Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ironside III: Criminal Minds, Luther

So, did you watch it?  This is part III of a series of Ironside posts.  Here is part I and here part II.

I like Luther.  To my mind, it is one of a very few programs that center on a male character of African descent without either pathologizing him or writing him into a series of polarized (violent or noble/long-suffering, but dignified) stereotypes.  The main character is complicated, yes.  And like many other cop shows, the drama arises from a series of questionable decisions with respect to the law and policing practice.  The thing is, though, that most of these decisions are narratively driven -- that is, they are both event/plot focused and directly tied to psychological character/personality.  They are not connected to elements external to the series.  And by that, I mean that they are not about someone's (inaccurate) imaginings of what it means to be a black man.

I wish the Ironside team had taken a leaf from the Luther script book: Race matters.  And because race matters in the ways that it does, disability in Ironside becomes doubly significant.

We are, mostly from film, accustomed to seeing successful African-American actors take lead action roles, but I am hard pressed to think of a successful network primetime show that has cast a (male) African American actor in the lead.  [Yes, Scandal, always.  But Scandal is very centered in a particular woman's/women's world.]

Do you remember Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior?  It was an unsuccessful spin-off: anchored by Forest Whitaker, poorly conceptualized, weakly written, and justly cancelled after one season.  I admit to having watched the show regularly.  I found myself considering the characterization of the primary character, Sam Cooper.  As I contrasted Cooper with the depiction of the impulsive, quick to anger, less controlled and still gentle, caring Derek Morgan (played by Shemar Moore on the original Criminal Minds), I came to think that Cooper's sadness was intended to counterbalance conventional stereotypes of black men and counteract a mainstream audience's understanding of roles appropriate for black men.

So many of the lead cops in these kinds of programs are what I call "good renegades."  They bend a couple of rules here and there; they are strong, sometimes angry, always action-oriented, bad-good boys.  Given the way our culture understands race, I think the script writing/visioning team thought it was impossible for the show to be successful on the networks if they cast a black male lead who has these characteristics.  So, they characterized Cooper differently: Cooper was rule-driven, saddened by the pressure of and for success, pained by the crimes before him and quietly hurt by whatever burdens his history laid upon him.  In other words, Cooper was to be seen as deeply empathetic.

I'm pained by a reality in which I find myself saying some version of "it is novel for lead black characters in this genre to be seen as feeling," but it is nonetheless an important statement.  Derek Morgan cannot lead the BAU full time; Sam Cooper can and does.  Or at least, he might have been able to had the writing of the show been better.  (I do not want to believe that people did not watch simply because the lead was an African-American man.)

Luther, by contrast, ran three seasons and is on its way to becoming a film.  Instead of watching Luther, I get the sense that the Ironside writers watched and modeled their primary character after Suspect Behavior.  Mainstream American television audiences are different from those in the UK; race is different in the US, too.  Suspect Behavior might well have seemed a better model.  But instead of relying on emotional characterization, the Ironside team took disability as their crutch.  Spinal cord injury is not a physical reality in this show; it's a metaphor that washes away mainstream fear about the cocky, outspoken, and successful black man.

If we see disability as a metaphor that governs (might one say "overcomes"?) racial stereotype and not a reality potentially lived by all of us regardless of race and ethnicity, we can make better sense of the opening episodes' two most important scenes: the opening, the flashback in which Ironside dangles a suspect hanging off the roof, and the transition/insight moment when Ironside breaks the case while processing his anger about the disabling shooting.

Both Luther and Ironside dangle suspects in their opening episodes.  Unseen, Luther lets his fall to the death -- deliberately (though an inquiry later finds him not guilty).  It's a deeply shocking moment that hangs over the rest of the programme.  The central character has committed murder minutes into the first episode; when will he be discovered and how?  What will be the consequences of this act?  You never quite lose sight of this drama, tied as it intimately is to the personality of Luther.  Each time this incident comes up, the viewer is asked to see Luther as someone so deeply principled that he can err -- grievously -- for the right cause.  This and other errors combine to reveal a character so vulnerable, so powerful and so interesting that his psychological makeup is not easily tied to common perceptions of race.

Within five minutes of the opening, Ironside is shown in a flashback to his non-disabled state.  His partner bashes the suspect with a railroad tie, Ironside dangles him off the roof, and both laugh and talk as they do so.  The suspect does not fall.  Theoretically, this should make Ironside the "better" cop -- the more "human" cop -- but it does not work that way.  The show opens with Ironside hitting a suspect who has been dragged into a car; he gives the suspect a knife and dares the suspect to stab him; the suspect breaks down -- stabbing a disabled person, angry or not, is too much.  It's as if the writers want to say Ironside was a tough rule-breaker before the accident; he is a tough rule-breaker after the accident.  Like other television detectives, he gets to beat up suspects; here, however, the violence is a means of showing he is still "effective," still one of the team, more than up to the job.

The valence of these transgressions is different.  Now that Ironside is disabled, the power dynamic of "officer/suspect" has changed.  Power is all too often seen as a function of physical strength.  Disabled people are supposed to be weak, physically and figuratively; they are in this scenario powerless.  Thus though Ironside wears a badge, we viewers are supposed to assume that power resides with the suspect.  We are supposed to admire the bravery of a disabled man who hits a non-cuffed suspect, offers him a knife, and dares him to use it.  In the midst of this sappy stereotyping, the fact that the officer assaults the suspect is lost.  Ironside is "bad-ass" (a favourite media word for the show), because he has a bad ass.

Disability challenges the viewer to reinterpret the meaning of, well, everything.  Also lost in the stereotyping above is an understanding of what might motivate a disabled man to take such extreme risks with his life and body.  In television series, those who have such an outsize liking for risk are treated as if they were either depressed, angry, or both.  So, yes.  Let’s talk about those things -- because, for television, the transition into disablement can only bring an irresolvable depression and/or anger. (Not that these don’t happen; they just don’t seem to happen the ways television thinks.)

To the non-disabled world, it makes sense for Ironside to be as angry as he occasionally is: that’s the pain of disablement speaking.  It makes him non-threatening; it counterbalances those stereotypes of angry black men. For the non-disabled world of television, Ironside's anger at his disability is inspirational, so inspirational that it enables Ironside's crime-solving insights: this is why the angry boxing scene is critical.  

It had to be boxing, of course, basketball or any other sport -- certainly not football -- would not do.  Ironside is shown coaching ice-hockey, but boxing is significant.  It's where black men in television go to work out their anger, to be found, to be offered discipline, focus, and a way out of their circumstances. Regardless of the actual reality, boxing in television has a metaphorical purpose.  As Ironside punches his anger out, Tech N9ne's lyrics blare, miscontextualized.  The song is in part about drugs and in part about inner personality demons.  In the show, it's about the anger, the rage at the disability and the shooting.  And suddenly, as Ironside pushes his wheelchair into his wall -- literally hitting the figurative brick wall -- he breaks his case.

In my last post about the series, I am going to write about how the understanding of disability as a function and not a reality affects the language in which Hollywood and mainstream reporters discuss the show.  If you understand disability as a figure or metaphor, how can you cast disabled actors?  In particular, I will be looking at how the figurative understanding and the casting of Mr. Underwood continue the discussion of what one reporter calls "color-blind" casting.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Scene From Today

I ought to start a series called "F*kwits Today."  But I have enough on my hands.  So, while I am still thinking about Ironside, here's one for today.

Me:  Could you pull a cardboard box from the back, please.  I'd like to buy 7 bags of ice and put them in there.

Him (utter incomprehension):  What?

Me (slower):  I would like 7 bags of ice. It would be really helpful if you could pull a cardboard box from the back, so I can carry them home.

Him:  Lady, you can't carry them.

Me:  That's what the box is for.

Him: I can't sell you them; you can't carry them.

Me: I will put them in the box.

Him:  How are you going to carry them.

Me: In the box.

Him: I can't let you do that.

Me (frustrated): unprintable.

He gets two boxes.  Now, I *know* I can't carry that.  He puts 3 bags in one.  I repack them and then transfer them from the second.  Eventually, I have all seven in the box and the box is on my knees.

Him (gushing): I've never seen that before.  I've never seen that before!

Me (resigned): unprintable.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pushing Yourself I

Lest you think this is all Ironside, all the time ...  something different.  As I was writing the paragraph on "pushing yourself" in the previous post, I realized that I had to spend more time with the concept.  I thought it would be a short post -- an Ironside interlude.  As it turns out, "pushing yourself" is probably a two part series: the personal and political/cultural.

Pushing yourself is, on the whole, intended to be a good thing.  It's one of those casual phrases that we hear in news reports, in professional evaluations, common conversations.  Sometimes, it's a personal goal -- to push yourself to do better, more.  Funny how you don't usually push yourself to do less -- even though that might be more work.  You can push yourself to work out more, run faster or further.  To be successful, you have to push yourself,

... because no one is going to do it for you.
... to your limit.
You will never know your limits unless you ... to them.
Keep calm and ....
... and make it happen.

We have created a society that believes success is created from within and that you, alone, are responsible for your success.

I'm realizing how insidious these quietly accepted motivationals are -- to disability community in general and to wheelchair users in particular.  The mind doesn't always keep things separate.  Under the guise of processing or remembering, our brains sift, sort, and smoothen; one thing slides softly into another, and before we know it, sententious external motivators become prescriptions about the best way to live and move in the world.  That which once was figurative becomes painfully literal.  Every physical therapist, doctor, friend who has urged me to push myself has meant it literally and figuratively.  Now, the phrase is no longer neutral.

I am perhaps inordinately proud of my ability to push myself.  In the years that I have been a wheelchair user, I have seen my strength and stamina grow; my skill set has increased.  I now move easily through the world with what I hope is a powerful and yet fluid stroke.  I remember how tired I would get pushing from our apartment to the nearest accessible subway; how I was unable to complete even the tiniest of hills in San Francisco.  Some days, I was defeated by the slope of the pavement.  Now, with the exception of the hills in San Francisco, these things are at worst pains in the proverbial.

I enjoy the feeling of pushing myself.  There's a reassuring rhythm to the cycle of breath, body, shoulder, hand, and wheel.  I count pushes; I consciously lengthen my stroke, let my hands fly off the wheel, and stretch into the release at the end of the stroke.  I play with inhaling and exhaling on the push.  I love the rise through my spine and the deep connectedness to the ground.  Even the scurry across the street can be fun.  Wheeling is a physical pleasure.

Several times in my wheeled life, I have lost the ability to push myself.  Shoulder injuries.  Always from dancing, aggravated by hypermobility and wear and tear.  The combination of these things scares me.  All manual wheelchair users end up with wrecked shoulders -- the body is not designed to locomote in this way.  My shoulders are at extra risk given their daily load and their flexibility.  And when they are gone, I will mourn the loss of this particular physicality.  Then like all the other manual wheelchair users, I will hop in my power chair and/or ask to be pushed.

To be sure, some of my fear around this transition is environmental.  I won't be able to throw my chair in my hatchback, hop high curbs, easily maneuver the gap between train, platform, and wall, take the escalator, or, among other things, bump down stairs.  And so what?  This is true for so many of my friends; they live their lives.  I will as well.  There's no need for me to think of the transition as anything more than a neutral change.  But I do, because I hear in the back of my head all those voices that have told me to push myself.

I've written here of my personal fears, but disability is both political and personal.  The things that scare me are personal, but they are situated in policy, history and culture.  How I move through the world -- self-pushed, pushed by someone else, or by power chair -- is open for interpretation.  That interpretation is a consequence of how our culture handles disability.  Independence is important for people with disabilities.  The people in our civil rights movement fought and continue to struggle for the right to live independently -- outside the institution -- and interdependently in the community.

Whether we can succeed is often wrongly judged by how much people think we can do on our own.  This is world of money and judgment is part of the culture in which I locomote self- or partner- propelled.  More on that in the next post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dancing Your Self

I've been thinking about this piece for several days.  It's a meditation on writing and language by Costica Bradatan for the New York Times.
[A] writer’s language, far from being a mere means of expression, is above all a mode of subjective existence and a way of experiencing the world. She needs the language not just to describe things, but to see them. The world reveals itself in a certain manner to the Japanese writer, and in quite another to the one who writes in Finnish. A writer’s language is not just something she uses, but a constitutive part of what she is. This is why to abandon your native tongue and to adopt another is to dismantle yourself, piece by piece, and then to put yourself together again, in a different form.
This rings so true for me.  I know the feeling of sliding from one language to another and recognize how certain experiences and feelings are encoded, constituted by the language I was living in at the time.  I've tried several times to describe them to someone else, but I usually fail -- not just because I cannot find a precise word, but because words are only the outer manifestations of our experiences and inner selves.  I can use the word that the dictionary gives me, but that does not tell my listener why or how I felt in the context of what I was living at the time.  It doesn't tell the listener what the word means in the cultural and semantic space of the language I was living in at the time.  A word for word translation doesn't communicate the embodiment of the idea.  Saying "thank you" in English is very different from saying "thank you" in Japanese -- in part because of the physicalities of being thankful are distinct.

In these senses of language and vocabulary, dancers have the chance to remake ourselves frequently.  While we have senses of ourselves as movers -- signature moves, idiosyncratic tendencies, identifying qualities -- we also expect choreographers to take our bodies and selves and use them.

As a dancer, I get the chance to remake myself every time I begin a new choreographic process.

It's something about the opportunity to abandon my familiar movement practices.  It's about the openness and the asking to be seen or recognized by the choreographer.  It's about the trust you place in your dance colleagues.  It's about knowing that the inner self can always be reshaped and remade.  It's about my faith and optimism in the new, and my deep belief in the body.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ironside II: The Rough Rider Condom Chair

My almost favourite character in the show is Ironside's chair.  I stress the almost because the character of the chair connects to my next set of issues with the program.

The production team -- and hence also the media team -- have done a lot of work around choosing a wheelchair.  Instead of showing the primary character in an old E&J hospital style chair or even the Glee style Quickie alternative, Ironside uses what looks to me like one of Ralf Hotchkiss's creations -- the RoughRider from Whirlwind Wheelchairs.

Whirlwind makes beautiful chairs that are designed to survive environments tougher than North America. They are unusual in their long front end design, with the large foot rests and dedicated plates for each foot.  They also have really responsive front casters; sturdy is key.

Given how important the chair is, I'm am surprised no one is actually acknowledging the brand of chair and its design.  I don't think the chairs are easily accessible in mainstream distribution in the United States.  I imagine you can request one, but I don't know anyone who uses one as their primary chair -- except Ralf.  So, they had to work to find the chair.  And since the distinction between this set of wheels and the average television chair is critical to the character of Ironside, they should have been clear about its origin.  Whirlwind is doing good stuff; they could use the brand recognition and support.

On set, the chair plays a role in the series' exposition of disability, sexuality, and masculinity.  Yes, the chair is all about the sex.  [I feel as if I should say it again, louder.]  The chair is all about the SEX!

Independence: The American Way

I have long been frustrated by the representation of wheelchair use on television.  All too many of the non-disabled wheelchair users seem to labor under the delusion that chair handles and being pushed are the best way to communicate their "disablement."  They seem to be caught in a self-reinforcing misunderstanding of what disability is and what it means.  To be disabled in a wheelchair-using kind of way must be an experience of utter helplessness; the best way to signal that is to show the person being pushed around; being pushed around means that wheelchair users must be weak and dependent on others; therefore, being disabled is an experience of utter helplessness.

With Ironside, television has apparently discovered that wheelchairs can come without handles and that the absence of handles means that people push themselves around.  That may not seem like much to you, but the fact that Blair Underwood will self-locomote is critical to the ethos of the new Ironside.

Sadly, the mere fact of self-propulsion does not mean that the show escapes the old way of thinking.  Rather, it reinforces the old ideas, because self-locomotion is immediately treated as akin to "independence."  And independence is what makes the show, according to David Bryant, a disabled technical advisor, "bad-ass" [here].  You can google Mr. Bryant to get the details on his disability story.  All I can say is being disabled doesn't necessarily mean that you understand and are committed to the nuances of the movement.

In a Think Progress interview on how technical advisers help television programmes get it right (?!), Alyssa Rosenberg shows Mr. Underwood learning from his advisor:
“Before we shot the pilot we spent many, many hours together just kind of doing what he does, going out in public. He [Bryant] said, ‘Just take the chair and go around your neighborhood, and go out.’

We’d go out to dinner and everything, and spend a lot time. The first thing I noticed was there were no handles on his wheelchair. And I said, ‘Dude, why don’t you have handles on your wheelchair, man?’

 He said, ‘Why would I want to? Why would I want somebody to help me out? I’m independent–whatever I can do for myself, I’m going to do for myself.’ So the first thing we did was cut the handles off the wheelchair.”
Funnily enough, Mr. Underwood seems to face no environmental barriers -- where did he go, I wonder? -- his experience is only about personal independence.  Let me be clear.  Being able to push  yourself does not make you independent.  Not even being able to complete all of your activities of daily living without assistance makes you independent.  Equally, accepting help does not make you dependent.

Indeed, self-locomotion might only mean independence if I were able to move through the world without encountering any barriers, environmental or social.  And if I could do all that without having to once refer, depend on, use the work of those who came before me and who are beside me.  If all this were true, well then, perhaps I could be independent.  But the reality is that while my ability to push myself is physical (and contingent), my ability to go down the street depends on the people who designed my chair, who made usable chairs, who removed environmental barriers, who changed social attitudes and so forth.  A physical capacity does not independence make.

And what if I were to accept help with, say, dressing -- even if I were technically able to do it by myself?  What if I were to accept help with cleaning my house, parenting, or shopping?  Significant numbers of people watching the show will have lives in which they are "assisted" in some way.  It's less about actual independence -- no one is independent -- than the kinds of work and assistance we value and the kinds we stigmatize.  Independence as interpreted by Mr. Bryant and Mr. Underwood is a myth.  It is a false fiction that serves to isolate disabled people from the community as a whole.

Mia Mingus's articulation of how disability community and justice are tied to interdependence not independence is beautiful.  Read it here.

Oh!  While I am at it.  It is wholly unacceptable that this so called physical independence, "bad-ass"ness, is also expressed as disability superiority.  When Ironside calls his partner an "emotional cripple" and tell him to get his "loony-bin" ticket out of the force, he repeats all of the stereotypes about physical disabilities being the only real disabilities.  The potential for social and cultural harm here is huge.  Further, propagating intra-disability prejudice is hardly the way to build support for a television show from members of the disability community as a whole.

Disability, Sexuality, and Masculinity: Independence Gets You The Girl

The show is careful to emphasize that Ironside lives alone -- independently even.  Like all the other major television show detectives, he is prone to "going it alone," getting the case-breaking insight alone, doing it all on his own, wandering off on his own, etc.  He's a maverick and rebel.  As in other television shows where the solitary man, detective, cowboy, whatever gets a woman who is drawn to that aloneness/independence, Ironside gets his turn.  It's not just in disability-related shows that independence signifies successful adherence to the Hollywood code of masculinity.  In disability shows, however, the sex and independence combination carries extra freight, most of which is born by Ironside's chair.

Ironside goes there.  We see a couple of seconds of what might become sex in the chair.  To be honest, the chair performs well!  The woman leaps into Ironside's lap, is flipped somewhat to the side, faces him and straddles.  During all this time, the chair looks good.  Stable.  Firm.  Responsive.  Quite the studly base for any encounter: one of the advantages of the long front end.  Consummation is interrupted by the narrative demands of the case, though the woman returns, full of promise, at the end of the episode.  The chair that gives Ironside his independence is both platform for and symbol of his sexuality.  It's no coincidence that Ironside uses a Rough Rider chair.  The play on the hyper-masculine brand of condom is right there.

I suppose sex was inevitable.  Mr. Underwood seems to have learned that everyone with spinal cord injury is different and that sex with spinal cord injury is possible.  This being television though, the fact of disabled sexuality cannot be left alone.  Ironside doesn't just have sex; he has Murderball sex, i.e, sex for disabled men with able-bodied women.  In the masculine, athletic, independent and, yes, rough-rider world, disabled women are not desirable sexual partners.  Only able-bodied women can signal that no masculinity is lost in disability.  Does the RoughRider chair brand make sense?  Yes, it does.

The Los Angeles Times has a short piece by Greg Braxton that nails it: "Said Underwood, 'Every spinal cord injury is different.' He referenced the documentary Murderball, about quadriplegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby.  'Everyone in that movie has an able-bodied girlfriend.'"  That's not technically true; I believe there is one example of a disabled man and woman together.  But it is certainly true enough.  The prevalence of (mostly white), aggressive, athletic men with their blonde able-bodied girlfriends stands out in that film.

The message is clear: These men can still get the societally desirable girl despite their disability.  Despite their disability, they have not lost any of their masculinity.  They are to be seen in the same ways that we see any of our athletes: as prime examples of desirable men.  The fact that Ironside here continues years' worth of prejudice by stereotyping disabled women as "not good enough" seems not to matter.

I know where this awful stuff is coming from.  That is, I am familiar with the stereotypes that are at question here.  I know why there is such an emphasis on masculinity and sexuality.  I know that this junk is responding to a set of incorrect thinkings that go something like this.

Society will tell you that disability represents a loss of masculinity.  Once you hit that wheelchair, things change: You lose your autonomy and place in the world.  People treat you as if/you come to feel as if you are powerless, weak, helpless, etc.    This act of rendering someone thus powerless is named/experienced as either infantilization or feminization.  Reclaiming your adult, read heterosexual, masculinity is thus essential to reclaiming your self.

I'm going to rewrite that last sentence.  Reclaiming the things that society says makes you masculine is thus essential to reclaiming your self.  The "society says" part is critical.  Because gender does not come in simple masculine and feminine binaries.  Because there's no reason that a disability experience has to be expressed as a gender experience.  Because there's no reason for making disabled and infantile similar things.

These perspectives have a long and complicated history in our culture; they need to be unwound carefully and at length.  Riding the horse of conventional heterosexual masculinity is not the way out of the situation; it just reconfirms the initial problematic framework.  Being seen to get it on in this way does not a man make or indicate, regardless of disability status.   [And oh, the horrible irony of this thinking being confirmed by a film about disabled men.]

Are these perspectives too complicated for primetime television? I hope not.  But I am beginning to think that the public does not want to understand disability and that Hollywood chooses not to lead.  After all, the feel good of Ironside is Underwood's race.  They've cast a black man in a title role, a role that formerly was held by a white man.  Then, they disabled him.  What do disability and race mean in this show?  That's for the next post.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ironside I: The Non-Disabled Role/Roll Again

A non-disabled actor is taking on the role of a wheelchair user.  I know.  It's still so common that this particular instance is not really a shocking headline.  But NBC's remake of Ironside does bear some discussion: because the main character, acted by Blair Underwood, is African-American; because there is so much PR about the casting decision; because that PR keeps stressing that Mr. Underwood has a personal connection to disability; and because of the ways the series uses and understands the disability community.

That's a lot to handle in one post, so I am going to create my own Ironside mini-series.  The first episode will be about Hollywood, disability, and casting.  The second will be about Ironside's wheelchair!  Yes, the chair is one of the most important characters in the show; it connects us to the series' discussion of sexuality and masculinity.  The third will respond to the media culture created around the show.  In the fourth, I will look at some of the intersections of disability and race.

Casting: The Flashbacks 

The conventional reason for not casting disabled actors is that the story lines require significant flashbacks to the characters' non-disabled state.  Though I've seen some debate about blindness, the impairment most often in question is spinal cord injury with paralysis.  Wheelchair use is the shorthand for disability, so wheelchair use is the case most often in play.  For most film and television producers, a wheelchair user cannot walk, so he or she cannot play that part.  This is a limited understanding of wheelchair use -- some wheelchair users can walk, not every wheelchair user has paralysis, and some people with paralysis can walk.  But since I cannot imagine getting that into the average producer's head, let's begin with non-walking wheelchair users with paralysis.

The excuse is that actors with this kind of embodiment cannot fulfill a significant part of the role, so they cannot be cast.  A typical example of the explanation can be found in this piece in The Wrap by Tim Molloy: "The producers said the show is about 10 percent flashbacks, which would have made it impossible to use special effects to make a paraplegic actor appear to walk."  All right, then.  So, why can't they use a stunt or body double?  Oh my!  What if Hollywood were to think of walking as a stunt.  Not that I think of Hollywood as needing money, but this has to be cheaper than filming car crashes, explosions and other such routine stunts.  Can you imagine?

Let's just take that thought seriously for a second. Body doubles are used for all kinds of things -- dangerous stunts, sex scenes -- why not walking?  NBC is already paying Horace Knight to act as a stunt double for Blair Underwood ....  Why couldn't they just have a walking double for a disabled actor?  ABC hired a disabled body double for Arizona, Jessica Capshaw's character on Grey's Anatomy and proceeded to develop a position for ongoing and complicated work.  Arizona seems not to have been written out of the series, and she isn't staying at home in a single position with a blanket over her leg.  To keep Arizona's character the same, ABC has had to commit to and invest in a body double.  If you can use a double to make an actor appear disabled, surely the reverse is also possible?

In the course of the show, we learn, from Stacy Jenel Smith for the AARP, that:
Underwood has worked hard to master his wheelchair technique. He’s endured tumbling over. He’s learning how to pop wheelies. After being shot — as we see in the pilot’s flashbacks – Ironside, he pointed out, had to learn “how to drive, how to get in and out of his car, which is a big deal, how to get in and out of bed, how to work out. He had to learn his center of balance. He’s paralyzed from the armpits down, so he’s a little different from [the previous] Ironside, who was from paralyzed from the waist down.”
I get the feeling that Mr. Underwood and Ms. Smith want the reader to see how hard it is to act disabled.  Having to endure tumbling over?  Laughable.  But this laundry list is both helpful and familiar.  Underwood has had to learn how to do the activities of daily living as a wheelchair user.  We are so accustomed to non-disabled people learning how to act disabled that it is now fairly easy to do.  But what if the reverse were also true?  A similar list could be drawn up for the walking body double.  We will need to know how to create shots of you standing, reaching, walking, running, ....  We have broken down what we think we need to know to make someone seem disabled.  How hard would it be to break down what we think we need to know to make someone seem able-bodied?

But We Need That Back Story

Time and time again, producers emphasize the importance of the non-disabled state.  I've only seen the first episode of Ironside, so it is too early to tell whether other episode story arcs are going to depend on incidents that happened prior to the shooting.  But usually, people are only talking about needing to go back to the moment of disablement.

Sure enough, the first episode of Ironside does feature flashbacks.  We see the setup for the arrest that goes wrong.  We see the surveillance, the running, the shooting and the falling.  But how long can this go on?  I mean, how many times during a series do we have to experience the story of the "tragedy" of Ironside becoming disabled.  Surely, once we know and we've seen his partner's grief, we know.  How much interest in this backstory is there?

In part, the blame lies with our societal fascination with the transition into disability.  We love the dramatic stories of accident, tragedy, loss, and ensuing helplessness or supercrip overcomingness.  This is television -- we know how this plays out.  And so it is in Ironside.  Tech N9ne's Demons plays throughout that scene as Underwood works out and punchballs his anger; he then slaps and punches his legs.  Finally, he crashes his wheelchair into the wall in frustration -- and this gives him the insight that breaks the case.  Yawn.

It is true that plenty of us acquire disability; I did.  But the Hollywood approach to that moment does not capture most of our experiences.  We all have to negotiate the transition, yes, but for the most part we don't handle it in these ways.  Even if you grant mainstream culture some interest in the transition, this isn't the whole story.

Further, there is a completely different side to the disability experience that we almost never see on primetime.  Beside those of us who acquire disability are those of us who are born disabled. Where are their stories?  I want disability to be more than incidental -- you know?  It's nice that Breaking Bad cast R.J. Mitte, but I want more.  I want disability to be visible as the "normal" part of human variation that it is.  I also want to see disability as it is experienced by many of us: integrated into a rich history and culture.  Mainstream television could be a leader here; it could be a purveyor of our work.  Instead, Hollywood consumes and regurgitates simple, useless stereotypes.

His Mother Is Disabled

In almost every piece I have read, Mr. Underwood's mother is mentioned -- never by name, but always by diagnosis and means of locomotion: she has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.  This is wrong on so many fronts.  She is a person in her own right; she has a name; she might have liked her diagnosis to remain private.  She might liked her wheelchair use to remain private.


We don't know of course, because the press has blared her story all over her son's success at landing this role.  Every mention of her disability is used in support for the rightness of the casting decision: Mr. Underwood may not be disabled, but his mother uses a wheelchair; this makes it all right.  Ms. Underwood's disability is leveraged to argue that Mr. Underwood has special insight into the life of a wheelchair user.

I encounter this kind of illogical reasoning often, and I still fail to see why or how it works.  Knowing someone does not mean that you have access to knowing what it means or is like to be them.  We acknowledge this all the time.  It's one thing to know about an issue; it's another thing to be affected directly by it.  Unless, that issue is disability.  So, let me be clear: Mr. Underwood may see how his mother moves through the world, but that is not the same as knowing what it is like.  Nor, critically, is it the same as being able to take it into his body.  Mr. Underwood does not have a body that requires the use of a wheelchair.  He cannot know what it is like, and from what I can see of the show he does not get it.

Under the headline that Ms. Underwood is proud of Mr. Underwood in his new role, one story quotes Mr. Underwood as saying: "She was very moved when she saw me like that. It has opened up many conversations we never had before."  Like that?  That?  No, he doesn't get it.  It took this preposterous fakery for Mr. Underwood to deeply engage with his mother about her experience?  For shame.

Does He Do It Right?

After saying that Mr. Underwood cannot know what it is like, I'm willing to bet that many of you are interested in seeing how well Mr. Underwood does disabled.  Is he better than, say, Kevin McHale?  I say that these are pointless and wrong-headed questions.  Who cares whether Underwood can fake paralyzed legs better than McHale -- strap vs. oddly positioned legs?  Who cares whether Underwood looks more disabled or behaves more like a disabled person than McHale?  

If you are looking here, you are looking from the perspective of a society that thinks it can assess disability and disablement by visual inspection.  You are acting as if you think you know how disabled people live and move in the world.  Disability and disabled people come in all ways, shapes, forms, and habits.  There is no one, right way to be disabled.  

Television shows like this narrow the experience to their imaginings about our embodiments.  We do not have to and should not take them on as definitive.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

After Surgery

On Friday 13, I had a small surgery.  I'm not superstitious, no.

My last memories are of the surgeon telling the anaesthesiologist that she likes to get a 'insert name of painkilling medicine' on board before she starts.  "Good plan," I commented.  Realizing that I had understood this (duh!), she turned around and said that usually people talk about something "nice" at this point.  She began a new conversation, waving her arm wildly at the anaesthesiologist.  She said she had seen my picture in the paper, cut out the article and put it in my file.  I laughed about that performance and mentioned that the critic had sat in the front row with his notebook.  We had responded by dancing really close to him and by being as obnoxious as he ...  I don't recall if I finished the sentence aloud.

My first memories are of the surgeon pulling my arm and of her voice urgently, it seemed, telling me about the overall success of the surgery and that it wasn't the surgery we had planned.  She told me why she had changed course, and I remember having difficulty focusing on her rationale.  Did she wake me?  Had I woken before such that people knew it would be OK to give me all the information and that I would remember it and understand?

My second memory is of me staring around and of a voice informing another voice about how much I had peed: critical information that.

After that, I remember some blanket-wrapped bodies lined up in the recovery room.  Then, there was the bumpy transport back to the short stay unit.  We came down the corridor and passed by the waiting room.  On the way in that morning, I had seen several people wheeled through in their hazy post-surgery state; I thought that this moment should have been private.  When my turn came, however, I was glad everything was so public.  I immediately saw the Wizard, sunk deeply into a device.  Several times, I called his name -- no response.  The person pushing joined in, and he looked up.  I was so happy to see him and to hold his hand.  Even though the medical staff had been great, the feel of his familiar hand is more than I can describe.

We've done the surgery thing several times now; we've got the teamwork down.  We know how to advocate for each other, but I also know that practice does not, in this case, make perfect.  Even the littlest of surgeries (as this was) are hard for the person waiting.  And waiting.  And sitting with all that fear.  And waiting.  The person having the surgery cruises through on happy drugs.

I remember the Wizard stepping in through all the history-giving and chart filling out.  He reminded me of things I had forgotten, stressing the importance of others.  I also remember him sitting by my bed checking all the monitors and devices.  I checked out because I knew he was watching over me.  Then, he was finding water.  More water.  And still more water.  He cheerfully listened to all the nonsense (that, funnily enough I don't remember).  And I remember him smiling when I announced that the happy phase had passed.  I remember, too, the way we crawled up our windy hill at 13 mph, pulling over for cars who weirdly wanted to go more quickly.  Wizard has a lead foot, so this was extraordinarily hard; we'd round a bend and all of a sudden, we'd be going 19 mph.

There are always a couple of hiccups that are disability-related, as opposed to consequences of surgery. We're handling them.  Weirdly, there's almost no pain.  Well: that's only true as long as I don't try to move quickly, twist, or bend completely to pick something up.  Certainly, though, there's less pain than I expected.  Unlike previous times, where I threw up for days, I have had very little nausea and only a few moments of dizziness and light-headedness.  I'm breathing into that silly spirometer, my pride a little dented: I'm an athlete.  Certainly, I can do better?  Surely, I have awesome lung capacity?

Wizard's got this covered.  My favourite foods are in the house.  I anticipate much sleep and many hours of Mi-5/Spooks (yes!  again!  more!).  The house is amazing.  It's so peaceful here.  From my window, I'm watching the deer and listening intensely to the silence.  I thought the marine layer might reduce the general risk of fire, but it's still desert season here.  For the moment, I'm resting in the oasis we created.  It's a welcome break from the city.  Call it an interlude, intermission or even an entr'acte.  I'm supported by the inner and outer environments.  I'm safe.  I've returned from that strange surgery world.  The freshness of autumn is in the air -- brisk, clean, clarified, and open.  I'm OK.  And for that, I'm deeply grateful.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dislocations: Death, Transitions, and Hiatus

Sorry for the hiatus; I'm back now.  As you might have guessed from the series of #Dislocations posts, things have been happening: a family member transitioned from this life to ....

After a death, there seems to be so much to do: all the keeping track, the details, and the expectations.  Then, there's feelings you have, plus the emotions experienced across a newly-created, but fleeting community of loss.  And after that?  Well, after that are memories and the question of legacy.

To me, living in and with legacy is not just about memory.  When I think about how I would like to be remembered, I think about how the people who knew me will recall me, once in a while, in their heads.  I think about how my presence will occasionally be felt -- even though I will be unseeable and untouchable.  I think about what people will say: things I did, things I said.  There will be good and bad; I know that I will have lived a "good life," but I also know that I will leave behind sore spots: the unresolved pain I have caused.  That pain will be part of what some people remember.  I think about fleeting images, the times they will hear my voice in their head, the occasional smell that formerly was my scent.

I call this memory.  And I distinguish memory from legacy.  Memory seems private.  Memories do not usually grow; instead, they deepen as we remember more, change a little, and forget some.  Memories can be altered; they are deceptive, personal, and often true only to and for the person who remembers.  Occasionally, memories spur action: I have friends who say that the memory of "x" caused them to make a certain change in their lives.  But for the most part, I think memory of as quiet and personal; it's the reflection of a bond that has been irrevocably changed.

Legacy, I think, operates differently.  Memory is for people who knew the dead.  Legacy is not necessarily so.  I think of legacy as the structural and public expression of memory, plus a creation of desired memory.  And that's the interesting part: the gap between the person who was and the person we as legacy-stewards create.  I think of how a dead person continues to affect the lives of the living and also of the structures we put in place to make that possible.

In many ways, legacy can be programmatic.  Some programmes fulfil the known wishes of the person who has died; some express what we think we knew; some articulate only what we wish were true.  Some legacies are artistic and experiential.  They create spaces in and with which others dwell.  Some legacies are more than a park bench or building tile.  They are what these things represent --legacy as the tender and hopefully, but impossibly neutral expression of social power and cultural capital.  Legacy is riskier than memory; it reaches deep into our communities and touches the lives of people who did not know the dead.

I think we have a responsibility to decide carefully about legacy.  I don't see legacy as a given, it's a choice.  Do we create legacy or do we let the person live purely in memory?  If we do, how do we create legacy without recreating the oppressive structures of charity?  How do we create a legacy that is not about making us, the bereaved, feel good?  In other words, for whom is this legacy?  What would the person being "legacied" think about their representation?  Would they even recognize themselves?

Once all the "thank you for coming" cards have been written (?! -- another one of those moments where manners matter).  When all the arrangements have happened.  If the mourning and grief are manageable.  Now, the work begins.




Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dislocations: Manners

I am learning how much the distinction between manners and etiquette matters and where it can be detected.  On the whole, I would say that I have decent manners.  I know enough and practice most of the common courtesies that make being around each other easier.  I will greet you, eat in the appropriate manner, practice daily hygiene, dress appropriately, and treat you with respect.  Usually, I manage not to have my mobile phone on at the wrong times; I even manage to leave the bathroom in a decent state.
But.  And of course this is the key.  But.

Manners, especially common manners, are not the same as etiquette.  It's an important distinction. To me at least, manners are the graces -- the things we do with and for each other: the little and big acts, the what.  How and when we do those whats and the skill/knowledge to deploy them are, as far as I am concerned, questions of etiquette.  Both manners and etiquette vary, and both manners and etiquette are subjective -- meaning that there is usually no scientific or factual reason that things are the way they are and that people behave the way they do.  These are all issues of culture.  [In explaining the difference, I've often heard people use belching after a meal as an example.  In some cultures, it's a sign of respect and appreciation; in others, it's rude.  I love William Ian Miller's Anatomy of Disgust -- an awesome and fun exploration of grossness.]

I might have more than averagely decent manners, but I know I am not in my usual setting because I do not know how things are done here or what to say.  I do not have the etiquette necessary to belong.  Take conversation.  I pride myself on being a conversationalist; I can talk to strangers and friends about a wide range of topics.  I read the papers (often of more than one country and sometimes in more than one language); I read books; I keep up; I have ideas; I'm fairly well tuned into world, scientific and some kinds of cultural affairs.

Here, things are different.  A conversation with a stranger has different appropriate topics, and even if the topic is the same, its value is different.  Take, for example, the weather.  I'm a Brit; I can talk about weather with the best of them.  But not here.  Here, the weather is not so much phenomenon as phenomenological.  It is a way of knowing the land, the crops, the people, their relationships to each other, and their fears, hopes and dreams.  You don't talk so much of whether the rain is an inconvenience but of the effects of underwater land on where and how a person is living.

I am unable to do this.  I don't know or see enough.  I mean well, but intention and skill are not the same.

As I post this, I'm watching the starlings circle the yard.  There are about ten of them, dipping and swirling.  I realize that their dance is the same as any I've danced in and that social conversation, with time, can be learned.  I hope I have time; I hope people will grant me that little at least.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dislocations: Demolition Derby

Last night, I went to my first ever demolition derby.

For those of you who have never been or who have never heard of them, it's an event where drivers smash their cars into each other until only one operational vehicle remains.  This can be a team or solo sport.  Vehicles come in size heats -- compact, full size, truck, and even combine harvester.  More here at Wikipedia.  Nationwide rules for the sport are here.

I was prepared to hate it or to be slightly scared by watching what is effectively car accident after car accident.  I expected the sounds of collapsing metal to bring back my own experiences of accidents; I was prepared to hate it, because so many of my friends have entered disability through car accidents.  I was prepared to leave early because I didn't think I could watch the spectacle; I thought that I would feel bad watching people put themselves at risk.  Somehow, I thought this would be much worse than watching people at Cirque du Soleil.  The risk in these and other performances is both highlighted and contained by the spectacle of costumes and lights.  I wasn't prepared to like it.

And I did.  I had a great time.

I watched two heats: full size and compact.  It was terrifying and fun at the same time.  The drivers all wear helmets and the cars are reinforced, but there seemed to be no protection for necks and spines: no special seats, no special harnesses.  The impacts seemed hard.  Even though the drivers were prepared to move in the direction of the hit -- they often grabbed the steering wheel and steered through the momentum -- there were also multiple hits from multiple directions.  The rules say that the hits have to be "aggressive" and, honestly, they were.  I screamed and covered my face every time the impact looked bad, but I also watched people's bodies ripple and sway through the impacts.  Several engines belched smoke; fire fighters stood by, holding extinguishers.  Eventually, though, neither they nor the EMS peeps were needed.  Family members said that the drivers always "felt it" the next day, but I wasn't sure what that meant.

I admired the skill of one particular driver; he played both for himself and created opportunities for others to succeed.  He really used his car well; I loved the reverse shear and slide move that he pulled striking two cars at once and then, as he skidded out of it in a turn, he hit a third.  The crowd cheered the drivers on -- "Hit him HARRRRRRRRD!" And these drivers played to the audience; I felt they were putting on a good show, even as they were trying to win.

Yeah, it was fun, and I cannot quite explain why.