Society is no comfort/To one not sociable — Shakespeare, Imogen, Cymbeline, IV:2, 12-13
The Walking Stick: Deborah (Samantha Eggar) badly lamed leaning on Leigh (David Hemmings) (1970, Eric Till, Winston Graham, George Bluestone)
Dear friends and readers,
Disabled characters have increased in numbers in popular fiction & film in the last quarter century. Has there been a genuine increase in sympathetic empathy and understanding, any real help offered such people or acceptance as a result. It would seem not. I link these two phenomena to the growth of fandoms in cyberspace and elsewhere and how they effect the development of programs and series of fictions. Why there are there. I exemplify briefly with the way disabled characters from Sondheim’s Passion to Winston Graham’s mystery and Poldark novels are treated, and more at length in Downton Abbey, from Fellowes’s himself to the indifferent to hostile commentary on him & Anna, the head housemaid who loves him.
A spin-off from both the APA/ACA and ASECS conferences: in both there were roundtable panels on “disability studies: I feared not enough would be said in the more casual talks these roundtables offer to take up enough time and the audience would be called upon to talk, and then feared I’d reveal myself too much or get too involved. I have seen academic people present themselves as interested in isabilities and found that they were not, except as an abstract topic; worse, if I probed I discovered the people were just as strong for enforcing “normalcy” (on behalf of “success”), just as prejudiced (not taking a whole personality into account, not being willing to critique their definitions of success), fearful and/or nervous in their reactions. I worried I’d feel angry or know intense dismay.
So I didn’t go, and now regret this because what I did do was take down names of journals, books and periodicals with disability studies for today. First off I learned that in the last quarter century there’s been a huge increase in the number of disabled characters in popular fiction. It might be the disabled characters were always there in mystery-crime fiction, though not acknowledged, as villains or victims, but not being acknowledged, presented as freaks, or evil, or reprehensible in some way. But this is a big change to presenting people with disabilities in a sympathetic or seeming sympathetic way. Nowadays disability is also popular in historical fiction and romance. So that I noticed so many disabled characters in Winston Graham does not show originality on his part, but rather a following of a zeitgeist.
I won’t cite the names of the articles or journals separately unless someone asks for these (in the comments) which is most unlikely, just describe generally. Most were studies of texts or art in the close reading humanities way today (looking sociologically, how they function in society). Basically there were two schools of thought: one argues that the new wave of appearances of disabled characters is not increasing any real understanding or sympathy for people with disabilities because 1) at the end the disabled person is forcibly or seemingly willingly co-opted into the “normal” world, made to seem “normal” and the point is to defuse the person as a threat, on the way the emphasis in portrayal is the disability itself with full utterly varied richness of people ignored; it’s voyeurism; and 2) we see very little progress in the outer world for funding, real acceptance, or even understanding in wider circles of people. The other argues that the spread of such depictions does help; little by little the stories make people no longer ignore the disabled, no longer erase them altogether, and does gradually work up sympathy and we may hope for change.
When Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) wants to visit the crippled Mrs Smith (Helen Schlesinger), her father rages at her with open disgust for her “queer” tastes (from the 1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell, Nick Dear)
Then there are essays on particular works or authors or sub-genres: how disabled people are presented in romance; how presented in mystery-crime stories (where they’ve long been an unacknowledged central type, either as villain or victim); in later Victorian gothic. The way they are discussed in non-fiction case histories, which sometimes turn out to be obtuse fictions which promulgate single-minded freakish stereotyped views, e.g., Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which invites voyeurism. Once in a while a particular writer or work is found which increases understanding and sympathy. The value of these is if you want to do such studies they show you how to do and what’s said, and give you insights.
Two good books are worth noting: Women with Disabilities, ed. Michelle Fine (and others). Fine’s the one who’s done intelligent candid studies of how women who have been raped are treated, women’s studies. The kind of character includes is Fosca in Tarchetti’s book (now called Passion from Sondheim): I’ve noticed again and again women who are presented as disabled are eroticized, made beautiful but for the disability which then adds to their alluringness (and the kick of having sex with them in the imagination apparently). Another is more historical and crosses gender, class, ethnicity: Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature. The truth is many people still believe in disabilities only if they are physical.
Fosca from Passion, made plain not crippled (yet this came from a website mocking the addictive love affair)
From what I’ve read thus far I think the those who say this increase in visibility has not led to a gain in empathy or understanding are right. Even when the novel does not enforce normalcy, readerships insist on misreading the fiction to emphasize a happy ending at the close — happy being equivalent to assimilation and erasure. From what I’ve seen in real life — the cutting off of funding, the cutting out of Aspergers from the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Physicians Manuel), and the increase in coercive techniques & drugs among psychologists again those who say more visibility has not helped are right. No one really has a mechanism for helping such people gain self-sustaining employment for or proposes helping older adults socially for real at all.
Misreading in terms of the readers’ own identity needs, to throw off a threat of anything unknown or new leads me to the other related topic I heard discussed at the conference and want to consider again. Next time (if there is one for me at either conference), and if I have a chance to go on panels about fandoms, fanzines, I will. The book here is Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.
Fandoms are one aspect of different ways of life in the Net that are reactions the increasing anonymity and loss of community in US life, the impoverishment of individuals and high unemployment rate so that people come onto the Net to find community, meaning when there is nothing where they live. These groups replace religious communities too, can be a religious community, and they are real. It’s another instance where the idea that what happens on the Net is not real is false. In the 1950s Richard Hoggart wrote a book called The Uses of Literacy where he argued that TV was being used to create “imagined communities” which through propaganda and loyalty to shows inculcated in people Tory reactionary values; again people at a loss, people left out, communities devastated by global capitalism; the book was re-issued during the 1980s Thatcher years.
But it’s not true that these are imagined and unreal communities. These groups of people active and aggressive; authors ignore them at their peril. They meet outside the Net when they can and influence where they can. They will punish, ostracize, exclude the person who takes a different view and attack that. I have found it very painful to deal with such people; actually I can’t, don’t know how to. They can be group bloggers. They can be seen whirling to some extent around mini-series programs, Games of Thrones say or Downton Abbey.
How do you recognize a fandom. It’ll be a message board where anonymity is enforced, and thus no one held accountable. No personal relationships can develop easily. In the case of films or TV, the re-doing of bits of films in YouTube videos to change the original meanings of scenes to fit what the fans want and posting of these. They can be embarrassing. Fierce conversations which a given aggressive individual will not give up. I’d say worse than some of what happens on Austen-l only it’s moderated so the two or three people moderating immediately shut up whoever has said what they don’t agree with (they were particularly fierce over sex), “community” activities centered on the actors and stars of the films and a whole range of sociological or psychological phenomena having to do with inventing a fictional identity. They do meet outside the Net when they can. A pre-screening of the new Sherlock in a New York movie-house brought fans from around the country to meet in the movie-house, see their movie, eat and talk together afterward.
Examples include Harry Potter, Batman, Dr Who, Star Wars, long-running TV programs. My experience has been with the Winston Graham Society webpage, really a message board dedicated to discussing two of the famous stars from the first mini-series: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees (although she’s dead now). I had read in Graham’s autobiography this group succeeded in damning a 1996 film and making it impossible to go on; a paper I heard at ACA showed that the group influenced the second season of the films. I was told by one woman my discussion of disability, violence and sex in Graham’s fiction “deeply upset” her so how dare I? No one should write about this series what could upset her, no details allowed. I had notice how many disabled (often autistic) characters Graham has in his Poldark and mystery novels; how he studies alienation (Marni) and individual loss sympathetically and wanted to discuss this. The shattering of one of the heroines from continual marital rape; the reality the hero rapes one of the chief heroines and the son they have, neglected and over-indulged (anything but taken care of) after her death grows up disturbed and lonely enough to reach out for an orangutan as a companion. Forget it.
Facebook pages dedicated to famous stars or authors identified as conservative and classic, or with some ethnicity or doctrine. The audience for Austen’s books is leavened because it includes different types of people, academics and heritage industry and there’s a lot of money to be made on sequels and conferences and tourism so the fandom cannot invent this world of its own and control the material. Austen has prestige, her texts are not considered trivial and worthless in the way of say Star Trek and other texts around which fandoms whirl. These groups dislike any criticism of their author; they will justify or excuse or explain away the smallest unfavorable remark. Their identities have become involved, their egos, their self-image. They build whole worlds around their texts & shows.
Tellingly, for people interested to see if popular fiction that has a wide enthusiastic audience can function to increase the sympathetic imagination, the fiercest hostile responses come from any assertion that the fetishized material explores sexuality or gender in unconventional ways, has an ambiguous or sad ending, shows the hero to be less than admirable (violent for example, politically radical).
I’ll end on the treatment of disability in Downton Abbey, the first season. Since I think I do not misread, I cannot tell what the misreading would be precisely, probably in the direction of scorn or dismissal or somehow turning the disability into what’s normal if “unwanted,” as Sir Anthony Strallon was treated in the third season, or silence, as the man with the heinously disfigured face was in the second — both given over to the program-scapegoat, Edith.
In the first part of Downton Abbey, the lamed Mr Bates is almost fired because few will accept his disability: most take it as a blemish on community, insist he will not be able to do his job, a few ridicule him, a couple (that’s enough) tell false tales; Lord Grantham almost fires him but his decency and better self seeing the cruelty and injustice of the act, keeps him on at the close of the hour.
In the third part, Mr Bates still driven by fear he’ll be fired, tormented by cruel jeering or physical gestures (as when Miss Obrien trips and humiliates him) buys an instrument of torture to make himself walk more straight. As the hour wears on we see Bates in pain, leaning over in agony, having a sour expression, indeed not be able to do his job. (In the context of the hour’s juxtaposition, the parallel is the ejection of Pamuk’s corpse from Lady Mary’s room after he half-rapes her; both are trash which ruin the body and probably spirit of the character.) Finally Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper insists on seeing what is wrong with Mr Bates, and he shows her his leg, now covered with blood and sores from the contraption on it.
As ever Fellowes is on the side of the mainstream: we next see the pair by the side of a river on the property. Mr Bates has agreed to throw the thing away. The lesson Mrs Hughes instructs Mr Bates to remember is: “I promise I will never again try to cure myself, I will spend my life happily as the butt of others’ jokes and I will never mind them.” Mrs Hughes: “We all carry scars Mr Bates, inside or out, you’re no different than the rest of us, remember that.” Mr Bates: “I will try to that I do promise.” And then he hurls it off, and she cries “good riddance.’
The part about not trying to cure oneself is good — autism month should be called autism acceptance month. The group of articles I have include two arguing the higher ends of autism include people who are in many ways more gifted than the average and would not have to consider themselves disabled if others didn’t ostracize and punish them. And Mr Bates is doing his job fine. But the second part half-blaming Mr Bates and saying it was he who considered himself different is the narrow cold-shouldering mind of the establishment speaking, demanding in effect (were he autistic) that he be neurotypical and leads to people purchasing such contraptions or having painful useful dangerous operations. Stiff upper lip. Never admit to anything.
As far as I could tell from reading the fan’s responses to the hour, they were sympathetic to the obtuse and mean Lady Mary; in his notes to the script Fellowes exclaimed against letters to him decrying a supposed buggery — the people couldn’t endure that Lady Mary should lose her virginity (hymen) so they jumped to the conclusion buggery had occurred and this was why the man had a heart-attack (!). (How revealing of silent suppositions this is.) And on-line people quickly tired of Mr Bates — by the second season as homely and a “sob-story” (“passive-aggressive” was a favorite phrase)and felt excruciated when (they felt) asked to identify with Anna, for they would not have fallen in love with Mr Bates as she slowly does for his intelligence, integrity, good nature, refusal to kowtow or forsake his dignity, good heart (of which we see instances).
A friend wrote:
Mrs. Hughes’s comment that ‘we all carry scars’ nags me, however. Who is the “we?” On the first glance, I’d take it to be a universal statement–the series shows that everyone, upstairs or downstairs, has their problems, but I’m not convinced it is a universal “we.” (I’m sure Fellowes meant it to be.) Is the “we” the servants? However, whether or not Mrs. Hughes “we” is universal, this leads me to think that disability plays out differently between servants and masters — Matthew’s Hemingwayesque war wound, leaving him “crippled” and impotent, is a parallel to Mr. Bates’ disability — both
are physical and both call into the question each man’s ability to do his primary “job” — in Matthew’s case of course, to “make the heir,” but one has a miraculous cure and the other not …
Yes. Who is the we? In the case of the servants, they have no buffer or support to help them if they are rejected, so they must conform and if they cannot, must not complain.
I was told again and again how my blogs on Downton Abbey took “a different view,” and at times (especially around the character of Edith whose scapegoating I exposed) attacked. Twenty years from now attitudes will have frozen and it will be hard to talk freely to those still remembering (many will no longer but move on). I never did discuss disability in Downton Abbey. I should have. So have made up for that now.