Monthly Archives: May 2012

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.

Hokus Pokus: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

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The Stooges prepare Mary her breakfast and deliver it to her home.

All right, time to talk about those loveable wise guys: The Three Stooges. Due in a large part to my father’s influence on me as a child, I have a fondness for The Three Stooges that would likely rival any fan. I own every episode and have watched them countless times. I liken them to my television “soul food.” So, with the stress of my impending graduation mounting, I’ve turned to Moe, Larry, Curley (occasionally Shemp—Joe is avoided at all costs because I don’t consider him a “real stooge”) to calm my nerves. Enter “Hokus Pokus” a 1949 episode where “a neighbor’s plan to use the unwitting stooges to her scam to defraud an insurance company backfires” (taken from The Three Stooges Collection Volume 6: 1949-1951).

The short opens with The Three Stooges’ neighbor, Mary, inviting a caller to come in. After she sees that it’s her boyfriend, Cliff, she jumps up out of the chair, throws her arms around him and kisses him. After setting the scene by having Cliff ask Mary how long she’s going to “keep up this act with the wheelchair; when’s the insurance company going to pay ya off?” (if you listen to their dialogue, you’ll understand why I italicized wheelchair). Mary then obligingly explains to us that she’s going to get the money today, after she meets with the insurance adjuster one more time and her three neighbors vouch as witnesses of her condition. She describes them as “three saps who live downstairs and wait on me hand and foot and will swear that I’m a hopeless cripple.”

To make a short story shorter, Moe, Larry, and Shemp painstakingly/painfully make breakfast for Mary, bring it to her apartment, set her up, meet the insurance adjuster and go off to work to hang advertisements. While at work, they meet a hypnotist, Svengarlic, who hypnotizes them into walking out onto a flagpole of the building Mary is in. When Svengarlic is knocked unconscious, The Stooges awaken from the trance, hop into the nearest window and frighten Mary so badly that she jumps out of her wheelchair in shock, just before the insurance agent hands her the check for $25,000.

While this episode isn’t necessarily the “be all, end all” in representation of disability in pop culture (is it still pop culture if the “pop” in reference was 63 years ago?) it does highlight some very interesting cultural conceptions and anxieties regarding people with disabilities that were relevant at the time and certainly relevant contemporarily.

This short episode highlights a cultural anxiety of people with disabilities being a drain on societal resources ($25,000 was a good chunk of change back then). The fact that Mary is faking her disability also contributes to the notion that people with disabilities aren’t trying hard enough, are complainers, are only looking for a handout, and could be “productive” members of society if they just tried hard enough. Despite the fact that the episode is made with comedic intentions, it utilizes tired and true cultural scripts regarding the representation of people with disabilities nonetheless. One reason the audience could find the episode amusing is because of the way it encourages viewers not only to set themselves apart from those “cheaters/drains” on “the system” but also that the good guys win and the deceivers get what’s coming to them. In it’s most basic sense the brief storyline could be boiled down to “good trumps evil”—in this case the “good”=the (able-bodied) Three Stooges and the “evil”=the deceitful wheelchair user.

Food for thought? I think so.

The Strawberry Shortcake Murder: *Le Sigh*

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Ok, another audiobook-related post. I rather enjoy these relatively shallow murder mystery books called “The Hannah Swensen Mysteries” by Joanne Fluke. (In case you’re wondering, the books are centered around Hannah Swensen, who owns a cookie shop/bakery and somehow gets mixed up in murders that occur in her small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota.)  I’ve read a few of them (not in order) and have recently been listening to the audiobooks to fill in the gaps of the ones I’ve missed.

Just this morning I was listening to the second installment in the series, The Strawberry Shortcake Murder, while in the shower. In this particular scene of interest, Hannah and a friend of hers are developing some film (that is a crucial piece of evidence in a murder investigation!) in a darkroom. Her friend, Norman, needs to turn off the lights to submerge the film rolls and warns Hannah that it’ll be dark. The lights go off and the narrator reflects: “Sounds seemed to be magnified in the darkness… She felt a bit disoriented now that she could no longer judge the dimensions of the room by sight. She reminded herself that this must be how blind people felt and gave thanks that she wasn’t sightless” (112). Really Hannah? Or should I ask, “really Joanne?” It’s exhausting how disability (and sensory impairment in particular) are portrayed in such a one-dimensional manner. Obviously Hannah can’t comprehend the experiences of the blind/vision-impaired by just turning out the lights, but she thinks she can. What does this say about our social and political environment? It’s strange to think that blindness is thought of as the inability to see anything—like walking around in a darkroom. And it’s equally strange to think of someone using it in such a cursory manner. She mentions it, gives thanks she’s not “one of those people” and goes about living her able-bodied life. The ways that the complexities of human experience are simply glossed over in many books and films is disheartening. This one-liner left me feeling frustrated and let down. It’s such a small line but is symptomatic of such a larger issue.

Citation: Fluke, Joanne. The Strawberry Shortcake Murder. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp, 2002.

Feminist Disability Studies ♥

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I just wrote my M.A. exams this past weekend, so please excuse the recent wane in my blogging. I feel like I’ve dedicated nearly every moment of “free time” I’ve had in recent weeks preparing for them by reading new material, organizing notes, etc. Now that it’s over I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. I’m proud of the work I produced and my examination of feminist disability studies (my “specialty”).

So here’s what I wanted to say after going through this process and writing four essays in three days. I love feminist disability studies. I think if I can go through this process and emerge from it feeling not only “whole” as a scholar, but reinvigorated about the work that I’m doing is very telling. I loved braiding together not only the concepts offered by different contributors to the field, but also developing my arguments based upon their groundbreaking contributions.

I’m completely exhausted right now and am going to grab a quick coffee (which I never drink because caffeine makes me extremely jiggery, but I’m going to put up with the side effects to stay awake for a few more hours) because I have to teach a class in an hour and a half… but I wanted to quickly reassert my commitment to this fabulous burgeoning field. After teaching, I’m planning to sleep for the next 18 hours or so, but then it’s back to reading, writing, and doing what I can to contribute to academic, political, and social change.