My week in television and siblinghoodPosted: February 21, 2010
Three items for thought this evening. All links should open in new windows.
Item 1: Down syndrome, Family Guy, Sarah Palin, and Andrea Fay Friedman
I’ve written recently about former Gov. Sarah Palin and the Rahm Emanuel episode. Well, it turns out that the animated show Family Guy got dragged into the fray by including a guest character: a woman with Down syndrome, who apparently claimed that she was the daughter of “the former governor of Alaska” (I think we can all agree this was aimed at Ms. Palin). As with everything in this post, I missed the original airing (hey, television and internet have been lower on my list of things to do after moving than many other tasks). I’ve actually not seen it yet, but what I have seen…was verrrrry interesting. I noticed some headlines about Ms. Palin speaking out about the episode of the show, but stayed away because I didn’t want to end up feeling even more frustrated with her behaviors. What I did end up reading was an entry on Huffington Post, in which the actress who did the voice work for the character responded to Ms. Palin’s comments. Turns out this woman, this actor, Andrea Fay Friedman, has Down syndrome, and – this will shock you, I know – didn’t think the show was offensive. (She went on to participate in an interview with the NY Times that I enjoyed. Turned out she had starred in Life Goes On, a show my family used to watch, and the source of Lily’s obsession with Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Not that the whole family isn’t a fan of the Beatles, and we all knew it before then, but Lily likes that song partly for that reason. Regardless, I had forgotten that role of hers, because I haven’t seen the show in well over a decade.)
I was delighted. Ms. Friedman pointedly made the point that the former governor was using her son as a political prop, and that Down syndrome isn’t the dread diagnosis that the media has made it out to be. I watched one of the video clips linked from HuffPo, and Ms. Friedman talked about how her family had raised her to have both a normal life and a sense of humor. It was great. I loved that a member of the disability community was suddenly visible as a person with political, philosophical, and personal views that were legit and interesting and newsworthy (even if I disagree with the cult of celebrity that contributes to things like Ms. Palin being so often in the news to begin with). I was glad to hear that an actor who had accepted a role was proud of it, even if it used her medical condition as part of its humor, and that she said something so in sync with a post I just read on FWD/Forward: not every depiction of disability in entertainment media is absolutely bad.
Okay, okay, I was also laughing really hard at the image of Trig Palin being carried “like a loaf of French bread.” Poor kid – to be so young and so visible would be hard for any infant, I would imagine.
Edited to add: after I wrote this, I saw a clip of an interview with the show’s creator, Seth MacFarlane, on Bill Maher’s show Real Time. GOOD: The point that Ms. Friedman responded to Ms. Palin’s attempt to defend her by pointing out that she doesn’t need defending (to paraphrase). BAD: Just because you got that one right, that DOES NOT give you permission to make “retard” jokes. Mr. Maher? That you made the joke/comment the way you did tells me that you don’t understand why so many of us oppose the term.
Item 2: Alexandre Bilodeau’s gold medal
I’ve participated in some discussion this week on the media events surrounding Canada’s first home gold medal winner, Alexandre Bilodeau. I missed the initial coverage, but have been catching up. (examples: NY Times article here, and also here) Mr. Bilodeau’s brother, Frederic, has cerebral palsy, and I understand that he was invited by his brother onto the medal stand.
Now, I can’t speak for Mr. Bilodeau, as all of us sibs have our own experiences. However, having recently achieved my own major victory of a PhD, I felt a lot of emotion when hearing about this. Part of me felt that it was such an obvious thing to do – to celebrate with someone with whom you have a unique relationship, whatever that might take. I couldn’t do that with Lily, because she can’t really travel and wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the silence that the audience maintains. That said, I dedicated my dissertation to Lily, and mentioned her at the close of my acknowledgements section in my public defense presentation. (I had put her picture on the slide, as my parents were in the audience.) She’ll never be able to read it, but many others will. Maybe the recognition is also a signifier of the fact that the sibling relationship can dominate us sometimes, and that not recognizing the sibling feels strange; I know I felt like I had to say and do something to keep Lily in the moment, even though it was mine. It wouldn’t have felt right to have such a momentous occasion happen without her. We don’t always get along, and right now we’re chafing against each other a bit, but Lily was also always interested in what my schoolwork and homework were about. (Also, for those who caught the Star Trek stories – Lily learned to say “DNA” from watching Dr. Crusher. So sometimes we “talk about” DNA, although this often leads Lily to want to examine me, which usually ends badly, as dramatic television can’t really be boring and all of her ideas about sick bay are based on that. Plus, she has had some uncomfortable experiences with doctors, herself.)
Item 3: When TV tries to get disability issues right
I’m not the sort of person to subscribe to cable television, so I don’t always know about the latest hip shows that aren’t on broadcast channels. One show I’m sad to have missed at its start is the show Burn Notice, which I saw for the first time on New Year’s Eve, stuck in a hotel room with few television channels. I loved it right off the bat, partly because I had just seen Army of Darkness for the first time and Bruce Campbell is on the show, partly because it’s funny and has lots of explosions, and partly because Fiona just kicks ass. Anyways, tonight I was catching up on episodes that are available online through Hulu, and ended up watching the episode entitled Noble Causes. Some of the plot only makes sense in the larger story arc, but what is relevant here is that the client being helped out by freelance fix-it/former CIA man Michael is motivated by his desire to protect his cousin Dougie, whom he describes as “slow.” (He’s never given a named diagnosis, but the writers tried to imply developmental disability.)
**SPOILERS BELOW** I want to take a moment to discuss this: I was mostly pleasantly surprised, but I’m not sure they got it quite right. I admire the idea that disability can be shown with some realistic features: Dougie is part of a program that helped him find a job, not unlike some of the activities in which Lily has been involved. It’s implied that he lives largely independently of his family (in the sense that he’s self-directed, not that he’s alone) and that his cousin loves him and feels protective of him. Doug gets trapped in a plot by thieves, who are shown to be Very Bad People partially by their taunting behavior and their liberal use of the r-word. (I have to say, I was very affected by Fiona wanting to charge in with guns blazing, as her character is wont to do, when she saw this. If people other than family and friends know how hurtful that kind of thing is…well, that’s good for us all.)
Then again, the big emotional conclusion ends up bringing us full-scale into the Noble PWD caricature. The cousin, Sugar, relates a childhood story in which Dougie, despite the taunting given him by Sugar, comes to his aid, defending family above all else. What tripped my circuits: if adult Doug can infer that marines and other members of the military are engaged in defense and fighting for good, there’s a good chance he was sophisticated enough to differentiate real family ties from the sort of relations you can do better without. Not that the character isn’t potentially realistic, but it felt too much like “PWD Has Better Morals Than Everyone Else, Because of Those Disabilities.” Frankly, it also disturbed me that “Dougie” was the name used here. The nickname is infantilizing, and it just isn’t true that all adults with disabilities are childlike or innocent. (Lily may not be able to add more than one to any number, but she for damned sure isn’t a child.) So I’m not sure whether I think the way the character was written was actually okay, but I’m willing to give the creative team credit for not resorting to the cheapest and easiest plot devices.