Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Media images of disability: Reflecting negative social attitudes

Even severe arthritis couldn’t keep Lionel Barrymore from working
as a prolific actor, director, artist, and composer. Yet onscreen,
he was forced to portray the stereotypical gruff and “bitter” cripple.
(Picture in the Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons:
Lionel Barrymore in the movie “Camille,” 1936)

When “ER” debuted in 1994, I enjoyed watching the show, not every week but often. Shortly after the appearance of Dr. Kerry Weaver, I stopped watching, and I haven’t seen a single episode since. The fact that Laura Innes is not disabled was one factor in my decision. More importantly, by that time I’d begun to tire of the media image of the embittered cripple.

For decades, I’d watched disabled characters in the media who fell into one of the following extremes:

  • the angry invalid who blamed everyone, especially God, for being cursed by their condition;
  • the fighter who must overcome a disability to become “normal” again; and
  • the hero who performed amazing feats, despite severe physical limitations.

Along the way, any negative expression from a disabled character was considered a sign of bitterness. As a result, certain rules of behavior were imposed on the disabled character. Thus, most plots were about bringing the disabled character to the point of mirroring the following acceptable personality traits:

  • They must not complain about anything.
  • They must be express happiness, no matter what.
  • They must strive for a cure from their terrible condition.
  • If they cannot be cured, they are often expected to die.

These policies meant that just about every story featuring a disabled person was about their having to learn the lesson not to be bitter but to accept their lot in life with “grace.” And it took the patience of Job on the part of those able-bodied characters around them to teach them that lesson.

What I rarely saw personified in the media was a well-adjusted disabled person who took their condition in stride, did what they could to be as fit as possible, and used their abilities to be contributing and productive members of society. Another reality I rarely saw portrayed in the media was the able-bodied person who abused someone because of their disability. You’d think the world was just chock full of nothing but Florence Nightingale clones ready to sacrifice everything to come to the aid of some grumpy sick person.

And of course, there was that cardinal rule that no starring role would be filled by a performer who was actually disabled. The single exception I recall is Lionel Barrymore. In spite of spending most of the last two decades of his life in a wheelchair, he remained a prolific actor. Still, too often his characters were gruff and sour. By the end of the movie, Barrymore’s character would often learn a lesson in niceness, thanks to some infinitely patient able-bodied character.

On the other hand, Barrymore’s extracurricular activities during this time defined the ideal of a well-adjusted and active disabled citizen. As the director of the 1929 movie, “Madame X,” he developed the concept of the boom microphone, giving actors freedom to move about the set without compromising the quality of the sound of their voices. In 1944, he joined ASCAP and composed numerous musical works in the classical tradition, and he was a talented artist, despite the fact that his hands were badly deformed by severe arthritis.

So much for the stereotype of the bitter cripple in the face of what must have been an extremely painful disability. Sadly, that optimistic spirit was rarely reflected in movies featuring disabled characters.

These experiences are an important part of the reason I now avoid watching portrayals of negative or stereotypical disabled characters. I also try to avoid those stories in which able-bodied actors are cast in the roles of disabled characters, except where a performer with that type of disability couldn’t handle the full range of the role’s demands.

Despite such growing enlightenment and the activism of people like Robert David Hall, Chair of Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities (I AM PWD), the able-bodied star of one of the most popular TV shows today assumed a disability in order to explain his character’s bad temper. When Hugh Laurie began playing Gregory House, I read an article stating that he developed the back story of a severe leg injury in order to “explain” his character’s grumpy nature.

Even if that decision was made by someone else on the production staff, there’s no excuse for it in this day and age. Everything about the role of Gregory House is a slap in the face of disabled actors and citizens everywhere. That’s why I do not watch “House M.D.” And given what I’ve seen of trailers advertising the show, I know I’m not missing a thing.

Moreover, I've recently read that the physical demands of walking with a phony limp have caused Laurie to develop serious hip problems. Hmm. Could this be some sort of "cosmic justice"? The better side of my nature hopes not, but I find it awfully difficult to feel too sorry for the man. All it would have taken to avoid that problem would have been a bit of research into the problems people with certain disabilities have walking with deformed legs, hips and backs. If he'd been smart, he'd have turned down that role.

In my next article in this series, I’ll share a slice of reality, what life is really like for some real-life disabled citizens whom I know intimately. Stay tuned.

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