Tag Archives: performing disability

Recommended TV: Speechless on ABC

This post begins with a non sequitur. Instead of directly arguing for the merits of the show that I am trying to get you to watch, I am going to explain the obvious reasons why you should watch a good TV show besides it being a good TV show. It has been a while since I posted on this site, and strangely, it also coincided with the annual summer break on the TV schedule. [It is one of my pet peeves that the scheduled TV summer break is irrelevant in the world of digital streaming and OTT content, but I will leave that aside for now. Clearly I am going to use the break to explain away my own laziness!]

So there are at least a half a dozen shows that I am watching (or failing trying to) at this time. Besides the great shows recommended by friends, family and Netflix, I am obliged to keep up with the upcoming scheduled network programs as well. One of the strangest, and beautiful things about network programs is that the audience voice matters and does not matter in two extreme and oppositional ways. First, if a show is underwatched in the outmoded AC Nielsen measurement, it is condemned for the chopping block. However, once the numbers are in, the critical reception and fan cultures have little influence on the show’s continuation.

While a show like Breaking Bad with less than 2 million viewers per week in its initial season was renewed for bigger and badder things in the latter seasons (which also ended up pulling monster level 15 million ratings for the last few episodes), a show like Hannibal on NBC could not drag its internationally subsidized production budget into a fourth season due to poor ratings. Leaving aside the less obvious shows like The Grinder (Rob Lowe’s best comedic performance), even the more widely appreciated shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreations, 30 Rock, Better off Ted all had to fend off the specter of cancellation throughout their run.

And that is why Speechless deserves your attention, because it fell from 7 million viewers to 4.5 over the course of the first season, and opened to a modest 5 million in the second season. Compared to ABC’s Modern Family (9 million viewers) and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (up to a surprising 20 million viewers), Speechless’ position as ABC’s third best comedy might maybe good enough for a few more seasons, but not enough to be featured as a headliner as the show deserves to be treated. I guess that is rant over, so let us take a look at the show itself.

Formally, Speechless is far less daring as some of the modern sitcoms. The A and B plot lines are very clearly demarcated and the characters are, at times, typically indistinguishable from other dysfunctional TV families from Malcom in the Middle and The Goldbergs among others. However, the content of the show makes up for any timid imitative practices from other shows. In fact, the patient evaluation of simple situations may seem as obvious and tiresome to many. What kind of a ramp should a disabled child uses in a high school? Is a garbage disposal ramp an acceptable alternative to an adaptation or is it insulting to the user? How do disabled children fight? How do they express anger? Should adaptations help bridge access for them to do things that are perceived to be bad, just as much as they allow them to do things that are socially approved? The questions in Speechless move from the mundane and practical to serious grounds on social acceptance and good behavior.

In a different era, a show like this would have been deemed too depressing or heavy on reflections for a prime-time network TV comedy. And yet, along with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, ABC continues to present families of all shapes and colors, while maintaining an engaging and entertaining storyline. Speechless encourages people to laugh about these things, but not in a mean-spirited way. It normalizes the needs of disabled children without trivializing them, thus performing an important function of communication that goes beyond representation. And yet, these attempts of remaking similar narratives with the focus on access feels like an intentional ploy to produce a show that can produce popular images which help visualize, if not normalize the issues of adaptation.

Disabled characters do not have a lot of visibility on network TV, unless they are used as narrative props for a specific episode or in a quirky, upbeat role as a sidekick. ABC’s new comedy Speechless engages with questions of access and disability head on, presenting important questions without exceeding the typical conventions of the sitcom. This is a precious little show, which examines the questions of what kind and degree of adaptation is acceptable. The disability presented in this show is not a magical way in which life moves on without any difficulties. The show actually lingers on the struggles without making it about sympathy or overcoming the odds. It engages with the difficulties without judgement, and that makes Speechless rather unique.

The show examines JJ, the protagonist who communicates through a words written on a board, in the context of his family and friends. The representation of siblings and parents whose lives are linked to the disability of their family member is handled with an optimism that emphasizes the importance of awareness and practical knowledge rather than an old-world idea of stoic and unquestioning togetherness. There is a lot of heart and very funny one liners in this ABC sitcom, but most of all – it is a manifestation of the transformative power of TV.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.


Performing Disability: Self-representation as Ability

Disabled characters are not rare in mainstream cinema and television, but very rarely are they portrayed by actors with a corresponding disability. Performing disability, in this context, has become a very special ability that actors covet as a pinnacle of their acting versatility. Recently, I read that Shah Rukh Khan will be playing a ‘dwarf’ in an upcoming film directed by Anand L Rai. Khan’s turn towards altering his appearance and body adds him to a long list of actors who have received critical acclaim, such as Kamal Hassan, Daniel Day-Lewis, Patrick Stewart, Sam Worthington, to name a few. While many of them advocate a political message by calling for awareness about the condition they are representing, few question the ethics of their representation.

Let us, consider the language used in this news item announcing Shah Rukh Khan’s film:

The director says, “Shah Rukh plays a dwarf and it is going to be a lot of hard work and patience.” The director furthers adds that the film is a love story, “The film is a full-fledged love story or a family entertainer with lots of romance.”

The director beams about the effort that Shah Rukh needs to invest to play that role, before unhesitatingly moving on to talk about other aspects of the film as ‘a family entertainer’ and ‘romance’. The interval between the first and the second sentences quoted in this paragraph are shockingly uncritical for an information outlet that purports itself to be a news agency. News is evaluation and verification, and here neither task is carried out. I do not expect them to editorialize in what is essentially a fluff piece that doubles up as an announcement for an upcoming film. But throughout the entire post, there is not a single question about the awkwardness of an able-bodied actor portraying a disabled character. This is the deepest cut of them all, that the question does not present itself in the horizon of critical evaluation.

For a disabled person reading this news report, it is no news at all. The elision of the disabled narrative from the common space of media and the arts is an everyday occurrence for them. While their disability makes for a great subject for art, their participation is conveniently kept to a minimum. The disabled actor is a soft taboo because ‘real’ disability is perceived to be grotesque. When Peter Dinklage became the starring cast member in Game of Thrones, it was a moment of great excitement as well as trepidation for many disabled people; it felt like a personal achievement, which came with the threat of being snatched away at any moment. Even though an unattractive character was replaced by the handsomest dwarf in Hollywood, a prince among men, it was still a victory. In other words, Dinklage is our Obama.

Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion Lannister

Scott Jordan Harris does not mince any words when he calls this practice “disability as drag”. He looks at the portrayal of disability in the context of boys in drag in the age of Elizabethan theatre and the now-reviled acts of ‘black face’ and ‘yellow face’ casting from the recent past. Nor will this trend stop anytime soon. He says,

“Women were once prohibited from performing onstage…[Actors like Brando, Olivier, Guinness] used make-up and prosthetics to imitate their physical characteristics, and took roles that would have been better played by black or Asian actors, two groups for which opportunities were already disproportionately limited. Today, just the idea of this is distasteful to us.

But able-bodied actors do all these things in efforts to imitate disabled people, and we do not protest. We are conditioned to be outraged when we see race being exploited onscreen. When we see disability being exploited onscreen, we are conditioned to applaud.”

Disabled Casting

To add to Harris’ argument, not only are we conditioned to applaud, but we are programmed to celebrate them as the highest achievements in acting and performance. Here is a list of able-bodied actors from Dustin Hoffman to Eddie Redmayne who have played disabled characters, and here is a cynical and disillusioned article from The Washington Post about this phenomenon. This is not restricted to the biggest avenues that depend on mass consumption and the mainstream. A decade ago, a respected theatre director in Madras told me that she would not cast me because my crutches and the shuffle would be a distraction. And yet, a perfectly able gentleman played a part in that production with an even gait, an improbable leg-brace and a cool looking walking stick. And this, was in a progressive theatre company.

The question of representation within the field of disability is even more complicated when we take into account that there is no single form to it. Some disabilities that are invisible (such as effects of critical illness, or mental disabilities) and there are others that are debilitating where the actor’s disability prevents them from performing it. In some cases, like Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal, the transformation plays a big part in the character’s narrative. Clearly this is not just a question of representation, but of a false authenticity that the cinema seeks. The reality hinted by the image is a delicately constructed fantasy that would be dispelled when confronted with a fragment of reality itself, such as the presence of a wheelchair using character, who really is a wheelchair user. To further complicate this, is the added layer of commercialism, where the issue of a disabled actor’s ability to draw money at the box office is presented as a challenge to casting them.

Let us go back to Harris’ article to reflect on how ridiculous these justifications truly are:

“Not only are there too few roles for disabled people but also, when those rare roles become available, they are generally taken by people who are not disabled at all. It’s like casting the parts played by Meryl Streep not with Streep, or an actress like her, but with Harrison Ford in drag.

I know that last image seems ridiculous. It is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because women have a right to be represented onscreen by women. Just as people of color have a right to represented onscreen by people of color. And just as people with disabilities have a right to be represented onscreen by people with disabilities.”

However, by clumping together all these varied problems as one complex, unsolvable issue, we are diverting from the main issue, that disabled actors are not cast even when they are adequately capable actors (and I am aware of the irony of my language use). Besides, nobody expects Henry Cavill or Chris Hemsworth to be able to fly and perform incredible feats of strength to play Superman or Thor. And yet, questions of access, strain on production and distraction of the audience is always brought up in the discussion of a disabled actor. The greatest challenge against casting of disabled actors however, remains the normalizing of these practices. I can only hope that this goes in the same direction of gender and racial inequality in cinema-even if it is not resolved, it at least gains relevance as a problem that needs to be addressed.

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profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.