The Gimp Media Revolution
By Allen Rucker
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.
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"
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 Camera bits 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
Dreamy RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy in real life, plays Walter Jr. on AMC's Breaking Bad.
Dreamy RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy in real life, plays Walter Jr. on AMC's Breaking Bad.
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
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.
Gotta Ditch the Quad