Spending a lot of my life in bed means that I have watched far more television than is intellectually healthy for a person. Having a disability myself, when a show portrays disabled characters my Spidey senses begin to tingle. I’m almost never impressed with the portrayal of these characters, who are generally two-dimensional, sometimes villainous and usually tokenistic. But more than this, they are extremely rare.
Ryan Murphy is responsible for about 90% of the disabled characters I’m aware of- though this may say more about my atrocious taste. There are numerous articles and posts regarding Murphy’s inherently ableist portrayal of disabled characters. One such article, by Bitch Flicks, discusses Murphy’s portrayal of people with Down’s Syndrome. I’m in agreement with many of the points raised- particularly the lack of three dimensional characterisation of such characters, but there are some points in this, and many other articles I just can’t agree with.
One recurring criticism of disability within Murphy’s shows is the way these characters are treated by other people. Critics of his shows often conflate the ableism of the characters with the ableism of the shows themselves. I cannot speak for all disabled people, but for my part I experience ableism pretty much every day of my life. Either through disempowerment, or the downright nasty, it is an ever present reminder of how society views me. If shows presenting disabled characters, never presented ableism, it just wouldn’t ring true. Whether ableism should be shown in these shows, I suppose comes down to what we see as the purpose of television, and its responsibilities. Should shows be didactic and portray the change they wish to see in the world? Or should they be an, albeit escapist, reflection of reality? Both views can be problematic. If we decide they should present an idealistic view of reality, then they run the risk of sweeping the problems our society faces under the carpet. If they reflect reality, they potentially normalise prejudice, allowing such views to continue unchallenged.
Within the first season of American Horror Story (Murder House), there is a character called Adelaide, who has Down’s Syndrome. She repeatedly experiences ableism- she is called a freak by her neighbour, and her own mother calls her a “mongoloid” and shouts at her that she’s “not a pretty girl”. This ableism doesn’t sit in the show unchallenged however; Vivian, her neighbour, shouts at her husband when he refers to her as a freak, and her mother has an epiphany about her cruel treatment of her daughter, only once she has died, and it is too late for her to do anything about it. Indeed, Adelaide, through her mother’s communion with a spiritualist, is able to censure her mother’s behaviour from beyond the grave, in a way that she wasn’t able to during her life, due to the disempowerment she experienced at her hands.
This internal criticism of ableism seems to me the best resolution in the portrayal of disability in popular television. However, Murphy doesn’t seem able to maintain this within the other seasons of AHS, or in Glee. In the latest installment of AHS (Freak Show), there is a glut of murders. Each and every one of them at the hands of a disabled person. The show opens with one of the conjoined twins, Betty and Dot, murdering their mother. Then there is a spate of murders by a killer clown known as Twisty who suffers from learning difficulties, and who is also visibly disfigured. Following this, Jimmy aka Lobster Boy, one of the sideshow “freaks” with disfigurements of his hands murders a detective. This leads onto Dandy- a rich spoilt young man, infantilised by his mother, and living in a state of perpetual boredom. It soon transpires that he has been murdering animals from the local neighbourhood, which escalates to him assisting Twisty with holding a young woman and child captive, and eventually murdering his maid (played, by the way, by the criminally underused Patti Labelle). Upon discovering her body, Dandy’s mother remarks about how all extremely affluent families have a “psychotic” lurking- seemingly confusing psychosis with psychopathy. Even a phantom who returns from the dead to claim Twisty is disfigured with diprosopus, bearing an additional face on the back of his head. This continuation in murderous disabled characters is never remarked upon in the show’s internal narrative. Some justification is attempted at- as if experiencing ableism is necessarily brutalising, but that is all.
Mat Fraser, who plays Paul aka “The Illustrated Seal Boy”, eloquently discusses his character in Freak Show in this interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2zR0vgESBo. He makes some important points. The show has created work for disabled actors, which by current standards is pretty amazing. And this season, unlike past seasons, is doing a pretty brilliant job at giving disabled characters a back story. Fraser describes the show as having “balls”. Indeed it does, it takes a leap of imagination to have characters with disabilities within a show, and even more so to break out of the lazy tropes of “obnoxious cripple”, or “saintly disabled” person. Fantastically, the show is providing disabled characters with sexualities, as Murphy did with the characters of Artie and Becky in Glee, though this is not to say that this isn’t also at times problematic, in part due to its role as something sensationalising.
Whilst, I’m all down with ableist characters open to censure, Murphy has been guilty of portraying some screwed up ableism as sympathetic. In one episode of Glee, Artie, who has paraplegia, dreams in It’s a Wonderful Life fashion, about what the lives of his loved ones would be like if he wasn’t disabled. Frighteningly, it turns out that everyone’s lives would have been demonstrably worse if Artie was abled. Murphy portrays this as a good thing- yay Artie’s disability isn’t for no reason, and he can now be happy that he’s confined to a wheelchair! It’s insulting at best. Disability usually is for no reason, and if the people I surround myself with were better off with me being disabled, then I’d wanna get me some better people pronto. Artie comes to a point of acceptance with his disability, finding that for everything there is a reason. After 21 years I’m yet to come to a point of acceptance with mine, though I’m sure there are plenty of people who have fully come to terms with their disabilities, but to suggest that we’re disabled to make non-disabled people feel good about themselves is a pretty shitty thing.
At other times, disability is just a joke. On one episode of Glee guest starring Gwyneth Paltrow she encourages her class to practice their bipolar rants- no internal criticisms of this whatsoever. As stated by Bitch Flicks, the character of Becky, who has Down’s syndrome, has her internal dialogue presented as a joke, and her sexuality is presented as something almost grotesque.
Sometimes Murphy holds up a mirror at ableist society and shows us its ugly reflection, and he does it well. But other times he stands shoulder to shoulder with that ableist society and doesn’t seem to understand that often, he’s part of the problem.