Film and lit crit about disability

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Good Women
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elettaria wrote in crip_crit
There seems to be a strong trend, particularly in 19th century literature, of portraying disabled women as so saintly that few readers can actually stand them. Sometimes the author seems to be despising the character too, sometimes they seem to be terribly fond of them and not have realised that no one else is. A lot of these characters die. Here are a few, with basic descriptions so this is vaguely spoilerish. And also rather vague in cases where I've not read the book in years.

Aldcott, Little Women - Beth, who is shy and sweet and gets, erm, scarlet fever or something, contracted after the family nobly visited a poor family who was ill. Though she pills through and then dies a few years later, having become an invalid in the meantime, and wasted away quietly and piously. Never gets a love life or shows the slightest interest in boys. I think she tends to be the one who plays the piano for the family on social occasions - there's a definite "serving others" motif here. Overtly religious.

Richardson, Clarissa - Clarissa, who undergoes a variety of really horrible things, including imprisonment and drug-rape. She is also beautiful, generous, kind to the poor, self-sacrificing, obsessed with being a virtuous woman, and apparently rises at 6 for a punishing schedule of embroidery, theological reflection and so forth. The 18th century didn't describe illnesses the way we do, but she's clearly meant to undergo some kind of temporary breakdown after the rape, and shows classic signs of Stockholm Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, before dying of anorexia. So this one's a study in mental illness, which tends to be harder to do alongside the whole saintly thing. Apparently he felt that he couldn't show her as committing suicide, that wasn't suitably Christian. You can read Clarissa as becoming closer and closer to God, with Christ-like whatsits, and many have, though I consider it rather a surface reading. Or you can read her as going "batshit crazy", to quote poisoninjest, and realise that stopping eating, not changing your clothes for months on end, and pre-ordering your coffin, covered with elaborate motifs (she says something like, "Well, I'm used to designing embroidery, I suppose I got a bit carried away"), and using it as a desk are signs not of holiness but of a distressing level of mental illness. Definitely overtly religious.

Coolidge, What Katy Did - Not the main disabled character, but Cousin Helen, who is long-term disabled and is held up as a paragon of virtue for Katy to emulate. She can't walk, as I recall, and is carried about by male family members as necessary when brought on a visit. Apparently she nobly gave up the man she loved so that he could marry someone else (going from someone else's description here, it's been a while). I can't remember this one too well - something about the importance of being sweet-tempered, shutting up when dealing with pain, and looking dainty for the benefit of all those around you. (OK, and for yourself, but an awful lot of this seems to be about fading politely into the background and not being a trouble to non-disabled folks.) Katy takes on a career as fourteen-year-old housekeeper, kept in one room, after learning from Cousin Helen, but at least Katy gets to recover. Though I've a nasty feeling this is a "boisterous woman tamed by disability" story. Can't remember if religion comes up, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Mitchell, Gone With The Wind - Melanie Wilkes, who is chronically ill and weak but it's never explained what with. ME or CFS are a possibility. She is sweet, generous, hard-working (at one point she picks cotton in the fields, which the other ladies have objected to doing, until quietly fainting), and makes a total of one bitchy comment in the entire novel. She nearly dies in childbirth with her first child, is told she can't have more children (effectively putting a stop to her sex life - apparently non-penetrative sex didn't exist in this universe), and eventually does get pregnant and then dies of a miscarriage. She serves as sister-in-law, foil and rival to Scarlett, who is most determinedly not a Good Girl, and there's a love-hate thing going on between them, at least from Scarlett's point of view. Pretty much desexualised, although this is a very strange novel on the topic of sexuality anyway. Another Good Christian Woman.

Austen, Mansfield Park - Fanny Price, the main protagonist. Austen loved her but readers have been less keen. Probably ME, or at least some fatigue-based illness. She's not so much good as put-upon, a bit of a Cinderella story, although she does make the odd moral stand (mainly by disapproving of amateur theatricals) and is generally well-behaved, particularly when compared to the other characters, who are bitchy, selfish, even commit adultery in one case, and generally a lot more fun. She does get a man, mainly by waiting patiently until he decides the more exciting Mary Crawford isn't virtuous enough for him, but that's all rather weird and incesty. In real life I would be sympathetic to Fanny having to run errands for her Aunt Norris until she wilts with heatstroke, but in a novel, well, you just want to scream at her to say no to someone for once in her life, poor relation status or no. I can't remember how religious she is, but she's contrasted with the others being irreligious, and ends up marrying a parson.

Two of these have massive lesbian subtext, and one has minor, although I don't know to what extent that's related to the whole disabled-good-woman trope, and indeed how far the authors were even aware of it. There are certainly strong issues about disabled women being held away from mainstream sexuality. There's also a strong whiff of Inspiration Porn going on with most of these.

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Louisa May Alcott does it in another book, too--this one called Jack and Jill. Chapter 15, which is entitled "Saint Lucy," is especially blatant:

"One day, when the princes were out—ahem! we'll say hunting—they found a little damsel lying on the snow, half dead with cold, they thought. She was the child of a poor woman who lived in the forest—a wild little thing, always dancing and singing about; as hard to catch as a squirrel, and so fearless she would climb the highest trees, leap broad brooks, or jump off the steep rocks to show her courage. The boys carried her home to the palace, and the queen was glad to have her. She had fallen and hurt herself, so she lay in bed week after week, with her mother to take care of her—"

"That's you," whispered Jack, throwing the white carnation at Jill, and she threw back the red one, with her finger on her lips, for the tale was very interesting now.

"She did not suffer much after a time, but she scolded and cried, and could not be resigned, because she was a prisoner. The queen tried to help her, but she could not do much; the princes were kind, but they had their books and plays, and were away a good deal. Some friends she had came often to see her, but still she beat her wings against the bars, like a wild bird in a cage, and soon her spirits were all gone, and it was sad to see her."

"Where was your Saint Lucy? I thought it was about her," asked Jack, who did not like to have Jill's past troubles dwelt upon, since his were not.

"She is coming. Saints are not born—they are made after many trials and tribulations," answered his mother, looking at the fire as if it helped her to spin her little story. "Well, the poor child used to sing sometimes to while away the long hours—sad songs mostly, and one among them which the queen taught her was 'Sweet Patience, Come.'

"This she used to sing a great deal after a while, never dreaming that Patience was an angel who could hear and obey. But it was so; and one night, when the girl had lulled herself to sleep with that song, the angel came. Nobody saw the lovely spirit with tender eyes, and a voice that was like balm. No one heard the rustle of wings as she hovered over the little bed and touched the lips, the eyes, the hands of the sleeper, and then flew away, leaving three gifts behind. The girl did not know why, but after that night the songs grew gayer, there seemed to be more sunshine everywhere her eyes looked, and her hands were never tired of helping others in various pretty, useful, or pleasant ways. Slowly the wild bird ceased to beat against the bars, but sat in its cage and made music for all in the palace, till the queen could not do without it, the poor mother cheered up, and the princes called the girl their nightingale."

"Was that the miracle?" asked Jack, forgetting all about his slippers, as he watched Jill's eyes brighten and the color come up in her white cheeks.

"That was the miracle, and Patience can work far greater ones if you will let her."

"And the girl's name was Lucy?"

"Yes; they did not call her a saint then, but she was trying to be as cheerful as a certain good woman she had heard of, and so the queen had that name for her, though she did not let her know it for a long time."


So yeah. Thirteen-year-old Jill, who injured her back in a sledding accident and who, at this point, doesn't believe she'll ever walk again, was just told that she should be a cheery little household saint to comfort other people. (She does find out a bit further on in the chapter that she will walk again, but this is what she says when she finds out: "I thought I wasn't any better, and never should be, and I made up my mind I wouldn't ask, it would be so hard for any one to tell me so.")


ICK. That's the most revolting example of inspiration porn I've seen in my life. It's so explicit about caging wild women, too. Actually, I wonder whether it would make a good example when explaining to people why we really don't like being told we're inspirational?

What's the "ahem, hunting" about? There's the obvious, but snowy forests aren't really where red light districts happen, nor would I expect that in an Alcott story.

It's interesting that the girl in this story is punished for being bad, bad in this case meaning unfeminine, wild and so forth. Same goes for What Katy Did. Clarissa, on the other hand, is punished for doing her best to be good, and ye gods, Richardson puts her through the wringer. The first two get accidents, Clarissa gets mental illness (after various dramatic, and indeed traumatic, events), and in all cases you could blame the victims if you wanted to be particularly nasty, though it would be absolutely unfair to.

Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White is another one roughly along the Clarissa lines, now I think of it. Good, beautiful, obedient, gets put through the wringer, ends up in a piteous state as a result, though gets to stay alive and indeed get married. Although whatever else Wilkie Collins did, he didn't pull this inspiration porn shit.

What's the "ahem, hunting" about? There's the obvious, but snowy forests aren't really where red light districts happen, nor would I expect that in an Alcott story.

The "ahem, hunting" thing is an attempt to make the story of Jill's accident sound more fairy-tale-ish, because princes who are out hunting in fairy tales often stumble upon maidens in distress. However, the "hunting" bit makes it look like Jack and his older brother Frank were out together and no one else was around. In reality, Frank was one of a large crowd that was out with Jack that day, and thirteen-year-olds Jack Minot and Jill (actually Janey) Pecq were hurt in the same sledding accident, which happened because someone dared Jill to slide down a very steep and rocky hill and Jill asked Jack (who had a sled, whereas she didn't) to take her down the steep hill a couple of times.

"Jack, take me down that coast. Joe said I wouldn't dare to do it, so I must," commanded Jill, as they paused for breath after the long trudge up hill. Jill, of course, was not her real name, but had been given because of her friendship with Jack, who so admired Janey Pecq's spirit and fun.

"I guess I wouldn't. It is very bumpy and ends in a big drift; not half so nice as this one. Hop on and we'll have a good spin across the pond;" and Jack brought "Thunderbolt" round with a skilful swing and an engaging air that would have won obedience from anybody but wilful Jill.

"It is very nice, but I won't be told I don't 'dare' by any boy in the world. If you are afraid, I'll go alone."


That's the extent of Jill's "badness." If you read the book, she comes across as a genuinely nice girl who likes sports better than sewing and other designated feminine pursuits.

And Joe Flint? Never penalized for daring her. Even Jack gets off more lightly; he suffers a compound fracture in one of his legs which, in-period, would have been potentially life-threatening, but which is treated by his doctor as no problem at all. Jill is explicitly punished for not shrugging off Joe's dares and insults, because girls, the various older women in this book say over and over, are supposed to "tame" the wildness of boys.

I've seen that same thing in movies from, I think, the 1940s, too. The wife has been in an accident, can no longer walk, and wants to 'free' her husband because she is a burden and 'can no longer be a real wife to him'. WTF? If you use a wheelchair suddenly you're useless and must do the noble thing and die or something so your husband can be happy? Gah.

Katy's injury is from swinging too high on a dangerous swing when she's been specifically told not to, so it's definitely a "taming" story in that part. On the other hand, she is shown to keep her creativity, liveliness and bossiness whether disabled or not, and in a following book (where she is no longer disabled) still manages to get into trouble by being over-enthusiastic and disobedient.

I HATED the Cousin Helen / School of Pain bits so much. The Chalet School used to pull that shit as well, with one insufferably snobby character getting injured on a mountain and becoming a Nice Disabled Person and a Total Inspiration - not to mention the various sickly kids running around.

As a note, Gone with the Wind was written in 1939 so while it's placed in the Victorian Era, it was written much more recently. I haven't read it so I have no idea if Mitchell was trying to write in the style of the period she was writing about or not.

I actually like Beth in Little Women. Yes, she's a bit too good to be true, but if you take away the dying and the religious bit, her actual personality is the most similar to mine (shy, quiet, etc.). She doesn't actually have a love life, but there is discussion at some point of her having a crush on Laurie.

Another character you might want to add to this list is Clara in Heidi by Johanna Spyri (showing it wasn't just an English language thing). I read her as having something along the lines of ME/CFS and she's another semi-saintly figure for most of the book. I know there are some others I could add to the list because part of a class I took discussed the concept in literature of women who are "too good to live", but I'm blanking on the others.

I have a love/hate with most pre-World War I literature when it comes to disability. I actually really love many of the books even though they're very problematic on so many levels (disability is just one of many). I adore most Alcott, although I haven't read Jack and Jill and it definitely doesn't sound good.

I wrote my senior thesis as an English major on disability in children's lit written in the late 19th/early 20th century. Specifically, I was aiming to show how they're problematic in how they impact us still now and how they use the concept of positive thinking as a cure-all. The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, and Heidi were the late 19th/early 20th century novels I used (Out of those, only Heidi was actually published in the 19th and the others were both post-Victoria which is why I can't just say Victorian children's lit). I actually finished still generally feeling about the books the way I had before even though they were all bad about how they treated disability (I love one of them, like one, and hate the third).

I meant to respond to your other post, but I'm not sure I'll get around to it. I actually read parts of The Secret Garden very differently to you which is why I meant to respond, but I'm horrible at commenting on things. One book I didn't use in my thesis that is mostly unknown and actually is relatively good on how it treats disability is another Burnett book called The Lost Prince. I didn't use it because it didn't fit what I was saying, but it was a pleasant surprise to discover it existed. I'm guessing it's not that easy to find (it wasn't when I was writing my thesis), but if you can, it's worth reading.

Happens to an extent in Enid Blyton too, although more that disability or illness is shown as a punnishment for being too arrogant and ambitious.

Just in Malory Towers we have two examples. Mavis, who wants to be an opera singer, sneaks out to a talent contest, catches an awful illness in the cold and then looses her voice. She only gets her voice back when she learns to be less conceited.

Amanda is an aspiring Olympic swimmer who breaks the rules and goes swimming in the ocean and dashes her legs against the rocks. She becomes permanently disabled and has to resign herself to helping others with their sports. This makes her a nicer person.

sorry if this is a derail- I've just had a click moment

Actually, since both you and I have ME, I was just thinking about this idea of punnishment and how it relates to that illness. This kind of "taming", as lilacsigill calls it, is very gendered and since ME is statistically more common in women/associated with women in the popular imagination, it seems like the media narrative you get is similar.

Ambitious, overacheiving, perfectionist woman gets the "yuppie flu" because she has mismanaged her life.

Peggy Munson talks about "the pervasive misogyny around CFIDS, an illness still widely attributed to women's excesses ("hysteria" and "overachiever" have a similar root- the idea that women should not be, do or feel too much)."

and Susan Griffin:

"in the first decade after CFIDS was identified, a prejudical and near tautological reasong was applied to the illness, as if its existence could be explained away. The medical establishment drew up a profile of the person most likely to come down with the disease. A mature woman ,professional, upper middle class, white, and overly ambitious, she did not know how to rest and this is why she was fatigued. The description recalls those tracts form nineteenth-century medicine warning that higher education could damage a woman's ovaries. Both theories have a subtext, the idea that women ought to stay at home. And I can hear another suggestion in the thought, the subtle warning that feminism undermines the feminine body."

I wonder if part of the hostility ME patients get is that we refuse to passively accept medical opinion and advocate for ourselves, instead of becoming the saintly good girls that illness is expected to transform us into. See this article about 'communicating' (I would call it misleading, but what do I know) with ME patients, nicely illustrated with a 19th cenury image of an establishment for "ladies nervously affected".

I did the expected spluttering with rage from that article, but the second-last comment cheered me right up again. I should possibly request an icon of "I’d like to comment, but have the Ague and the Greensickness (not to mention my wandering uterus, which is playing Runescape on the other computer) and must retire to my fainting couch."

And we can passively accept medical opinion if we want. Many of us start out doing that. The snag is that it usually makes us much worse, so we either learn to fight for ourselves or continue to get worse. A friend's ex-partner died of ME at the age of 28 just before Christmas, in a way that wouldn't have happened if he'd been getting actual medical treatment instead of total neglect, so this is rather a sore point at the moment.

"And I can hear another suggestion in the thought, the subtle warning that feminism undermines the feminine body."

Sara Maitland wrote a very good novel about that, Daughter of Jerusalem. It was written in the seventies (possibly the eighties), when a woman who is having trouble conceiving is told by her incredibly arrogant gynaecologist that it's all because she is having difficulty fitting into her role as a woman. His proof of this is such things as her short hair, bisexual husband, nice women's group which happened to go on a pro-choice march, and having had a fair number of sexual partners when she was a student. Maitland's good on the subject of illness and disability, it comes up in a few novels of hers.

I'm so sorry about your friend.

You are absolutely right, we can passively accept (it's what I tend to do, tbh), I was just thinking about the false perception of ME patients as pushy and demanding.

I'll definitely check out Daughter of Jerusalem, it sounds my sort of thing.

I always wanted to be as good as Beth in Little Women (and she was good before she was disabled, although one might argue she had a social anxiety disability pre-scarlet fever which I suspect was also rheumatic fever.) I was envious about how unselfish and good she was. Modern books had heroines who were more like me, but they didn't have many heroines who I wanted to be like myself.

The illness/disability was a bonus, because I was always looking for characters with disabilities. I was ten or eleven the first time I tried to read the book, and after she died I just stopped, unable to continue without my favorite character to keep me going. It got into growing up and love and marriage after that, anyway. A few years later I read through to the end and then read a whole lot of other Louisa May Alcott, and learned the biographical and historical aspects.

I do think it's a problem that "too good to be true" gets conflated with disability so often, and that so many of these characters seem to die from their goodness. But at least some people were/are truly fond of "good" characters in books. (And as an aromantic asexual, characters who don't fall in love are a rare and wondeful bonus as well.)


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