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Celebrating Success, Able Bodied or Not.

charlie's picture

I have never studied a class that was so “inter-“ before; so interdisciplinary, so intermethod (not quite a word, but in my personal, made-up definition, using different mediums, teaching style (I am still working on that hand-raising compulsion), and viewpoints to express an idea), and so intertopic. Although I usually find that diability is not a topic that I find myself drawn to on a regular basis, I pleasantly found myself drawn to the discussion last night. I think what was missing from Exile & Pride, for me, was Clare’s personal story. While the environmental information and stories about the different women’s communes were interesting, I much preferred the personal stories of the “freaks”, Ellen Stohl, and the fragments that Clare shared.

Watching the clip of Josh Blue was interesting for me as well. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of him, as I have no real history with CP. I was happily surprised to see that he was funny. I was, however, frustrated for the audience for giving him the standing ovation. Blue was funny, but he wasn’t standing-ovation-funny. It made me think back to Clare’s term “supercrip”. Was the audience standing because he was funny or because he has CP and managed to perform relatively well for them? Does it make a difference which side that line they fall on? And is there really a line? I mean, can a person ever be fully separated from a defining characteristic? And do you define CP as a characteristic as in “loud”, or does it count as more of a make-up of a person, as in “tall”? Do people live with disabilities or in tandem with disabilities?

To return to the idea of “supercrip”, while talking with my in-class partner Joss, she mentioned that she thought that the network scripted Blue’s bits to only show his CP jokes, which got me thinking. In most pop culture representations of “supercrips”, they are doing something fantastic. For example, the movie Soul Surfer shows Bethany Hamiliton, a young woman who loses her arm to a shark in a surfing accident going on to continue to surf and to win competitions. Now, had she simply lost the arm in a freak accident and gone on to live a normal, unassuming existence, she would not have had her story told. And yet, movies are made about normal, unassuming, able-bodied people on a regular basis. Take Mean Girls for example, (a movie that I’ll readily admit that I love) a movie in which the characters do nothing of note except torment each other). The most recent disabled body pop culture reference I can think of is Artie on Glee, and even he has an episode in which he works so hard to get out of the wheelchair. Why must his character fight so hard to show that he doesn’t want to be in the wheelchair? I am not saying that he should simply accept it, but why does it have to be something to fight against? Why is it not acceptable for him to be OK with where he is currently?

As I think more and more on the topic of disabilities, abilities, and supercrips, I find myself siding with Clare’s rejection of the celebration of supercrips. Just because someone has a disability and happens to also perform a task of relative prestige, does not mean that it needs to be celebrated as performing the task and overcoming the disability. It should be celebrated as simply performing a task well, able bodied or not. 


venn diagram's picture

A character that "just happens to be gay"

I am really interested in many of the points you bring up, but especially in the second half of the third paragraph, when you begin to talk about representations of disabled bodies in pop culture and how they often fall into two categories: super-crip or attempting to "overcome" the disability (I don't watch Glee, but I assume that was the context in which the character tries to get out of his wheelchair?) Your discussion reminds me of a comment the teacher-advisor of my high school's GBSA (Gay Bisexual Straight Alliance) made about his favorite television show, Six Feet Under. He, an openly gay male, said that he loved the show because the protagonist "just happened to be gay" but his homosexuality was not the focus of the show like in Will & Grace, for example. I have seen a few episodes of Six Feet Under but not enough to comment on the "accuracy" of this assesment, so I will instead problematize the assesment itself instead. By critiquing what is currently available in terms of representations of disabled characters it seems as though you also would appreciate a character who "just happened to be disabled" and isn't elevated to super-crip status but also doesn't focus on trying to "overcome" it.

When my teacher made the comment about the protagonist of Six Feet Under it made intuitive sense to me and I did not problemetize it whatsoever. What is immediately unsettling as I think back on this comment, are questions of representation, audience and perspective. Was my teacher implying that the protagonist, a white able-bodied male, is more palpable to the audience because he does not flaunt his homosexuality as Jack in Will & Grace does? Is it possible to "just happen to be gay" without hiding ones sexuality or relying on presumed heterosexuality? Is "straight-acting" the same as "just happening to be __" or can a feminine, gender-queer or transsexual also be seen as "just a character" without their "difference" highlighted? Can an African-American male be represented in film without being the "token black guy"?

All of these questions cannot be evaluated without attention to intended audience and actual audience perspective. I, a 21-year old student from Brooklyn, NY, might think that a character who is homosexual but who does not have many plot-lines about their sexuality "just happens to be gay." But what about the other characters in the show? Do they react to him different because he is gay? What about someone who grew up in a small-town where they have never met an out-gay person before. Is it possible that this person will have a different perspective on the same character than I do?

The same questions can be asked for depictions of a individuals with a disability. For individuals who have never met someone with CP, for example, can they take Josh Blue's jokes as simply jokes? I am ashamed that I so quickly assumed that the audience's standing ovation was a super-crip'ed reaction. I may have been projecting my own super-crip'ing tendencies. If one (a stand-up comic, a screenwriter, for example) knows that his/her audience will include people who have never met an openly-gay homosexual, for example, does he/she have some sort of duty in the representation that they choose? Is it intelligent to make choices based on the knowledge and backgrounds of ones audience or does it force individuals to be "protected" from the truth or does it further marginalize and exclude individuals that are less palatable (a poor, minority homosexual, like in the video response to the "it gets better project" that AmyMay posted about)?

S. Yaeger's picture

You pretty much just

You pretty much just encapsulated my thoughts about this class in your first paragraph, only you've done it more articulately than I ever could have.  The Josh Blue clip was interesting to me too, as I have had some close experience with someone who has CP, and have seen some of the ways that she has been infantalized by others because of it.  I didn't really consider the "super crip" aspect of his routine until it was pointed out in our class discussion, but that inference and that fact that I am particularly interested in stand-up as a means of social commentary made me look into Blue further.  I believe that clip was from the final episode of his season on Last Comic Standing.  In that context, he doesn't really have to be anything more than funnier than the other contestants in order to recieve a standing ovation, and I think that, at the time of filming that episode, the audience knew he had won.  Once I became aware of those circumstances, I began to wonder if we were the ones who were assigning him the role of "super-crip".  I'm not trying to indicate that this was the case, or that Blue really was funnier than any other contestants, but I am wondering if that clip was chosen to nudge us into this conversation.