Bully Pulpit: The Real Thing

Editor: This installment of Bully Pulpit was written about a month prior to Vic Chesnutt’s apparent intentional overdose on muscle relaxants. At that time I saw him as a courageous figure who had finally overcome his well-publicized suicidal impulse. The column stands as an example of how little we really know of each others’ innermost thoughts and motives. This is especially true where public figures are involved. I thought I understood him, but my source material was his persona, his image, not the real man. For a glimpse into Chesnutt’s life a few weeks prior to his passing, in which he discusses his music, his suicidal impulse, and his mounting medical bills — which some think may have triggered his final death wish — read the transcript of his Dec. 1, 2009 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross at:

 

More and more, public attitudes are shaped by virtual reality rather than firsthand experience. While the Internet continues to make inroads into our brains, when compared to a movie or a TV episode with a fully realized storyline, cyberspace is fragmented and often forgettable. I bring this up in order to focus on a disability issue that is steadily gaining in importance: the portrayal of people with disabilities in movies and TV.

There are two issues here: First, should actors with disabilities get priority in playing disabled characters? Answer: Intentional inclusion of actors with disabilities in auditioning for these parts should be a given. After that, it’s up to the casting director. The second — and more pervasive — issue is what effect these characters and images have on the public’s attitudes about disability.

Remember Million Dollar Baby? The 2004 movie was marketed as a boxing movie, but the focus was on the main character’s battle with quadriplegia after being paralyzed in the ring. In a nutshell, Hilary Swank’s tough-as-nails character uncharacteristically falls apart and asks Clint Eastwood’s character to kill her, which he does. The movie plays to the myth that quadriplegia is a fate worse than death, and to make Swank’s surrender believable, Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis created a completely unsupportive setting unlike any rehab hospital ever contrived. They let dramatic license trump authenticity — and thereby perpetuated a harmful myth.

Many of us with severe disabilities have considered suicide, but few carry through with it. More typically, we survive with the help of supportive physical therapists, the love of family and friends, and the gradual healing that comes with day-to-day coping.

This contrast between fictional and real life quads reminds me of Vic Chesnutt, the singer-songwriter/quad who was paralyzed in a car crash at 18. He’s now 45 and has just released his 17th album. Chesnutt started thinking of suicide well before his accident. Ironically, he says that the rehab experience was like being rebirthed. And even though he still struggles with self-confidence, he continues to write songs, perform and prosper. Chesnutt is clearly proud of himself for having survived – not as a quad — but as a professional musician for over two decades. Yet he is not interested in holding himself up as some kind of inspiration to others with disabilities. He just wants to be real. His quirky lyrics and transparent style often explore the dark side, yet, surprisingly, he comes out smiling his impish smile.

That kind of honesty is also needed in media portrayals if people with disabilities are ever to be seen as we really are. Like any other group, we are diverse. As individuals we are heroic and cowardly, inspirational and depressing, stable and teetering on the edge.

But I’m not convinced we’ll see this kind of authenticity in movie and TV characters with disabilities. Truth is, it doesn’t sell that well.

Where honesty has the greatest value, however, is in real life, in the way we interact with others each day. Let the silent audiences form their opinions based on media images. Meanwhile, we can be the real thing.

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