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The Facts of Life

Hummingbird's picture

Reading both Rosemarie Garland Thompson's and Eli Clare's descriptions of how disability is represented in the media, I couldn't help but think of an episode of the 1980s show The Facts of Life. For full disclosure, the episode (titled "Introducing Cousin Geri") is the only episode of The Facts of Life that I've seen. I happened upon it last summer when purusing the internet – I followed a link about positive portrayals of disability. The episode is about a group of girls at a boarding school who come from a range of backgrounds and learn important lessons in their interactions with one another. In this episode, one of the girls' cousins, Geri, visits. The girl seems upset about it and none of her friends can understand why – they think it's because Geri has cerebral palsy and the student is embarrassed by it. On the contrary, the student feels jealous of her cousin's easygoing friendlyness and imediate popularity. She also feels guilty for feeling jealous because she's aware that she's privileged by her able-bodied-ness (here I'm inserting a lot of our vocabulary which is not present in the show itself, though the themes and emotions are there). Geri is played by a fabulous comedian (Geri Jewell) who also has cerebral palsy and I was pleasantly surprised by the nuanced presentation of her as a character who on the show also works as a stand-up comedian. 

After watching the episode I realized this was the first time I'd seen an actor with cerebral palsy playing a character with that same disability on a show. In class recently someone mentioned there is a character with cerebral palsy on Breaking Bad – but I haven't seen that show. It's disheartening and also telling that so few shows depict characters with disabilty more generally. Maysoon Zayid, an Arab-American comedian, did a Ted-Talk about this and mentioned that people with disabilties make up the largest minority in the world and yet are the least represented in media. Why has it been over 30 years since this Facts of Life episode, and when are we going to see more shows that portray full characters? Characters who are not characterized by their disability but have it as one aspect of their intersecting identities?

The following is a very short clip from that episode in which Geri is first meeting some of the girls at the boarding school.

(Introducing Cousin Geri)