Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Discussing TV's Disability Problems

Picture of an old-style TV with the wheelchair symbol on the screen
I was listening yesterday to this week’s episode of the Firewall & Iceberg Podcast, a TV review podcast by Alan Sepinwall and Dan Feinberg. One of the shows they discussed was the upcoming NBC sitcom, “Growing Up Fisher”. The show is about a father who is blind, as told by his son. It borrows a bit from “The Wonder Years”, as the son narrates a lot in voiceover as an grown adult remembering his childhood. The father is played by J. K. Simmons, not a blind person himself (yet again), but a pretty excellent comic actor. Jenna Elfman plays his wife.

One tidbit I picked up that I hadn’t heard before is that on the show, the father is said to have spent a good portion of his professional life hiding his blindness, and is now, for a variety of reasons I guess, starting to be more open about his blindness. I don’t know if this is a good idea or a terrible one.

What really interested me though was that both Sepinwall and Feinberg don’t like the show. They don’t hate it, but they are unimpressed. Mostly it’s because like a lot of recently failed network sitcoms, it’s bland and generic. But then one of them (I’m not sure which) said something telling. To paraphrase … The comedy might have been funnier and more notable if they’d done more jokes about the father’s blindness, but that would have run the risk of justifiably offending people. So, the writers soft-pedal the “blind jokes”, thereby avoiding offending people, but also leaving a possible source of stronger humor untapped.

To me, this suggests three things about disability on TV:

1. TV writers have a hard time making disability depictions distinctive and interesting, while avoiding offense. This may be because they don’t have enough direct disability experience, so they don’t really understand what’s interesting what’s offensive to actual people with disabilities.

2. Not casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters isn’t just a problem of “representation” or “equal opportunity”, it may actually produce inferior TV shows.

3. We may not see a really great disability depiction on TV until one of the great TV auteurs pitches a show with disabled main characters to one of the cable channels like HBO, AMC, or FX.

Then again, maybe the problem is that TV reviewers don't understand disability depictions.

Video Of The Day

My Gimpy Life
Episode 6 - Day Jobs

The Difference Between "Awww" and "Awesome!"

Maggie Freleng, Huffington Post - February 12, 2014

Brittany Talarico, People Magazine - January 28, 2014

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Disability And Representation - February 6, 2014

Both the concept of “Inspiration Porn”, and a parallel interest in rethinking standards of beauty and sexuality are lively topics in the disability community, and starting to gain some attention in the culture at large. So, an apparent contradiction is becoming impossible to ignore. Why do some photos of disabled people make us roll our eyes and gag, while others we blog and reblog because they’re “awesome”?

I have explored this before. For one thing, I still think that captions and slogans make a big difference. A picture without comment allows us to decide for ourselves what it “means”. Captions instruct us to feel a certain way about what’s in the photo, and usually, the caption is sentimental, shallow, or both. Occasionally, a caption will hit that sweet spot where well-meaning and offensive overlap perfectly. As hard as it is for someone to resist sharing their brilliant insights (believe me, I know), captions almost always turn otherwise cool or interesting photos into “Inspiration Porn".

The source of disability photos, and their intended audience matters, too. When a disability photo comes from a non-disabled person, and is aimed mainly at non-disabled viewers, it tends to look like “Inspiration Porn”. When a disability photo is posted by a disabled person, and / or is aimed mainly at other disabled people, it tends to feel different … more “empowering” than “inspiring”.

The exact intended message, (or apparent message) also counts. In “Inspiration Porn”, the message is often something like, “You think your life is hard, look at this person. He has these horrible disabilities yet he’s happy and successful!” This is based on the assumption that disability is always awful, so a person “suffering” from it who looks capable, attractive, and happy must be a remarkable person … someone to emulate. A related theme is that disabled people are assumed to be depressed and depressing, so seeing a happy, attractive disabled person is meant to be a surprise.

Fashion photos with disabled models and photo essays exploring the beauty and sexuality of disabled people also depend on confounding stereotypical expectations. “Awesome” and “empowering” photos are probably, if we are honest, distant cousins to “Inspiration Porn.” Yet, that’s not the effect they have on us, especially those of us with disabilities.

Danielle Sheypuk, the first model in a wheelchair to take part in New York Fashion Week a few weeks ago, (article linked above), says of disabled people being models in the fashion industry, "People with disabilities need to see it. It's a confidence booster.” I don’t know what effect these photos have on non-disabled people. I don’t even care, because I’m too engaged, too proud and moved, too busy rethinking my own body image and standards of what I have always considered attractive. Meanwhile, the Diesel ad featuring Jillian Mercado has been reblogged pretty constantly on my Tumblr Dashboard since the campaign came out. At least some of these same rebloggers have shown in other posts that they hate "Inspiration Porn", so the Mercado pictures obviously don't strike them that way.

One thing that Sheypuk and Mercado's projects have in common is that neither woman is "playing at" being models and looking fierce and gorgeous. They look totally natural in their clothes, makeup, and hairdos ... not made up like a Halloween costume or worse, someone who's been given some kind of "Make A Wish" experience. And the same is true of the men and women I've seen photos of in other body image photo projects, including people who's photos confront and directly challenge mainstream standards of beauty. These people aren't fooling, pretending, or being manipulated.

These are subtle differences, but important ones. Maybe they're as simple as the difference between "Awww!" and "Awesome!"  I’m sure sure we haven’t gotten close to figuring it all out yet.

Meanwhile, back to “Inspiration Porn” …

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg of the Disability And Representation blog recently posted an hilarious series of reverse-inspiration porn photos, arranged to look exactly like the worst (and most common) Internet-shared disability pictures with “inspirational” captions … except that instead of disabled people, they show “normal” people, and the captions describe “normalcy” exactly the way disability is usually described. Even people who generally fall for “Inspiration Porn” without question will likely see the opposite point if they look at these tongue-in-cheek but very serious posters.

Finally, if anyone out there still questions whether we disabled people are being hypocritical about this … condemning “Inspiration Porn” one minute, posting “awesome” photos of sexy wheelchair users or amputee mountain climbers the next … I fall back on Walt Whitman to explain:
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
— Walt Whitman, “Song Of Myself"