Good Cripple, Bad Cripple: At the Movies!

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.

Magical, no?

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…?

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Good Cripple, Bad Cripple: What the hell does that mean?

So, Disability Studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field/theory that literature, sociology, history, cultural studies, and the like are beginning to use as another tool to talk about “otherness.”  It happens to fit in nicely with other messy topics centering around the “other,” – the fancy word for otherness is “alterity” (my favorite philosopher on this topic is Levinas) – topics like race, sex, gender, and basically any minority.

Bear with me while I get a little theoretical for one moment; you can skip to the next 2 paragraphs if you want. No hard feelings.  Anyway, the “other” is basically anyone who is not your “self,” but of course, there are myriad philosophies out there about how this leads to ethics and such, based on how one should treat the “other.”  Think Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Buber, Levinas, et al.  I’m not going to get into that here, but I do want to get in to how this plays out in society.  Basically, pick a topic.  Let’s say race.  As a white person, races different from mine are “other;” we do not have a shared experience in that regard. It also happens that I live in a society in which the majority race is white.  Our government was designed by white men, for white men.  Our institutions are white institutions.  What we can chalk all of this up to is that our society is one in which the white experience is the norm; this is the normative experience.

You can extend the normative to any dominant experience. Being straight is normative.  Being cisgender is normative. Being able-bodied is normative.  Do you see where this is going?  Some normative experiences are culturally/geographically dependent (i.e. being white isn’t the norm everywhere), while others are not (i.e. being disabled is pretty much never the norm).  So, what does this have to do with Disability Studies?  Well, by studying, and theorizing, about the way the disabled experience is different (i.e. “other”), we may be able to create a more inclusive society, one that includes experiences beyond those of the majority.  Now you see why people who do Disability Studies also look to other theories and fields to talk about disability.  Feminism, cultural studies, LGBTQ studies, postcolonial theory, among others, connect to each other in that they all address the relationships between the normative and the non-normative.  This blog is about my experience with a non-normative body and how it shapes my world view.


Wake up!  My academic mumbo jumbo is complete, so let’s move on to the good stuff: good cripple, bad cripple.  This is a concept rolling around out there among those who do Disability Studies that normative society (able-bodied folk) have imposed two categories for us disabled folk to fit into.  The good cripple is the one who doesn’t complain too much, the one who is upbeat and optimistic, the one who overlooks most of the ADA non-compliance issues, the one whose story inspires able-bodied folk because they have “overcome” their lot in life.  They triumph!  The bad cripple (there’s a blog about that) is the bitter one, the one who is depressed and mean, the one who is critical of every public space, the one who needs to “get over it.”  BluntShovel does a nice job of talking about being a bad cripple, and the pressure one feels to be good when you want to be bad! I love, love, LOVE this post about why the “good cripple, bad cripple” binary opposition needs to change, and an interesting article, “Call Me a “Good Cripple” If You Must,” on the topic as well.  Independencechick has got it right, if you ask me.

I have good cripple days and bad cripple days.  I want friends, family, and colleagues who understand both.  Of course I enjoy it when people tell me how well-adjusted I am, but it makes talking about the bad days tough.  Sometimes my body hurts so bad that I just want to cry, but the “good cripple” in me only lets a select few see that side of me.  But, I’m getting better at showing the other side of me.  I think it’s important.  How is society going to change if I’m the one who has to overcome society?  I think most advocates have to be grumpy from time to time.  As with most things, balance is essential.  I’ve learned that being the good cripple too much has had the unwanted side-effect of people not really thinking I’m disabled or not understanding the extent of my underlying issues.  My skeleton is a hot mess: that’s why pseudoachondroplasia is a skeletal dysplasia, see?

So, what part do you play in all of this?

Ask if I need help.  Who doesn’t need help at certain moments.  I think many people are afraid that disabled folks want to do everything on their own. To be sure, there are people like that out there, and they aren’t all disabled.  But, if it looks like I might be struggling, I probably am.  I love it when people hold doors or offer to reach high-up items at the grocery store.  It makes people feel good to help, and I like not having to always ask.

Speak up.  When you see someone illegally parked in a parking space, leave a note, – it doesn’t have to be nasty – or inform whoever might be in charge.  Go out of your way when you have the time.  Having a non-normative body means that we have to go out of our way to function in a world built for people with normative bodies.  Advocate!  I would love to see as many Facebook profile photos advocating accessibility as I do marriage equality, cancer awareness, or whatever.

Educative yourself;  become thoughtful.  If you have a friend, relative, or colleague with a specific disability (that they have disclosed, or is obvious), do your homework.  I don’t expect for you to become an expert, but my mind would be blown if someone actually anticipated some of the problems I might have.  My dissertation advisor read Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, and he told me that it had never occurred to him that it was painful for my legs to hang off a chair.  I explained that, in high school, I had a stool in every classroom, but that I gave that up in college.  The next day, there was a stool in the room where we had our graduate seminar.  He told me I didn’t have to use it if I didn’t want to, but it was there.  What a great feeling! I have never felt so welcomed as I have when friends and family have thoughtfully placed stools in strategic places before a visit.  Recently, I was visiting a friend who had purchased a stool just for me.  So wonderful.  Or when I find a coffee cup and dishes waiting for me down low when I wake up in the morning. Such nice gestures.

Listen.  I know it might be uncomfortable to hear about my pain or frustrations, but just listen.  Don’t explain things away, or say things like “well, at least you can walk.” Don’t even get me started on that one.  That time you broke your leg is not the thing to talk about when I’ve just found out my ankle is beyond help.  Just listen.  I’ll listen to your story another time.  I promise. One more than one occasion, I have heard that people of color often encounter a similar situation when they bring up race or racism.  People get nervous and can’t relate, so they might talk about the time someone told them they were a bad dancer, and they were sure it was because they were white.  Reverse racism.  Not the same.


There were the times the surgeons broke my leg.

Now is the time when I insert a nifty quote from a novel I finished last month, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoziwhich Adichie.  I think that race and disability are similar in many, though not all, ways because difference makes people uncomfortable, so talking about it is uncomfortable.  The burden to have that tough conversation often shifts to the different person, so it’s nice to have someone to back you up.

Understanding America for the Non-American Black:

Thoughts on the Special White Friend One great gift for the Zipped-Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain shit to. By all means, put this friend to work. Such friends not only get it, but also have great bullshit-detectors and so they totally understand that they can say stuff that you can’t. So there is, in much of America, a stealthy little notion lying in the hearts of many: that white people earned their place at jobs and school while black people got in because they were black. But in fact, since the beginning of America, white people have been getting jobs because they are white. Many whites with the same qualifications but Negro skin would not have the jobs they have. But don’t ever say this publicly. Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” Nobody quite knows what this means.

When my father was in school in my NAB country, many American Blacks could not vote or go to good schools. The reason? Their skin color. Skin color alone was the problem. Today, many Americans say that skin color cannot be part of the solution. Otherwise it is referred to as a curiosity called “reverse racism.” Have your white friend point out how the American Black deal is kind of like you’ve been unjustly imprisoned for many years, then all of a sudden you’re set free, but you get no bus fare. And, by the way, you and the guy who imprisoned you are now automatically equal. If the “slavery was so long ago” thing comes up, have your white friend say that lots of white folks are still inheriting money that their families made a hundred years ago. So if that legacy lives, why not the legacy of slavery? And have your white friend say how funny it is, that American pollsters ask white and black people if racism is over. White people in general say it is over and black people in general say it is not . Funny indeed. More suggestions for what you should have your white friend say? Please post away. And here’s to all the white friends who get it.  Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi (2013-05-14). Americanah (pp. 361-362). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This brings me back to otherness and normative behavior.  These things I have mentioned are all ways of recognizing, and legitimizing, my “other” experience.  This is a step towards creating an inclusive society: to understand that we are all “other” in some way and to make steps to ensure that whenever we are not the norm, we can participate.  Be the The White Able-Bodied Friend Who Gets It.  I have a few of them. I hope they know who they are.