Evaluating Disabled Characters

I get a lot of requests from nondisabled people wanting me to weigh in on the depiction of disability in the media; people want to know how I feel about a specific character, story arc, episode, or celebrity comment. For someone who covers the subject, such requests aren’t totally unsurprising, but sometimes they feel to me like a request to be told how to think, rather than a desire to engage in a discussion. People are afraid to form their own ideas or want to wait to see what someone else thinks before forming their opinion, rather than probing directly into the content themselves.

There seems to be an underlying fear of being wrong, or a desire to align your views with ‘the right people.’

For me, part of talking about pop culture is talking about lots of different reads and perspectives, discussing the fact that there isn’t any one ‘right’ read on something, and expanding my mind as well as those of others by having these discussions in public. I don’t write about depictions of disability, or transness, or anything else in pop culture in order to set some sort of benchmark standard that everyone must agree with, but rather as part of a larger exchange of ideas about what is happening in pop culture and how we read it as a society. So these requests to tell people how to think rankle, because I want people to decide for themselves, to tell me what they think.

I might disagree with their end conclusions and could have a conversation about that, but it’s not because I think they are bad and wrong people. It’s because media is complex and can be interpreted in many ways, with the lens of the viewer inevitably affecting how you feel about the end product.

But since nondisabled people often ask how I feel about disabled characters, I’d like to flip the dynamic a little. Instead of telling you what to think, I want to provide you with some tools so that you can evaluate media yourself and come up with your own opinion. And as you do that, perhaps you’ll find that you disagree with my read on a given subject. That’s a good sign; it means you’re thinking critically and really engaging not just with the media, but the people who criticise it. Articulating your disagreement and exploring why you feel differently is part of engaging in the great conversation that drives the evaluation of media and the development of better media. You don’t need me to tell you how to think, though you’re welcome to enrich your thoughts on a subject by reading not just my work but that of other people.

Ask yourself how you feel about a disabled character. Why is that character included in the text, and how is the disability used or not used as part of the story line? Contrast, for example, Robert David Hall as Doc Robbins in CSI with Marlee Matlin as Joey on The West Wing with Kevin McHale as Artie on Glee with Jessica Capshaw as Arizona Robbins on Grey’s Anatomy. Do you see similarities and differences between these characters? What are they? What would you say are defining aspects of these characters?

Some things to consider as you look at these four examples: Who is playing them? Do you think it matters to have a disabled actor in a disabled role, and why or why not? Have you encountered any interviews with the actors talking about the characters and the roles, and what kind of research have they done? How do they conceptualise the characters and their impairments? Do you think they talk about disability in a patronising, neutral, or tragic way?

How does the impairment affect the role? Doc Robbins, for example, is a character who happens to be disabled, versus Artie, whose entire identity seems to revolve around his disability. Is the disability being used as a plot device to drive drama, or is it quietly accepted as part of the diversity of human experience? Which of these characters do you think are stronger and more fully realised, and which ones, if any, do you think create a more positive image of disability, as well as a more realistic depiction of what it’s like to live with an impairment?

How do you feel about the characters themselves? Do you like them? Why or why not? Do you feel like they’re well-rounded, interesting people with a lot going on for them? Do you think their impairments drive part of their characterisation, or do you experience pressure from their characterisation to think of them in a certain light because they’re disabled? Are you being pushed to find them inspirational, say, or bitter, or pitiful? How do other characters interact with them within the context of the media you’re consuming, and how does that reflect the larger cultural assumptions the creators may be making?

As you start to formulate your own response to a piece, then it’s time to start hunting around to see how other people are responding. There are lots of disabled people writing about media and pop culture and they’re not hard to find. Do some poking around to see how disabled people, particularly those who share impairments with given characters or people, are responding to the piece. Are they satisfied? Angry? Curious? Excited? What are they talking about? Do some of the things they say make you in turn angry or defensive or more reflective, and why is that? Explore your emotions as you look at responses to media—particularly media you love—and start learning about how to apply those.

Educate yourself about disability. Try poking around on blogs and other writings produced by people with given impairments so you can understand more about what daily life is like for disabled people. Become a reader and a watcher and a curious consumer and apply these lessons to your evaluation of media to make it stronger. You can always read more, and in fact I strongly encourage you to do so, because no one person can be an authority on all things.

You should find a diversity of experiences. One disabled person might react with fury and loathing to a character, with a carefully articulated argument explaining why a depiction is a problem and providing some examples of better ways of handling disability. Another might find common ground with the character and talk about why that is, pointing at shared experience and feeling the depiction is positive. You don’t have to pick sides or decide that one person’s reaction is wrong or right; you can instead reflect on the diversity of reactions within the disability community. We are not a hivemind any more than any other minority is, and thus we feel very differently about the media we consume.

Enter the conversation with your own opinion and don’t be afraid to have ideas. Your thoughts might change as you participate in discussions, and that’s as it should be; because conversations about pop culture shouldn’t be about shouting at each other until we’re hoarse, but about an actual discussion.