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Primer: Fame and Exceptionalism

Posted in Education, and Primer

If you haven’t read my Introduction I strongly recommend it

Primer articles explore the complex web of disability representation focusing on far reaching tropes and their consequences.

Content Warning: Brief mention of abuse

This one isn’t a trope or stereotype as much as misrepresentation by omission. The stories about disability that tend to get the most general recognition are usually about famous or extraordinary individuals. A Beautiful Mind is about the Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash. My Left Foot is about Christy Brown a well regarded Irish writer and artist. The Miracle Worker is about Helen Keller, and the list goes on.

The stories of disability that are getting told to the widest audiences are largely the stories of very successful individuals. By just focusing on this slice of the disability community the ideas of disability giving divine purpose or making someone special are furthered. It’s easy to see why these narratives get so much attention too. “So and so did this incredible thing in spite of the cards they were dealt.” For those who know about inspiration porn this line of thinking should be familiar. Focusing on the extremes of any population is negatively impactful and this case is no different.

A secondary effect of fixating on fame is that history has favored primarily straight white men. This makes it more likely that in talking about a famous individual a story is likewise talking about a straight white man. This does not mean that there aren’t exceptions like Helen Keller or Ray, but it does mean that the indiscriminate, intersectional nature of disability gets swept under the rug. There are very few examples of disability portrayed in the mainstream that isn’t about someone white or someone male. Under-representation of minorities in media is something that affects all minorities, and like many of them even when they are represented, intersectionality isn’t shown. But it’s important to remember when consuming these pieces of media that something like disability isn’t owned by any group. Disability is present everywhere.

And lastly is the fact that these narratives tend to overly simplify the actualities of these individuals lived experiences. It’s hard to convert life experiences to a parsable, short form, consumable piece of media. But the simplifications these mainstream stories tend towards are usually in pursuit of more feel good endings. 

In A Beautiful Mind, the film removes the fact that John and Alicia got divorced and the work John did to recognize his delusions. By doing so the movie created a story of complete support from Alicia even though they had to work very hard to make their relationship work. They created a “brighter” story of spousal support that was inaccurate to life and focused more on the fantastical aspects of John Nash’s delusions rather than the work he did to live with them.

The film My Left Foot also does something similar, leaving the viewer with the false information that Christy Brown met the love of his life and lived happily ever after.

In actuality, there is evidence that he was neglected and possibly abused by his wife. I understand why they wouldn’t want to end a film on a note like that, but the fact that they chose to leave you with the ending they did is frankly gross and misleading.

Do you agree that there needs to be more narratives about non-famous people with disabilities? Or perhaps you think that there are plenty of examples where this isn’t the case. Either way, let me know in the comments.

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