Saturday, 8 October 2016

Speechless: Keep punching up

A while back, I wrote a post about disabled siblings in fiction, and the way they are so often dehumanised, used as macguffins and turned into inspiration porn. People with disabilities are not ofter allowed, in fiction, to be the protagonist in their own lives, and if they are, their story is more often than not entirely about their disability. Many of the LGBQ people I know hate that so often stories about people who are on that spectrum fall into either the 'coming out to self' or 'coming out to the world' category - there are more interesting things going on in queer people's lives than coming out! Likewise, trans and nonbinary acquaintances hate that the only storylines available to trans people in fiction are often 'person realises they are trans' or 'trans person is outed, dies'. People are affected by their marginalisation, yes, but they are not in entirety defined by it. We all have more complexity than our identities, but media is in many cases still catching up to that fact.

I do not mean to say that there is no merit in a coming out story or a first love story. There can be a great deal of meaning, particularly, I find, in YA fiction where children and young people see those who look like themselves and are thrilled to be acknowledged. But let us not pretend that gay life is all coming out, first love and the deaths of our lovers. Let us not pretend that trans life is all violence, black life all racism or disabled life all being treated like a prop to further our siblings' stories.

All this to say, I'm rather enjoying ABC's new show Speechless, a story about how disability and the attitudes to it from those who should know better, affects a whole family. It's a pretty standard setup for a sitcom: two parents, still married, three children, one brainy, one sporty and one with cerebral palsy which means he uses a wheelchair full time and uses assistive technology to communicate and express himself. You see how instantly, the kid with a disability is entirely defined by his disability? So easy to do.

And yet. The character of JJ, played by the talented and charismatic Micah Fowler, who himself has CP, is way more than his disability, even in the pilot. Smart, funny and silly, JJ is presented as a very normal teenage boy, with a subversive sense of humour and a screw-you attitude to authority. The fact that he struggles to articulate his fingers separately doesn't stop him flipping the bird to some oglers in a car park; when assigned an aide to speak for him, interpreting from his technology to give him a voice, he decides that she sounds like a fairy godmother and delights in making her say things about pumpkins and 'bibbidy bobbidy boo'. I've worked a lot with young people, and JJ is presented as a very typical teenage boy, in a way that is utterly delightful.

Not only that, he is flawed. Like many (dare I say most?) teenagers, he is at times deceitful, rude, and a bit of an asshole. He uses other people's perceptions of him against them for his own gain. He says things which are deliberately hurtful when lashing out. His sense of humour is not victimless. He objectifies cheerleaders in a very teenage way. He's charming, but not always nice. Which I find particularly refreshing. JJ is not inspiration porn, and the show acknowledges this in the first episode. His new class try to nominate him as class president, citing that he's 'so inspirational!' Bemused, he says, 'Why? You don't know me.' The joke is on the short-sighted teacher and class, and is not made at the expense of people with disabilities.

JJ's mother, Maya, played superbly by Minnie Driver, is likewise a hoot. Determined to get everything JJ should be entitled to, she goes to bat for him with a vengeance, pulling him and his siblings out of school and into new districts when she feels it will be possible to get better provision for her son. Quickly frustrated by school administration, she rails against the barriers and hurdles JJ encounters. Maya is shown to be quick to judge, melodramatic and fiercely loving and protective of her children, particularly JJ. One of the themes which seems set to emerge is the way that JJ, at 16, is ready to begin enjoying some independence from his, at times, overbearing mother, and how difficult it is likely to be for her to allow this. Although Maya is a character played for laughs, the show never seems to shy away from the fact that what she is doing is from a place of love and is the right thing to do for her child. The show is not laughing at parents of kids with special needs, but with them. It's punching up, not down, as the best comedy does, and it manages to do it without being preachy.

I do have some concerns about the show, but so far they are fairly mild. One is that the viewpoint character, if one had to be chosen, is Ray, JJ's brother. We see life from the perspectives of all of the family members, but more Ray than the others. I am anxious that the show avoid falling into the trap of 'disabled sibling exists to make abled sibling's life harder'. I hope this show will do that, and one of the ways it can will be by placing the whole family front and centre, not just Ray.

Another is Kenneth, JJ's new aide. Lampshaded as 'the black guy' in the town - yes, this show is spectacularly white - he is shown to be cool, laid back, easy going, caring, gentle and strong. All good attributes, and particularly important in bringing to the forefront the gentle side of black masculinity and caring. As long as Kenneth avoids being written as a stereotype, the show will do ok, but it would be preferable to me if the cast was more diverse. I love the barriers they're breaking by having this gentle, caring guy - but did the one named black guy in the show have to start off as a janitor? Break a stereotype, make a stereotype. The other one lacks a name, and is a cop.

I write this having seen the first two episodes, and I'll keep watching with interest. I really hope this show turns out well. It seems to be written by careful people who are aware of the harmful tropes that they could inadvertently perpetrate, and I hope that that remains the case. At least we can be pretty sure that in this realistic series, there will be no miracle cures. Thank goodness.

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