Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Disabled characters in fiction follow well-worn formula

From Susan Nussbaum, at The Huffington Post Chicago, who was awarded the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her novel Good Kings, Bad Kings became available in paperback November 12, 2013.

On the whole, I do my best to avoid books and movies with disabled characters in them. Of Mice and Men, Forrest Gump, and A Christmas Carol all make me cringe. Heretic? Hater of the disabled? The nerve. But I've thought about this a lot, because I love plays, books, and movies, and also because I'm disabled.

Disabled characters are written into stories for one reason: the disability. Do most people actually believe real disabled people spend our days obsessing about being cured? Or rhapsodizing about killing ourselves? Here is the truth: Disabled people barely ever even think about our disabilities. When we do think about them, it's usually because we are dealing with an oppressive, systemic problem, such as employment discrimination. Can't there ever be a disabled character in a book or film just because? Where the topic doesn't ever come up? All sorts of interesting stories can be written about a disabled character, without the disability ever being mentioned. You know, just like real people.

The vast majority of writers who have used disabled characters in their work are not people with disabilities themselves. Because disabled people have been peripheral for centuries, we've been shut out of the artistic process since the beginning. As a result, the disabled characters we're presented with usually fit one or more of the following stereotypes: Victim, Villain, Inspiration, Monster. And the disabled character's storyline is generally resolved in one of a few ways: Cure, Death, Institutionalization. It's a well-worn formula that can be changed up in a number of ways, but it usually looks something like this:

Disabled Victim + Self-involved non-disabled Protagonist = Cured Victim + Redeemed non-disabled Protagonist
So in A Christmas Carol:
Tiny Tim (victim) + Miser Scrooge (non- disabled protagonist) = Cured Tiny Tim + Redeemed Scrooge
Or in Rain Man:
Raymond (victim) + Charlie (self-involved, non-disabled protagonist) = Institutionalized Raymond + Enlightened, Evolved Charlie

Sometimes, of course, the formula is more complex. For example, in Avatar, the disabled (paraplegic) character becomes "cured" only when he is in his alien avatar body, so the story is resolved when he's permanently merged with his avatar. Avatar also presses home the myth that disabled = non-sexual, by the implication that only in the disabled hero's avatar body can he become fully sexual. The myth of the non-sexuality of disabled people is standard in disability imagery. (Not counting blind characters. Blind characters in films, for example, are generally portrayed by attractive female actors who are victimized by predatory men, or attractive male actors who are often featured in at least one scene where they drive a car.)

Here are a few more examples of the way the disabled character is deployed by novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. This list represents the tip of a very large iceberg. Next to each title, I've listed the stereotype that fits the character, and the eventual fate of the character. I know many of the examples below are considered masterpieces, and surely some of them are, but when it comes to disability, even the best writers don't always know what they're talking about.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame - victim/(but also) monster, suicide (or killed, depending on if you read the book or see the movie)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - intellectually disabled victim, dies from institutional neglect, deaf victim, suicide
Moby Dick - (Ahab) villain, killed
Flowers for Algernon - victim, miraculously cured, but then the cure is reversed and the character institutionalized
Peter Pan - (Capt. Hook) villain, swallowed by crocodile
To Kill a Mockingbird - (Tom Robinson) -- victim, killed; (Boo Radley) - victim, allowed to live
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - victim/martyr, killed
Forrest Gump - inspiration, cured (he miraculously sheds his leg braces in one scene, among other things)

Wait Until Dark - victim (inspiring a rash of films featuring naked, blind, gorgeous actresses being watched in bathtubs)
Scent of a Woman - victim/inspiration, attempted suicide, given will to live by young assistant
Whose Life Is It Anyway - victim, suicide
Million Dollar Baby - victim, suicide (begs to be euthanized)
Frances - victim, institutionalization
Dr. No - villain, killed (drowned in an avalanche of bat shit)
It's a Wonderful Life (Mr. Potter) - villain, foiled by good guys (pictured)
Sling Blade - victim/but also villain, institutionalization
The Green Mile - victim, killed (character also endowed with magical healing powers)
Gattaca - victim, suicide (self-immolation)
I Am Sam - inspiration
Midnight Cowboy - victim, dies

When African American characters were written only by white writers, or LGBT characters were written mostly by heteros, and women were written largely by men, culture in America was, in a way, simply a reflection of the imaginings of a privileged segment of the population. I'm not saying writers should only write about people from their own racial or gender backgrounds. I have often written characters who are outside of my personal experience. But there's an authenticity to characters that are written by someone who embodies the experience of oppression that can help break through old myths. Disabled people have only begun to emerge from the shadows in the past 60 years, but they've already started producing art of all kinds that reflects their lived experience. Maybe it's time for some new stories.