Tag Archives: Representation

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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How Much Should A Candidate’s Minority Status Matter?

21 Feb

White House(Image by Tom Lohdan used under CC 2.0 via)

 

With the presidential primaries well underway in the United States, voters are faced with the possibility of making history by choosing either the first female president, the first Jewish president, or the first Latino president. As in 2008, when Democrats were split between Clinton and Obama, the political sphere is deluged with arguments over how much minority status should and will influence the results.

As an American woman, I’ve been called upon by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and feminist giant Gloria Steinem to join my sisters in solidarity for Clinton. It is intriguing to observe this living as a woman in Germany, where Angela Merkel has been chancellor for over 10 years. Her policies aside, I consider her greatest success as a female politician to be the way in which so little attention is afforded her lifestyle and femininity. Few people know what her husband looks like because he shies away from politics. That she has never had children of her own is rarely mentioned let alone a headline. And she has had to endure hardly any national discussions of her fashion sense. (Indeed, it took the media 18 years to notice that she’s worn the same dress at gala events for nearly two decades.) It seems crucial to appreciate such an absence of time-wasting sexism when considering the way in which Julia Gillard had to face down accusations of her partner being gay, the way in which Margaret Thatcher had to pose with pots and pans to prove her housewife credentials, and the way in which Hillary Clinton has had to field questions about her last name, her scrunchies, and her sex life.

So what will it mean if the next U.S. president is a woman, Jewish or Latino? Seeing a member of any long-oppressed minority rise to power can be very moving. Only the fiercest of cynics could not find it heartening to see the United States seriously consider a female president nearly 100 years after so many fought to crush women’s suffrage. The same goes for seeing Sanders’ brother Larry tear up when he wishes that their parents—Jewish immigrants who lost relatives in the Holocaust—were around to see Bernie get this far. “They would be so proud,” he smiles.

When Barack Obama was elected, I could not suppress the lump in my throat upon seeing Virginia and North Carolina—two states that had banned families like the one he came from—swing in his favor. It was exhilarating to consider anyone who had fought to block the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act now having to take orders from a black commander-in-chief.

Similar smiles were exchanged here in Germany in 2009 when the government was run by a female chancellor, a disabled finance minister, an Asian technology minister, and an openly gay foreign minister. Of the latter a friend grinned, “I like the idea of the heads of state in Saudi Arabia and Russia having to shake his hand.”

Representation can have deep repercussions on a subconscious level. The phrase “You can be anything you want to be!” so often secretly strikes traditionally oppressed minorities as absurd, silently countered with a sigh of I’ll believe it when I see it. Representation offers proof of possibility.

And yet, as Barack Obama’s presidency has shown, one single person’s ascent to the most powerful position in the land is no guarantee of equality for all. Black Americans shot by police continue to be twice as likely to be unarmed than white Americans shot by police. The Southern Povery Law Center reports the number of hate groups in 2015 had risen from the previous year. The 114th Congress is the most racially diverse in U.S. history, albeit men and whites remain over-represented. And of course racist backlash to the very idea of our first black president is all but a Google search away.

This is perhaps unsurprising when a closer look at Obama’s electoral victories show that in both 2008 and 2012, the majority of white men did not support him. Opposition to Obama is of course not always racially motivated, but the numbers do not show as many segregationist minds being changed as all the fanfare about a post-racial America seemed to indicate.

Similarly, the Bundestag under Angela Merkel’s current government remains two-thirds male. The U.K.’s parliament is roughly the same, nearly four decades after Thatcher broke the glass ceiling. Benjamin Disraeli’s legacy as the U.K.’s first Jewish prime minister did not prevent the country from turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. There is thus little reason to conclude that simply electing a female, Jewish, or Latino president will signify a permanent absence of sexism or racism among the people.

But what could signify true and lasting change? Proportional representation has been shown to be a far better indicator of equal opportunity for all than the odd representation by a particularly powerful politician. Sweden has not yet elected a female head of government, but just under half of the representatives in the Riksdag are female. This percentage has been generally maintained for the past 10 years. It is the result of a continuous push from the Swedish women’s movement in the second half of the last century, which brought the proportion to 20% in 1972, 30% in 1990, and on up to the current near-parity. The U.S. Congress has the same proportion of female members now as the Riksdag did in 1972, ranking it 75th in the world.

This is why Steinem has been urging American women to help each other out in every election since the women’s movement, not just this one. Solidarity is certainly one of the best paths toward justice. But her eight-year history of accusing all of Clinton’s opponents of opposing the idea of a female president is unfair and as simplistic as sexism itself.

After all, voting for a candidate only for the sake of having a female head of government immediately supports not only the candidacies of Clinton and Merkel and Thatcher, but also of Sarah Palin and Marine Le Pen. Barack Obama and Ben Carson could not be more different, nor could Bernie Sanders and his former fellow senator Joe Lieberman. Policies should always—er—trump identity in the voting booth.

But while it is unreasonable to vote for a candidate only because he or she belongs to a certain minority, it is also unreasonable to vote against a candidate only because he or she belongs to a certain minority. This is why the discussions of identity and institutionalized xenophobia surrounding this election are as valid as they are necessary.

 

 

The Problem of Dwarfs on Reality TV

30 Aug

voyeurism(Image by Natasha Mileshina used under CC license via)

 

The new television schedule has kicked off both in the U.S. and the U.K. with the usual plethora of reality TV shows and the usual high number of shows zeroing in on people living with dwarfism: The Little Couple; Seven Little Johnstons; Our Little Family; Little Women of L.A.; and the grandfather of them all, Little People, Big World. Besides the patronizing titles and taglines, the shows feature factoids about dwarfing conditions and lots of melodrama thrown in with some social critique lite.

Having handed my life story over to a journalist for the umpteenth time this past spring, my husband and I recently discussed how important it is to be able to trust that your storyteller will not exploit you for entertainment value. It takes a perceptive mind and an agile hand to elucidate dwarf-related topics like bio-ethics, self-image, political correctness, beauty standards, harassment, adoption, job discrimination, pain management, and reproductive freedom—all of which could and have filled scholarly journals and books—via mere sound bites. At one point in the conversation my husband paused and said, “Just to make sure we’re on the same page, honey – we’re never appearing on reality TV. Right?”

I laughed and nodded reassuringly.

He was not unwise to worry.

Reality TV offers their subjects fame at the expense of their dignity. Documentaries and news features also carry a risk for this, but one element that distinguishes reality TV from journalism is the rock-solid guarantee of fights, tears, and bad-mouthing. For some participants there may be gratification in the knowledge that millions of viewers are interested in you enough to want to watch how you live every waking minute of your life, but it comes with the unspoken fact that they’re also waiting for you to slip up so that they have a good story to hash out among their friends and in gossip columns.

We are all vulnerable to voyeuristic temptation and the media knows this. It’s why it offers us up-close shots of survivors’ tears as soon as possible, and it’s why we click on them, despite recent and compelling arguments that this is socially irresponsible. The message of reality TV seems to be that no one really ever moves beyond middle school jealousy and superficiality, so we might as well let it all hang out. The better angels of our nature be damned.

Years ago, Cathy Alter mused via a glib article in The Atlantic about her rather bizarre obsession with dwarf reality shows. The greatest revelation came from her therapist, who explained, “I think regular size people feel more secure as people when they can observe midgets… I think that contrast is validating because we tell ourselves that at least there are people who have it worse, because they are small… We need the midgets to feel normal.”

This confirms what I have always suspected and, admittedly, feared. That millions of people are watching under the guise of wanting to understand difference while ultimately enjoying getting to look at lots of juicy pictures of freaks.  This is why these sensationalist shows do so well, while earnest, in-depth documentaries like Little People: The Movie remain out of print. Before the birth of reality TV in the late 90s, dwarfs were most often featured on daytime talkshows, alongside episodes featuring people caught in affairs and people who believed they were the reincarnation of Elvis.

As often the only dwarf in a given person’s circle of acquaintances, I have been told by many how touching they find these shows. How wonderful it is to see that “dwarfs are just like everyone else!” I can accept that there will probably always be a market for shallow entertainment that twists tragedy into soap opera and reduces the complexities of life into easy-to-swallow sentimentality, no matter how far society progresses. Tabloids will continue to exist because millions of people—including kind, intelligent people I know—will continue to buy them. In this regard, the individual shows are not so much problematic as is the fact that they are where TV viewers are most likely to see people with dwarfism.

Actress Hollis Jane, who called out Miley Cyrus last year for exploiting performers with dwarfism as sideshow acts, explained this summer why she turned down a contract to appear on Little Women of L.A.:

Other than Peter Dinklage, Tony Cox (Bad Santa) and Danny Woodburn (who played Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld), it’s nearly impossible to name successful actors and actresses who also happen to be little people. People get upset about the Kardashians representing women in America but for every Kardashian there is a Meryl Streep, a Natalie Portman, or a Zoe Saldana. Little people don’t have that. I have wanted to be an actress since I was in first grade and I played the angel, Gabriel, in a nativity play. I held firm to this dream until sixth grade when a parasitic thought crawled into my head and told me that I would never be an actress because I was a little person. I realized that since there was no one on television who looked like me, it meant that there would never be… When Game of Thrones premiered, my world was rocked. Peter Dinklage was doing the impossible. He was being taken seriously as an actor without exploiting his height for shock value or a joke. The night he won his Emmy, I cried for an hour.

She adds, “I have nothing against the women on these reality shows. There is a part of me that thinks it’s great we have little people on TV in any capacity…but I also think we deserve more than that.”

If the general public truly believed this, if reality TV viewers truly saw their dwarf subjects as their equals rather than curiosities, then we would see a lot more dwarfs as newsreaders and game show hosts, on sitcoms and dramas, in romcoms and thrillers, playing the leads and the heartthrobs and the bella donnas. Perhaps that day will come, but for now few people can name a single dwarf actress and many dwarfs get told that they look like “that guy on the show about the little people.” That’s our reality.

 

 

What Makes A Story “Depressing”?

24 May

I recently read Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum, winner of the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and several other accolades. When describing it to friends as a story told from the perspectives of patients and staff at an institution for severely disabled minors, I got a common response: “Well, that sounds like a fun read!”

I will perhaps never fully grasp what distinguishes a depressing story that brings you down from a great drama that hooks you from the start. The bestselling books in the English language are about a boy who must face down his parents’ killer, a girl who spends hours in her lover’s Red Room of Pain, and a high schooler who can’t wait to have a monster baby with an emotionally disturbed vampire. Crime shows and novels continue to be wildly popular through the generations. If you turned on the closed captioning for most of the top-grossing films of the last 30 years, you would be reading, “[scary music],” every few minutes.

Why do we embrace all this while believing that a book that starts off with the rants of a teen in a wheelchair might be too heavy to handle?

Of course, realistic portrayals of suffering pack a far more visceral punch than contrived ones. Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars will widely be perceived as less distressing than The Piano and Love Is Strange because, despite their carnage, the adventure stories never get inside their victims’ heads. Touchy-feely tales embraced by mass audiences tend to have happy endings, or at least the satisfying downfall of an easily identifiable villain. This is why, as Salon’s book critic Laura Miller has pointed out, a story is schlocky and sentimental insofar as it lies to the audience.

And Good Kings Bad Kings does not lie to its audience. I embarrassingly ended up having to conceal tears streaming down my cheeks while sitting on a bus as I read about one particularly beguiling character who (SPOILER ALERT) dies after getting third-degree burns in the shower due to human error and then catching pneumonia after surgery. I can attest that such a tragic scene is representative of reality, not sheer melodrama. I lived in a pediatric hospital for five months when I was a pre-teen, and the next year I learned that one of my friends had died after his breathing apparatus failed due to human error, and another one had died from catching pneumonia after surgery.

Living at that hospital was far from easy. As I’ve written before, listening to others share their realities in group therapy was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. But while the human fear of death and suffering is rational and something I never lost, living alongside the patients did knock down many of my fears of illness and disability that were irrational.

Within a few weeks on the ward, I was no longer disconcerted at the sight of head injuries, tracheostomy tubes, stumps, or burned faces. At first I stared. Many of the owners stared back at me and my Ilizarov fixators. We all stared at anyone with a condition we hadn’t seen before. And sometimes we stared at each other’s wheelchairs out of envy. But the constant exposure soon rendered such features as mundane to us as glasses, braces, and freckles. We were used to it. What is the harm in allowing the rest of the world to get used to it, both through inclusion in society and representation in books and film?

As a study published in Science found, reading literary fiction makes you more emotionally intelligent. As The New York Times reported, “This was true even though, when asked, subjects said they did not enjoy literary fiction as much. Literary fiction readers also scored better than nonfiction readers — and popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing.” The results are unsurprising when literary fiction distinguishes itself from popular fiction by avoiding formulas and stereotypes. We’ve already seen that avoiding stereotypes fosters more creative, innovative thinking. Now it makes us better at understanding each other, too.

Indeed, literature provides characters who are realistic because they are just as complex as we all are. Realistic characters don’t make us the readers like them. They make us understand them, while simultaneously being a little bothered by them because we recognize their faults and selfish impulses in ourselves. In other words, a great literary feat doesn’t show you good people triumphing over the bad. It shows you how and why we hurt each other.

The harm in Good Kings Bad Kings is not wrought by cackling villains upon innocent angels. It comes from the fear, anger, and selfishness easily recognizable in everyday life. And it is visited upon disabled people who are not dying to escape their diagnoses but who are sick of the condition our society has left them in. As Susan Nussbaum writes in her afterword:

I used to wonder where all the writers who have used disabled characters so liberally in their work were doing their research. When I became a wheelchair-user in the late seventies, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured in the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed in the end, but it was for the best. Lenny [in Of Mice and Men] was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him. It was a mercy killing. Ahab [in Moby Dick] was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingfield [in The Glass Menagerie] had a limp, so no man would ever love her…

None of the characters I write about are particularly courageous or angelic or suicidal, bitter for their fate, ashamed to be alive, apt to kill anyone because they have an intellectual or psychiatric disability, or dreaming of being cured or even vaguely concerned with being cured.

And that’s what makes realistic portrayals of disabled people so significant. Not for the sake of inspiration porn. Not to make us proud of how good we have it. But to welcome disabled people’s lives, stories, and perspectives into the arts and therein mainstream society.

The assumption that a story about severely disabled characters must be overwhelmingly upsetting is precisely the mentality that marginalizes severely disabled people. If we won’t read their stories because they’re too sad, we’re not very likely to know how to approach them in real life.

And for all its lines about the importance of realistic stories for the sake of galvanizing greater empathy, The New York Times never reviewed Nussbaum’s award-winning book.

 

 

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

Tropes are ideas we construct based on observing patterns in society and wanting to understand them. Stereotypes are ideas we construct based on hearing about patterns in society and accepting them at face value. Needless to say, stereotypes based on that which we have no choice about—our sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, physical traits, or mental abilities—usually do more harm than good.

Not only do they deny minorities equal rights and opportunities, but a recent study shows that embracing racial stereotypes leads to creative stagnation. So how do we combat them? 

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s call for a dialogue on race in America, Harvard researchers announced a competition to find the quickest, most effective method for getting people to let go of the prejudices they have about a certain group. The results? Calls for empathy and other try-to-put-yourself-in-their-shoes methods were largely ineffective.  What worked best was showing the participants counter-stereotypical images. World leaders with severe disabilities. Parents proudly painting their son’s toenails. Construction workers nursing their babies. Sons helping out with the housework.  Seeing is believing, apparently.

It is crucial to note that celebrating diversity can feel patronizing, especially to the subjects. The goal, after all, is to drive stereotypes to extinction so that observers find absolutely nothing extraordinary about any of the above images. Because the subjects do not feel extraordinary, at least not all the time – they feel normal.  No person who can qualify as a minority or counter-stereotype should feel pressured to spotlight their everyday life if they don’t want to.  But it is encouraging—if not unsurprising—to see that altering media portrayals of society alters a good deal of the prejudices plaguing too many corners of society.

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

For me, it validates the importance of being out as a gay person. How else are people going to believe that a nice white Jewish girl who dresses femme and doesn’t look particularly counterculture can be queer if I’m not out like a friggin’ lightbulb everywhere I go? I’m not doing it just for me – I’m doing it so that when a little kid looks at the world and thinks about being gay, that kid sees the full spectrum of possibilities, not just a cultural stereotype. Those of us who control visuals and representations of people in the media need to remember to wield our power for good.

We often forget the power we wield when we have a stereotype in our hands, thinking it’s bigger than anything we can do about it. But it is not.  And that is wonderful.