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.
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.
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.