Tag Archives: Tragedy

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.

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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?