One thing that has always confounded, and annoyed, me is the trope of “overcoming” disability in cinema. For me, it is akin to the Magical Negro character in Hollywood films, à la The Legend of Bagger Vance, Driving Miss Daisy, or The Green Mile. Basically, the Magical Negro is a term to describe a black character who helps some sad white person overcome whatever is ailing them. There has been a ton of academic work out there criticizing this trope, but I think this comic sums it up nicely.
What does this have to do with disability? Well, see, tropes exist because we can recognize them, and they help us understand ideas as a society. While Americans use the Magical Negro trope to engage in (misguided) discourse about spiritual awakening, I argue that the equivalent trope for disability is the tale of “overcoming.” For me, this trope is one in which the bitter (bad) cripple learns to triumph over more often his, though also her, broken body with the help of friends, just like the Beatles song. It’s not always a bad cripple; sometimes, it’s someone who becomes crippled or who is diagnosed and must come to terms with the loss of a functioning body. Whatever the scenario, the character usually ends up the archetypal “good cripple,” spreading joy and inspiration to mankind. The tale is made for regular folk to feel better about their lives, and bodies. If so-and-so can overcome their pain and suffering, I can deal with my troubles. Yes, I can! Woohoo! Now, I can leave this movie and feel happy and not have to worry about what it’s like to be disabled, because they are all OK! Such a warm and fuzzy time.
The most recent example of this is the new film about Stephen Hawking: The Theory of Everything. Not only is he a brilliant mind, but he’s so inspirational. I mean, how can someone want to live like that? And be a genius? It’s too much for us to think about and not want to utter the words, “inspirational.” I mean, look at the trailer:
Oooh, ahhh. It could be a musical. It makes me want to throw ice water over myself.
But let’s talk about the real Stephen Hawking. He is brilliant, not in spite of his disability or because of it. He was always brilliant. (He did get some stuff wrong, but so did Einstein). In fact, he pursued his science at the detriment of personal relationships. This has everything to do with the pursuit of the gifted mind and not a broken body. He is an astrophysicist who is also disabled, not a disabled astrophysicist. Equally, I am not a dwarf French professor; I am a badass French professor who happens to have pseudoachondroplasia. Oh wait, here’s what the man Hawking himself says about his disability:
“If you are disabled, it is probably not your fault, but it is no good blaming the world or expecting it to take pity on you. One has to have a positive attitude and must make the best of the situation that one finds oneself in; if one is physically disabled, one cannot afford to be psychologically disabled as well. In my opinion, one should concentrate on activities in which one’s physical disability will not present a serious handicap. I am afraid that Olympic Games for the disabled do not appeal to me, but it is easy for me to say that because I never liked athletics anyway. On the other hand, science is a very good area for disabled people because it goes on mainly in the mind. Of course, most kinds of experimental work are probably ruled out for most such people, but theoretical work is almost ideal. My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in. I have managed, however, only because of the large amount of help I have received from my wife, children, colleagues and students. I find that people in general are very ready to help, but you should encourage them to feel that their efforts to aid you are worthwhile by doing as well as you possibly can.” ― Stephen Hawking
There’s a lot to unpack here, but you probably get the gist. There’s a tad of the good cripple lurking in there, but generally, Hawking is a pragmatist. He did what he could do and that for which his mind was made. He also got out of a bunch of academic work that he didn’t want to do. Smart. I’m filing that away in my brain the next time I’m asked to chair a committee. Can you chair the ad-hoc committee on the use of the basement in the library? Nope. I’m busy because everything takes longer when you’re disabled. Sorry. But, if you get that elevator to work better and add some ramps and handicapped parking, I’ll think about it.
The New Yorker has this to say about the film:
It’s also a revelatory portrait of his strength, including his surprising gaiety, the jokes and the ironies that he drew from God knows what reserves of energy. In this movie, his illness and his productivity are intimately linked. New Yorker, 10 November 2014 “Love and Physics: Interstellar and The Theory of Everything.“
Sounds pretty “overcoming trope”-ish, if you ask me. I am going to coin a word for this: Cripptrumphant. If you use it, please, please give me credit. I want to be famous for making up a word. Add it to Urban Dictionary. Do it. And link back to the blog.
Though I’ve gone on and on about The Theory of Everything, you can see this trope in tons of films, such as: My Left Foot, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Passion Fish, Temple Grandin, and Intouchables. (There is also the trope of the happy mentally disabled, – I am Sam, Forrest Gump, The 8th Day – but we’re not talking about this here.) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the feel-good nature of these films, but at heart, it’s a difficult trope for those of us with disabilities. It makes it very difficult for us to live ordinary lives when everyone wants us to be extra-ordinary.
I’m actually working on a paper for the 20th/21st Century French and Francophone Studies International Colloquium about the international hit film Intouchables. This film has made a lot of Americans angry for its use of the Magical Negro trope, but not much has been said about the overcoming disability trope. I’m not going to tell you much about the paper now, but I’ll let you know when it’s finished!
One more thing before I go. Joseph Campbell argued that tropes and archetypes teach us about humanity. His famous work on the Hero’s Journey was famously used to explain the Star Wars saga. We use the familiar structure of the hero to give meaning to the human experience. If you’ve seen Interstellar, same thing. There’s a nice restructuring of Campbell’s work in Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey; you can see a nice summary of both here: The Hero’s Journey. While I know that Jung is largely out of favor in terms of psychology, I do think that Campbell understands something about the metastructure of the human mythos. While his explanation is a bit male- and ablist-centric, he has a lot to offer in terms of how and why tropes/archetypes are important to build meaning. I think I just might come up with another iteration: The Cripple’s Journey. Again, don’t steal my idea!
I leave you with another archetype: Supercrip! Maybe another post…?
Check out more humor at: https://cripstrips.wordpress.com/