Fictions of Disability
From Oedipus (whose name, literally, means "swollen foot") to Shakespeare's King Lear and Richard III to Herman Melville's Captain Ahab to John Steinbeck's Lennie, literature is replete with representations of people with disabilities, a tradition that continues as conventionally understood literature opens up into comics, graphic novels, film, and television. As an essential part of this tradition of disability representation, texts have relied on both mental and physical disability to make a point, treating disability and disabled characters in symbolic terms and often in ways that are superficial, demeaning, and even politically dangerous. As Susan Nussbaum observes:
When I became a wheelchair-user in the late '70s, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured at the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed at the end, but it was for the best. Lenny was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him. It was a mercy killing. Ahab was a bitter amputee and didn't care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. ("In Her Words")
Reading from canonical literature like Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" (1843), from significant critical and theoretical texts, and from pop culture texts like Daredevil, this course will explore major paradigms of disability representation, looking at the ways in which disability has been seen as villainous, angelic, unclean, innocent, shameful, weak, "special," wondrous, and inspirational.
Our collective work will be to figure through the ways in which disability has been forced to "mean" something, to test the ways in which literature and popular culture might allow disability to be itself, and to discover how a diversity of fictions invite us to challenge the boundaries of the human.
disability paradigms . . .
. . . are the popular or mainstream ways that culture has trained us to understand disability. They're stereotypes that persuade us unconsciously to think of people with disabilities in simplistic and often demeaning ways. The cultural iconography of disability figures like Helen Keller, for instance, teach us that disability should be inspirational. (At the same time, a similar kind of disability stereotyping instructs us that a figure like Maggie Fitzgerald, the paralyzed boxer from Million Dollar Baby, is better off dead.)
The early weeks of this course will be devoted to reading and discussing literature that helps to shape popular conceptions of disability, figuring through and laying bare the many ways disability identity has been confined to rigid and unproductive social, political, and aesthetic categories.
if they look bad, they are bad . . .
One classic paradigm for representing and understanding disability in literature and popular culture is summed up in the classic Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1990), in which Robert Bogdan observes that popular film often relies on physical cues like "disfigurements and disabilities" to let the audience know when a character is "bad" (vii), a point also made by Paul Longmore, who writes about "the association of disability with malevolence," noting:
Deformity of body symbolizes deformity of soul. Physical handicaps are made the emblems of evil. (133)
Shakespeare's Richard III
Of all characters to have been so represented, Richard III is perhaps the most notorious. The illustration to the right (from a blog by Jonathan Hsy) shows interpretations from various performances and additional representations can be seen in the short video clips below. All of these follow from the text of Shakespeare's play, in which the writer explicitly associates physical "deformity" with villainous conduct:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. (Richard III, act I, scene i)
As it happens, the skeleton of the historical Richard III was only recently discovered and excavated from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. Preliminary findings indicate that Richard likely had scoliosis, but that his "deformity" has been very much exaggerated since his death in 1485. Read more about the Leicester discovery here; and read more about Richard III from a disability studies perspective in this article by Katherine Schaap Williams.
Richard III--Act I, scene i
This video shows stage footage from the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Richard III (Act 1, scene i) from 2012. It may sometimes be tough to figure out what's going on (tip: read through the scene here and review this helpful synopsis from The Shakespeare Theater Company), but it's pretty easy to figure out that Richard (a.k.a. Gloucester) has a significant disability, that he's sneaky and disgruntled, and that he seems to be planning mischief!
Richard III--Act I, scene ii
This video below shows the the famous wooing of Lady Anne from Act I, scene ii of Richard III, this one from a 1995 film interpretation of the play by director Richard Loncraine. In this version, Richard is interpreted not only as disabled, but also as a Nazi. The scene shows him confessing that he's murdered Lady Anne's husband, but nevertheless manipulating her into an engagement to marry him, the murderer! Ask yourself what these two scenes teach the reader about trusting people with disabilities . . .
out of the asylum . . .
In the 1950s and 60s, large-scale civil rights movements provided the social and political framework for a Disability Rights Movement that fought against the exclusion of people with disabilities from public life. People like Ed Roberts lobbied successfully for the greater inclusion of physically disabled people in higher education, race integration efforts helped people to question the civic logic of legislation like the so-called ugly laws, and above all, increased awareness of the neglect and abuse rampant in institutionalized settings gave rise to exposés like Geraldo Rivera's "Willowbrook: the Last Great Disgrace" (see preview below--trigger alert: graphic images may be too disturbing for some viewers).
Beginning by grounding ourselves in understanding traditional disability paradigms, the class moves on to explorations of disability protest, and thinking through the way damaging paradigms of visible disability likewise impact the position of mentally disabled people.
[credit: Mad Pride book cover]
"I would prefer not to" . . .
. . . is a frequently repeated phrase from Herman Melville's novelette, "Bartleby the Scrivener." It is an expression of idiosyncratic resistance that might be used as an entry point for thinking about autism and the significance of autistic presence in socially and politically meaningful terms. As we study a number of texts expressing or representing autism, students are invited to consider the contribution of autism in testing the parameters of social expectation. Sometimes shocking or abrasive, texts that challenge existing paradigms or stereotypes of disability are an important tool for understanding disability as a more complex and integrated identity.
[art credit: Rebecca Dart]