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Getting it right: depictions of disability

December 15, 2009

Bitch recently wrote a post on the portrayal disabled characters in TV shows and how to get it “right”. Using examples, they came up with four ways:

1. Characters with disabilities have storylines and backgrounds beyond their disability.
2. If you’re writing a character that has a sudden disability caused by accident or illness, they’re not the only person who needs to adjust.
3. If you’re writing disability jokes, the butt of the joke doesn’t have to be the disability.
4. A spotlight is not necessary.

Although Joey Lucas from the West Wing is one of my favorite characters ever, of any ability, the example that struck me the most came from Twilight (which is rather surprising considering it’s normally critiqued as sexist, racist, homophobic, and I would add, contributing to rape culture):

There’s this one 5-second scene in the first Twilight movie. I remember it vividly: Jacob (one of Bella’s love interests) and Billy drive up to see Bella and her father, Charlie. Billy’s driving. They park. Without any comment or making a big deal out of it, Jacob gets Billy’s wheelchair out of the back of the pick-up truck, Billy gets into the wheelchair, and the fathers go inside to watch the game while the teenagers talk.

This is, seriously, my favourite scene in any movie I’ve watched in the past two years. There’s no dramatics! There’s no gasp in shock! There’s no “Hey, how is this dude driving when he’s in a wheelchair!” There’s no LOOK LOOK! at how edgy we’re being by having a disabled character!” There’s just… life. As it is.

This scene had always struck me too. My grandmother is in a wheelchair, and getting the wheelchair in and out of the trunk is just one of the simple daily actions of her life, and life with her. Portraying it the way Twilight does just shows a daily routine, that may be different from yours, but just the way dining habits or what time you wake up for work could be a different routine from yours. It’s not a “spotlight”, as bitch describes, it’s not meant to show the hardship of being disabled. Most importantly, its not othering – and that’s why its so right.

Check out the commentary on this post as well as this reposting from Feminists with Disabilities for some good discussion. Maybe I’ll just keep writing about things that get it right, that would be a lot cheerier for the holidays, wouldn’t it?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Grant permalink
    December 15, 2009 2:30 AM

    I really like these ‘getting it right’ posts (this and the apology one). I think positive examples are uplifting, and I think pointing them out can be very helpful for the well-intentioned but uninformed. It frames the dialogue in a positive way, and if you explain it a little bit like you did in this post I think it can really show what you mean when you say, for instance, “respect” very clearly. Plus, it jives with the title of the blog.

  2. December 15, 2009 8:56 AM

    I like that moment in the movie too, for all the reasons Anna_Pallindrome mentioned in her guest post at Bitch. It is so nonchalant, and possibly the only thing that anyone does right in the whole series until the last third of book four. It should be noted, however, that the moment is the direct result of whomever wrote the screenplay, because it is quite different in the books.

    (Please excuse me, I’ve read them a few times in order to critique them) When Bella first arrives in Forks in the first book Charlie tells her that he got a Chevy for her really cheap from Billy Black, whom she doesn’t remember. Here’s a quote:

    “He’s in a wheelchair now,” Charlie continued when I didn’t respond, “so he can’t drive anymore, and he offered to sell me his truck cheap.” (Twilight page 6)

    So, the movie did well (but it did better in a lot of areas than the book did, which isn’t saying much, but for example, Bella doesn’t have to babysit Charlie by doing all of his cooking and cleaning in the movie, they eat at the Diner all the time) and the book made what I consider a major FAIL.

    I would like to note that the FWD post you mentioned and linked was not a re-post, but a separate post by meloukhia, expanding Anna’s thoughts from her guest-post at Bitch. I suppose it isn’t entirely clear that we, a bunch of the FWD crew were doing a guest stint at Bitch under the header “Transcontinental Disability Choir”. We are glad to see you enjoying both. 🙂

    Aside from that, yes. ‘Getting it Right” posts are much less angry making right now, when we could all use a break.

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