Good Women

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.

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Wait - it was about *what*?

This was one of those strange experiences you get when you reread a book as an adult that you haven't read since childhood. The book in question was Burnett's The Secret Garden. Like me, you may remember it vaguely as an uplifting Victorian tale about some bratty children who become nicer people through gardening.

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autistic spectrum beauty

Asperger's, or lack of same, on TV

There are many TV characters who people suspect of having Asperger's Syndrome -- Maura Isles in Rizzoli and Isles; Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds; Dr. Brennan in Bones; Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. Yet even when they show all the signs, none of them is identified as actually having Asperger's, other than a brief throwaway line by an UNSUB on Criminal Minds that mentioned Reid as being on the autism spectrum.

The only time I can recall an adult character on primetime TV was actually identified as having Asperger's, Jerry on Boston Legal, his Asperger characteristics were exaggerated to ridiculous levels, he was turned into comic relief, and they conflated Asperger's with other conditions such as Tourettes Syndrome and implied that it is common for people with Asperger's to have a sexual fixation on objects when a girlfriend of Jerry's left him because she "fell in love with an iPhone."

I'm wondering why the characters are given all of these Asperger-like characteristics but not said to have Asperger's. Is it because writers think that all scientists are geeky/nerdy/socially awkward? Is it because if the character is suddenly identified as having AS, then the writers/producers are afraid that they won't be able to poke fun at the character anymore because "he/she has a disability"? Are they afraid that the audience won't like the character anymore? Is it just a lack of awareness -- not enough people know what Asperger's is, so they won't use the word in the show?

It really puzzles me why so many characters are given characteristics that are so obviously Asperger-like yet the producers of the show won't use the actual identification.
Beech leaves

On sci-fi shows and doctors

Why is it that so many sci-fi shows are so obsessed with doctors? You know, where the head (or only) doctor is a core cast member, and everyone gets shipped off to sickbay on a regular basis, and it's the source for many plots, not to mention romances. It's never quite at realistic levels - otherwise everyone in the core cast would be off work with PTSD by halfway through Season 1 - but it's pretty noticeable. I'm generally thinking of spaceship- or space station-focused sci-fi here, I don't know what the others tend towards. Farscape is less keen on the idea, but then Farscape has a very small core cast, and it does make sure there's always at least one scientist on board who will occasionally give some medical aid. BSG also gives a relatively small place to the doctor, though he does pop up from time to time, and certain medical stuff becomes key to the odd plot. Star Trek (at least the series I've seen), B5 and Stargate are thoroughly into it, on the other hand.
Beech leaves

Kushner, "Angels in America"

I've seen the miniseries of this a few times, and read the playscript for the first part (and must buy the other half some time), and I really like it. It's set in New York in 1980s and focuses on AIDS, although one character (Harper Pitt) also has agoraphobia and a mild Valium addiction. [Spoilers]One of the things I love is that it takes subjects which tend to be depressing by their nature - one of the main problems with depictions of illness and disability - and make them the source for something wonderful and magical, while still acknowledging how rough they are. Prior Walter can be simultaneously suffering from symptoms which society considers icky, such as lesions and thrush and incontinence, and also have rather beautiful fever dreams where he is fabulously in drag and experiencing "moments of revelation", together with Harper's hallucination which somehow merges with his dream, and then have mad angelic sex with the Angel which involves bursting into flame, amongst other things. He's ill and his body is showing signs of the illness, but he's still presented as sometimes beautiful and sexy, although not to the point of being mindlessly sexualised. Harper is an unhappy woman, trapped in a marriage with a gay man who is bursting out of his closet, frightened to go out, and resorting to Valium to hide from it all. Yet her hallucinations also bring out a kind of beauty in her, her ability to marvel at the wonders of the world, a bit like Miranda in the Tempest saying, "O brave new world that has such people in it."

There's also an examination of the politics of AIDS and illness, how this intersects with LGBT politics and general politics and religion. The Roy Cohn character gives a long speech to his doctor declaring how he can't have AIDS, because AIDS is what homosexuals get, and he can't be a homosexual because he's a man of great power. He's partly deluding himself and trying to cover up reality, dying in the closet as well as living there, but he does make some interesting points, in a devil's advocate sort of way. And there's the community aspects of AIDS in the gay world, something both treasured (Belize is a good example of this) and prone to fall apart (Lewis abandoning Prior because he can't cope; Roy rejecting his community and dying alone).
Beech leaves

Streatfeild, "Ballet Shoes"

Every time I read or watch something with disability in it, I always think I must post about it here, and I never get round to it! Anyway, I had a random craving to reread this old children's book over the last couple of days. It was written in 1936, has been immensely popular ever since, and it's about three sisters who go to a stage school. I listened to the audiobook this time instead of reading the novel, so the odd detail may be wrong as I can't just flick through and check it.

[Probably not all that spoilerish, but just in case]The story opens with an elderly, absent-minded professor of palaeontology, hereafter known as Great Uncle Matthew (Gum), who brings home three babies from his travels and leaves them to his niece to look after. We have disability right at the start: Gum loses a leg, and is not remotely quenched by this. He just transfers his adventurous spirit to another medium, takes up sea travel, and this is how he ends up finding and adopting the girls. When he reappears at the end of the novel, he is delighted by the idea of moving on to air travel, something far more new and exciting in those days. Other disabilities flit through the novel: Winifred's family is in bad financial straits because of her father's illness (I think possibly injury, or involving surgery?), the French teacher tells an inspiring story (well, one girl finds it inspiring, the other brushes it off) about a famous elderly actress who also had a wooden leg but could bring tears to your eyes by her portrayal of a teenage boy, there's a school fundraising effort for a children's hospital which had helped a very ill young Russian girl. And the novel is surprisingly full of everyday illnesses, flu and whooping cough and colds, and uses them as part of the story. The thing that really impressed me is how cheerfully and casually it does this, without making them anything monstrous, and indeed they often provide good opportunities of one sort or another. One of the thing that really appealed to me about this novel was the sense of a family cobbled together out of unrelated people, since it's based on Gum's niece Sylvia, the three adopted girls, Sylvia's old nanny, the cook and housemaid, and the five boarders who live with them, including a thinly veiled lesbian couple. The couple in question are academics who encourage the girls to be independent and break gender boundaries, so I reckon the novel was probably fairly ground-breaking in various ways, and it's probably one reason why it still appeals. I'm not quite sure why I associate this found-family thing with disability. Maybe it's because, like being LGBT, you often end up having a strained relationship with your family of origin, and then finding that you build a warm relationship with other people who are also LGBT or disabled, so that alienation on one side can also mean a wonderful found family on the other.

Of course, the three girls can only make their progress on the stage thanks to being healthy and attractive, but the novel is very conscious of the fragility of that. It praises hard work and talent while admitting that looks and connections often take precedence in the theatre, it's casually mentioned that actresses are disposable and that ballerinas have a short shelf life, and at one point Petrova, the middle girl, frets that she will fail to get a theatre part because she has a stye on her eye and is feeling self-conscious about it as well. Illness and disability are a real part of everyday life, not pushed out of sight as is the norm in other literature. I liked that.
typing cane
  • haddayr


Airs TONIGHT nationally at 10:00 PM on the PBS series Independent Lens
Locally (Twin Cities), Sunday Dec. 10th at 10:30 PM

I feel like I'm talking out of school -- that I should never speak against something that brings attention to disability rights issues. And I feel bad for the filmmaker Eric Neudel, who has solid editing and producing credits but as a director is somewhat inexperienced. And he was clearly so well-intentioned.

But I knew there was something amiss before I even cracked the case. The press release claimed Lives Worth Living as the 'first' documentary telling the story of the Disability Rights Movement. It isn't the first. Billy Golfus' absolutely wonderful When Billy Broke His Head is. And it's done by a disabled filmmaker.

Maybe this sounds like whiny nitpicking, but here's the thing: ignoring a seminal documentary created by a disabled person betrays an ignorance of the topic and a lack of respect for our accomplishments that I'm afraid pervades the entire film.

The documentary goes sort of like this: brief but eye-opening (if you are the intended audience, that is, which is fairly ignorant able-bodied people) montage explaining how our system treated disabled people before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (Hint: the answer is 'very very badly.' If you have mental health issues or have a child with any special needs -- especially autism or Downs -- be ready to be especially horrified.) Fairly coherent explanation of the federal building takeover in San Francisco that led to enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act. Vague jumble of speeches, interviews, and images of undefined struggle for decades. Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)! Yaaaay! We won the end.

Missing from all of this: a coherent and clear idea of the timeline of events. Key legislation, court decisions, and scholarship. Some truly kick-ass songs. And most importantly, it is missing any mention of the specific pressing legislative, legal, and social issues that we are still fighting for today such as the Community Choice Act.

There are things to like about this documentary. He interviewed some funny, articulate, interesting people such as Fred Fay, Judy Heumann, (who was particularly wonderful), Judi Chamberlin, and Bob Kafka. It's empowering to see some of the archival footage.

But he chose to have no narrator and no text informing us of historical details to fit anything together or provide context. Most of the protest images don't even have identifying placards. He never identifies our leaders beyond their names and their organizations (complete with unexplained acronyms).

This pervasive vagueness creates the impression that disabled people just kind of showed up for a bunch of protests, maybe. A lack of specifics removes our agency as dedicated, impassioned, and SMART agitators for change. It leaves the impression that we were a disorganized group of people with vague needs and demands, and it was up to the able-bodied legislators at the end to put it all together for us.

For instance, he spent many precious minutes lovingly documenting the macho behind-the-scenes showdowns between able-bodied legislators and staff people as well as their long, self-congratulatory speeches. Our heroes, sweeping in to save the day.

The fact that the filmmaker chose to end this movie in this way -- complete with Ted Kennedy thanking not disabled people for hurling their bodies up the capitol steps, in front of busses, and into jail, but thanking their FAMILIES at the passage of the ADA -- is extremely problematic.

But. Please watch this when it hits your local PBS affiliate! Watch it to honor the people he interviewed, who gave terrific interviews. And watch it to add to the numbers. I want the people in charge of commissioning documentaries to understand that there is an audience for disability issues. Please watch it, and let your station know you watched it, and that you want more.

It's not enough. It's not nearly enough. You just can't capture decades of civil rights struggles in only 54 rather vague minutes. What we really need is a series. The crippled "Eyes on the Prize." Still, it's what we have right now.

Also check out the PBS site, they have an exhaustive interactive timeline that is really great. And then read On Our Own, Handicapping America, and Nothing About Us Without Us. While you are taking orders from me, run over to FB to abuse Billy Golfus for not getting off his duff and making When Billy Broke His Head available again. Go to YouTube and watch the (sadly, similarly jumbled) videos called It's Our Story with exhaustive footage of interviews with key disability rights figures.

And then could some filmmaker please please please take the time, effort, and heart to truly do this topic justice?

(Mad props to janradder, who helped me turn a jumbled incoherent cranky rant into an actual review.)

"Inspector Lewis" -- Point of Vanishing (Masterpiece Mystery! -- PBS)

Tonight (on most stations -- check local listings, etc.), there's going to be a repeat of "Inspector Lewis," where the plot revolves around a family whose teenage daughter becomes paralyzed in a car crash, and the action is driven by the different family members' reaction to same -- including the daughter's reaction.

The first time it aired, I got to wondering how the way this is dealt with reflects the difference between Britain's predominantly Social Model of Disability, and America's predominantly medical model.

So... you know, if you have 90 minutes or so to spare sometime this week, maybe you could check it out so I have someone to talk to about this?

(cross-posted from my own journal)

Edited to add: Spoilers may appear in comments. Read at your own risk.