TV networks announced their fall programming schedules last week and the slate of new shows is both (kind of) good and bad news for portrayals of people people with disabilities.
The good news is that there is a meager improvement in the representation of disabled characters in starring roles. By “meager” I mean out of seventeen new shows debuting on NBC, (only) three main characters have physical disabilities.
The most notable of these is includes a sitcom headlined by everyone’s favorite basketball playing werewolf (and brief Taylor Swift enemy), Michael J. Fox. The Michael J. Fox show trailer looks genuinely funny, placing Fox’s Parkinson’s disease front and center while he deals with the quotidian aspects of life: raising a family, being a husband, and finding steady employment. The effects of his Parkinson’s aren’t hidden or obscured but visibly come into play as a natural catalyst for humorous situations, revealing the often overlooked fact that authentic disability representation can be hilarious.
Anyone who watched the series finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm—which revolved around Fox and Parkinson’s—is already familiar with just how funny disability can be when done well. The key to making disability-humor work boils down to authenticity: the representation comes from a genuine, trustworthy source, and not from a nondisabled perspective speculating wildly about what disability must be like.
Fox keenly uses these distorted cultural perceptions of disability to his comedic advantage in the trailer for his show, cheekily calling out the trite, “inspirational” portraits of disability that usually permeate the airwaves. While conversing with Wendell Pierce (of The Wire and Treme fame) about his return to his job as an NBC anchor, Fox says, “You know NBC is gonna milk it by showing me in slow-motion with lame, uplifting music in the background.” And of course they do, but the audience is now in on the joke, which deftly exposes just how absurdly inaccurate media portrayals of disability commonly are.
The erroneous and misleading representations of physical disability are frequently mired in tragedy clichés, with the disabled person “overcoming” or triumphing over their disability, effectively positioning themselves as conqueror of a war against their own body. It’s rare to witness a disabled character that integrates their disability into their identity, welcoming it as a positive and acceptable aspect of who they are. This is of course unsurprising given the paucity of disabled characters on TV, which leads me to the bad news.
While NBC is rolling out three shows featuring a main character with a disability, ABC has an extremely dubious sounding show, “Mind Games,” where Steve Zahn (also of Treme fame) plays a man with bipolar disorder “committed to solving clients’ problems using the hard science of psychological manipulation.” And Christian Slater is there for some reason.
This leads us to the pitiful truth that there are only four new disabled roles on network TV, and out of a measly four, three of them aren’t even played by disabled people. In the disability world, this is commonly derided as “Crip Face” or “Crip Drag,” where a disabled character is played by someone without a disability. Christine Bruno, co-chair of the Tri-Union Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities (I AM PWD) commented on this practice, stating:
“There is no substitute for the lived experience of disability. It is not a technical skill that can be easily turned on and off. Disabled actors bring with them a lifetime of unique experiences that allow them to present authentic, nuanced portrayals that add not only to the rich, diverse fabric of our country, but create a greater understanding about the society in which we live.”
Crip Drag is disturbingly common and problematic, creating a self-perpetuating cycle prohibiting qualified disabled actors from landing roles, which leads to a lack of authentic disability representation on screen. The practice seems particularly regressive when looking at statistics of disability portrayals on TV. In GLAAD’s 2011-2012 ‘Where We Are On TV’ report, they found TV characters with disabilities represented less than 1 percent of all scripted series characters. Out of 647 characters featured on broadcast networks, only five were disabled. Of those five characters, all were white and four were male. Considering 12 percent of the population experiences disability and people with disabilities comprise every conceivable ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, TV’s perpetuation of disability as a non-intersectional white guys club is especially troublesome.
Of the four new disability roles introduced this season, three are white males—the exception is Blair Underwoodm, a black, nondisabled actor who stars in cop show “Ironside.” Underwood plays a wheelchair-using detective with a “very unique perspective.” (One can only assume that “very unique perspective” is a Hollywood euphemism for “disabled”). Based on the trailer and interviews with Underwood, it looks to be a fairly formulaic “tough cop” drama with a lot of energy directed at explaining his disability (shot in an accident) and flashbacks to his previously nondisabled life. Scenes of a libidinous Underwood are included in the trailer, which is somewhat refreshing as it counters misconceptions that disabled and/or paralyzed people don’t have sex. However, it seems unlikely that any nuanced portrayal of disabled sex will be forthcoming. Instead, I’ll bet that the show will fall back on ubermacho constructions of masculinity as a means to maintain ableist notions that despite his disability, Ironside is still “a real man.” This sentiment is echoed in the trailer’s closing scene where a bloodied criminal incredulously asks Ironside, “Are you really a cripple?” Ironside smirks and responds, “You tell me.”
In essence, Ironside looks like a typical cop shvow that just happens to have a wheelchair-user as the protagonist. While I’m excited at finally seeing a representation of disability that highlights a person of color, I’m disappointed that the role went to someone who doesn’t actually experience a disability. Equally disappointing is the fact that the show looks so one-dimensional. The inclusion of a truly disabled actor could have provided a realistic insight into the character, lending some credibility to the show. This just comes across as corny Crip Drag. Given the lack of authentic disabled characters on network TV this fall, I’m grateful to at least have Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad to look forward to.