How Media Prevents Us From Truly Empathizing With Disabled Characters

By Alaina Leary

flickr/BagoGames

I’ve never been the target audience for a television show, a movie, or a novel. I’m white — but I’m also a woman, queer, and disabled. Growing up with a disabled mother, we didn’t have a lot of money. Needless to say, I’m not the viewer that marketers are typically spending money on to reach. In fact, it’s been documented that marketers and creators systematically fail to target disabled people, because they don’t believe there’s any money to be made from our community. Because of this, media isn’t generally made with disability — or any diverse experiences — at the forefront of anyone’s minds. (Or wallets.)

As a kid and a teen, I don’t think I ever saw “me” in a character — at least not fully. There have been characters I’ve strongly related to: Luna Lovegood, Poussey Washington, Lorelai Gilmore, Blue Sargent. But I never get to say that I relate to a character, and they’re also disabled, just like me — and that matters.

It matters because a lack of disabled representation further “others” people like me — from our friends, family, coworkers, professors, peers — creating a distance and gaps in understanding between disabled people and everyone else. According to proponents of the We Need Diverse Books movement, representation acts in two ways. It offers a mirror — so that people can see themselves reflected in the media they consume — as well as a window, so people can gain understanding and empathy about experiences they haven’t had personally.

Not seeing yourself reflected in media can also lead to low self-esteem. For me, it caused me to question whether my experiences as a disabled woman even mattered. A lack of representation allows us believe that the pervasive negative stereotypes are true — we aren’t living full, meaningful lives. It also fails to show those around us how complex we are, giving them an opportunity to glimpse an experience outside of their own, abled life, and foster empathy.

A complete lack of disabled representation is deeply problematic, but so is black-and-white, nuance-less, uncomplicated, and stereotypical disabled representation. So is disabled representation written by abled people for abled audiences, written as a pity party or trauma porn. So is disabled representation played by abled actors for abled audiences to enjoy, without ever having to truly empathize or confront the disabled experience.

I consume media just like most of my abled peers; I’ve watched Rain Man, Forrest Gump, Me Before You, and The Big Bang Theory. And what does all of this media have in common? It wasn’t written for audiences to empathize with the disabled experience. These movies and shows were written to entertain, with the authenticity of the character’s disability a distant afterthought.

Abled people typically don’t even think about this as they’re consuming media explicitly depicting disability. It may even be their first — or only — experience learning about disabled people, if they don’t happen to know any. They then run the risk of taking these fallacious depictions as fact.

This phenomenon occurs across the media landscape, even among those storylines hailed for their terrifically diverse representation.

In Orange is the New Black, Suzanne and Lolly are — according to many of my abled peers watching the show — a “realistic look at how the law enforcement and prison system fails disabled and mentally ill women.” But I don’t think so.

Suzanne is a black, canonically queer woman who presents as intellectually disabled and possibly mentally ill. Lolly is a white woman who presents as mentally ill, most likely with a form of schizophrenia or similar paranoid disorder. Both characters are often defined by their disabilities and illnesses, and their plots are reduced to trauma porn — both in the characters’ pasts and in the show’s present.

I don’t think a couple of sad flashbacks per character can render Lolly and Suzanne into nuanced, fairly treated, whole characters. Abled people watching the show get a glimpse into these characters’ pasts, but I don’t think the show ever intends — and it certainly doesn’t succeed — in the audience actually empathizing with either one of them. OITNB doesn’t believe that its viewers have ever been in their positions — or at least the show isn’t trying to reach those viewers.

I’m autistic and I have related cognitive and learning difficulties. (Not all autistic people do, however.) I’ve always read Suzanne as potentially autistic, and definitely cognitively disabled — the way she struggles to connect with peers her age, the way she can’t perceive social cues, the way she gets over-excited about certain, specific things (like her previous job as a department store greeter) feels like all the right markers to convey this.

Because of these similarities, I wish that I could say I relate to Suzanne. I read her as disabled — even in one of the same ways that I am — and she’s queer. Just like I am.

But the truth is that Suzanne isn’t a character. She’s a trope. And she isn’t allowed to be a fully-fledged character; the show fails her consistently. The writers play up the idea that disabled and mentally ill people like Suzanne and Lolly can grow violent. Sure, it’s provoked in some cases — the violence comes from Lolly’s desire to save Alex in the heat of the moment. It comes from the guards and Maureen provoking Suzanne past her breaking point. Many people would probably end up behaving violently in both of those situations. But it’s pretty telling that — despite that reality — the writers chose two disabled characters to enact the violence; it’s two disabled characters who are thrown into the prison psychiatric ward to suffer in silence.

The show makes it so that abled viewers read situations in a way where disabled characters are at fault. As the Autostraddle piece “‘Orange Is The New Black’ Broke Everybody’s Heart To Teach Idiots A Lesson,” says: “even professional TV critics say that Poussey’s death was really Suzanne’s fault. She was melting down. He was trying to subdue them both.” And it’s true. If abled viewers read Poussey’s death as partially Suzanne’s fault, then the show is failing the disabled community, and is allowing people to find ways to forgive the privileged white male guard — even though that was against their intent for the season.

Abled people would like to argue that the show is being realistic in this portrayal. And that’s the same argument I see time and time again. It’s the same thing many fans of Me Before You (the book or the movie) use to defend the absolutely ableist portrayal of Will, and the entire plot arc for the story. In Me Before You, Will is a man who becomes quadriplegic in an accident — and then decides he wants to end his life. A majority of the movie — which is told through his abled love interest’s perspective — centers around the love interest trying to change Will’s mind . . . and failing. The disabled community has spoken out extensively on why this is problematic. “But people in his situation really might be suicidal,” abled people say. “It’s just being realistic.”

I agree. Disabled people can be suicidal. Mental illness and disability can be co-morbid, and depending on how an individual identifies, some people consider their mental illness a disability. But the disabled community — especially wheelchair-users — spoke out about the problems they felt the plot and characterization created, and were shot down. Actual disabled people said they felt that the media ignored the nuances of a disabled experience, that it was was written as trauma porn for abled viewers — and they weren’t listened to.

In most cases of disabled characters, the very characters who are representing me and my community for abled viewers, I don’t see much beyond their use as trauma porn or comedy. In OITNB, we aren’t supposed to be Suzanne or Lolly — we’re supposed to laugh at them when they do something “weird” or “crazy,” like when Lolly builds a time machine or Suzanne writes the “Time Hump Chronicles,” and then we’re supposed to cry and feel awful about their fates — about the way Suzanne and Lolly ended up in prison as a result of clear discrimination and how that same ableism has turn against them at Litchfield.

(The writers clearly aren’t thinking of cognitively disabled viewers like me, who are watching Maureen being egged on to fight Suzanne and thinking of the time in second grade when every student in my gym class started assaulting me with dodge balls, calling me a retard over and over, and trapping me in the corner of the gym until I was bruised and hysterical.)

Disabled viewers don’t need to see Suzanne and Lolly traumatized over and over again. We don’t need to finally see a love interest like wheelchair-user Will, only to have him end his life and have the movie mostly be about his abled love interest, Lou, and her character growth. We don’t need trauma porn and comedy at our expense.

In stark contrast to the aforementioned media, we have Finding Dory — which boasts a charming fish with short-term memory loss — a film that deftly portrays the difficulties and joys inherent in being disabled. We aren’t offered a saccharine plot-line of a magical triumph or a depressing wallow in despair. Instead we’re given a nuanced perspective that ultimately lets us know that having a disability isn’t synonymous with having a deficit.

While the movie wasn’t perfect, it succeeded in ways that so many other representations of disabled individuals have failed. And in a movie with more than one disabled character — including a main disabled character — and several great scenes where collective disabled access and empathy are shown, I couldn’t help but be blown away. (And then instantly a little sad that Dory’s the last character I can say I related to in terms of disability in a long time, and she’s not even human.)

I’m a realist. When I consume media, I don’t expect the disabled experience to be showcased. But when it does happen, I’m usually holding my breath that — for once — the disabled character(s) are nuanced, empathetic, whole. That they have a voice of their own and aren’t just a prop — or trope — for abled characters and plot-lines. That they’re allowed to exist, mourn, cry, laugh, and love. That I can look into my TV like it’s a mirror and say, “Hey, that’s me.”

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