NBC Olympics - February 11, 2014
Aw, crap. Here we go again. Trying to figure out what I feel about Canadian Olympic Freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau and the way he “credits” his brother Frederic, who has Cerebral Palsy, as being his “inspiration” to achieve … as of Monday … two Gold Medals?
I was excited in 2010 to hear about the Bilodeau brothers for the first time, but even then there was a “disturbance in The Force” … an unsettling feeling that there was something just a bit wrong about this. Maybe not about the men themselves or Alex’s achievement, but about the story Alex and his family were telling, and how the schmalz masters at NBC Sports were distilling it even further to a more syrupy brew.
If you are not a Winter Olympics watcher, here’s the gist of the story:
Alex’s older brother Frederic has Cerebral Palsy. When Alex first rose to prominence at the 2010 games in Vancouver, he went out of his way in every interview and profile segment to say that his brother was his main inspiration to persist in his commitment to his sport. In turn, Frederic was portrayed as being Alex’s #1 fan, cheering him on at every event. We saw Frederic a lot in Vancouver, because Frederic’s enthusiasm and love for Alex … and Alex’s obvious love for his brother Frederic … became the animating theme of Alex’s story.
I can’t remember exactly how I felt about this in 2010. I know I wrote something about it, but that was on my old blog which is now gone. I think that I admired what I saw then as a loving relationship of equals between Alex and Frederic, while I cringed a bit at some of the sappy language used by the NBC narrators, and by Alex himself … though I might have cut Alex some slack since he was speaking English as a Francophone Canadian. It was a feel-good story to me, with reservations.
Then Monday night, there they were again, with what might have been archival footage from 2010 mixed in with new interviews and shots of Frederic cheering as Alex won another Gold. The same themes were there in full force:
• Whenever Alex feels tired or complains about having to train another day, he thinks of how hard “every single thing” is for Frederic, and that rekindles Alex's determination.
• Alex does what he does in part because of all the things Frederic can’t do. Frederic can't be an athlete, so in a way, Alex is doing it for him. Frederic’s joys come through Alex’s achievements.
• Alex sees how difficult and even painful everyday tasks are for Frederic, and he ties that in with the hardships of training for the Olympics. If Frederic can do what he does and still be cheerful, Alex can certainly stick to his plan.
• Frederic is always happy, always cheerful, and never complains.
Four years later, nothing seems to have changed for Alex and Frederic. I think I’m the one who has changed. For better or worse, I am much more attuned to “Inspiration Porn”. I really kind of wish I wasn’t, because then I could just enjoy this without feeling queasy. I found myself questioning pretty much everything Alex and the narrators said.
• Frederic is disabled, sure, but I’ve seen far more profoundly impaired people than he seems to be. Can he really not achieve any of his dreams? Are all of his goals "not realistic?"
• Is it really such a great thing if Frederic has to live vicariously through Alex?
• Surely, Frederic must have bad days, when he's not cheerful. And if he doesn't, that's even more disturbing. Does he think that his family's devotion depends on him never complaining? If he had a meaningful complaint, would he even think of communicating it?
• Again, I want to let Alex off the hook for his choice of words in English, but I won’t let NBC off the hook for constantly saying that Frederic “suffers from” Cerebral Palsy. It may not be that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s so easy to fix. Just say he “has” Cerebral Palsy.
But the biggest question I had after Monday’s reintroduction of Alex and Frederic Bilodeau … the question I can’t stop thinking about … is whether anyone over the last four or more years has ever interviewed Frederic, or just asked him briefly for his actual feelings and thoughts, in his own words? None of the articles or TV segments I’ve seen have included any statements by Frederic himself. Everyone attributes motives and thoughts to him, but they don’t even claim to quote him.
Is that because Frederic can’t communicate at all? The subject doesn’t even come up, so we are left to wonder why we don’t get Frederic’s thoughts first-hand. Or worse, maybe we’re supposed to not even notice, because all the visual evidence we have is of the kind of person who most people don’t expect to have a voice. Four years ago, I don't remember wondering about this. He is literally made an object on TV … a symbol of ideas and values, not a real person. Icon might be a better term, since he almost appears to be a quasi-spiritual talisman for Alex and his family.
Here are some things that could be added to this story that would resolve a lot of these conflicting feelings, I think. If anything, they would add emotional weight to the story, even for people who already think it’s awesome:
• Do a direct on-camera interview with Frederic. It would be edited of course … like all of these Olympics segments are ... but it should be filmed if at all possible. If his speech is hard to understand, include the people who are good at understanding it … maybe his family? … and use their help to add subtitles. If he speaks only French, they’d have to do this anyway.
• If Frederic doesn’t speak at all, explain that to the audience, then convey the thoughts he does have some other way … such as the voiceover person reading his quoted words, however he communicates them.
• If Frederic is so cognitively impaired that he doesn’t even communicate complex thoughts … which I really doubt based on what we’ve seen of him … then explain that in a simple way. If that sounds like too much of a downer, then go ahead and point out that his body language speaks volumes.
• It is possible, I suppose, that the Bilodeau family thinks that being interviewed would be too scary or humiliating for Frederic. I hate to think of how some slick producer would try to persuade them otherwise, but really, Frederic has been used so much already to promote Alex’s exploits that giving him an actual voice can only be empowering.
• It is also possible that Frederic, himself, doesn’t want to be interviewed, for any number of personal reasons. That’s easy then … just say that NBC wanted very much to hear from Frederic himself, but that he’s too shy … or he didn’t want to take anymore spotlight away from Alex … or whatever.
It’s not that I think Frederic has some huge secret that people don’t want him to reveal. I don't think this is a deliberate conspiracy to silence him. I do admire what seems to be the genuinely sincere and devoted relationship the brothers have. There are plenty of similar families where the disabled brother would really be an afterthought or even an annoyance to a sibling. I don't think anything like that is going on here.
I just don’t like how Frederic has been passively bypassed. Intentionally or not, it makes him appear less than a full person. I’d like to hear from Frederic, or know the reason why not.