The Gimp Media Revolution

Photography: Christopher Voelker/Voelkerstudio.com

Groucho Marx, on the reaction of a wife after her husband catches her in bed with another man: “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

If you are trying to make some sense of how people with disabilities are faring in American media these days, your lying eyes are about all you have to go on. There have been academic studies about this, most notably one commissioned by the Screen Actors Guild in 2005 that reported actors with disabilities were “woefully underrepresented in the entertainment industry and face unique barriers … due to perceived discrimination and lack of accommodation.” One stat quoted in the study was especially ugly: namely, that less than .5 of 1 percent of characters with disabilities on television had speaking parts  —.5 percent. This pathetic number has fueled the wrath of disability advocates for years. But sometimes statistics, like eyes, can lie, or at least distort the evidence. My own eyes tell me that there are many more characters with disabilities showing up on TV, film, ads and the Internet, in all kinds of weird and unpredictable ways. Yes, things are changing.

That SAG study — conducted by noted researchers Olivia Raynor and Katherine Hayward of UCLA’s National Arts and Disability Center — is now a few years old in terms of TV and film trends. Today the networks are scrambling to find anything to maintain market share, from borrowing hit shows like The Office and American Idol from Britain to putting Jay Leno in prime time. Cable programming, post-Sopranos, is much more adventurous. Let’s see, there’s a hit show on cable right now about a woman who sells marijuana, and another about a guy who sells meth, and another about a guy who’s a serial killer, not to mention the old standby, Monk, a detective with — what, a disability! — obsessive-compulsive disorder. Oh, yeah, the guy who sells meth, the great Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad, also has a son with cerebral palsy, played by an actor who actually has CP, RJ Mitte.

Just a couple of token instances, right, a small blip on the big radar of American media? Granted, disability inclusion is still a fringe phenomenon, and given the glut of current programming, the occurrences might not make that much of a statistical difference, but then again, all of cable was fringe TV until The Sopranos started drawing 13-14 million people to HBO on a given Sunday night to watch an overweight family man/sociopath with pork issues. And the fringe has a way of creeping into the mainstream.

Case in point: The Office. The original UK Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant version, all 12 episodes and a two-part Christmas special, was originally a cult show in the United States. It spread largely by word of mouth and caught up with a lot of hip comedy lovers via DVD. If you watch the second six shows of the original, you’ll notice that one of the regular characters is Brenda, a wheelchair user who joins the office when it is forced to merge with another branch. David Brent (Ricky Gervais) and his numbskull assistant, Gareth, have no idea how to act around such a person. At one point, Gareth tries to carry Brenda down a flight of stairs during a fire drill and ends up abandoning her halfway down. David is just painfully offensive. Here’s one of his typical remarks: “If you have lost both legs and both arms, just go, ‘At least I’m not dead.’ Though I’d rather be dead in that situation to be honest … but I’m not saying people like that should be put down.”

You get the idea. When the series came to NBC — now with 9 million viewers a week — Brenda didn’t make the trip, but the sensibility of the original show did. In the second season of the American Office, Michael the manager (Steve Carell) burns his foot on a George Foreman grill, whines that the staff doesn’t get his “disability,” then brings in a real wheelchair user (played by real-life gimp Marcus York) to explain things. York’s character, quickly disgusted, leaves after one of Michael’s many offensive remarks.
Blame it on the Brits, I say. If you’ve watched Extras, the HBO series by the same creators, you know that it abounds in disability humor. In one episode Andy, the Ricky Gervais character, can’t believe a dwarf actor has such a hot girlfriend, and when the dwarf comes after him for flirting with her, Andy knee-drops him out cold. In another major story line, Andy, now a big sitcom star, egregiously offends the mother of a child with Down syndrome in a fancy restaurant — he’s talking too loud for Andy — and becomes a media pariah because of it. In past American TV, it would be rare for a kid with Down syndrome to be seen eating out, let alone be seen as the inciting figure in a story line.

Crip Humor’s “In”
But it’s not just the Brits, at least in comedy. Larry David, first in Seinfeld and now in Curb Your Enthusiasm, has featured characters with disabilities for years. Remember Mickey, Kramer’s dwarf friend who double-dated with Cosmo and was later trashed by other little people stand-ins because he wore lifts? On Curb, David interacts in two separate episodes with wheeler-actors (Michael D’Amore and Christopher Thornton) and tells his blind friend that his new girlfriend is only so-so looking. The disabled are just another irritant in Larry’s irritated life, along with black Katrina survivors and Christian in-laws.

Lawrence Carter-Long, the director of disTHIS! — an ongoing New York-based film series he calls “disability through a whole new lens” — and a walking encyclopedia of every current instance of a person with a disability on film and TV, can easily pick the show that he considers “culturally significant”: South Park. If you aren’t a devoted watcher, South Park has two disabled regulars, Jimmy and Timmy. One uses a power chair and is impossible to understand (Timmy) and the other gets around on forearm crutches (Jimmy). We aren’t talking Tiny Tim here. This is South Park, and these crips are, in Carter-Long’s words, “edgy, in your face, and impossible to ignore.”

Go on the Web and check out an excerpt from the season five episode, “Cripple Fight.” With the flimsiest of excuses, Jimmy and Timmy decide to fight to the death. The other kids are thrilled, scurrying all over South Park yelling, “Cripple fight!” — and the whole town shows up. Jimmy and Timmy go at it for a good three minutes, and it’s every bit as brutal as that pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting match you surfed past the other night.

In another South Park classic, “Krazy Kripples,” Christopher Reeve (“the most courageous, the most amazing man on the planet”) comes to town and upstages Jimmy’s standup routine (“Why is a celebrity that became crippled more important than those of us who were born that way?”). Jimmy and Timmy decide to join the Crips — the gangsta Crips — in nearby Denver. Eager to sign up, they agree to “pop some punk-ass Bloods” and end up blowing up 13 Bloods and becoming “the baddest mo-fo crips in town.”

Please remember, those of you watching prime-time network TV hoping to catch a glimpse of someone remotely like you, cable has been poisoning the minds of our children for years — and Timmy was voted “The Greatest Disabled TV Character” in a BBC website poll. Diehard fans of the show have been hip to the dark side of “handicapable” for damn near a decade. [For an in-depth analysis of South Park's Timmy episodes, read Jeff Shannon's "Krazy Kripples: South Park and Disability" in New Mobility's November 2005 issue on www.newmobility.com.]

How far can this brand of humor go? Depending on your taste in outré comedy, it’s probably only going to get edgier and funnier. Humor is by definition disarming. Disability humor can miss, and miss badly — the “retard” character in Tropic Thunder, let alone the word, is as painfully embarrassing as “Mr. Yunoshi,” the buck-toothed Asian stereotype played by Mickey Rooney (in yellow face) in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But “good” comedy, as Carter-Long points out, “puts the spotlight on the unspoken obvious.” It’s all in the joke. “If you laugh at a gag, you’re there.”

Here’s a possible glimpse at the future of Dis-comedy, again courtesy of the Brits: I’m Spasticus, a Channel Four hidden-camera stunt show starring disabled comedy performers pranking the nondisabled. The title comes from a punk song by Ian Drury called “Spasticus Autisticus,” (Drury had polio as a kid). It is an especially offensive title in the UK because the very word, “spastic,” is equivalent to the N-word in British argot. In any case, I’m Spasticus turns on Candid Camerabits like an amputee running out of the ocean yelling, “Shark!” or a blind fellow asking a delivery woman to read a pornographic letter out loud to him. I can’t imagine that some variation of this won’t be coming to American cable soon.

Media Generation Gap
I know about most of these comedy moments, and many more focused on disability from off-beat shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (wheelchair fakery, a common comic ploy) or The Secret Life of an American Teenager (regular character with Down syndrome), because my college-age son tells me about them. Some people have media radar much more highly attuned than others, and most of them are under 30. None of these shows, with the exception of the American Office, has major prime-time ratings. But this is where hard numbers and cultural impact part company. If my son is any indication, and I think he is, there is a whole post-ADA, post-cable, post-digital, media-by-any-delivery-system generation who watch hip comedy shows like the above and see characters with disabilities in all kinds of situations, as well as seeing meatheads like Ricky Gervais and Larry David make fools of themselves around these characters. Watching Timmy and Jimmy duke it out for Big Crip on the Block might strike their parents as coarse and mean, but the kids dig it. Like the whole town of South Park watching the fight, they are amazed and delighted.

This is also the same generation that DVRs anything to watch repeatedly and hangs out on websites like YouTube where countless videos show mostly young people with disabilities doing back flips off of skateboard ramps or careening down department store escalators. Or they can check out every brand of wheelchair athlete, from ballers to mountain hikers to competitive dancers. The Web is largely a medium of self-expression and self-definition, without rules of entry. There are no sad, angry, pathetic, or self-pitying disabled types on YouTube. Only mad dogs and lovers of life need apply.

Mainstream TV, in other words, is not the media prism through which any tech-savvy kid sees the disabled. The aforementioned college-age kid doesn’t even own a TV or care to. Mass popularity doesn’t matter. The best historical comparison to disability in this regard would probably be with the frequency and impact of blacks on TV. Statistically, there aren’t a lot of black faces on your nightly schedule. There used to be a lot more just a few years ago, but then UPN, a network featuring a slew of black-centric sitcoms, went out of business. There aren’t a lot of black writers writing TV or film, either, just like there are a paltry few writers with disabilities getting work. There are only three network shows with minorities in the lead: CSI, The Unit, and Ugly Betty. And this has been part of the public discourse for decades.

But, there’s a disconnect somewhere. The numbers suck, but there does seem to be a significant cultural shift in spite of obvious underrepresentation. The under-30 generation weaned on The Cosby Show has gone to every Will Smith movie and seen fictional black presidents from Chris Rock in Head of State to Dennis Haysbert on 24. To those kids, as has been widely expounded by every fly-by-night pundit on cable news, the act of electing a black president was no big deal. By a kind of slow cultural metamorphosis — not everywhere, of course, and not with everyone, and not fairly represented by authentic, diverse black characters on film and TV — attitudes have shifted. Barack Obama is living proof.

And it is no fluke that the words “disabled and not disabled” have appeared in virtually every stump speech Obama made on the campaign, not to mention his inaugural address. Sure, it’s just rhetoric, but it was never rhetoric used to get votes before. Obama has been sensitized by his own minority status, and he knows someone out there with a disability is voting. Also, you may not like her, and you may not like the phrase, “special needs,” but Sarah Palin’s unselfconscious inclusion of her child with Down syndrome in every photo op on the campaign trail was another textbook example of cultural normalization. John Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability, but I don’t remember seeing her out on the stump in 1960.

And while we’re talking about the long, long presidential campaign, no one watching TV could have missed the Liberty Mutual commercial starring Teal Sherer as a woman in a wheelchair who braves the rain and public transportation to exercise her right to vote. It’s an elegant, understated ad — there’s no dialogue — that implies someone in a chair is just as connected to the real world as every other sentient American. Is one disability-centric ad, shown eight zillion times, as beneficial as eight zillion such ads shown once? Probably not, but like “Got milk?” and the Geico gecko, it gets into your brain and stays there a lot longer than one of Jerry’s needy kids.

And There’s More
Another example of breakthrough gimp programming you may have heard about — again, geared to the young and hip — is a new series on MTV called How’s Your News? It’s a light-feature, on-the-road news show starring an entire cast of reporters with disabilities. Some are young, some are 60, and most have an intellectual disability, but they are out there, hanging out with John Stamos or making cheese balls with Amy Sedaris. Earlier versions of the idea have surfaced before, but this is the big series shot. The show has yet to air as of this writing, so I can’t critique the final product, but I’ve seen enough footage on the Internet to get the gist. The order is for only six episodes, and it could fade like the wind — most TV series do — but it’s in the mix, part of this glacial shift in media impressions of the disabled.

A laundry list of exemplary TV shows, most of them admittedly including disabled characters only in one-off, self-contained episodes, might not convince you of a “revolution,” but let me throw in a few non-comedy examples for good measure. Media professor/blogger Beth Haller (http://media-dis-n-dat.blogspot.com) follows this stuff pretty closely. She makes an important distinction between what she calls shows that provide “empowering visibility” — i.e., those employing disabled performers to play disabled characters — versus those with nondisabled performers playing disabled characters. An example of the former is RJ Mitt in Breaking Bad or Haller’s choice of most visible disabled performer of 2008, Marlee Matlin, on Dancing With the Stars. An example of the latter would be the recently wheelchair-using doctor on Nip/Tuck — though he’s still a lion in bed — or the chronically grouchy man with a bad leg, constant pain, and a cane, Dr. Gregory House.

Whatever the context, most of us would agree with Carter-Long, who flatly states, “What the world needs now is to see more of us, period.” Reality shows seem to have picked up on that theme more than other TV fare, but not always in the most beneficial light, the best example being Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the popular, do-good series that draws 10-12 million eyeballs a week. In Haller’s words, it “embodies a ‘tragedy/charity model’ in which people with disabilities become objects of pity.” Raynor says the whole disabled community comes off looking like “a community of need” in this show. Extreme Makeover, she says, “is no different than Queen for a Day.” It might make America feel good about being vicariously charitable, but it plays to the worst stereotype of the helpless crip. Of course everyone on this show is forlorn and needy — that’s the whole reason they’re on. Now … if Ty Pennington and his merry crew were all disabled, helping nothing but pitiable nondisabled people-in-distress …

All of the above observations come from watching TV and film from outside the business, like Joe Six-Pack and/or his iPod-addicted 14-year-old. It’s a much, much different picture when you look at it from the point of view of disabled actors, writers, directors, and other creative types trying to ply their trade.  Whether the killer stat that only .5 percent of all speaking characters on TV are disabled still holds true today, the brutal fact is if you eliminate a handful of recurring and a few more one-off parts played by disabled actors, the other couple of thousand in SAG are scrambling for a job. This is the impetus behind a massive campaign just getting off the ground called “I AM PWD,” (www.iampwd.org) which stands for “Inclusion In the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities.” Organized by the big three performers’ unions — SAG, AFTRA and Actors Equity — this is a major, three-year awareness effort to shake things up in Hollywood.

As one of I AM PWD’s leaders, Robert David Hall, that dashing, double-amp coroner on CSI, commented recently at a press conference that this is not an effort to give disabled actors work. Nobody gives nobody nothing in Hollywood. It’s just an attempt to widen the door, so to speak, and let them into the audition room to try out (and usually fail) like anyone else. This means a whole new consciousness among producers, directors and casting directors as to who qualifies to get a casting call to audition for what role. Which means: letting disabled actors try out for roles not specifically written for a disabled character, and in fact, letting that actor play the role without ever mentioning his or her disability. What a concept!

And this extends to broadcast jobs, too. I mean, why isn’t every local newscaster in American in a wheelchair? They just sit behind a desk and read the news. It takes no legs and only half a brain. Hey, I can do that!

If you are a cockeyed optimist, like some of us, things can only improve, even for actors and writers with disabilities, though both parties have heard this tune for years. There are a couple of arguments for this. For one, a character with a disability makes for a more off-beat character; also, a character contracting a disability provides a built-in story turn in a melodrama, as has been seen at least since An Affair to Remember (1957).

More off-beat shows, especially on cable, more stories, more melodramatic turns are needed. Plus, as Carter-Long has seen in countless screenings and preview rooms, audiences are bored spitless with the traditional triumph-over-adversity disability story line. They’ve seen that show a million times. They get that joke. His contention is that what people want with their disabled characters nowadays is pretty much what they want with all characters: comedy and sex. And, hell, maybe even a little violence, like Timmy and Jimmy joining the Crips and popping some punk-ass Bloods.

There are huge hurdles ahead, especially for those with more severe disabilities. A guy with a limp like House is easier to cast and foist on an unsuspecting public than, say, a doctor who is a C3 quad with a ventilator, though either could be equally brilliant and obnoxious. Little people tend to appear “more normal” — Liz Lemon just dated one on 30 Rock — than someone with CP or a stroke survivor who speaks haltingly. Barack Obama, after all, is only half-black.

Nevertheless, we are definitely on the way, certainly with a new generation of post-TV media watchers, and if major industry efforts like I AM PWD and all of those up-from-the-underground irreverent depictions of life with disabilities don’t improve things, then we’re all in trouble. It’s not going to happen fast, that’s for sure. One in five Americans is disabled. Do not hold your breath waiting to see one in five disabled characters in the next version of Two and a Half Men. The aforementioned 30 Rock is probably the closest next-step. There’s a black guy, an old guy, a smart woman, a dumb woman and an even dumber page. Switch out one of those for a character in a chair, and we’re in business.

In the meanwhile, just ask the nearest teenager what to watch when it comes to the burgeoning gimp media revolution. They’ll fill you in.

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