by Stephen Kuusisto
I teach English at The University of Iowa and some of my classes are
focused on disability in the literary arts. One book that I like to
give my students is the groundbreaking history of disability in the
movies The Cinema of Isolation
by Martin Norden. This book shocks students when they first encounter
it, for few realize that movies have featured disabled characters from
the very beginning of the film industry. What’s even more eye opening
is how poorly Hollywood has treated people with disabilities from day
one. The old footage rolls again and students see malevolent and
monstrous "cripples" for disability functioned in these old films as a
metaphor rather than just being a part of daily life.
When those early movies weren’t using people with disabilities as
figures of moral judgment they eagerly used them as low comic
characters whose afflictions were funny because the lame tried to walk
or the blind tried to do the work of the sighted. "Low comedy" means
humor that relies on slapstick or vulgarity. "The Three Stooges" are a
good example of low comedy. In turn, of course, "High comedy" uses
verbal sophistication and artful disguises to achieve its effects.
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or All’s Well That Ends Well are good examples of the genre.
What the students find out all too quickly is that first in movies,
and then in television, people with disabilities have been almost
uniformly presented as "figures" who represent immorality or
ineptitude. Between these two poles one also finds Victorian
representations of absolute purity like Charles Dickens’ "Tiny Tim" who
stands for the angelic compensations of suffering and whose presence in
the story is necessary if Scrooge is to be redeemed. Alas, Tiny Tim is
as unreal as all the other stock disabled characters in TV and film
When my students look for contemporary depictions of real people
with disabilities in the media they discover that the field is still
quite narrow. Some of them point to the current "reality TV" series "Little People, Big World"
on the Learning Channel. Others point to "Monk", a detective show that
features a leading man who solves crimes because he has an
obsessive-compulsive disorder. In the movies there have been some
notable triumphs over the past thirty years like "My Left Foot" and
"Children of a Lesser God" and students eagerly mention Marlee
Maitlin’s character on the hit TV show "The West Wing".
There have been some undeniable advancements in the representations
of people with disabilities in Hollywood and the TV industry.
Nevertheless it remains hard to find substantive mainstream reporting
about disability on network or cable TV. When disability does appear on
the nightly news or as part of a daytime interview program like "The
Oprah Winfrey Show" often presented as an "overcoming story"- a
narrative in which a person with a disability is either cured by means
of medicine or spiritual belief, or in turn they are distinguished by
their ability to inspire others by successfully denying that they have
any kind of limitation. As any person with a disability can tell you,
we need better reporting.
Real people with disabilities are impatient for change and ready to
take their places in the media arts. I believe that our time is coming
– perhaps slowly, but surely.
Disability in the media is the topic of the next Disability Blog Carnival, to be hosted on Blog [with]tv Thursday, January 10. JOIN US!
Cross-posted on Blog [with]tv