Diversity of Disability

Structures of power, marginalization and oppression value certain permutations of human existence over others. This plays out in the real world in countless ways. It becomes cultural norms that are displayed, reinforced and changed in media. While there are any number of issues with disability representation, today will be about the diversity of disability. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

On some level, being disabled means that the world isn’t made for you; that some part of you isn’t compatible with the physical structure of the world. There are numerous ways in which someone can be disabled, and even more ways in which different causes can have the same end result. When it comes to media, the most meaningful distinction with causes is being born with a disability versus developing it later in life.

These are radically different experiences, and have radically impact on people. Yet by and large stories will have characters who became disabled, not those who were born disabled.* It’s easy to frame these characters as tragic, how they were stricken down and how they’re trying to overcome this problem. It hits all the emotional beats and has a hint of inspiration porn mixed in. Not only that, but it’s easy to think about how these characters did or didn’t deserve this, how they were just like you and now they’re different. People who were born with disabilities though? They were shuttered away from society and written off, killed off, for most of human history. Those stories deserve to be told, need to be told.

But this isn’t to take away from people who did become disabled after they were born. Their stories matter too; but their stories must be more than clichés for the abled to feel good about themselves. We need to embrace the diversity of disability in all its forms in ways that matter to the disabled.

While it makes sense to treat disability as one broad tent, those who are inside the tent should understand and celebrate the degree of diversity within the tent. Next week, I’ll start looking back on 2015. Till next time.

 

*I am hard pressed to think of disabled characters but one that always stand out is Toph Beifong from Avatar; the Last Airbender, who is wonderful.

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AKA Review: Marvel’s Jessica Jones

I am not the biggest fan of the MCU, and in fact had planned on skipping their latest offering from Netflix, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Yet I kept seeing people talk about it on Twitter, a lot more people than Daredevil and whose opinions on media I value. So I started watching it, and it is indeed good. What makes it good is rather simple: it’s so unlike anything else that the MCU has produced so far. It’s not just a matter of the show being different, but by and large what it does, it does well. Let’s jump into it.

Trigger Warnings: Check out this list

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

Jessica Jones isn’t a shiny superhero story like the films or a retread of Nolanverse Batman like Daredevil was, in fact it doesn’t feel like any sort of superhero story. Nor is it an origin story in the way that other things are. Instead, it reminds me of something out of the World of Darkness, gritty street –level action and dark subject matter. All of these things are so different than what we’ve come to expect that they’re all worth talking about individually.

In terms of genre this show is a noir, plain and simple. It draws upon that genre’s conventions far more than anything else. The idea of being a hero is far more mundane with thing such as Jessica stopping a mugging or Malcolm organizing a support group. A traditional caped crusader costume is the butt of a joke and any references to the MCU films feel more forced than anything. Not only that, but the idea of being a hero isn’t so clear cut. It’s something that Jessica struggles with throughout the show, and even at the season end it’s not clear where she falls.

There is another departure from the superhero stories we’ve come to see from the MCU: the violence. Action scenes are relatively rare here; this isn’t the slugfest of Daredevil. When the show calls for violence, the scenes are short enough to keep the viewer engaged and choreographed well enough that the viewer can follow along.

In the abstract, this is an origin story. This is how Jessica Jones becomes a hero, of some fashion, and outlines major things going forward (IPG, Luke Cage, Daredevil via Claire). In practice, this doesn’t feel like an origin story. Jessica is a character with history and established relationships with other characters. We’re being dropped en medias res with a natural beginning of Kilgrave coming back, but we get the sense that these characters have lives that extend beyond the story. This is in part due to the fact that of those plotlines I listed above: the first is a footnote by the time we learn of it compared to the immediate threat of Kilgrave, is only a major plot because he’s getting his own series next and this connection was only introduced in the season finale respectively.

This is as personal and street-level as a story can get. Kilgrave has harmed people, many people. But in the grand scheme of things has he harmed as many people as Fisk or any of his associates such as the Russians or Madam Gao? Probably not. He’s a piece of garbage, a mundane, too familiar piece of garbage with a superpower. There’s no talk of saving Hell’s Kitchen or anything as big.

Jessica Jones is a dark show. It’s not dark in the way that say The 100 or Daredevil or Bojack Horseman are dark. It’s dark in ways that make Netflix negligent for not having trigger warnings in the show description. It’s dark in that the show revolves around abuse, consent and rape. It’s dark in handling these subjects in a human way that drives the point home, too close for sadly too many people. The allegory of Kilgrave being the patriarchy is essentially text. There are a lot of situations and characters that are easily relatable. Kilgrave being called out explicitly as a rapist is shocking because of how rare that is in media. Hearing the word out loud, even when you know that’s what’s happening is jarring. It doesn’t take any mealy mouthed vagaries, or even outright reactionary ideas; it is open, direct and challenging to the status quo.

Not only that, but it has explicitly MOGAI characters with no special comment made about their orientation. Granted, these characters aren’t exactly the best people, which is its own issue in regards to tokenism, but actual representation is better than headcanons.

Of course, nothing is perfect and Jessica Jones fails when it comes to race. I would recommend reading this article to get a better idea.

Going forward, my main worry is that this season ends up being an aberration. That its departures from what we’ve come to know as pieces of the MCU formula will be seen as mistakes, not to be repeated. I want this to be the start of something new as other shows take the general ideas and innovations seen here as a baseline to improve upon, not run away from.

Next week, I’ll be talking about diversity of disability in media. Till then.

 

Normative Horror and Man in the High Castle

Amazon’s new series, Man in the High Castle, based off of the Phillip K Dick novel of the same came out recently. While it has been overshadowed by Marvel’s Jessica Jones coming out on Netflix the same day, it has still gained some talk because of the premise. Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternate history, one in which the Axis won WWII and partitioned the United States. The show has a number of problems but it’s still interesting enough to merit discussion. So let’s not waste any time and jump in.

When dealing with an adaption, the first question that comes to mind for many people is how does it compare to the source material? In this case, that’s a tricky question to answer. The original book is good, but it’s not suited for TV, at all. This is a book were not a lot happens and a lot of the key points don’t translate well to a series.* Instead we get a loose adaption, taking the setting and plot in broad strokes and filling in the rest of the world. Fidelity to the source material is a virtue, not the virtue, so the fact that this is a loose adaption is fine. However, this does mean that the show writers have to create a lot of material and they do a mixed job of it.

At the heart of the show’s problems are the characters. They’re not particularly deep or compelling or even archetypes. They’re echoes, incomplete sketches that you can’t get invested in. Some of them, like Tagomi and Julia, are reverberating with their book counterparts in ways that don’t really add up. Others, primarily Obergruppenfuhrer Smith, are original to the show and aren’t given enough time to tell their stories. So if the characters aren’t compelling, what make the show engaging? Setting and visuals.

Part of the appeal in any dystopia is seeing how bad the world is; an appeal that is only heightened with a victorious Axis. WWII occupies a space in our collective cultural landscape as a mythical fight between good and evil after all. Yet the show fails in conveying a sense of horror or oppression for the most part. While it’s nauseating to see swastikas plastered all over the place and “Heil Hitler” being a common salutation, the shock of that wears off pretty quickly. It’s the more developed moments such as the nonchalant dismissal of a hospital killing the disabled that stand out. By and large, the brutality and inhumanity of these regimes is only spoken of, not shown and it arrives at this point by two very different, but concurrent paths.

On one hand, the sort of horror that a fascist regime exerts is normative. A totalitarian state asphyxiates private life and demands complete obedience in all spheres. Horror just isn’t in the swastikas, it’s in the Gestapo, it’s in the arts, it’s in every day speech and hopes and fears. The characters by and large, are non-normative for a number of reasons. They largely operate outside normal boundaries, and they don’t function as a gateway to observe greater society with, they’re off doing their own thing. Or they’re underdeveloped.

On the other hand, it’s hard to actually notice any sort of difference that concentration camps would have because diversity in television is only now starting to be a thing. Images of lily-white, abled America are still the presumed default. This level of awareness is important in answering the question of why people seemed to have acquiesced to the Nazis so easily? It alludes to the bigotries that were common, how they were pushed and redefined until people had no qualms with concentration camps. The problem is that this only a faint allusion and we’re seeing the end result. The process would be far more terrifying. **

I’ve only been talking about the Nazi occupied East Coast so far and that’s because it’s far more interesting. The Japanese controlled Pacific States are supposed to stand out for things like kanji on signs and a racial hierarchy with the Japanese on top. Aside from some rather run of the mill police state narrative short-hands, there isn’t a lot here that isn’t just playing off of Yellow Peril tropes.

Dick’s novel, like many of his works, was about reality. The show, while having moments of clarity and horror that strikes close to home, are few and far between. It is an incomplete world with the boundaries clearly visible. There is a chance that these issues will be corrected in the second season, but I’m not hopeful. Next week I’ll be talking about Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Till next time.

 

*I think it’s doable to make the book into a miniseries, as there are different expectations there, but no one appears to be in the business of making those anymore.

**For this I would suggest reading Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America