Tag Archives: Film

How Far Can Our Imagination Go?

16 Apr

 

Years ago on The Daily Show, comedian Lewis Black offered a weak defense of using the R-word. In his tirade, Black yuk-yukked about the idea of a show starring developmentally disabled people. His joke was hilarious if you find the sheer idea of such a show hilarious.

Well, this week the German disability advocacy organization Aktion Mensch has published a video that asks, “What if disabled people got to be the stars in Hollywood movies?” As examined before on the blog, it is a genuine problem that almost no famous actors are disabled and almost no disabled actors are famous. So with that I leave you all the video above and best wishes for this holiday weekend.

 

 

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Misremembering What “Great” Looked Like

2 Apr

Rogier_van_der_Weyden_(workshop_of)_-_Portrait_of_Isabella_of_Portugal(Public domain image used via)

 

How much of a story about life in the good old days is fact and how much is fiction? In the HBO miniseries John Adams, a mob of Patriots attack a British customs officer, strip him naked and cover him in tar and feathers. The scene shows the victim slathered in asphalt tar – a substance that did not exist in the 1770s. Mobs instead used pine tar, which is brown instead of black, but filmmakers of course knew that modern viewers would not recognize it as easily as they would asphalt.

Such artistic license is arguably negligible and John Adams deserves distinction as a period drama that is predominantly accurate, rendering its characters and indoor scenes as gray and as musty as life was before electricity and indoor plumbing. Most filmmakers prefer to embellish period dramas, opting for audience appeal over historical accuracy. In the 2002 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the Victorian protagonists serenade their beloveds with an upbeat jazz number, which is the equivalent of playing disco music in 1945. And for most of the story, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett look like they always do – that is, clean-shaven and donning boyish coiffures they previously wore in romantic comedies set 100 years later. While parasols and top hats abound, no one in the film is flaunting the glistening hair gel and heavy handle-bar mustaches of the play’s original stage production in 1895.

Directors almost always decide that lovers and heroes in period pieces should adhere to contemporary fashion rules from the neck up, lest audiences be less likely to swoon. Thus pretty much any film set in Ancient Egypt, Rome or the Early Modern Era pretends that men never wore eyeliner or lip rouge. (And that all the good guys looked white.) Films set in the Victorian era correctly leave cosmetics off the men but wrongly apply it to the female characters, who would have been insulted by anything more than face powder. (Makeup was for actresses and prostitutes, and Victorians didn’t see much difference between the two.) Even though Queen Elizabeth II is the most famous woman in the world, the actress who portrays her in the award-winning series The Crown has a far daintier nose and jaw, with eyebrows plucked to evoke the cover girls of today. Filmmakers who wish to forego such historical inaccuracies face an uphill battle, according to John Adams director Tom Hooper: “Wherever possible I wanted to do things that weren’t about making people beautiful. The truth is there’s a whole machine of filmmaking that’s all about making people look great. And you have to really intervene in every department to sort of say, ‘No, I don’t want that. I don’t want people to wear any makeup. You’re not allowed to wash people’s hair.’ ”

Hollywood takes such liberties in the hopes that the audience will barely notice. Viewers watch period dramas in order to oo and ah at the finery, and imagine that they could easily slip into an earlier era and have a grand old time. They can imagine this because they are protected from unpleasant information such as the fact that the powdered and painted aristocrats of Louis XIV’s courts regularly relieved themselves in the gilded corridors and behind the velvet curtains of the palace. Horace Walpole noted the stench at the time, but Hollywood has yet to. The audience’s comfort comes at the expense of the opportunity to learn that standards of attractiveness, cleanliness, and morality are far from universal, shifting continuously throughout human history. Likewise, it is an opportunity to learn that our feelings of disgust are often not innate but a product of where and when we grew up.

A handful of films and plays have thrived by underscoring the changes between then and now. Mad Men earned critical acclaim and a loyal following not only for its meticulously authentic fashion but for subtly laying bare the secrets of everyday life in the early 1960s that TV shows of the era had omitted: rampant infidelity, casual racism, sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, misogyny, covert homosexuality and vicious homophobia, legal date rape, domestic violence, and health hazards as far as the eye can see. Hamilton has been a Broadway sensation for deliberately altering the facts and urging the audience to take notice – wanting all to be fully aware of the historical significance of people of color portraying national heroes who owned slaves.

Mad Men and Hamilton have garnered attention precisely because they deny audiences the escapism so commonly peddled by period pieces. Escapism can be innocuous, but not when it warps our sense of reality and the world as it is, once was, and should be. When wildly popular stories like Gone with the Wind and Song of the South portray plantation life as merry, influential social conservatives argue that African-Americans had no complaints before the Civil Rights Movement. When populist politicians inform voters who pride themselves on a lack of “elitist knowledge” that they can make their countries “great again,” difficult truths about the past remain problems unsolved. Too often our glorious history as we like to think of it is more fantasy than fact – which is why sociologists call it The Way We Never Were.

 

 

Auf Augenhöhe – A Film about a Boy’s Search for His Father Who Happens to Have Dwarfism

9 Oct

  

Auf Augenhöhe (“At Eye Level”) is a German film by Joachim Dolhopf and Evi Goldbrunner currently playing in theaters across the country, starring Jordan Prentice and Luis Vorbach. Michi (Vorbach) is an 10-year-old foster child living in a home. He’s at the age where put-downs and one-upmanship are conversation-starters both at breakfast and on the basketball court. Dissing your opponent’s family is standard fare, but it carries extra weight for him and his housemates, many of whom were neglected or abused by their parents. Michi was raised as a toddler by a single mother until her death. Since the identity of his father is unknown, he can and does make up stories about how cool his dad must be whenever he needs to swagger in front of his friends.

Early on in the film he discovers a letter at the bottom of a keepsake box addressed to his father, Tom Lambrecht, who lives not far away. Michi heads to his house and leaves a letter under his door, explaining who he is and inviting him to meet at the foster home. On his way out, a neighbor points him in the direction of Tom’s rowing team. Michi heads over and hears someone utter his father’s name. The man who answers to the name is curly-haired and 4 feet tall (1.24 meters). Michi runs away.

Previously unaware he ever had a child, Tom is shocked to discover his son’s letter and worries about the prospect of meeting him. He is fearful of how his son might react to his size. “And what if he’s short-statured, too?” he asks a friend. “He’ll blame me.”

“Well, it means he’ll already know all about it,” his friend shrugs.

Tom shows up at Michi’s foster home and in this moment Michi’s world of pre-teen posturing transforms into a nightmare right out of Lord of the Flies. He and his father are shoved, screamed at, mocked, grabbed and pelted with chips until neither of them can hide their tears. The scene is painful because no amount of Tom’s attempts at being the adult in the situation can protect either of them. After Tom leaves, the bullying remains and takes on more sadistic forms. A garden gnome hanging from a noose outside his window drives Michi to run away and show up again on Tom’s doorstep, insisting he live with him. Tom agrees, but their problems are far from over.

Michi blames Tom for ruining the life he had by entering it. Tom is riddled with guilt and endures his son standing 10 feet away from him in public. Kids from the foster home show up and spray-paint “Verräter” (“traitor”) on their apartment building.

It’s reminiscent of another German film, Young Törless (1966), which like Lord of the Flies sought to pinpoint the roots of the Nazis’ cruelty by examining bullying at a turn-of-the-century boarding school for boys. Auf Augenhöhe adds the emotional problems of young people failed by neglectful parents into the mix. But it doesn’t let non-orphans off the hook either.

Because an even more painful scene soon follows when Tom is at the gym with his rowing team. Two gawking men creep up behind him to snap a photo—a common humiliation for people with dwarfism today, as I’ve written before—but his teammates come to his defense. They are successful in getting an apology out of the perpetrators because there are only two of them. The moral of this film, Young Törless and Lord of Flies could well be that no good comes of allowing the mature to be outnumbered by the immature, no matter their age.

After the incident, Tom lashes out at his friends, accusing them of only defending him out of pity. This was the hardest scene for me to watch because I could understand both sides of it. No matter how self-confident you are, the knowledge that a good deal of the world can’t handle your Otherness feeds paranoia. In moments when people in power strike you down, that paranoia can rise up and reign supreme, making you doubt the open-mindedness of everyone around you. Yet to act on such paranoia is rarely helpful, and Tom later apologizes at the next rowing practice.

Hours later in the bar, his friends insist that they should apologize. “I’ve got to admit I always assumed things were easier for you than they actually were,” one of them says. “And yet if I’m really honest with myself, I am glad I don’t have to deal with the problems you do.”

“Thanks for your honesty,” Tom nods.

Michi is also granted such honesty from a few peers over time. And of course he and Tom gradually warm to one another as odd couples in film are wont to do. Auf Augenhöhe has been marketed as a family comedy, and for that reason I had feared a predictable schlockfest of sight gags, height puns and an overly simplistic sing-song that we’re all the same inside! But the film is more contemplative than that. It’s heavy on dialogue, largely avoids clichés, and the acting is excellent.

There aren’t even that many jokes. Scenes of Tom standing in a streetcar, nearly smothered in the crotches of other passengers is presented soberly, not for laughs or tears. A young viewer sitting next to me smirked at the image of Tom using a step-stool to look through a peephole, but the film presents the adaptations in his car and around his apartment so matter-of-factly that any air of novelty quickly fades away. The biggest play on height comes when Tom turns it around to his advantage. When he lets Michi drive donuts in an empty parking lot, a police car pulls up. Tom switches back into the driver’s seat and puts on Michi’s hat before the police officer opens the door and is surprised to find an adult at the wheel.

“Honestly, officer, that we dwarfs are so often mistaken for children is quite humiliating. I think I’m going to need another session with my therapist to get over this,” Tom deadpans.

The officer issues his sincerest apologies before walking away and leaving father and son to burst into giggles.

That Luis Vorbach and Jordan Prentice develop such a chemistry on screen is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the Canadian Prentice delivered all his lines in English, which were then (almost seamlessly) dubbed over in German. I don’t know what that says about the state of job opportunities for German actors with dwarfism today, but in this case, the result is a cast of characters who are completely believable. This is no small feat when we consider just how many triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity films take the easy route with angelic and diabolical caricatures we only ever see in our fantasies. And Prentice redeems himself as an actor after his role in In Bruges (2008) and all the failures of that film to avoid freak show humor.

Three-quarters through the story there is another plot twist that borders on soap-opera. I won’t say anything about it other than that foster children or social workers may want to contest its credibility. But it gets a point across, and it’s a good point to make.

Glancing at the six other families in the theater with me at the screening—all of their children roughly the same age as Michi, some of them visible ethnic minorities—I wondered what kind of film they had been expecting. Were they drawn by the subject matter? Or by the trailer that makes the film look a lot goofier than it is? No matter what they were hoping for, I’m glad they saw it.

 

 

Note to Artists Who Aren’t Günter Grass: Dwarfs Aren’t Children

19 Apr

La petite Géante(Image by Marc H used under CC license via)

 

German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass passed away this week. His most celebrated work, The Tin Drum, is the story of a German boy living before, during and after the Nazi era, who decides he does not want to join the preposterously nonsensical world of adults and therefore is determined to stop growing. He throws himself down the stairs and successfully stunts his growth. Later he meets a dwarf circus performer named Bebra and joins up with him, performing on the Western front for German officers and eventually having an affair with Bebra’s lover, who also has dwarfism. The book, which involves far more storylines than I have adumbrated here, has justly earned nearly universal praise, and the 1979 film adaptation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the grand prize at Cannes.

The Tin Drum is a story of magical realism that instrumentalizes dwarfism in a complex way. “Our kind must never sit in the audience,” says Bebra, “Our kind must perform and run the show or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds. They will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.” These statements are loaded, ominously referencing dwarf entertainers like the Ovitz family who were being treated like lab rats by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz. Günter Grass came to prominence as a leading voice in the Vergangenheitsbewältigung movement that broke the silence about his country’s crimes. Any failure to illustrate the reality of dwarfs during the Holocaust years echoes the many tales of Medieval and Early Modern courts that portray dwarf servants and jesters merely as part of the scenery while saying nothing about the fact that these people were, to put it bluntly, slaves traded among the aristocracy, sometimes in cages.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hopfrog,” written in 1849, is one of the few tales to allude to these human rights abuses. In 1992, the PBS American Playhouse program adapted the story as Fool’s Fire. (I was invited to audition for the part of the protagonist’s little sister. My acting career ended thereafter.) Director Julie Taymore made the decision to portray the average-sized characters in monster-like masks and the dwarf characters without.

This make-up treatment was the precise opposite of how the directors of the Harry Potter films would later chose to portray dwarf actor Warwick Davis’s goblin characters alongside the humans. In addition to miserly goblins and slave-like elves, the Harry Potter books include dwarf characters. They are mentioned in passing as “raucous dwarfs” in a pub in the third book and reinforce the servant trope when they are dressed up like Cupid and sent through the school delivering valentines in the second book. One must wonder why the author felt the need to include them at all. They represent, if anything, yet another point at which J.K. Rowling’s chef d’oeuvre fails to be nearly as progressive as she seems to think it is.

It’s never fun to get upset about all this.  Size can be a genuinely magical idea worth playing with (as seen above).  But genuine upset tends to grow the longer it goes unacknowledged. In college I took a writing workshop where we were encouraged to write about sensitive, taboo, and offensive words. The N-word and the C-word were brought up almost immediately, and I decided to demand a debate about the M-word for dwarfs.  One of my classmates pointed out, “The problem with rude stuff said about dwarfs is that it doesn’t strike us as offensive or controversial. It strikes us as funny.”

Exactly. We’re too amusing to be seen as victims. Our human rights cannot be violated because we are not fully human.

The Tin Drum is all about humanity and employs absurdist characters and events for harrowing, not hilarious effects. It is a complex novel, as is Stones from the River, a German-American war story I am inclined to prefer because the protagonist is a non-magical dwarf. After being arrested for taking a crack at the swatstika, she is hauled before a judge who reminds her that she can’t afford to speak out against Nazism when people like her are prime targets for eugenics researchers.

While The Tin Drum did not invent the idea of comparing children and dwarfs, it would be nice were it the only example of it. This has hardly been the case. It’s a gag nearly every person with dwarfism has heard for the umpteenth time. The Simpsons have done it. The brilliant comedy team Mitchell and Webb have done it. After my third-grade class watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, my teacher pointed out—or perhaps conceded—that the Oompa-Loompas were portrayed by people who had dwarfism just like I did. One of my classmates said, “Oh no, they might have just have been children.” I looked at her cock-eyed, thinking, How can you not tell a dwarf from a child?

The fate of the main character in the crime-comedy In Bruges hinges on the villain mistaking a dwarf’s corpse for that of a child. The joke already appears earlier in the film, when the dwarf in question explains that he’s been hired to appear in a school boy’s uniform in a cinematic dream sequence and rolls his eyes at it. This sort of we-make-the-joke-but-also-make-fun-of-it-so-that-makes-okay schtick is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Short, of which one critic at The Quietus aptly said:

Perhaps this is some triple-axle attempt at post-post-postmodern irony, an ultra-sophisticated comedic in-joke that has tied itself up in such obscure knots it only seems crass to the un-knowing, the obtuse. Well, that’d be me because from where I’m sitting it looks like we’re supposed to be laughing at a guy for being too short.

It’s unfortunate because I really love In Bruges. Just as I love Willy Wonka and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Call it cynical, call it ironic, call it hilarious, but in these cases and so many others, deleting the dwarf characters would have allowed me to enjoy myself completely.

 

 

Trying To Understand Mini-Me

2 Feb

170739265KI00117_The_World_(Image by Ricky Brigante used under Creative Commons license via)

 

This month actor Verne Troyer (above) is featured in a National Geographic documentary series, Incredibly Small World, about the experience of living with dwarfism.  (Incredibly creative title, by the way.) Examining everything from the average-sized family of Amish origin he grew up in to his burgeoning career, Troyer hopes to spread awareness about dwarfs.  “Don’t look at us like we’re circus people!” he recently told The Daily Mail. Right on. 

But wait.  If you don’t want the world to see you as a circus freak, what was going on with Mini-Me?

While one of his most recent stints was in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Troyer is by far known best as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.  According to his profile in The Lives of Dwarfs, he had been in the acting business for years and was grateful to finally land a role in which he portrayed an adult human.  All of his previous work had mirrored Kenny Baker—the actor inside R2D2— moving about in robot, baby, alien, and animal costumes.  But to call Mini-Me “human” is debatable.   

While the Austin Powers plotline claims he is a clone (one-eighth the size) of Dr. Evil and therefore in training to step in for the villain at any time, Mini-Me has little to no agency.  He doesn’t even speak.  Other characters refer to him as “like a dog” or “that Chihuahua thing.”  Slapstick has its rightful place in film, and all the characters in Austin Powers are blunt stereotypes meant to parody the James Bond genre, but it’s hard to watch Mini-Me portrayed pretty much the way dwarfs were handled by the aristocracy in Early Modern Europe – like a pet.  (And when fully-grown adults are handled as nothing but pets, it’s called slavery.) 

Austin Powers could have used Mini-Me to skewer the James Bond character Nick-Nack, but instead it merely perpetuated the gag.  Most minorities can name a famous character/caricature that makes their skin crawl—Tonto, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Danvers—and Mini-Me is certainly up there for the dwarf community.

It makes me uncomfortable, but not enough to keep me from watching the films.  A lot of the scenes are as dull as the back-pages of an eighth grader’s notebook, but the jokes satirizing the Bond films are lovely: 

 

 

And Mini-Me is a funny name.  Just not the third time, or the fourth time, or the fortieth time that any given person with dwarfism hears it hollered at them on the street.

Today Troyer remains friends with Austin Powers creator Mike Meyers.  Cynics might say that networking is networking, and what dwarf actor wouldn’t remain loyal to someone who’d lifted him into the spotlight, no matter how dehumanizing the role?  Beggars can’t be choosers or bite the hand that feeds them. The tradition of the groveling dwarf actor grateful for anything he can get is so pervasive that Peter Dinklage has spoken out about the importance of dwarf actors turning down such roles for the sake of self-respect.  But when I see photos of Troyer schmoozing with Meyers, it reminds me of something other than begging or groveling.

Back when I was in elementary school, one of my classmates liked to lay his elbow on my head because I “made a great armrest.”  He would also regularly ask me, “How’s the weather down there, shorty?” to which my response was always, “Clouds of your bad breath.”  Not exactly Abbott and Costello caliber, but then again, we were eight.  I didn’t mind being the target of his jokes.  I almost liked it.  He wasn’t a close friend who’d helped me through any of my medical ordeals, but we knew each other, he talked to me and not only to laugh at my expense.  For this reason, I took his teasing as openness. 

That year was not an easy one in the schoolyard.  To be ostracized there means that those who don’t know you at all will hurl insults at your minority status from a safe distance, while those who do know you will stay eerily silent on the subject. This is why when someone talks both to you and about your difference, they seem to be demonstrating a delightful lack of fear. 

The millions of people who have giggled at Mini-Me, whether they are his viewers or his creators, aren’t necessarily harboring nasty views of dwarfs.  The difference comes down to who can not only laugh at him but talk to him, and who’s afraid to.

 

 

Who Gets Stuck in the Friend Zone

24 Mar

Love for all!(Image by Matthias Ripp used under CC license via)

 

Well, I finally sat down and saw The Phantom of the Opera a quarter of a century after everyone else.  (If you don’t know the story, this parody sums it up pretty well.)  I won’t say what I thought of all the songs songs songs because I’m bound to alienate half my readers either way, but by the second to last scene, I was hollering at the screen: “Girl, you’d better not go for that swaggering bully in the mask!”  But then she ripped the mask off and he couldn’t stop crying and I was up to my eyelids in Kleenex, wailing: “If only he hadn’t killed so many people!  (And talked to her instead of stalked her… )  Now he’s just another disfigured guy stuck in the Friend Zone!  But his pain is reeeeeeeeal!”

This week, the word “Friend Zone” has been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.  Many of my favorite feminists are not pleased.  Because the term is generally thought to be something only straight, bitter men complain about (see these Urban Dictionary definitions), many argue that it’s a misogynistic trope.  Lamenting the Friend Zone sends the message, however subliminally, that spending time with a female is pointless unless you gain access to her naughty bits.  Because who would want to be friends with a woman?! 

Such a bleak view of women is certainly a problem among many men.  In the words of John Mix Meyer, “Girls are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”  Nice for the sake of nice is respect.  Nice only for the sake of getting laid is not.  As I’ve said before, cross-gender friendship could use a lot more support in books, film, and mainstream society.

But I’ve also used the word “Friend Zone” before because I don’t believe it refers only to this one chauvinistic idea.  Unrequited love isn’t fun for anyone.  Lots of women have been stuck in the Friend Zone, too.  Many people are expected by pop culture to always end up there, because society deems them asexual, and it could be helpful to examine why.  Almost every adult on earth craves love and sex, and we are all trying to figure out what attracts those we deem attractive. 

Men who sigh, “Girls don’t like nice guys,” need to get over their narcissism.  But there are others who wonder in earnest why the Friend Zone seems so jam-packed with quiet guys who genuinely respect women.  In stories of every genre, from classic literature (Madame Bovary) to modern literature (Freedom) to dime-a-dozen bodice-rippers (The Bridges of Madison County), bored heroines look past their straight-laced suitors to the tall dark stranger who’s not exactly famous for his fidelity or his feminism.  Love triangles always make for good drama, but when the heroine more often than not decides that the devoted sweetheart belongs in the Friend Zone and the unpredictable bad boy belongs in bed, many scratch their heads and repeat, “Why do girls always go for jerks?”  Or, as The Mr. T Experience sings, “I have some problems… but even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can’t I?”

The answer often depends on the situation, but there are two fundamental, heteronormative traditions that prop it up:

The Macho Stereotype – Any guy who isn’t strong and independent to the point of being daring isn’t a “real man.”  Obeying the rules, doting on your wife, and being mediocre is emasculating.  Hence the double standard men are held to in real life: they are always expected to focus more on their success and autonomy than their emotional fulfillment.  Sociologist Stephanie Coontz has pointed out that the inordinate importance of independence to male worth is why homeless men arouse so much more disgust than homeless women.

The Gentler Sex Stereotype – A nice girl can see the diamond in the rough.  A man with a nasty wife is hen-pecked and pathetic, but a woman with a bad boy just might be the only one who understands him.  From a conservative standpoint, it’s virtuous of a woman to be so selfless and forgiving.  From a liberal standpoint, it’s the thrill of conquest that keeps her trying.  

A man’s worth is defined by his success, albeit many women accept broad definitions of success.  Western romances across the ages assert that special girls who search for the softer side of the bully or the bad boy will find it: Beauty and the Beast, Wuthering Heights, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Bonnie and Clyde, right up to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Pop culture reiterates ad nauseam how much men love the chase, but this trope shows that scores of women do, too.  For the starry-eyed heroine, it’s a challenge to stray from the disapproving masses—or her parents—and become the One Special Woman who can tame the beast and bring joy to his lonely life.  The higher the risk, the greater the reward.  The reward is knowing that she is deeper, different from those other girls who swoon over bland perfection.  Hence even America’s most famous feminist, Lisa Simpson, has looked past loyal, bespectacled Milhouse for Nelson, the schoolyard bully from a broken home.  

By far the most horrific result of this romantic tradition is the fact that too many women in real life endure abuse, or worse.  Pop culture sometimes concedes this and still has the audacity to romanticize it.  My high school did a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel the same year Time magazine declared it the Best Musical of All Time.  After wife-beater Billy Bigelow dies in an armed robbery, his widow tells their daughter, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”  You see, truly devoted wives know that offering yourself up as his punching bag is a way to show your love and nurture him as he struggles with his demons.  Only a selfish bitch would leave him when he needs her most.

Carousel was written in 1956, but the trope is still going strong.  The final film of the Twilight series lead NPR’s Linda Holmes to observe:

When a saga popular with pre-adolescent girls peaks romantically on a night that leaves the heroine to wake up covered with bruises in the shape of her husband’s hands — and when that heroine then spends the morning explaining to her husband that she’s incredibly happy even though he injured her, and that it’s not his fault because she understands he couldn’t help it in light of the depth of his passion — that’s profoundly irresponsible.

Yes, we’re all having a good yuk over the unhinged quality of it all.  And yes, it’s a movie with a monster baby… But romanticizing an intimate relationship that leaves bruises and scars is a particularly terrible idea in a film aimed at girls.  Talking about this is tiresome, but then so is putting it in the movie.

Indeed.

But attraction to the forbidden is not always dangerous.  Sometimes the bad boy is just misunderstood.  There is a powerful romantic tradition of fine ladies risking wealth and status for true love.  (See Aladdin, Titanic, Robin Hood, Moulin Rouge, Lady and the Tramp, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Pirates of Penzance, The Pirates of the Caribbean.)  There are also classic tales of heroines opening the gates to social progress by debunking their families’ horrid prejudices when they fall for men outside their race/nationality/religion/species.  (See Pocahontas, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, The Little Mermaid.)  The heroines of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Angst essen Seelen auf stare down the racial tensions of the era in which the films were released.  Meanwhile, Cyrano DeBergerac and the Phantom of the Opera both find out—albeit too late—that their beloveds would have looked past their disfigurement and loved them back. 

Since then, we’ve seen heroines end up with men with disabling injuries (often from war), while a handful go for guys who are congenitally disabled or disfigured.  As noted recently, Peter Dinklage’s romantic roles are possibly, finally breaking dwarf men out of the Friend Zone.  Great art obsesses over the blurry border between right and wrong, friend and lover, beauty and banality.  These compassionate heroines who try to understand the “bad” boys and the rejects help us deepen our perceptions of attractiveness.

It’s worth noting that the Phantom and Cyrano compensate for the supposed repulsiveness of their disfigurement with the sexiness of their genius.  They are supercrips.  Granted Gothic tales love to examine the complexity of blinding light draped in darkness.  I like a study of conflicting traits as much as the next starving liberal arts grad.  But it’s a ludicrously ableist tradition that only gives disabled superheroes a shot at intimacy, restricting ordinary disabled men like Quasimodo or the Seven Dwarfs to the Friend Zone.  And it’s an absurdly lookist tradition that restricts almost all of our disfigured and disabled women there.

Can you name a famous heroine who’s disfigured or physically disabled?  (Can you name a famous actress who’s visibly disabled, for that matter?  I might be able to, but I’d have to check Wikipedia to be sure.)  In the old days, disabled and disfigured girls might arouse sympathy (see Helen Keller), but the women were hags.  Period.  If women who were merely not conventionally attractive ever dared to step out of the Friend Zone and into the dating game, they were annoyingReally annoying.  And they were swatted away like flies.

Nowadays, love stories try to speak to women’s insecurities about their looks with quirky retellings of the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella.  The heroine perceives herself as unattractive, moaning, “Is it because of my [thighs/eyes/nose]?!”  (Rather than cursing, “That shallow jerk stuck me in the Friend Zone!”)  But we eventually see that she truly is a knock-out and it’s just a matter of finding the right man who will wipe the soot off her face, pay for a makeover, or simply remove her glasses.  Children’s films are getting a little better: Shrek and The Princess and the Frog feature heroines who are green-skinned for part of the courtship, though their Otherness is not quite as realistic as the Phantom’s or Quasimodo’s.  We’ve yet to see a heroine angrily unveil a severe facial deformity and hear her strapping lover say, “I think it’s intriguing.  And I wanna knock boots with you.  So.  Bad.” 

And why not?  Francis Bacon said, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”  I’ve overheard countless guys say, “Chicks dig scars.”  Which is true.  Lots of chicks got scars, too.

The popularity of a story is by no means an empirical examination of our values.  Most people I know are so much deeper than pop culture gives us credit for.  And there is a lot more to many of these stories than the tropes I just reduced them to.  But it would be daft to pretend that they have nothing to do with our collective psyche.  Every one of us treasures those romantic moments we experienced that were “just like in a movie.”  Our most popular books and films simultaneously reflect and influence what we tend to think is hot.  And when it comes to opening our minds, fiction is often the best messenger.  We look to entertainment for escape and to art for enlightenment.  The most powerful stories provide both. 

When I attended a lecture at the Network of Disabled Women in Berlin two weeks ago, there was a debate as to whether reality TV shows and documentaries help or harm perceptions of disabled women.  Good documentaries smash stereotypes by providing facts and figures, but the over-representation of disabled women in such reports combined with their invisibility in love stories, detective stories, and silly sitcoms suggests that they exist solely as objects of study.  They are there to satisfy our curiosity, but we’re rarely asked to root for them the way we root for Rapunzel or Bridget Jones.  We never follow them on a journey dripping with passion.  We should. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s newborn definition of “Friend Zone” reads: “a situation in which a platonic relationship exists between two people, one of whom has an undeclared romantic or sexual interest in the other.”  It doesn’t say it’s exclusively a problem for men.  And good for them.  To me, the term will always evoke the potentially destructive idea that certain “types” of people don’t ever need or deserve intimacy.  And we’ve got to keep questioning it.  Children, animals, and self-proclaimed asexuals automatically belong in the Friend Zone, along with your clients, patients, and students.  The disabled, the disfigured, the elderly, the ordinary, and the unsuccessful do not automatically belong there.  I’m counting on all of us, the storytellers and the lovers, to recognize the word so that we can recognize the problem.