Saturday, April 28, 2007

Side Show TV: Step Right Up for a Look at Disability on the Small Screen

Note: This was originally published in a Disability Rights Newsletter, Spring 2007

Extra Extra! Sideshow Freaks form superhero team in a new show on Comedy Central! Characters include a blind, anti-Semitic premature baby and conjoined twins. On Boston Legal, Denny Crane is wooing a chain-smoking, magically materializing dwarf. South Park features two characters with disabilities, Jimmy and Timmy. They have also had "special" episodes titled, "Krazy Kripples", and "Helen Keller: The Musical".


"Meet the Fooses" is a documentary about your average ordinary family with one exception, they are little people. On TLC, we can tune in weekly to watch the Roloff family, also dwarfs. Apparently, watching little people drive, shop, coach, fight and clean is much more entertaining than watching taller people do it. On the Roloff website, you can vote on where they should take their next trip. Won't that be fun! Let's watch little people navigate white water rafting, or Moscow, or whatever… woooooo!

The only reason these characters fill the screen is so non-disabled people can ogle, laugh and thank god they are not like the people they see on-screen. Is it any different than Barnum & Bailey's sideshow? You know, the one called the "Greatest Show on Earth".

Discovery Health Channel is paving the way for the modern day sideshow by using the thin guise of medical investigation to parade a vast array of people with disabilities in front of audiences who are tucked away safe in the comfort and anonymity of their own homes. In today's world it is generally regarded as distasteful or morally wrong to pay your ticket price and step inside a dimly lit tent so you can witness the "Dog Faced Boy," "The Incredible Half Woman," or the "Face Eating Tumor." Sadly these are actual titles from shows that have aired on Discovery Health over the past year, and yes, they are as bad as they sound.

I hate being tragically un-hip; but in this case, I am and I wear my un-hipness with pride… disability pride. Until characters with disabilities are seen as more than their disabled parts, I will consider it all exploitation.

Yes, I know that many will disagree and proclaim that I've lost my sense of humor. Some will say, "Look, getting any person with a disability on screen, large and small, is progress. We were totally invisible before!"

I grew up in the '50s. Everyday I could turn on the television and watch the "savage" Indians scalp white people; believing that was progress is ludicrous. Native Americans are still trying to live that image down and Chief Illiniwik is still prancing around Champaign despite a decade of protest. Being visible isn't progress.

"The Station Agent" is a wonderful movie about a guy who doesn't drive, is secretive, more than a little morose and happens to be a dwarf; He is played masterfully by Peter Dinklage. The same movie could be made with a non-disabled character in the title role and it would still be a good movie. His being a dwarf is one aspect of the complex character, not the reason for his screen time.

Dinklage is also currently featured in a guest starring role on the FX show Nip/Tuck, a surprisingly deep plastic surgery drama that is governed by one main principle: the closer a character is to superficial physical perfection, the more tragically flawed their life becomes. Dinklage plays a nanny who is employed to look after a baby with a disability. In typical Nip/Tuck fashion his character has also begun an extra marital affair with the six foot tall, drop dead gorgeous wife of one of the equally handsome plastic surgeons. The show is complicated and if I explain anymore of the plot I'll have to employ the use of pie graphs and flow charts, but Dinklage's casting on the show was a stroke of genius. I can't wait to see where the writers choose to take his character.

Sometimes positive images of people with disabilities come in unlikely packages. Johnny Knoxville, (from the TV show and movie, "Jackass") made a movie called, The Ringer. I went ready to hate it. But, I didn't.

Knoxville's character, wants to rig the Special Olympics by posing as a participant. He planned to bet on himself and become rich. He was almost immediately outted by the real participants, who are better people and better athletes than him. It's not a great movie, and I was glad I only paid a matinee price to see it. But it did handle the issue of disability better than most movies and many actors with disabilities got their SAG cards.

Another example is Josh Blue. He won "Last Comic Standing". He also happens to have CP. His humor is based on his life experiences. Some of it has to do with having cerebral palsy, but his act is not based on it. Some people with disabilities are showing up in commercials for laundry soap and cell phones.

The point is we need to see more characters that show that disability is a natural part of the human experience, and only one aspect of who we are. Recently one of the stars of Gray's Anatomy came out and admitted he is gay. He added that he didn't think that it was that big a deal and hoped people would see that his homosexuality was just one aspect of who he is.

The more the entertainment industry integrates us into the fabric of life, the better our non-disabled friends can see us for who we really are. Until then, when you see a positive representation of someone with a disability in the media write them and encourage them. Likewise, when you see a negative image, get angry, get up, and get loud.

Jessica Hayes assisted with the research for this piece

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