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Lesson Three: Social vs Medical Model
LO: to explore representation of disability in different media formats
Task one: remind yourselves of the different disabled stereotypes (next slides recap them all).
1. Pitiable and pathetic; sweet and innocent; a miracle cure
Tiny Tim, ‘A Christmas Carol’
David Lynch’s portrayal of ‘The Elephant Man’
1. Pitiable and pathetic; sweet and innocent; a miracle cure
In 1980, David Lynch's masterpiece The Elephant Man was released.
The film tells the story of John Merrick, a tragically deformed yet charming and intelligent Englishman.
When it hit the screens in 1980, it became a cult hit with sufferers of neurofibromatosis, the disease that the Elephant Man was thought to have had.
Previously, it was though that he suffered from elephantiasis, a tropical disease causes by parasites in the bloodstream.
However, it was suggested in 1979 that Merrick had Proteus syndrome or "Elephant Man's Disease", which causes abnormal, unchecked growth of bones, skin, and other systems.
Fewer than 100 cases of Proteus have been recorded, while NF occurs in one in every 4,000 births. No condition has ever produced a degree of deformity equivalent to Merrick's.
2. Victim or an object of violence
Wheelchair-using Blanche, victimised by her sister in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
(1962, Robert Aldrich, USA);
Turn to notes on your handout: watching extract
3. Sinister or evil
Evil Dr. No, with his two false hands in the Bond film, Dr. No (1962, Terence Young, UK);
4. Atmosphere - curios or exotica in 'freak shows', and in comics, horror movies and science fiction
All the 'baddies' who have tics and disabilities in Dick Tracy (1990, Warren Beatty, USA);
5. 'Super-crip'/ triumph over tragedy/noble warrior
Physically-impaired Douglas Bader walking without sticks and flying in Reach for the Sky(1956, Lewis Gilbert, UK);
6. Laughable or the butt of jokes
The lead character is a man with learning difficulties in Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis, USA);
Lee Evans feigning cerebral palsy in
There's Something About Mary(1998, Peter Farrelly/Bobby Farrelly, USA)
7. Having a chip on their shoulder/ aggressive avenger
The vengeful, hook-using, black ghost in Candyman(1992, Bernard Rose, USA)
8. A burden/ outcast
The 'In-valids' who are not of perfect genetic design in Gattaca (1997, Andrew Niccol, USA),
The disabled child whose parents consider euthanasia in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1971, Peter Medak, UK)
9. Non-sexual or incapable of a worthwhile relationship
Marlon Brando's disabled veteran in The Men
10. Incapable of fully participating in everyday life
The absence of disabled people from everyday situations, and not being shown as integral and productive members of society.
When they are shown, the focus is on their impairments
Deaf people in Children of a Lesser God (1986, Randa Haines, USA)
Jenny Morris (1991) argues that cultural portrayals of disability are usually about the feelings of non-disabled people and their reactions to disability, rather than about disability itself. Disability thus becomes:
Many impairments are ‘hidden’ (dyslexia, visual impairments, deafness etc).
...a metaphor...for the message that the non-disabled writer wishes to get across, in the same way that ‘beauty’ is used. In doing this, the writer draws on the prejudice, ignorance and fear that generally exist towards disabled people, knowing that to portray a character with a humped back, with a missing leg, with facial scars, will evoke certain feelings in the reader or audience. The more disability is used as a metaphor for evil, or just to induce a sense of unease, the more the cultural stereotype is confirmed (Morris, 1991:93).
List the types of impairment you have seen in TV programmes, films, magazine or newspaper articles. How do you feel about the people represented in them? Do they inspire pity or horror for example?
Representations of disability in different media formats
Hannibal (film) Agent Starling goes to see Lecter’s victim who is in bed, hidden in the shadows and surrounded by curtains. The light is raised to give a horror view of his face. The character here is evil too, so we associate his facial scarring with punishment for his evil nature, and also with the visual manifestation of evil (we expect evil people to look evil, thanks to generations of fairy tales). We are supposed to be shocked, to recoil in horror. How do you think this affects people with facial scarring?
Disability and gender: ‘Supercrips’ Supercrips are people who conform to the individual model by overcoming disability, and becoming more ‘normal’, in a heroic way. Jenny Morris argues that in film and TV drama, disability is often used as a narrative device to express ideas of dependency, lack of autonomy, tragedy etc. She argues that
Thus many Supercrip films are about the hell of dependency for men. Since women are viewed as dependent, there is little point in making films about their ‘struggles’ with disability. Perhaps disability does not ‘matter’ so much to a woman?
An example of a ‘Supercrip’ is the Irish writer Christy Brown, who described his book My Left Foot as his “plucky little cripple story”. The film of the same name is full of useful sequences. Problems with the Supercrip stereotype: • It focuses on a single individual’s ability to overcome, then puts the onus on other disabled people to do the same. • What about those who can’t or won’t try to live up to this stereotype? It is notable that the actors playing these Supercrip roles - which often earn them Oscars - are invariably non-disabled superstars with the requisite face and physique. Thus an impaired male body is visually represented as a perfect physical specimen in a wheelchair.
...women do not have to be portrayed as disabled in order to present an image of vulnerability and dependency... therefore most disabled characters in film and television in recent years have been men (Morris in Pointon, 1997:26)
What would disabled people like to see?Karen Ross undertook a qualitative survey of disabled viewers and listeners and concluded:
Many of the changes that viewers and listeners would like to see take place in broadcasting can be described as ‘respect’ issues: respecting the diversity of disability and portraying those varied experiences; respecting the views of disabled people and consulting with them to provide more authentic and credible portraits; respecting the abilities of disabled people and actively involving disabled media professionals in all aspects of programme production across all genres...Crucially, what disabled audiences want is an acknowledgement of the fact that disability is a part of daily life and for the media to reflect that reality, removing the insulting label of ‘disabled’ and making it ordinary
(Ross, 1997: 676)
How is the representation of disability constructed in this extract from The Street?
The tabloids are a particularly potent source of disability representations. The Daily Mail, featured a Muslim cleric who had his hands blown off in Afghanistan.
He was pictured with his hooks on prominent display, described in the article as ‘metal claws’.
The article aimed to expose the supposed glut of ‘bogus asylum seekers’ who are also ‘terrorists’ and who are claiming social security benefits funded by taxpayers in Britain.
It thus combines iconic images of Muslim fundamentalist masculinity with disability in order to create and to maximise the fear of ‘foreignness’ associated with post 9/11 society.
Recent examples include Amputee Admirers (channel Five) which purports to discuss Internet-based groups who run dating/social groups for amputees and those who are attracted to them.
In this case, an academic who is also an amputee is questioned in order to give an element of political correctness to a programme which is essentially about voyeurism.
However, the camerawork exposes the subtext by zooming in on the academic’s stumps and scars as she speaks.
Also see ITV’s The Unluckiest Faces in Britain which utilises stark lighting and mise-en-scene and big close-ups to emphasise the facial differences of its subjects, while they are interviewed in a supposedly sympathetic manner.
Television drama and film Wheelchairs tend to predominate here, since they are an iconic sign of disability. Most actors playing disabled characters are, however, not disabled.
The wheelchair allows the character to be obviously disabled, whilst still looking ‘normal’, and does not therefore present any major challenges for audience identification.
A good example of a film that challenges this view is Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978).
DifferenceIt has been argued that dominant notions of ‘normality’ and beauty do not allow for the natural range of difference in human form. These notions are not only prejudicial to the acceptance of disabled people, but also increasingly impact on non-disabled people. Charlotte Cooper, for example, applies the social model to obesity, and concludes that there are some important categories through which obesity can be defined as a disability: • A slender body is ‘normal’ • Fatness is a deviation from the norm. • Fat and disabled people share low social status. • Fatness is medicalised (e.g. jaw-wiring and stomach-stapling). • Fat people are blamed for their greed and lack of control over their bodies. Consider why it is that fat people or disabled people are rarely portrayed as sexually attractive.
Recommended text Pointon, Ann with Davies, Chris (eds) (1997) Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media London: BFI Publishing
ReferencesMorris, Jenny (1991) Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability London: the Women's Press Ltd.
Oliver, Michael (1996) Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice London: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Ross, Karen (1997) Where's Me In It? Media Culture and Society 1997 Vol 19 pp669-677
Discussing Telethons Telethons - especially the BBC’s Children in Need - provide a range of interesting images of disability.
Telethons have been roundly criticised for being “the twentieth-century version of the beggar in the streets. Even the begging-bowls are no longer in our own hands...” • Is this true? • Are telethons ever OK? • What would you replace them with?
Points about Telethons: • Telethons use images of brave, smiling and grateful recipients of charity. They ask us to donate out of relief that we don’t have their problems. • They rely on ‘cute’ children, which gives a false impression of the real incidence of disability in the population. • They create the impression that it is not the job of the state to provide essential funds for disadvantaged groups, and do not question why people are disadvantaged. By making certain people dependent on charity, we create beggars. (Charity is now big business, with marketing executives receiving six figure salaries...) • Anne Karpf argues that there is a need for charities, but that telethons act to keep the audience in the position of givers, and to keep recipients in their place as grateful and dependent. • Emotive images push other images out. Those who look fit and well are assumed to be able to look after themselves, which is not always the case. • Charity is not just about money – it’s also about helping someone with their problems and working alongside them. • Telethons could help us to understand, but usually don’t. People donate because they’re being entertained. There is a conflict between the way you raise money, and the way you raise awareness. They are not necessarily the same thing. • Who will give disabled people a job when they see such images? The implicit meaning is that we should help disabled people, not that we should integrate them into society.