Is there reason to be optimistic about the greater inclusion of characters and/or performers with disabilities in American film and TV? I’ve been watching this stuff for a while and I say yes. But don’t break out the Cristal just yet. No sea change has occurred. But do take notice. There are at least a new crop of shows featuring the disabled to watch and maybe, God forbid, serve as a spawning ground for others.
Let’s start with the movies. One big special-effects extravaganza of 2012, “Battleship,” which bombed here but made $300 million worldwide, features a military veteran who lost both legs playing a disabled character. And the Snow White movie,“Mirror Mirror,” also a worldwide hit at $162 million, featured a full complement of little people acting like, you know, people. Big year for little people, I’d say, with Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones” fame making the cover of “Rolling Stone.” Then there was the independent film, “Musical Chairs,” a feel-good movie about wheelchair ballroom dancing. Or the French film, “The Intouchables,” a story of a tetraplegic and his care-giver, considered the French cultural event of 2011 by the French public.
But probably the US disability movie of the year, winner of the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at Sundance, is “The Surrogate,” now renamed “The Sessions,” written and directed by Ben Lewin, who is himself disabled. The film is a rendering of the true story of Mark O’Brien, a quad poet who, at 38, decides to hire a sexual surrogate to lose his virginity. Truth in reportage: I’ve only seen about twenty minutes of the film myself, but the performances of Helen Hunt as the surrogate and John Hawkes as Mark O’Brien are instantly riveting. Going in release later this year, this is Oscar material, in my humble opinion.
But the big dis-media story of 2012 is on TV – “Push Girls.” If you haven’t read about it or seen some very attractive ladies in chairs on “Ellen” or “Good Morning, America,” et al, then you live in a media blackout zone. “Push Girls” is a reality show on the Sundance Channel starring five young, with-it women who just happen to be wheelchair-mobile and have a boatload of attitude. “If you can’t stand up, stand out.” That kind of attitude. They have boyfriend problems, career problems, mom problems, pregnancy problems, dancing problems, all kinds of problems – the mother’s milk of reality TV. And they’re a hell of lot of fun to watch.
“Push Girls” has only been on the air for a couple of weeks, but there are already ripples of backlash. A very bright disability activist and thinker, Bill Peace, a cultural anthropologist and blogger at www.badcripple.blogspot.com, recently wrote me the following:
"The “good life” will remain elusive for people with a disability and the general public will be blissfully unaware of the harsh reality people with a disability must adapt to. Shows like “Push Girls,” a supposed reality show, are grossly misleading. I know no person with a disability that leads that sort of life style..."
I too knew of no person who leads that sort of life style, either, until I met the Push Girls, that is. That’s not entirely true. I know a number of young, attractive women in chairs, most of whom dream of making it in Hollywood, but not all. And I know a few Push Guys, too, who are ambitious, independent, and have their own measure of attitude. “Push Girls” are either a distorted, even unhealthy glamorization of people with disabilities or reflective of an emerging post-ADA generation of self-starters. Or maybe it’s both.
My reaction to Mr. Peace’s salient observation is to call in Bill Cosby. When "The Cosby Show" came on TV in 1984, all kinds of pundits trashed it because it wasn't a "realistic" view of black America. It was some kind of TV-induced fantasy, a world away from the real world of South Chicago or Hough or even “blacker” shows like “Sanford and Son” or “Good Times.” And they were right – it was a whole other reality that popped up on the screen. Cosby set out to shatter the stereotype of the poor beleaguered black and introduce white America to the then emerging black middle class. "Wait a minute. You mean blacks can be doctors and lawyers and not be on welfare and have intact families and care that their kids go to college?" It might sound silly now, but it was absolutely revolutionary in 1984.
Because of the Cosby show and what followed in its wake, my own kids, now grown, never thought of a black professional as anything special. Nor a black guy running for President. I would argue that you can draw a straight cultural line from the Cosby Show to the election of Barack Obama 24 years later.
Yes, many people with disabilities struggle mightily and are ignored, marginalized, and abused. And their struggle certainly needs to be acknowledged and confronted. But if the Push Girls are in fact part of a generational shift, even a small one, a rising, ambitious, self-motivated disability middle class, as it were, then the show could be more than just a one-off media nod to the crippled people. You might end up calling the whole bunch The Push Kids.
© 2012 Allen Rucker |