Tuesday, January 7, 2014

American Horror Story

Tall young woman with Down Syndrome, long brown hair and straight bangs, wearing a long dress with black and white horizontal stripes.
From the Disabled People Are Sexy Tumblr blog.

This is the actress Jamie Brewer, who is a semi-regular cast member of “American Horror Story”. In Season One, “Murder House”, she played Adelaide Langdon, and in the current Season Three, “Coven”, she plays Nan.

I’m only part way through the Season One, so I’ve only seen a little bit of Brewer’s performances. I still don’t know quite what to think. She plays the character well, but I’m having a hard time going with the flow of how her character is used in the story. It’s the usual dilemma of modern horror. If taken at face value, it’s often morally repugnant in the extreme. But, if what we are seeing is a commentary on the horrific behavior portrayed, can we feel okay about enjoying it? Sometimes, I think it really works that way. Other times, I think it’s a weak excuse for thrilling in a freak show.

My take at the moment is that we, the audience, are meant to be a bit creeped out by Adelaide herself, because of her appearance and voice as someone with Down Syndrome. The show also indulges in a hoary old cliche … the mentally impaired person who by virtue of their impairment is spiritually tuned in to an unseen world, or perceptive of some hidden truth. This would be empowering if it wasn’t such a well-worn trope.

At the same time, we are clearly also supposed to feel sorry for Addy, and be angry on her behalf, because of how her mother Constance, (Jessica Lange), treats her. In fact, Constance’s twisted way of loving / abusing Addy is our first hint at Constance’s own villainy. This is where we might feel that we’re seeing a commentary of some sort, and forgive ourselves from shuddering a bit from our first encounter with Addy.

Finally, I kept waiting for someone to ask why Addy, who is a grown woman, still lives like a child with her mother. The new next door neighbors, the show’s main characters and catalysts, would have been the perfect people to ask a challenging question like that, especially their teenaged daughter who is kind of a rebel anyway. But so far, Addy’s status is never questioned.

I wonder how Brewer feels about playing these characters, and I really wonder how Jessica Lange felt to be saying such vile things to her “daughter” in that first season. I’m especially anxious to see what kind of character Jamie Brewer played in AHS “Coven”. Please, don’t spoil me!

Incidentally, I was impressed to read in her IMDB biography that Jamie Brewer has served in the leadership of the ARC and other disability organizations, in her home state of Texas and nationally. It’s good to see organizations serving developmentally disabled people include leadership from people with developmental disabilities. It’s also good to see someone with disabilities embrace service to people like themselves, rather than shunning the connection.

What Should We Call Them?

I’m trying to come up with a short, witty term for those things that people say regarding disability that people with disabilities mostly roll their eyes about, but that non-disabled people say all the time and think are very insightful. For example:

"The only disability in life is a bad attitude."
“Everyone has some kind of disability.”
“Disabled people are just like everyone else.”

A the moment, I like to call these “Low-Calorie Ideas”. They aren’t exactly wrong. On some level they are even a little bit right. But, they are off-base, and more importantly they say less of substance than they seem. These aphorisms sound significant, and to some they kind of feel good, but if you think about them at all, you realize that they are pretty thin and empty. When you say them, you haven’t said much.

What other ways can we explain why we don’t like these kinds of clich├ęs?