Our friend and bandmate Rebecca Migdal has a site here of her comics and other work. You should check it out!
The internet has recently made me aware that Whoever-Decides-These-Things has declared October “Disability Month”. Ok. This includes TCM running a schedule of films depicting disability that makes me sort of wish we still had a TV (I have “Freaks” on DVD, but “Bedlam” sounds kind of interesting too. Like a non-musical version of Emilie Autumn’s new “Fight Like A Girl” concept album.) It’s also good to see awareness shed on art projects or groups like This Is What Disability Looks Like, or Sins Invalid. Sometimes though I wonder about about how much stock to put into this type of identity politic, how much of it falls on us and how much on the observer. Of course I have schizoaffective disorder (I’m typing this essay after about two failed, agitated tries.) and Eric has physical birth traumas, neither of these are things that will go away and they certainly affect how our lives run. Just…not every single moment, or in every single instance. I guess what got me thinking about this is this list of negative stereotypes that was linked from some blog or other:
The Top Ten Stereotypes of Disabled People
1. Inspirations – Indomitable disabled person, aka “Super Cripple” overcomes every challenge, “doesn’t think of self as disabled” never asks for help, declines accommodation of any kind, climbs Mt. Everest in a wheelchair with cheery smile
2. Deviant, Sinister and Evil – naturally crooked, operate outside normal rules of nature and society, must be contained controlled or destroyed
3. Victims – vulnerable, weak, tragic object of violence and abuse
4. Exotic Freaks – generate feelings of horror, aversion, fear of difference, embarrassment
5. Clowns – comic relief, laughable appearance, funny voices, the butt of jokes, dumb and dumber, court jesters, fools
6. Pitiful and Sweet – pathetic, innocent, grateful for crumbs, sometimes speak gentle words of extraordinary wisdom (especially if intellectually impaired) need to be looked after, in film and fiction often finds miracle cure
7. Twisted and Bitter- chip on shoulder, whining, acrimonious, angry and difficult, taking out inner hurt and rage on the world, okay to ignore their concerns, pointless trying communicate with them
8. Burden and Outcast – costly, non-contributing burdens on society, can’t and don’t “fit in” anywhere except amongst others of same kind – should be segregated, institutionalized, provided with the bare minimum or euthanized (better off dead anyway), preferably prevented from reproducing.
9. Non sexual – can never be in a relationship (unless partner is pervert or martyr)
10. Incapable of full participation in everyday life – nothing to do with how society is built or organized, just can’t learn, earn, play, socialize, shop, travel, go to a nightclub or use the phone (cause for unlimited astonishment if can do any of above)
Ok, I understand how the powers of Bad Writing can reduce anyone, particularly those looked at as “Other” in our culture, into one note stereotypes. And there’s been extensive writing on the “supercrip” trope. But a lot of things on this list are presented so vaguely that no one escapes. I’m sure most people feel angry sometimes, or vulnerable, or not in the mood for sex, or REALLY in the mood for sex— but what, when a physically disabled or mentally ill person feels any of these things they’re playing into a stereotype? Does the fact that Eric is an accomplished and respected percussionist make him a “supercrip”? (No, he read that article over my shoulder, and he literally asked me that.) I guess the sexuality depicted in La La Land absolves us of being “non-sexual” , but it’s also decidedly non-vanilla, are we guilty of being “deviants” (#2 on their list)? What about people who DO identify as Asexual? If they have a disability, are they suddenly “playing into type”? Of course, going back to mental illness, if you’re a woman, there’s also the fetishized stereotypes of “crazy girl sex” that some men buy into. #3 on the list is perhaps the most troublesome. I’ve certainly read enough studies that indicate both the physically/mentally disabled are likely to be targeted for abuse. Both Eric and I have experienced abuse from partners in the past, before we met each other. I’d wouldn’t like to think of someone caught in that circumstance, or maybe just out of it, to feel like they’re contributing to some harmful stereotype on top of everything else they’d been through. Especially when critique should be leveled at the abusers, not the victims.
Of course, it’s not just hardships and bad moods on the firing line in stereotype world. Apparently even a good mood or a sweet-natured disposition get one dismissed as some “inspiring” cliche. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Even this comic – there’s a guy in a wheelchair at an art event, who’s probably tied a few on, saying non-sequitorial, slighty odd things. These comics are autobiographical and this is how he appeared that night. But does his wheelchair turn this from a “wacky drunk art guy” story into something else?
My guess is…yes, if the reader was committed to these stereotypes already. They’ll read something into this. They’ll read something into anything a person they perceive as “Other” says or does. How much time or energy can anyone invest into monitoring their views, emotions, or experiences for fear it will present something they don’t want, when chances are what you do won’t matter anyway if the other person is that closed into their preconceived ideas? Maybe that’s why “Do What Thou Wilt” is “the whole of the Law” in my spiritual path. Because you can’t live your life to accommodate anyone else’s perceptions of reality, good or bad.