"Once More, With Feeling"

Picture of an old TV set with four disability symbols on the screen

Spoiler alert, and while we’re at it, nerd alert …

This post is mainly a bit of self-indulgent fun.

A little over four years ago, I posted a comparison between two ways of parenting kids with disabilities, and Joyce and Giles’ approaches to “parenting” a vampire slayer on the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Just recently, I re-watched one of my favorite “Buffy” episodes, “Once More, With Feeling,” which…

(SPOILER!, SPOILER!, SPOILER!)

… is a musical episode in which the main characters are under an enchantment that makes them involuntarily sing about the many difficult secrets they have been keeping from each other.

The songs sampled below are about several things, some of which have nothing at all to do with disability, even by analogy. But my “disability thinking” radar kept on pinging, so I thought I’d share. If you haven’t seen the show, read on or don’t, it’s up to you. But really this is going to be best for readers who are are familiar with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and have seen “Once More, With Feeling.” So …

(SPOILER!, SPOILER!, SPOILER!)

Depression

In the episode’s opening song, Buffy essentially sings about depression:

Every single night, the same arrangement,
I go out and fight the fight.
Still I always feel this strange estrangement,
Nothing here is real, nothing here is right.

I don’t want to be
Going through the motions,
Losing all my drive.
I can’t even see
If this is really me
And I just want to be … alive!

Later the story, what Buffy is experiencing gets even more clear. And what I especially like is that her song includes how part of depression is having to cope with how others react to it, and how we end up worrying about that while we’re coping with our own emotions:

I touch the fire and it freezes me.
I look into it and it’s black.
Why can’t I feel?
My skin should crack and peel!
I want the fire back!

So one by one, they turn from me,
I guess my friends can’t face the cold.
But why I froze, not one among them knows.
And never can be told.

And near the end of the story, Buffy lays it all out and shares how she’s really been feeling, whether her friends can handle it or not:

Life’s a show, and we all play a part.
And when the music starts.
We open up our hearts.

Where there’s life, there’s hope.
Every day’s a gift.
Wishes can come true.
Whistle while you work.
So hard. All day.

Give me something to sing about!
I need something to sing about!

Still my friends don’t know why I ignore
The million things or more
I should be dancing for.

All the joy life sends.
Family and friends.
All the twists and bends.
Knowing that it ends.
Well, that depends …

Unexpected Love

Tara’s love song for Willow has a layer of darkness, but the first part of it speaks beautifully about finding love and kinship when you thought you might never find either. This is something people with disabilities often experience, especially those of us who grew up with disabilities. Internalized ableism is powerful:

I lived my life in shadow, never the sun on my face.
It didn’t seem so sad though, I figured that was my place.
Now I’m bathed in light. Something just isn’t right.

I’m under your spell.
How else could it be, anyone would notice me?
It’s magic, I can tell.
How you set me free, brought me out so easily.

I saw a world enchanted, spirits and charms in the air.
I always took for granted, I was the only one there.
But your power shone, brighter than any I’ve known.

Standing In The Way

Giles, who is Buffy’s “Watcher,” her trainer and teacher, has over several seasons also become Buffy’s surrogate father. In his song, he worries that his deep desire to smooth her very difficult path has caused him to hinder her full maturity and independence. It’s something I know my parents struggled with at times. And I suspect a lot of parents of kids with disabilities will find Giles’ feelings familiar:

You’re not ready for the world outside.
You keep pretending, but you just can’t hide.
I know that I said that I’d be standing by your side,
But I…

I wish I could say the right words to lead you through this land,
Wish I could play the father, and take you by the hand.
Wish I could stay … but now I understand
I’m standing in the way.

I wish I could lay your arms down, and let you rest at last.
Wish I could slay your demons, but now that time has passed.
Wish I could stay … your stalwart standing-fast,
But I’m standing in the way.
I’m just standing in the way.

So I’m curious … what pop cultural artifacts resonate for other disabled people? Which TV shows, movies, or songs give you insight into the disability experience or reflect how you feel about it? Share if you like in the comments below.

Click here for all the lyrics to “Once More, With Feeling

Disability Thought Of The Week: Patience

Disability Thought Of The Week on a yellow legal pad background

Have you ever heard or read a quote that perfectly articulates an important thought or idea, even though the quote itself is totally unrelated? That happened to me yesterday while I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

“I was being patient, but it took too long.”

— Anya, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 1

Still image of the character Anya from Buffy The Vampire Slayer

The joke is that Anya is a former demon who is new to being human, and therefore doesn’t know how to be polite. She has these powerful needs and wants, but few restraints on her behavior. So people are always telling her to calm down or be patient. The idea inside of that joke is that Anya is, accidentally, often very sensible and direct, where her “normal” friends are sometimes overly concerned with etiquette and caution.

By one standard, Anya is tactless and childish. By another, she is refreshingly logical and direct.

I instantly thought of how disabled people feel about being patient, especially on the issue of accessibility. As thousands of disability activists have said over the last several years, the Americans with Disabilities Act is not a new law. It hasn’t been any kind of "new" for at least a decade. Yet, we are still told, or it is heavily implied, that the proper, reasonable attitude we should have about our full legal rights being respected is patience. It takes time to comply. It takes time to change attitudes. It takes time to retrofit old buildings and neighborhoods.

The ADA passed in 1990. We have been patient, as Anya would say. But it has taken too long.

P.S.: Here's another "Buffy" themed blog post from 2015: Disabled Youth & Vampire Slayers.

Throwback Thursday

Picture of cartoon characters Mr. Peabody, a white dog with glasses, and Sherman, a boy with red hair and glasses, standing in front of a wall-sized computer machine

Three years ago in Disability Thinking ...

Two Down, One To Go
February 9, 2014

Three years ago, it looked like we might be seeing a boom in disability on TV. Three shows premiered in the same season with important disabled characters ... two half-hour comedies and one hour-long police procedural, which was also a remake of a classic series from the '60s and '70s that featured an iconic disabled character. One of the shows, The Michael J. Fox Show, even had a disabled character played by an actor with the actual disability. Growing Up Fischer had an exceptionally talented and well-liked cast, plus some innovative storytelling techniques. The shows all looked promising.

All three series failed though, and they were all so "meh" that I don't remember any anger or mourning in the disability community.

The next big news for disability on TV came a year later. It was American Horror Story, with the season titled Freak Show, about an ensemble of literal early 20th century "freaks"... that is, disabled, physically deformed people ... in a traveling show. "Freak Show" was divisive just within the disability community, even before the first episode aired. Proponents pointed out that some of the disabled characters were played by actors with the actual disabilities, and argued that depicting the real-life historical abuses of "freak shows" could provide a platform for promoting more progressive messages about disability. Detractors countered that no positive "messages" imaginable could overcome the ugly stigma and visceral trauma of watching a show about the cruel exploitation of "freaks."

As it turned out, "Freak Show" was something of a dud, too. It was neither as exploitative as feared, nor as revolutionary as hoped. It had moments of both horror and insight, but the show itself was too flawed in other ways to boost any really positive or even interesting ideas about disability.

I guess that's one of the key things about disability on TV. No matter how "good" the disabled characters and disability stories are, if the show itself is weak, it won't work, and it won't matter.

Today, we have Speechless, a character-driven, family-based comedy that is largely, though not exclusively focused on a nonverbal teenage boy who uses a wheelchair. The show has done a lot to get the disability details right ... including casting a disabled actor to portray the disabled teen ... and the disability community mostly loves the show. But the reason that even matters is that the show is good in general, and it is broadly popular.

I wonder if the creators of Speechless studied the failed disability shows of 2013/14 to identify what worked, and be alerted to what didn't. If so, those disappointments appear to have been worth it.

Throwback Thursday

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, classic cartoon characters, in front of an elaborate wall of machinery, the "Wayback Machine" time machine. Mr. Peabody is a white dog with glasses, Sherman is a red haired boy with glasses

Three years ago in Disability Thinking: A Legal Victory For Choice
August 4, 2013

I wonder how Jenny is doing now? I wonder if she’s still living with the couple who were supportive of her. I wonder if her parents have gotten used to Jenny’s new life, or if they’re still bitter and afraid that something terrible will happen to her. I wonder how many more people like Jenny have exercised greater autonomy thanks to Jenny’s advocacy and the court’s decision.

Two years ago in Disability Thinking: Binge Watch: Classic Ironside
August 4, 2014

One of these days I probably will shut up about Ironside. It’s still one of my favorite TV depictions of disability though, and I still think it’s under-appreciated inside disability culture. That’s understandable. It’s a very old show, at least 3 generations back from the current generation of TV shows. And it looks it. Pretty much everything about it, from the formulaic plots, visual style, and strained efforts to keep everything light and frothy, smack of the kind of TV everyone’s grandparents enjoyed. It also has a fatal flaw in today’s standards of progressive TV. Chief Ironside is a disabled character played by a non-disabled actor. Still, Ironside is remarkable for how it normalized a pretty significant disability, and made it work in a decidedly mainstream show that was extremely popular in its day. At the same time, it occasionally dug into the deeper issues of disability in ways that very few current TV shows or movies ever manage to do. For the umpteenth time, I recommend watching Light At The End Of The Journey. It shows how Ironside’s disability is both a minor visual detail and, on occasion, an absolutely meaningful plot point.

Throwback Thursday

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, classic cartoon characters, in front of an elaborate wall of machinery, the "Wayback Machine" time machine. Mr. Peabody is a white dog with glasses, Sherman is a red haired boy with glasses

Three years ago in Disability Thinking: The Zimmerman Verdict and Ableism
July 14, 2013

Holy cow! My naïveté on whether ableism can lead to police killing disabled people is stunning and embarrassing. That was only three years ago. However, I still think the rest of my analysis holds. One way or another, it boils down to the fact that disabled people are allowed a much narrower range of behaviors and reactions that are considered “normal.” Most often, this leads to fairly ordinary kinds of personal conflicts and annoyances, but in certain situations it can lead to much bigger consequences, including death. I’m not suggesting we should adopt a siege mentality. Just that we should never forget that some of us have less compensating social privilege to shield us, and that it doesn’t really take much for any of us to be in real danger, often when we can’t reasonably anticipate it.

Two years ago in Disability Thinking: “Freakshow” Trailer
July 14, 2014

American Horror Story: Freakshow turned out to be kind of a dud, in my opinion. It had some good things going for it, from a disability standpoint. But it also had a ton of plain exploitation and ridiculous disability camp. Ultimately, it was kind of a wash in terms of positive or negative disability depiction, because the show overall wasn’t very good … even in comparison with other American Horror Story seasons … so it had little impact, good or bad. The video I embedded two years ago isn’t active anymore, so I’ll embed another here, so you can get a taste of why for a short while, the show was a hot and divisive topic in Disability Culture. Also, check out the Disability.TV Podcast episode on AHS: Freakshow.

One year ago in Disability Thinking: It’s Refreshing
July 14, 2015

I have two notes to add. First, the article I originally linked specifically talks about ADA lawsuits, and does so approvingly, which is rare. Usually news coverage of ADA lawsuits assumes that most of them are frivolous, pushed by greedy lawyers and unhinged lone-wolf activists. Mr. Pfeffer offers here a strong defense of lawsuits as essential for making the ADA work. Second, while we should still value occasional validating pieces like this by non-disabled writers, we should also acknowledge that there’s something rather galling about the fact that non-disabled writers about disability still are granted more credibility than actual disabled people writing about disability. It’s another sign of how deeply ableism is woven into the public consciousness.

Meet Mickey Abbott

Seinfeld characters Mickey Abbott on the left, Kramer on the right, talking in Jerry's apartment

I am preparing for the next episode of the Disability.TV Podcast, which will look at the recurring Seinfeld character, Mickey Abbott. I’d love to interview someone about the character, whether you like the portrayal of this Little Person character or not. He’s one of my personal favorites, but I’m open to other interpretations.

Here is a montage of Mickey Abbott scenes:

You can watch Seinfeld here, at Hulu.com.

I also recommend listening to this Seincast Podcast interview with the actor Danny Woodburn, who portrayed Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld.

If you have comments about Mickey Abbott, you can leave them below in the comments, and I’ll read them on my podcast. If you want to be my guest for the podcast, just shoot me an email, or hit me up on Twitter, @AndrewPulrang.

What “Girls” Does Better Than “Me Before You”

TV still image of a middle aged blonde woman sitting in a wheelchair, talking and gesturing

After weeks of reading and participating a bit in discussions about “Me Before You,” (the book and the movie), and its severely problematic view of disability in general and assisted suicide specifically … after engaging with this for so long, I only remembered yesterday that a recent TV show told a somewhat similar story, with a lot more depth and a much different outcome.

*Spoilers ahead!*

I did a Disability.TV Podcast episode last year about a storyline on HBO’s “Girls,” in which one of the main characters, Jessa, becomes a personal assistant for a woman named Beedie, an older, successful art photographer who uses a wheelchair. I’m not sure, but I think the Beedie has Multiple Sclerosis. After awhile working with and getting to know Jessa, Beedie says she wants to die and asks Jessa to obtain the necessary drugs. As in “Me Before You,” her reasons are a bit sketchy. She mentions pain, but has shown little evidence of it interfering with her life. By most objective measures, even factoring in her disability, Beedie has a good life. As does Will in “Me Before You.”

Anyway, Jessa objects to being asked to help Beedie kill herself. Jesse’s objections carry real conviction, but in the end she respects Beedie’s “choice.” She gets the drugs, and seems resolved to sit by Beedie’s bedside and hold her hand as she dies. At the last minute, though, Beedie cries out that she’s changed her mind, and Jessa basically leaps across the bed to the phone to call 911.

Some time later … days? weeks? … Beedie’s daughter shows up, pissed as all Hell about what happened, certainly very angry with Jessa, this random hippie chick her mother hired to take care of her. She’s determined to bring her mother Beedie home with her and take care of her herself. Again, Jessa objects, and is ready to fight for Beedie’s right to live where she wants and do what she wants. She also can tell, as we can, too, that while Beedie’s daughter is basically right about the suicide attempt and Jessa’s role in it, she is also a royal pain and a control freak who will take over Beedie’s life if she’s allowed, and make her miserable. Yet, Beedie lovingly but firmly calms Jessa down and says she’ll go with her daughter.

It’s far from a satisfying ending, but throughout the story, you really get a sense that Beedie is a strong person who goes through a crisis, and is willing to make difficult choices, but will never really lose control or self-respect.

This “Girls” story doesn’t have a clear anti-assisted suicide message, or a pro one either. It’s all ambiguity. Yet, Beedie decides to live, which makes it 100% less harmful than “Me Before You.” I also think the “Girls” story correctly links the appeal for some of assisted suicide, with the importance of choice in the lives of people with disabilities. The links are a bit tangled, but they are there. Plus, Beedie and Jessa are much more real, complex, relatable characters than Will and Lou seem to be, by far … and sketched out in a fraction of the time, in literally a handful of scenes over two half-hour TV episodes.

Assisted suicide doesn’t have to be a pop culture taboo. It can be discussed in a realistic and life-affirming way … or at least a non-death-affirming way. It can be done. It has been done.

This Could Work

I’ve been hearing a bit about this new TV show Speechless over the last few weeks. The big news was that it featured a disabled, non-verbal character with a significant physical disability, JJ Dimeo, who is played by an actor with disabilities, Micah Fowler. That’s all I knew until this morning, when I saw this trailer, but the disability casting was a good sign all by itself.

I enjoyed the trailer, and I’m optimistic about the show, but I am worried about a few things.

Picture of an old-style television set with four disability symbols on a white screen

First, I hope the show lasts long enough to explore disability themes beyond the basics. I mean, how much of a novelty is it, really, to show a non-verbal kid in a wheelchair … most likely disabled from birth … who has a real personality and sense of humor? That will probably be a revelation for most viewers, but once they process that, what’s next? It will be crucial for JJ to develop and change as a character. If he arrives fully formed but playing the same gag over and over, while everyone around him changes and grows because of him, then the show will just be spiffed-up formula, and boring as hell.

Second, I worry about how the show handles the depiction of the mother, specifically. Based on the trailer, she’s could wind up being a stereotype, albeit one that isn’t as well known outside disability circles. She’s the Special Needs Mother From Hell who fights so fiercely for her disabled kid that she alienates everyone around her and neglects the rest of her family. There is a bit of truth in the stereotype, but again, it’s almost a cliche already, and I hope they don’t make the main theme of the show. We love mothers,. (and fathers), who fight hard for their kids' rights, but there's a big risk that mainstream audiences will just find her obnoxious, and basically miss the point, unless there's some nuance to her. It's also a short trip even in real life from strong, effective advocate to self-absorbed mouthpiece who forgets who he or she is actually fighting for. I kind of want JJ’s mother to be mostly great, with only occasional relapses into counter-productive yelling.

Finally, I hope they bring in plenty of stories about things other than disability, and that other characters develop and grow outside of JJ’s influence. By the same token, I’d like to see JJ have interests and things going on that have nothing to do with his disability. It’s going to take a light touch to make this work, and that’s rare. Disability is usually ignored on TV completely, or else it’s obsessed over to the point of cliche and burnout. I hope that doesn’t happen to this show.

On the plus side, I love Minnie Driver, and I think her British accent might add just enough quirky other-ness to make her more of an individual than the role might otherwise dictate. I also like the fact that the two brothers, one disabled, the other not, really look like brothers. It also looks like the show will accurately depict the real-life practical and attitudinal barriers disabled people deal with all the time, like access ramps by the dumpsters and cutie-voiced, condescending “helpers.” And of course, the show has authenticity going for it. I hope Micah Fowler gets to have some influence over how disability is depicted on the show, beyond his playing the role.

I really want this thing to work. Either way, I’ll definitely review the Pilot this fall for the Disability.TV Podcast.

One more note: I wish the promo materials and media coverage of this new show would stop referring to JJ's disabilities as “Special Needs.” I hope the show itself doesn’t take that route. Better yet, I’d love it if they made fun of the term, since I am certain the school administrators will use it.

TV Pitch

Old style television set with four wheelchair symbols on the screen

If you had the chance to pitch an idea for a TV show featuring disablity, to a room full of production company executives and renowned directors, what kind of show would you suggest?

I was inspired to think about this by an episode of The Light Bulb, a podcast about storytelling and popular culture by Alaistair Stephens and Lani Diane Rich. In a recent episode, they challenged each other to come up with a TV show "pitch", choosing genres, selecting story tropes, and casting known actors. It was a lot of fun to listen to, and they seemed to have fun talking out their ideas. And since I am already very interested in how TV does disability, it seemed natural to start thinking about what kind of a TV show I would make.

Instead of answering that question myself though, I'm going to ask you, the reader, what your dream disability TV show would look like.

What's your pitch?

What kind of network would it be on ... a network like CBS, a premium cable network like HBO, public television, a streaming service like Netflix, or a web series on YouTube?

What genre would you choose ... police procedural, medical drama, sit-com, late night variety, family, sex / relationships, fantasy / supernatural, superhero, science fiction, political thriller, or action / adventure?

Would your disability show have stand-alone episodes following a set formula, or would it have long story arcs and deep character development?

What kind of tone would your show have ... accessible to a mass audience, quirky and innovative, sexy or raunchy, political, traditional, or artistically innovative?

And how would you use disabled characters and disability themes?

Would you include disabled main characters, secondary, minor characters, or extras? Would you focus on youth, teens, adults, or seniors?

Or, would you start small with a disability-themed episode of an existing show?

Share your pitches in the comments below. If there's enough interest, I might set up a SurveyMonkay survey where we can all pick our categories and characteristics to create a collective "ideal" disability TV show!

The Tyrion Test, Updated

The word "CULTURE" surrounded by a word cloud of related words

Earlier today, someone unearthed and tweeted my old blog post about what I called the Tyrion Test, a disability version of the Bechtel Test. I named it the Tyrion Test after Tyrion Lannister from Game Of Thrones, one of the best disabled characters I have ever seen. After reviewing my version, I decided it’s time to try again, and offer a simpler test of disability depictions in popular culture, one that is a closer parallel with the original.

The Bechdel Test is a semi-famous “test” to evaluate how women are depicted in popular culture … TV shows, movies, books, and the like. To recap, a piece of culture “passes” the Bechtel Test if it:

1) Features at least two women, who
2) Talk to each other,
3) About something other than a man.

So, although I still endorse my original formula, I’d like to offer a simpler one:

A disability depiction passes the Tyrion Test if it:

1) Features two or more disabled characters, who
2) Talk to each other,
3) About something other than their disabilities.

I still think it also matters whether disabled characters have real agency, whether or not they are fully developed, and what kind of role they play in their stories. I also think it’s good when writers avoid leaning on a few tired disability tropes and stereotypes. But maybe this simpler test is enough. It's certainly easier to remember and apply.

What do you think? Are there other criteria you use to evaluate disabled characters and disability-based stories in popular culture? How do disabled characters in pop culture stand up to this test or others? Let me know in the comments!