allow him to live with lifelong disabilities.

Is this a case of the “cure” or “remedy” being worse than the “affliction?” I think so. Obviously the film is an exploration of what can happen if we as a society (or even a rogue group of corporate CEOs) start making decisions about human life and surveillance without the proper checks in place, but at the same time, the film is also about what it means to be human and the various ways of maintaining and reclaiming our humanity. In that case, it seems important that we consider the implications of the types of human variety that are sanctioned and the potentially devastating results when assuming all that glitters is robot gold.

Musings: Miss America 2014

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Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 8.19.44 PMImagine my disappointment on Sunday night when, sitting on my couch eating Chipotle in front of the television, none of the Miss America hopefuls with disabilities made it into the coveted top 15.

This year we had a few contestants with disabilities including Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, who was born without a left forearm and Miss Arizona, Jennifer Smestad, who was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome at the age of ten. These contestants follow the likes of Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman, the first contestant diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, who appeared in last year’s competition. And, of course, the infamous Heather Whitestone, Miss Alabama (1994) and Miss America (1995), who was our first “Miss Deaf America.”

The rhetoric surrounding disability in beauty competitions has largely focused on the tragedy of the occurrence, the necessity of “overcoming” the disability, and the “inspiration” one can be for others (both people with disabilities and young girls). These constructions shouldn’t surprise us because these narratives are pervasive tropes in pop culture.

Even though our hopefuls didn’t articulate their experience with disability in a particularly “social model”/progressive manner, I was still pulling for them to place in the top 15 so their presence would be felt my mainstream American society. The closest we got was Miss Florida, Myrrhanda Jones, who was competing with a knee brace after tearing ligaments in her right knee during the preliminary talent competition. In an interview during the competition, Lance Bass assure the viewing audience that it “doesn’t effect the judging at all.” Thanks for that, Lance.

Miss Iowa and Miss Arizona both planned to speak about their experiences with their disability, but, alas, we did not have the opportunity to find out what that would entail. We did, however, get a consistent message from sponsors about “overcoming,” “inspiring,” and “being all that you can be.” Once contestant’s pre-taped interview mentioned how her brother was an inspiration to her (if anyone in cyberspace remembers who this contestant was, please let me know—I’ve been scouring the internet for the video clip/contestant’s name and can’t find it anywhere!).

Finally, Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, our newly crowned Miss America’s platform is “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”  She stated in a recent interview, “Miss America is evolving as the diversity in America evolves.”

This year’s trend of “overcoming,” “inspiring,” and “being all you can be” was supported by contestants, sponsors (ranging from cosmetics you buy over the internet, to hotels) and, in a slightly different way, by our new Miss America 2014. It’ll be interesting to see what next year’s theme is and if our theme of inclusion and diversity is supported by the presence of even more diverse bodies in Miss America 2015.

Hey, a girl can hope, right?

Reading “The Clocks” Possible Subtitle: “Those Blind Devils”?

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Spoiler Alert: Turns out, the clocks were just a red herring after all!

Let me preface this post by proclaiming my literary love of Agatha Christie. I’ve read nearly everything she’s written (yes, my devotion runs that deep) and am continually impressed by rich character development, complex plotlines, and remarkable ability to compete with the most prominent male mystery writers of her (or any) age.

Let me then introduce my beef with The Clocks. While arguably one of her most complexly layered novels (largely due to the fact that murders and spies abound in this tale), it’s received mixed reviews by critics (largely due to the slightly disappointing conclusion about the mysterious clock business).  My critique lies in the portrayal of the blind Miss Millicent Pebmarsh.

Here’s a quick and dirty summary of the story, just so we can situate her character within the larger narrative. Sheila Webb, a typist for-hire, arrives at the home of Miss Pebmarsh one afternoon to do some secretarial work. Instead, she discovers the corpse of a well-dressed man in the sitting room. Miss Pebmarsh arrives home and, because she is blind, almost steps on the man. Sheila screams at her not to tread on him, runs out of the house, and into the arms of Colin Lamb, a private investigator of sorts, who was in the neighborhood following the clues of an espionage case. (The intriguing business with the clocks is that four were added to the sitting room, all stopped at 4:13—coincidence? The investigators think not.)

The case unfolds interestingly enough, with more dead bodies piling up and romance developing between Sheila and Colin. After many twists and turns, the murder investigation is solved… but what of Colin’s case of espionage? Hercule Poirot (who has taken a very hands-off approach to the investigations) inspires Colin to think of his investigation in a different light, and he again arrives at the home of Miss Pebmarsh.

When we are first introduced to Miss Pebmarsh, she tells the investigators, “I am—was—a schoolmistress by profession. When I was told nothing could be done about my failing eyesight and that I should shortly go blind, I applied myself to become a specialist in Braille and various techniques for helping the blind. I have a job here at the Aaronberg Institute for Blind and Handicapped children” (14). While her postion could have been one of woe misery due to her disability, she instead decided to help others. She lives independently and constantly astonishes the investigative team with her self-sufficiency and ability to keep a cool head in the face of the disturbing murder at her residence.

But when Colin returns to the home of Miss Pebmarsh he realizes she is the traitor who is leaking intelligence to “other side” during the Cold War, who he was originally searching for. He gives her credit that her “cover is very good. You’re blind, you work at an institute for disabled children, you keep children’s books in Braille in your house as is only natural—you are a woman of unusual intelligence and personality” (293). In a bizarre turn of events, Colin realizes Miss Pebmarsh is also Sheila’s biological mother and, gentleman that he is, offers her a two head start to outrun the “special agents” who he has alerted to the situation. Instead, Miss Pebmarsh tries to stab him with a “small very deadly knife” (295). She refuses his head start saying, “there are always opportunities—even in prison” (295).

Wow. So what’s the message here? That people with disabilities are somehow “not what they seem,” are “faking it,” or are “benefitting” from their disability in some way that most able-bodied citizens have yet to realize? That people with disabilities will take advantage of you in every conceivable way (down to the point of stabbing the man who came to warn you)? That we, the able-bodied public, need to be very, very wary of differences and the seemingly benign motivations of the disabled?

Some may say that the book’s publication date of 1963 excuses it for the stereotypical portrayals of disability… I would disagree.  I think Christie fell subject to the prevailing opinions and anxieties of the day. I was shocked by the conclusion, especially after the fairly progressive initial portrayal of Miss Pebmarsh. But again, this conclusion upholds the notion that women with disabilities who are “too masculine,” in their independence and education are a threat, and that the cultural anxieties surrounding them are valid.

Overall, a disappointing end to a novel that I had much higher hopes for.

Citation: Christie, Agatha. The Clocks. New York: Harper Collins, 1963.

Hello Again!

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Hello_My_Name_Is_Sticker_by_trexwebHello Disability blogging community, it’s been a while!

It’s been about year since my last post, which is just too long! I wanted to take a moment to update everyone before I get back on that blogging horse.

As many of you know, I started this blog last year, during my final year of course work for my M.A. After graduation I didn’t continue with it because I didn’t think it was something that many other people, aside from myself, were interested in—how wrong I was! I’ve recently gotten quite a few followers, some extremely stimulating comments, and more views that I could have imagined… so here I am again.

After working outside the academy for the past year, I’m heading back to what I know and love…Feminist Disability Studies…and back to the land of the bloggers. I’m looking forward to commenting on popular culture from a Feminist Disability Studies lens with you, the reader in mind. With that being said, talk to me! Let’s start a conversation and keep that conversation going. I’ll let you know what I’m thinking… and please know that I want to know what you’re thinking too.

Much love, fellow enthusiasts—I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

 

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Or “The Big Bang Theory” Does Deafness

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For those of you unfamiliar with the show The Big Bang Theory, here’s the skinny: the show revolves around Sheldon and Lenard who are roommates, their across-the-hall neighbor Penny, and their two close friends Howard and Raj. Basically, everyone’s trying to find someone else to be with and have their quirks that prevent them from succeeding at this endeavor. Season 5, episode 4, “The Wiggly Finger Catalyst” focuses on Raj’s inability to speak to women unless he’s drunk, by introducing a woman to whom he can speak to. The catch? She’s deaf. When Raj first meets Emily he stays mute, but once he knows that she can’t hear him speak and their friend Howard mediates their conversations by interpreting spoken English to American Sign Language (ASL) and vice versa, all seems to be working out well… except for a few little things.

The way that Emily is portrayed and discussed by the other characters on the show is woefully trite. To start with, her hearing loss is apparently total; as in, she can’t hear any frequencies on the show at all, which is incredibly rare in American society, but is a common misconception of deaf/hard of hearing individuals. Raj clearly emphasizes her deafness (and acts like a complete idiot on their date) by trying to make jokes about her deafness—“did you hear that joke about___? Oh no, I bet you didn’t…” Eek.—which Howard decides to interpret as something completely different such as “it’s so good to see you again.” Also, after Raj and Emily’s first date (during which Raj acts like a complete skeez) Emily kisses Raj before departing, despite the fact that Raj has done absolutely nothing to warrant such a behavior… further contributing to the hypersexual portrayal of deaf/hard of hearing individuals in pop culture. (It may also be worth noting that it is Emily who gives Raj her phone number and tells him to text her for a date after a very awkward introduction from Penny and Howard.) A number of inaccurate stereotypes are also employed, such as Emily not being able to engage with music (everyone can at least feel the vibrations that a good speaker can provide and many people can hear specific frequencies).

But here’s where I really have an issue with Emily’s character and subsequent storyline development: she’s portrayed as a gold-digging whore. After dating each other for a month Raj has given her a pair of diamond earrings and leased her a car. When the gang asks Penny if Emily could be taking advantage of Raj, she innocently responds, “of course not, she’s deaf.” When Lenard asks, “Deaf people can’t be gold-diggers?” Penny responds, “handicapped people are nice, Lenard, everyone knows that.” Sigh. But as a gold-digger is exactly how Emily’s character continues to develop. Raj’s parents threaten to cut him off if he doesn’t start dating an Indian girl, he tells Emily he has to return the car and the jewelry, but that they’ll still be able to have a great life together. She dumps him. Ouch. So deaf people are super sexual, only look out for themselves, are selfish, and can develop no forms of human intimacy beyond what the other person can materially provide for them? Seems so in this episode.

Big Bang Theory, you might be a comedy, but you also help to shape peoples’ understandings of those whom the average viewer may not be familiar with. Take Sheldon for example. His character is oftentimes described as having many Asperger’s-like traits. If someone didn’t know anyone in real life who was labeled somewhere on the autistic/Asperger’s spectrum, they might come to form certain opinions about that group of individuals based on the singular representation that they receive from television. So too with Emily. Someone would have to have a background in disability studies or a close deaf friend or family member in order to really pick out all of the stereotypes presented (which I have truncated in this blog post… there are actually more present) and identify the flaws in Emily’s character as personal character flaws and not Deaf character flaws. Again, many people will likely be unmotivated to engage in such an endeavor because it is not the way we are encouraged to engage with pop culture. It’s also frustrating that the one character who has an apparent disability (Sheldon’s is contested) also has to be one of the only seriously morally flawed characters introduced.

Perhaps it’s redundant to say, but I was certainly disappointed by the construction and portrayal of Emily’s character and sincerely encourage the writers of all shows to consult with some type of diversity specialist who can talk with them about their portrayals of certain types of people in order to ensure comedic integrity—equitable representations of all types of people, while still enjoying a good laugh.

A Shorter Stooge Post

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Jimmy and his sister search for their hidden savings.

After my last post, I decided to read the synopses of the other Stooges episodes to see if I could find any other with representations of people with disabilities… and indeed, I did. The 1937 short, “Cash and Carry” is summarized by “Larry, Moe, and Curly blat into the U.S. Treasury in order to help a poor girl’s disabled brother” (taken from The Three Stooges Collection Volume 2: 1937-1939). When the Stooges return to their home in the junkyard, they find a little boy doing homework at their kitchen table. After telling him to get out of their apartment, he apologizes for him and his sister (they didn’t know the home belonged to anyone) and gets up to walk away. The shot then cuts to the other side of the kitchen table where we see the boy stand up and begin to limp out the door with the aide of a crutch. Moe takes over the situation by stopping the boy and telling him that they made a mistake calling this place their house because “they didn’t have any curtains,” so they couldn’t lay any claim to it. After he sits back down to do his homework, Larry, Moe, and Curly go outside to look for a new tire in the garbage heap outside their door.

Instead of finding a tire for their jalopy, they find a can filled with bills and coins totaling $62. This find sets them off searching the junkyard for other cans with money thrown away in it. Meanwhile, the little boy and his gorgeous older sister go outside to add some more money to their secret coin can, only to find it missing. After a short debacle, The Stooges return the money to the sister who explains that they’re “saving up $500 so we can get Jimmy’s leg fixed up so that he can walk like the other boys.” The Stooges decide to lend a helping hand by “investing” the money in a fallen down property, tunnel through the basement wall and find themselves accidentally in the U.S. Treasury (though they think they’ve stumbled upon buried treasure).

“Mr. President” personally sees to Jimmy’s procedure.

While the initial portrayal of Jimmy is certainly an interesting one, he’s young, innocent, and just wants to fit in with his peers, the last thirty seconds of the episode seem to be the most prescriptive in terms of disability rights and models. Because those “knuckleheads” broke into The Treasury, the President of the United States hears about it and lets them tell their story. At the end of this tale the President tells Jimmy that he “shall arrange personally for you to have your operation” and lets Moe, Larry, and Curly off scot-free. Such an ending encourages the view that personal charity is the solution for disability (as opposed to the social model that stresses equal access and rights), encourages individuals to find a medical “cure” for whatever sets them apart from the masses, and allows the expensive procedure to remain unquestioned because Jimmy now has a wealthy donor to sponsor him.

Like I acknowledged in my previous post… this short is obviously made for its comedic insights, but there is still much to be said about the type of message it propagates to viewers and the type of socio/political climate it is reflective of.