Thursday, October 31, 2013

Strong (Disabled) Female Characters

I recently came across an article entitled "I hate Strong Female Characters".  The article argued that "Strong Female Characters" are often one-dimensional, thrown in there purely to prove that we as a society have moved beyond the damsel in distress trope, a mere distraction from the real (male) characters.

Though I found myself nodding along and agreeing as I read the article, something concerns me.  Though I certainly agree that Strong Female Characters are a stereotype unto themselves and we need more realistic female representation in movies, books, and TV, I can't help but beg for a Strong Female Character who is also disabled.

This is the problem with mainstream feminism.  Mainstream feminists advocate for more realistic female characters, a noble goal for sure, but they conveniently forget that we're begging for any disabled characters at all, especially disabled female characters.  A strong disabled female character would be a dream come true.

Even throughout history, disabled women's stories have been tweaked and manipulated to cast them in the weakest possible light, poor helpless creatures who need to be rescued from the plight of disability. Think of Helen Keller.  The mainstream narrative casts Annie Sullivan as the heroine who rescued Keller from the depths of darkness and silence.  Helen is given virtually no agency of her own.  Almost no one knows that Keller was a radical socialist and a fierce activist.  And it is never mentioned that Sullivan herself was a disabled person, with poor eyesight from glaucoma that progressed as she got older.  When disabled women who have played a prominent role in the disability rights movement, like Judy Heumann or Nadina LaSpina, are mentioned, they are usually unheard of.

Most female disabled characters in fiction are one-offs, created and utilized solely for a Very Special Episode about disability.  Those with any sort of recurrence at all are often painted with the damsel in distress brush that has plagued nondisabled female characters for decades, sometimes even centuries.  Clara from the classic novel Heidi is described as an "invalid", "confined to her rolling-chair".  Heidi is sought specifically as a "companion" for Clara, because obviously there's no way Clara can have an honest to god friend.   It is implied that Clara focuses on her studies because she is unable to leave the house.  Heidi, instead of simply accepting Clara for who she is, disability and all, teaches her to walk, the feel-good moment of the novel.  She is the heroine for helping Clara "overcome" her disability.

Nessarose from Wicked (both the book and musical adaptation) is another good example of this, demonstrating how this mindset has spanned into the modern times.  Nessa is always having to be cared for, by her grandmother in the novel and later by Elphaba, especially in the musical.  In "What Is This Feeling", Elphaba sings "But of course I'll care for Nessa!" Nessa has no drive, no personality of her own, and she never does things for anyone else - she is constantly being done unto.  Boq is convinced to ask her to the dance out of pure pity - it doesn't matter what she wants.  Only when Nessarose obtains the ruby slippers that allow her to walk does she have any sort of agency or goals.  These two examples seem to suggest that it is impossible for disability and strong will to coexist - once disability is out of the picture, the character comes into their own and becomes a proper person.

And then we have Toph Beifong, from Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Toph can be described as your stereotypical Strong Female Character - she's a gritty tomboy who flings sarcastic one-liners as often as she flings rocks - which, if you think about it, is representative of the way she was written.  She has all the usual qualities of a man, including being the Avatar world's equivalent of a professional wrestler.  In fact, Aang and the gang are shocked to find that the Blind Bandit is not only, well, blind, she's also a girl.  She looks like a boy, acts like a boy, talks like a boy.  She serves as a foil to the more reserved, feminine girl of the group, Katara.  It's almost as if the writers wrote her as a boy first, then hurriedly changed her gender when they realized there was only one recurring female character in the show.  Oh, look, they did!

But when it comes to the star of the show, that is undoubtedly Aang.  Toph backs out of the way for the male character to save the day.  Typical of a Strong Female Character, who can't seem to save the day all by herself (though Toph does cross that boundary several times in the show, most notably when she escapes from her kidnappers by inventing metalbending).  Despite all that, I have a deep undying love for Toph Beifong.  Why?  Because her disability is just one of the things that make up who Toph is.  She's witty and wonderful and caring underneath her gruff exterior.  Her blindness isn't ignored and there are still ways it limits her, even with her ability to "see" with her feet.  She is still disabled, and her earthbending does not negate that.  It aids her, much like a crutch assists someone to walk, but it does not magically cure her disability.

Though Toph has her flaws, she's the one of the best representations of disability on TV that I've ever seen.  That's the type of disabled character we need - someone whose disability is just another part of their identity.  Of course, it would be incredible if we could get a female disabled character who breaks out of multiple stereotypes, but lets face it, we have about as much chance of that happening in the near future as we do of having a female, disabled character of color anytime soon.  I have to settle for what I can get, unfortunately.  It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

So I'll take a disabled Strong Female Character.  Until and unless we get more Toph Beifongs on our screens, I cannot, in good conscience, demonize Strong Female Characters who are perpetually nondisabled.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Disabled Is Not An Insult

"Eh?" said Hagrid blankly.  "No, don' go!  I've - I've never met another one before!"
"Anuzzer what, precisely?" said Madame Maxime, her tone icy.
"Another half-giant, o'course!" said Hagrid.
"'Ow dare you" shrieked Madame Maxime.  "I 'ave never been more insulted in my life!  'Alf giant?  Moi?  I 'ave - I 'ave big bones!"
-Excerpted from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K Rowling (pgs 428 - 429 in the printed version)

Poor Hagrid.  He's desperately trying to find community, just as I have on so many occasions.  He knows that he's finally met someone like him.  I know that feeling, that wonderful feeling of sameness, of solidarity. He reaches out only to find his advances rebuffed and the target of his affection insulted.

Though J.K Rowling has often said that Remus Lupin is her metaphor for specifically HIV/AIDS and disability in general, I see a parallel with Hagrid and Madame Maxime as well.  To Hagrid, half-giant is an identity, albeit a lonely one, something that he's carried with him his whole life without ever meeting another.  To Madame Maxime, it's the height of shame.  She, like so many disabled people, has internalized the stereotypes about her people and distances herself from the label as much as possible.  She insists that she is not half-giant, merely "big boned", much like many disabled people insist that they're not DISABLED, of course not!  They're merely "differently abled".

Disabled is not an insult.  It's a stop on the subway lines of the human condition.  It's a rainbow shining through shards of broken glass.  It's a new view on life, one explored by stimming fingers and unseeing eyes and silent ears and seen from the lovely vantage point of butt-level as you're rolling down the street.  It's an identity, a culture with pride flowing through its veins while the taste of shame still lingers in its mouth.  It's words like crip, gimp, freak, words that slash open our war wounds like badges of honor.  It's music and dance and poetry and art from the inside looking out.  It's free our people and our homes, not nursing homes and nothing about us without us.  It's hope and fear and cowardice and love, love among people who are deemed incapable of feeling.

Disabled doesn't mean suffering or brokenness.  It doesn't mean that you will never love, or be loved in return.  If you stumble into big-D Disabled land, it doesn't mean that your life is over - it means a new one is just beginning.  Despite what society would have you believe, it doesn't mean inferiority, or a fate worse than death.  It shouldn't be a scarlet letter on your chest.  It's simply another way of being - a turn of the kaleidoscope in a different direction and suddenly all the colors and patterns line up in a way you've never seen before.  Different, even new, but just as beautiful nonetheless.

So when I call you disabled, you better be fucking proud.  Because it means that I hold you in high enough regard to say that you're one of my people, for better or worse.  It means that you can be the cruelest person who ever lived, but you've got something inside of you that resonates with me, that tells me we are the same.  Some of the kindest, smartest, funniest, best people I know are disabled.  You should feel pride that you share an identity with them.  I sure as hell am.

"Jumpstart my kaleidoscope heart
Love to watch the colors fade
They may not make sense but they sure as hell made me"
-Uncharted by Sara Bareilles 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Screw A Cure, *I* Want Equality: A Letter to Rachelle Friedman

Dear Rachelle,

I recently read your article on the Huffington Post titled “Rachelle Friedman, 'Paralyzed Bride,' Speaks Out: More Than Equality, We Want a Cure”.  I applaud you for speaking out on what is undoubtedly a difficult topic.  However, your article raised some trepidation for me that I would like to take this time to address.

As a disabled person myself who does not desire a cure, I am concerned that you profess to speak for "99 percent of us" (not sure if you meant strictly paralyzed people or people with disabilities in general; the latter would concern me even more).  It is your choice to want a cure.  However, please don't speak for the rest of us - you admit yourself that there are people out there who don't want a cure.

Additionally, I am concerned that you may be "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", so to speak.  Things like muscle spasms and skin breakdown are only part of paralysis, though I don't mean to downplay the impact they have on your life and the lives of many others (muscle spasms and chronic pain, as someone with cerebral palsy, are something that I have to deal with as well).   Those are parts of disability that have a negative impact on our quality of life, and I would not hesitate to accept treatment to mitigate or completely alleviate these symptoms.  But desiring treatment for those parts of disability that are painful or even dangerous is not the same thing as desiring a cure.  Just like wheelchairs and other mobility aids, medication and other treatments are simply tools to help us get along in the world – not cures that will eliminate disability entirely.

Lastly, the title of your piece makes me profoundly uneasy.  “More Than Equality, We Want A Cure” implies that finding cures is more important than ensuring that people with disabilities like you and me have equal opportunities and civil rights.  And once again, it implies that all people with disabilities (or at least all people with paralysis) agree with your point of view – something that you, yourself, admit is misleading.  As someone who has been a wheelchair user for several years, I am sure that you have experienced the daily inequalities and microaggressions that come with being disabled in public.  From inaccessible buildings to preconceived notions about our abilities, we face a myriad of obstacles just to get through our days.  None of these obstacles are our fault.  The social model of disability says that our individual impairments (such as paralysis or cerebral palsy) limit us, but it is societal attitudes and barriers that disable us and prevent us from functioning.  A truly equal and accepting society would remove these barriers, so issues like health care, funding for medical equipment and accessibility, issues that you cited in your article, are all wrapped up in the fight for acceptance and equality.  This is the reality of ableism, and a cure won’t change that.  Desire for a cure should not eclipse our desire to fight the very real injustices we face every day, and the two are not mutually exclusive.

Though cure research is important for those who desire a cure, it is still simply research, research that will not affect us personally until it transforms into something that will be available commercially, or at the very least in clinical trials.  What’s important is concrete issues that affect us in the here and now – employment, transportation, the marriage penalty for those on SSI or SSDI, the disturbing trend of parents and caregivers murdering their disabled children...these are all issues that we should prioritize over a cure.  I will keep fighting for equality, acceptance, and simple basic human decency until the day a cure for me is found, and beyond.  Because disability is so much more than just a medical condition – it is a rich, nuanced culture intertwined with complex sociological concepts that come together to create the reality of disability today.

I hope you join the disability rights movement and fight alongside us.  Because at the end of the day, cures mean nothing when there is still not justice for all.