Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
You’re criticising a work of pop culture, pointing out that there are some serious flaws in the depiction of a given group, that the casting is suspiciously white and nondisabled, that plotlines tend to follow particular familiar and well trodden ground, and someone says ‘well, they’re just working with what they have.’
What does this mean, exactly?
Let’s take a case study, our old friend Glee. When the disability community started speaking out about the casting of Artie, which incidentally happened as soon as the show started airing, the most common refrain in response was that the show was limited by needing an actor who could sing and dance. Kevin McHale can sing and dance, and he was ‘the best fit for the role.’ The creators of Glee were just working with what was available, and they were limited in their options.
There are holes in this logic the size of Texas. Let’s start with the fact that McHale cannot dance in a wheelchair. If the casting requirement was for someone who could sing and dance in a wheelchair, McHale actually would not meet the standard set by the show. So, actually, when they say that they were looking for someone who could sing and dance, they were explicitly not looking for someone who would be a good fit for the role. If they were, they would have specified that they needed a wheelchair user.
Let’s also explore a claim that has been repeated, a number of times, that wheelchair users auditioned for the role and were not deemed good fits. It is entirely possible that this is true; perhaps some wheelchair users did audition for the role and didn’t mesh with the rest of the cast or didn’t have the skills that were needed. However, it’s also entirely possible that when the casting call was drafted, a wheelchair user wasn’t specified; I can’t find a copy of the damn casting call although I have searched high and low.
Although some disabled actors make a point of auditioning for any role that looks interesting, regardless of whether disability status is specified in the casting call, this isn’t the case for all actors. Agents representing wheelchair users might not have thought to pass the casting call on to their clients. As a result, people who would have been a good fit for the role might not have been aware of it. Other talented people with disabilities don’t bother trying to land roles because they think that no roles are available for disabled actors, singers, and dancers.
That’s not exactly working with what you have. It’s working with what you limit yourself to. When creators of pop culture choose to limit themselves and then cry that they are ‘working with what they have,’ it fails to impress me. It’s like standing in the middle of the potato chip aisle and declaring that there are no fresh vegetables anywhere in the store. If you can’t look beyond the potato chip aisle, so to speak, you don’t get to complain about not being able to find the produce section.
‘Working with what they have’ presupposes that people have done everything possible to find material to work with. In actuality, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Creators of pop culture are surprisingly uncreative when it comes to thinking outside the norms, which makes it all the more astonishing when someone does manage to break down the walls that pop culture has built around itself and portray something new, something different.
People aren’t working with what they have. They are catering to what they think people want. Because there is an inherent fear of change, many people are resistant to the introduction of things like non-stereotyped storylines for disabled characters. These storylines are unfamiliar and scary. They require people to think about disability in new ways. They force people to confront their own attitudes. They may depict disability in a way that people find uncomfortable; a wheelchair user has sex, a Deaf woman goes hunting.
A good pop culture creator asks not what people want, but how things can be presented in ways that are fresh and new. A good creator of pop culture doesn’t work with what ou has, but pushes beyond the boundaries and conventions to find entirely new things. Great pop culture creators don’t need to stick within the boundaries of familiar tropes and stereotypes to tell a story. They don’t need to limit their casting.
Look at Shonda Rhimes, who approaches casting not from the perspective of ‘hrm, which white people would be best for this show,’ but ‘which actors would be best for this show’? Her leads may be white, but her shows are not predominately white, and they have characters who aren’t stock tropes, but actual fully realised human beings. Shonda didn’t ‘work with what she had,’ she made things happen because she wasn’t content with working within the existing system.
Working with what you have is the easy way out. It’s easy to find pretty white people in Hollywood to cast in your television show. It’s easy to write a stereotyped disabled character for your young adult novel, so that you can include a valuable lesson for your readers. It’s easy to appropriate visuals for a music video from other cultures without a thought to the context or the implications of your act. It’s harder to look at what you have and say ‘this is not enough’ and to break through it instead of just stopping at the wall and going ‘oh, well, ok then.’
Pop culture is supposed to be a form of creative work. Have we forgotten that creative work requires creativity, and that creativity requires never giving up on the basis that you don’t ‘have’ something that you need? That creativity requires actively rejecting the idea that you work with what you have?
Let’s take another example of a well known and beloved creator: if Joss Whedon can make a series of webisodes wildly successful and cause people to rethink the studio model of content production and distribution, surely he can include some fucking disabled people who are not rolling stereotypes on his shows. ‘Working with what you have’ is just not an acceptable excuse at this point.