Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Disability Past-Tense: Embodiment, Masterpiece Theater, History

Is it just me or is someone at Masterpiece Theater suddenly interested in disability studies? This Spring's plethora of disability-related plots certainly makes me think so. [SPOILER ALERTS!]

First, there were the juxtapositions of disability and queer identities on Downton Abbey, that I discussed in a previous blog post here.

Then, there was the sister with Down Syndrome on the new Upstairs, Downstairs

Finally, there was the mother with severe, incapacitating mental illness on South Riding.

And it's got me intrigued. What are these multiple representations of illness and disability doing on venerable PBS shows of historical fiction?

In some senses, each show is examining what differently embodied people experienced in the past, and in that way these 'disability' story lines work counter to the dominant, primarily romanticized overarching narrative of each story. In Downton Abbey as well as Upstairs, Downstairs, disability story lines poke holes in the otherwise glamorous worlds of early 20th century British aristocracy. In South Riding, the institutionalized, mentally ill character is more of a trope - but she similarly complicates the otherwise hearty story of stoic, salt-of-the Earth rural community.

Each of these narratives approach historical treatments of disability through the lens of shame. Now, don't get me wrong, these aren't gritty, realistic portrayals of institutionalization like Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook (the film exploring the notorious Staten Island institution for mentally disabled individuals.) But each does explore, to some degree, the historical notion that individuals with disabilities should be personally ashamed, and made socially invisible. What is unfortunately a bit romanticized, by each narrative, is the way these story lines are resolved. Although each show is actually quite well written and grapples in nuanced ways with complex issues such as class, gender, labor, and nation politics, each feel somehow compelled to wrap up their disability story lines with a neat and tidy, romanticized bow. In this way, each show in some ways undermines its own important work of showing historical disability in the first place.

The way that these portrayals break down along gender lines is actually fascinating as well. As I've mentioned before, Mr. Bates, the war-injured valet who uses a cane on Downton Abbey, is initially ostracized and ridiculed by his fellow 'downstairs' staff - who doubt his ability to physically fulfill his duties. However, except for the notorious 'evil gay footman' (see previous post) who is placed in conflict with Mr. Bates to seemingly re-emphasize the ex-soldier's intact masculinity in the face of disability, every other character in the show - both 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' eventually becomes superbly enlightened about disability. When, seemingly motivated by shame and social messages about masculine 'normalcy', Mr. Bates purchases a horribly painful leg brace in the attempt to 'correct' his limp, the person who encourages him to throw the brace away  is the previously doubtful housekeeper. Shame, prejudice against the disabled, and ableism are portrayed, but ultimately (and a bit easily) overcome in the narrative - which is a recurring, if highly improbable, theme in each story.

If Mr. Bates is a fairly three dimensional character, with some other story lines beyond his disability, the disabled women in Upstairs Downstairs and South Riding are hardly subjects at all - they are acted upon rather than actors in and of themselves. In the last of the four-part remake of Upstairs, Downstairs, the unfortunately named Sir Hallam Holland discovers, by chance, that Pamela, the younger sister he had always thought dead, is *gasp* in fact well and alive. She was locked away from girlhood because she has Down Syndrome (in a shockingly swanky mansion - er - mental institution). Now, yes, except for the super fancy digs, this is probably a historically accurate description of what might have happened to such a child in an aristocratic family. Down Syndrome - or any such developmental or physical embodied difference - was considered not only a personal 'shame' but a familial one and would undoubtedly have resulted in the family being socially shunned and familial marriage prospects, etc. harmed. Yet, after introducing this important historical  narrative, the program resolves it with laughable ease. Lady Holland, Hallam's mother, tearfully admits to her deception, Lord Holland seemingly easily accepts his sister into his family and life, and Pamela is next shown enjoying a Merry Christmas with her family at 165 Eaton Place.

Muriel Carne is the absent wife and mother who haunts the hero Robert Carne and his daughter Midge on South Riding. Shown primarily only in flash-backs, Muriel is the impetuous and perhaps already mentally imbalanced young woman who ensnared Robert's heart, only to sink into a severe, ultimately untreatable post-partum psychosis after - wait for it - she gets pregnant because Robert rapes her. Yes, highly problematic, I know (this is the one program of the three that is based on a novel) - particularly in light of the fact that the show portrays Muriel as loose-moralled - right before the rape, she is shown entertaining several soldiers while dressed only in a neglige. In some sense, the non-aristocratic, down to Earth, loyal Robert is shown as more noble than aristocratic Muriel - and in these ways his rape is seemingly condoned, or at least pardoned, by the narrative. The viewer is not encouraged to think that Muriel sinks into incapacitating mental illness because she was raped, but rather, that she was raped because, in some part, she was already sinking into mental illness.

Yet, this plot line too is resolved somewhat easily. Perhaps as a sort of moral punishment for his past violence, real-time Robert is not only depressed, standoffish and unable to consummate his newfound attraction to the town's new girl's school headmistress, but he eventually dies of a riding accident. And just in the nick of time too, because his insolvency was risking Muriel's ongoing care and treatment at her (also) surprisingly posh mental facility. (I know - convenient, right?) In the end, the 'hidden away' Muriel is brought back to her home at South Riding - which has --- wait for it --- been turned into a home for the mentally ill. Hooray! (No need to worry our pretty little heads about things like violence against women and rape within marriage, eh, PBS? As long as we wrap up the disability storyline neatly?)

Fiction helps construct our collective cultural memories. Thus it is important, even in historical dramas, to include those stories and voices that might otherwise have been shut away from view - lest we replicate the same invisibility in our narratives that people with disabilities experienced in their lives. Yet, introducing such storylines without affording them the same complex treatment as, say, gender and the historical role of women is often given in these PBS dramas - is a disservice. Prejudice against the disabled and ableism is an oppression just like any other, and doesn't so easily disappear. People have - and continue to - struggle against it with their lives and work and words. Resolving these story lines so easily hides these struggles away - out of view.

Inclusion is important - and I'm delighted PBS shows are including individuals with disabilities in so many programs. I look forward to them taking the next step, and drawing out these plots with more complexity and nuance.  


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Underage Book Addicts: An Open Letter to Mary Pope Osborne

Dear Ms. Osborne (if that is your real name),

I am on to you, lady author.

You may have your hoards of glassy-eyed, feverishly reading child fans fooled, but not me. Not me, I say.

First, there was my son, who COULD NOT put your Magic Tree House books down two years ago. Which, in my naiive parenting mind, was a good thing, right? OO, he's becoming a READER. Little did I know then. Little did I know.

First, I tried to purchase your collection for the holidays and found out that you had written about 11 thousand in the series. 11 thousand, really? And here, I can barely finish my grocery list. Appropriate, then, that the only place I could find your series that winter was the bulk wholesaler, COSTCO. But how could I buy them all? First of all, they certainly wouldn't fit in a stocking, and then, how could I convince my innocent boy that Santa had actually brought this behemoth box?. I mean, it betrays all laws of physics to think that a rotund man in a red suit - who already challenges disbelief in his chimney-traversing skills - could have fit down our flue with your bulky series in hand. No, my son would never have believed it, and he would have realized that Santa was not real. And even you could not want that on your conscience.

And so, I had to drive around to every library in our county, diligently getting every darn alliteratively-titled adventure in series order. You really had to number them, huh? I mean, would it truly be so against your sense of literary integrity if some child read Mummies in the Morning before A Knight at Dawn? And six year olds who can read can usually count - because believe me, I tried to pull that fast one and it didn't work.

And worst of all, by the end of our series, my boy was hooked. HOOKED, I say. A reading ADDICT. And you can't tell me that wasn't your intention all along. No, no, don't give me that innocent look, I'm on to you.

But you weren't satisfied in having just one of my children join your historical time-travelling tribe, were you? Oh, no. Now, you've roped in my daughter, that innocent flower who just last week was satisfied with Nursery rhymes and Amelia Badelia read alouds. Suddenly, I find her CONSUMING your books with the speed and hunger of an addict in the making. Don't act like you didn't intend it all along, Ms. Osborne. The short chapters packed with action and adventure, the easy to read sentences, the familiar, loveable characters. YOU EVEN MADE THEM AN OLDER BROTHER AND YOUNGER SISTER, AS ARE MY CHILDREN. Have you no shame, oh authoress? Have you no shame?

I don't know how you did it, but you have created the perfect gateway book - from innocent listener to avid reader via 50 easy steps called The Magic Treehouse series. Oh, The horror!

I can't even recognize my girl this week - because her face is always hidden behind one of your oh-so-clever titles. She didn't come to dinner because she was reading. I heard from her brother that at recess she was sitting on the swings and READING. And now she is laughing and beaming and beside herself excited to read. Why, you've transformed my baby in to a... a.... (do I bear to say it?) READER!

So in short, Ms. Osborne, America's children have fallen under your spell, and don't think we don't know it. We parents are ON to your skillfully written tricks. Whether slipping discs from buying your entire series, or polluting the environment by driving from library to library in search of sequentially numbered books, we are reduced to aiding and abetting our children's habits. And all because of you, Ms. Osborne.

J'accuse, Madam Authoress. J'accuse!

Yours sincerely, & etc.

A very, very grateful  parent.

PS. Mary Pope Osborne, you seriously rock. No, seriously. All that stuff about Santa, I seriously didn't mean it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coming of Age in Comics: American Born Chinese

Graphic novels seem to be an ideal format for the Bildungsroman: the coming of age novel.

From Alison Bechdel's Fun Home to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis to David Smalls' Stitches, graphic novels tell tales of embodiment, transition, family, culture, challenge and change in ways that purely written texts simply cannot.

For instance, in Stitches, a graphic novel I've recently began teaching in my illness and disability memoirs classes, Smalls conveys the unseeing and unfeeling attitudes of several family members by simply not illustrating their eyes - the protagonist is surrounded by family members with eerily whited-out glasses.

Similarly, internal processes are conveyed without a host of descriptors that, inevitably, create more rather than less distance between the reader and the experience. In one frame, Smalls illustrates his protagonist - who has both literally and figuratively lost the ability to speak up in his own life -  huddled down inside his own mouth.

Having just finished Gene Luen Yang's Printz award winning American Born Chinese, I was amazed by not only Yang's colorful, vibrant drawing style and imaginative narrative, but his ability to pull me into his protagonist Jin Wang's very psyche without me realizing he was doing it. The three parallel story lines - of Chinese American immigrant son Jin Wang, of All-American Danny and his larger-than life Chinese cousin Chin-Kee, and of the mythical Monkey King, serve to enfold the reader in a story about complicated issues - schoolyard racism, internalized racism, emerging sexuality, family politics, and the dangers of becoming what you are not.

As an immigrant daughter, the book's story is in some ways familiar to me. A story about fitting into - or not fitting into  - white America, a story about feeling uncomfortable - or being made to feel uncomfortable - in one's own skin. But in some ways, the book was disquieting, embarrassing, and horrifying. The racist stereotype embodied by Yang's character Chin-Kee actually made me squirm. From the way he is drawn, to his accent to his awful re-enactment of racist taunts ("Me Chinese, me make joke, me go pee-pee in your coke,"), I found the character almost too much to bear at certain points of the novel. But when Yuan deftly drew together (pun intended) his various storylines, I got it.

A written novel uses words to describe certain emotional states or images to get the reader to a particular emotional state. Yet, usually, the mediation provided by words and language make the reader aware of the experience. In Yang's graphic novel, the reader transported to a feeling of discomfort, disquiet and, yes, anger, while almost unaware of the process.

Racism should make us not only uncomfortable, but angry. Yet, it's rarely any good for a novel about race and racism to shout "be angry, this is wrong, be angry!" Instead, through the twists and turns of Yang's three narratives, through the over-the-top racist portrayal of Chin-Kee, I unconsciously slipped into his narrative when I wasn't even looking.

Graphic novels continue to delight, surprise and inspire me. What are some of your favorites?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Boobies, Ta-Tas, and Cha-Chas, Oh My!: The Sexy-Fication of Cancer

An excerpt from my latest post at Adios, Barbie:

“Save the Boobies!  I  ♥ Ta-tas! Save Second Base!”

Like the ubiquitousness of Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong armbands and Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pink ribbon festooned campaigns, “I heart the boobie” bracelets seem to be everywhere these days. Such as on the arms of young women showing their breast cancer awareness — and potentially getting kicked out of school for doing so. (Luckily, we have a little thing called the first amendment that applies, shockingly, even to high schoolers.)

Okay, we get it. We all heart the cha-chas. From Victoria’s Secret push-ups to plastic surgery obsessions and Girls Gone Wild type television, mainstream culture is hugely obsessed with breasts. (Unless you’re a mother trying to breastfeed your hungry infant with them, but that’s another blog post.)

Just recently, I read a fantastic critique of this sort of cutsie ‘Save the Ta-Ta’ campaign by Peggy Orenstein, who says,
Kittenish cancer campaigns… [are] simultaneously pathologizing and fetishizing women’s breasts at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them. In that way, they actually suppress discussion of real cancer, rendering its sufferers — those of us whom all this is supposed to be for — invisible.
To read the complete post, please go to Adios, Barbie here

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

To (Feminist) Mama, With Love

This post is in honour of TO MAMA WITH LOVE, an amazing project started by Epic Change. Watch video of the mothers being honoured this year, and please join in the celebration of mothers by creating a 'heartspace', donating to the effort, and spreading the word! 

In our house growing up, we used the F word alot.

Yea, it's the one you're thinking of. Feminist.

As much as it was back then, feminist is still a loaded word. So loaded this fantastic blog by and for teen feminists is called The F-bomb. So loaded, many people will start statements with qualifiers that go something like "I wouldn't call myself a feminist, but..." and then go on to say something seriously, like, feminist. The word is still so loaded there is actually something called "feminist coming out day" with pictures whose caption is "this is what a feminist looks like."

So look closer, folks, this is what my beautiful feminist mom looks like.

My mother was a feminist mom when being a feminist mom of color was a rare and wonderful thing. At a time when her consciousness raising group of fellow feminist graduate students actually suggested that perhaps she, an immigrant woman (and the only woman of color in the group) had perhaps been coerced into having a child. After all, being a mom was volunteering a form of indentured servitude, wasn't it? (And my mom had been married at sixteen in an "arranged marriage", hadn't she?) In their eyes, feminist motherhood was a sort of oxymoron. And a feminist immigrant mom? Unthinkable.

My mother didn't buy into that crap. With her gracious smile and lyrical voice, I'm sure she read those colleagues the riot act. And then probably made me some scrumptious Indian dinner and read me a feminist fairy tale to boot.

I grew up alongside my mother's own feminist consciousness. Eventually, she began critiquing mainstream feminist movements for their inability to examine their own race, class, and national politics. To her, this was part of the reason that mainstream feminist was so fraught over motherhood. Women around the world had balanced parenting with politics throughout the ages, my mother argued, for U.S. feminists to think otherwise was simply a form of solipsistic me-feminism - a myopic progressive politics unable to raise a next generation of activists.

My mother began organizing in the South Asian immigrant community. By the time she founded MANAVI, the first South Asian anti-domestic violence organization in the U.S., I was old enough to  stuff envelopes and help sell samosas at a fundraising drive. (Yes, really, we sold samosas at our first fundraising drive.) And don't think it was just me doing that envelope stuffing on our kitchen floor, the MANAVI logo and symbol were both drawn by my father - a fabulous feminist parent in his own right.

When my mom became a national leader in anti-domestic violence work, an expert in international domestic violence law, it's not as if she ever stopped functioning as a loving and wonderful mother (and now grandmother). She simply let me grow up watching and participating in her own political growth.  
My mother has shown me consistently, in word and action, that parenting and politics are not separate ways of being, but must coexist. That raising socially aware, passionate, and just children is a critical feminist act.

She's also taught me that social justice politics are not simplistic, as neither are our personal identities. All are complex and fluid and sometimes, even seemingly contradictory. Samosas are sometimes sold at protest rallies, family obligations are a part of our feminist commitments, and ferocious political critique can come through the gentlest lullabies.

And, so, today, I join my new friend and colleague Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, fabulous writer, maker, mother, and author of 8th Grade Superzero, in saluting my own mother, and mother-activists everywhere.

Some other mother/author/advocates will be joining this special celebration all week! Look for posts by: Audrey Vernick (IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?, SHE LOVED BASEBALL, TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS, WATER BALLOON, BROTHERS AT BAT, BARK & TIM); Jennifer Cervantes (TORTILLA SUN); Sheela Chari (VANISHED); Kelly Starling-Lyons (ONE MILLION MEN and ME and NEATE: EDDI'ES ORDEAL);