Riddle me this, gentle readers: When a television show depicts, say, open heart surgery, or forensics, or tax accounting, it hires consultants. These people come in and meet with the producers and writers to talk about their jobs and provide suggestions on keeping the storyline at least reasonably realistic. They will shoot down things that just won’t fly. Sometimes they even skulk around the set, if their consulting services are necessary at that level. It is generally accepted that when you depict professional trades, you should talk to someone who knows about them to make sure you do it reasonably well.
So, how come this isn’t the case with lived experience? When you have a situation like a nondisabled person on a show with nondisabled writers and creators, playing a disabled role, why do these people assume they don’t need to consult anyone? Why do straight people play gay people without research? Why do TV writers create trans characters without talking to a single trans person? It’s not like people can’t tell when their lives are being depicted by people who don’t understand them and haven’t bothered to do even a little bit of research to find out more.
With a situation like, say, a Black actor in a Black or biracial role, that actor brings experience to the role and informs it, just as Chris Colfer informs Kurt on Glee with his experiences as a gay man. But what about roles where actors are playing The Other? When people are writing lived experiences they have not actually lived? Why is it that if a television series wants to show a lawyer doing her lawyer thing, it has to consult a lawyer, but if that character happens to be blind[1. Of course, she will not happen to be, it will be central to her identity and played for a specific plot-related reason.], or a wheelchair user, they think they can just go on doing whatever it is they think would be best?
The difference between shows, books, movies, where people do their research and people do not is pretty stark. Take Covert Affairs, which I sniped at for an initially rocky portrayal of blindness, and for the attitudes espoused in media interviews by some of the people working on the show. I felt like the show was doing not such a great job, and also that the people involved with the show didn’t really seem to know what they were doing, and said so.
And lo and behold, the show got better. Now, I’m not claiming responsibility for this; I think it was a combination of the natural adjustment that happens as a new series gets going and people get used to their roles, get used to feeling their characters, get used to writing, and perhaps also some feedback from critics and disabled people. They clearly took the depiction of the character seriously, wanted to get it right, and were willing to sit down and listen to work on getting it right, to integrate feedback to make the character better, and it showed. The show got better.
Contrast with Glee, where the creators have gone from ignoring disabled critics to actively thumbing their noses at us with deepening levels of contempt and spite. This is a show where people are so confident that they’ve got it all sewn up that apparently not only do they not need consultants, they don’t even need to pay lip service to the feedback they are receiving. They can charge right on with whatever they are doing, confident that it will be good and right, because, you know, they apparently poop rainbows and ride unicorns to work.
Notable: Covert Affairs positions and markets itself as a fun spy romp. It’s a character driven show that is designed purely to entertain, to be enjoyable to watch. Glee claims to be progressive television, teaching viewers valuable lessons and embedding commentary on social issues. So, the unassuming show that just wants to bop along and be fun is taking research responsibilities seriously, while the show that claims to care about social issues apparently doesn’t see any problem with the way it handles and depicts The Other, it is self assured and self righteous and thinks it can just turn its back to critics and focus on getting on with its bad self.
Research is important. There are reasons shows like to consult experts before depicting certain professions, or scenarios. It’s not just a desire to do it well and realistically, it also seems to be a desire to make sure that viewers will not feel alienated or be unimpressed with the show’s handling of a particular topic. What I hear when I see shows not using consultants and not researching on matters of lived experience is that they think none of us are watching. They are presenting things from the perspective of the outsider, prepared for other outsiders.
The carelessness when it comes to depicting lived experience is offensive to viewers who actually have that experience, especially when it crops up randomly and sneaks up behind you, making you go ‘wait, what was that doing in the middle of the show I was really enjoying until about 30 seconds ago?’ It’s not just it’s bad, and not realistic, and takes us outside of the fictional world of the show as we roll our eyes. It’s that it is so patently, painfully clear that the creators didn’t give a shit about the fact that we watch, too, and we have opinions, and we like to see our lives presented with at least a veneer of realism.
People say we are just looking for something to get offended about. Really, it’s more like people keep throwing things in our faces.