As a disabled person, I’m naturally interested in examining depictions of disability in pop culture, as you may have gathered from previous posts in this series. I’m also interested in the depictions of marginalised groups that aren’t present, as I discussed in ‘I Think You Dropped Your T.’ Sins of omission can be almost as interesting as sins of commission.
There’s a notable gap when it comes to depictions of people with disabilities on television, and that’s sexual relationships. Most disabled characters are not sexual, or only allowed to be sexual under very special and controlled circumstances. This perpetuates a lot of really harmful ideas about people with disabilities: we don’t have sex at all, we only have sex when we are being exploited, or that when we are sexually active, we are actually expressing some kind of pathology.
I am reminded of the Grey’s Anatomy episode ‘How Insensitive.’ One of the storylines on the episode involves a very fat and disabled patient who becomes a topic of morbid fascination amongst the Seattle Grace crew. After seeing him for the first time, Christina and Meredith sit in the cafeteria speculating with horror and fear about how he can possibly have sex with his young, conventionally attractive wife.
I feel like this exchange between Meredith and Christina is actually a pretty accurate reflection of how a lot of Hollywood writers think about disabled sexuality, as well as fat sexuality. It’s scary and unimaginable and is the topic of lewd commentary in the cafeteria, but not something that actually happens, let alone something that can safely be depicted on television. As it turns out, the episode flipped this, having the man’s wife show up and point out that a.) yes, they do have sex and b.) it’s no one else’s business.
That’s why I was so pleased when Private Practice dared to have a wheelchair user as a love interest, and dared to have sex scenes that didn’t disintegrate into prurient speculation. I’d say that both Rhimes shows do more than a lot of other shows currently airing to debunk popular mythology by showing, not telling, and forcing viewers to confront their own internalised attitudes.
This sort of thing is extremely rare, however. Many disabled characters are neatly and effectively desexed. There are exceptions, like the character with Down Syndrome on Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC after-school special that actually has some pretty interesting content, social justice-wise, and Artie’s fumbling kisses with Tina on Glee, although given that we’ve seen plenty of sex scenes with other characters, I think it’s high time to see Artie in the bedroom, given that he’s obviously very interested in sexing it up.
When we are allowed to have sex in pop culture, it usually takes the form of a character with mental illness having sex because of the mental illness. I get this with Brenda Chenowith in Six Feet Under, where it’s suggested that she seeks out casual sex not because she’s an independent woman and she wants to, but because she’s desperately trying to fill some sort of hole in her life. I see this with other disabled and sexual characters as well; they’re not having sex in uncomplicated ways, because they want to or it’s fun or they are in long term relationships with people they love, but rather because they are mentally ill.
There’s a patronising narrative that happens with a lot of disabled characters. They don’t act out of free will, but because they are disabled. They aren’t allowed independence, because they are disabled and clearly incapable of acting on their own. Other characters do things ‘for their own good’ and this is depicted in a neutral or even positive way. These ‘small details’ that barely register with nondisabled viewers make me cringe and make me approach something that other people love from a completely different perspective.
This has real-world impacts on how nondisabled people interact with us. If you are a wheelchair user or you are in a relationship with one, people will ask you ‘How do you have sex?’ If you are a person with mental illness, you are going to be continually questioned about whether you are choosing relationships out of free will or because you’re sick. If you have a cognitive or developmental disability, there will be concern trolling about whether you are able of making independent choices.
I’d like to see more Dr. Fifes and less Brenda Chenowiths, personally, and more honest depictions of disabled sexuality in all its facets.