EDIT 7/14: Thanks to everyone who has liked and shared, and discussed this article. With that said, I’d like to make a few clarifications, since I’d been thinking about this article and researching on both ASD and high sensitivity (HS) a lot, as well as discussing it within my personal circle.
Firstly, I must make absolutely clear that I am not officially diagnosed with ASD. I have “diagnosed” myself with HS, since that is, as Dr. Elaine Aron describes, a “character trait.” What I have noticed from various ASD quizzes I’ve taken, however (which also shouldn’t be taken as a clinical diagnosis), is that I exhibit traits along the ASD spectrum, which, as I state in my article, I could investigate more with a doctor if I was so inclined. To be even clearer about it, I exhibit a mix of both neurotypical and ASD traits, which definitely fits the bill for neurodivergence, but I think a self-diagnosis of ASD would be overreaching for me, since I am not a trained doctor. Hopefully I made that as clear as possible in the original article, but this edit is here to clear up any confusion because the last thing I want to do is 1) wrongly lead people on and 2) take up space in a conversation that, while I can add to it with my own experiences when it comes to social and environmental stress that both HS and ASD-diagnosed individuals face, might be better suited to those who have actively and historically identified with ASD. In the future, that’s what I plan on doing.
There is, from my past research, an overlap of sorts in how emotional overstimulation can occur in both ASD individuals and HS individuals, so much so that some in HP and ASD forums have asked each other about the possibilities of having both. Indeed, more research needs to be done on the possible relationships between emotional overstimulation across individuals with HS and ASD-diagnosed individuals. However, something that also should be taken into account are newer studies that have shown that autism isn’t just something that affects a limited few–autistic traits are found across the general population, leading some scientists to believe there is a continuum across the entire population, not just a “spectrum” that only pertains to people who have been either self-diagnosed or clinically diagnosed (self-diagnosis is accepted within the autism community for various reasons, ranging from cost of diagnosis, the lack of sensitivity towards women and people of color when it comes to the process of diagnosis, and the lack of qualified professionals who can diagnose adults in general).
The idea of a continuum not only rocks the boat as far as the general consensus of “neurotypical” brain function is concerned, but it also opens up the possibilities to study how autistic traits affect others on a less acute basis; how all of us who aren’t diagnosed are more “neurodivergent” than we think. That realization should propel all of us to exhibit more sympathy to others and hope that they are properly represented in the media, as well as in other areas in society. Perhaps the continuum theory could also explain why there’s at least an emotional overlap between some HS individuals and some AS individuals and why it can be very confusing for some to differentiate between the two.
I say all of this to say that 1) I stick by what I wrote about my preference for Dean being played by an autistic actor. I feel that, despite talk of a continuum, there are some experiences that are only best understood by those diagnosed as being along the spectrum, and it would have been great if an autistic actor was chosen for that role for the reasons I list in the main body of the article below. 2) After thinking about it for 48 hours, researching, and using my own instincts, I felt like I should further clarify that I’m not officially diagnosed with ASD, but rather I exhibit several ASD traits, which may or may not be my own misinterpretation of HS traits. Experiencing the “Spock” analogy on a regular basis (which is explained in the first video in this post) is something I do have personal experience with, regardless of what name my neurodivergence takes in a clinical setting. As I have written before, the overlap between certain traits of ASD and HS and the resulting experiences can be confusing to people in both camps, as illustrated in this article about the term “sensory processing sensitivity,” which is used for both ASD and HS.
The ASD spectrum is a difficult and confusing one to get to the bottom of because of the wide range of ways it can express itself, from no outwardly visible behaviors or traits to very severe expressions of traits. Combining that with a possible (or, at least where I’m sitting, probable) continuum across the general population, autistic traits in some can be hard to pinpoint into one specific diagnosis (many people, girls and women in particular, have been misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, as you might read in some of the articles linked in the main body below). In short, I feel I’m in no position to self-diagnose a clinical condition as serious and wide-ranging as ASD. I am an eccentric, highly-sensitive deep thinker with a sarcastic sense of humor, and that’s about all I can say about my neurological state with any confidence.
With all that said, I have realized even more so that there is a dearth in positive representations of neurodivergent POC. I’ll work on highlighting this issue more on this site, but I’ll make sure to utilize more voices aside from my own, as I have done with other longform pieces. ♦
TNT’s hit show CLAWS, which has just been renewed for a second season, is firing on all cylinders, for the most part. From having a bisexual crime boss, a butch lesbian of color, and a woman of color in the lead role, the show is teaching others in the business what intersectional TV can be. However, notice I said “for the most part.” One of the points of contention with this show is Harold Perrineau’s character Dean, the brother of Niecy Nash’s Desna. Dean has autism, but Perrineau does not.
Perrineau’s portrayal of a person with autism falls in a long tradition of non-autistic or otherwise non-disabled actors portraying autistic or otherwise disabled characters. However, these kinds of portrayals are not authentic to the unique experiences of people who are actually on the autism spectrum.
Acting Autistic When Not
In a recent interview with Ebony, Perrineau went into his creative process when developing Dean’s character.
“Well, because he has autism, I thought it was important to figure out what that means to be autistic. One of the things that I found out is that it’s certainly not a disease. While there are people whose brains help them learn in a very typical way, there are people who have autism and their learning process is very atypical, I think that’s the word for it. What I wanted to do was understand the range of possibility that a person who has autism might have. We talked to a doctor. I think the writers pointed me to a doctor who helped them. I have some friends who have children with autism. I talked to them a lot.”
He also added that he spent tons of time on the internet and read books on autism, including Holly Robinson Peete’s book on the subject (Peete has an autistic son). “I had all of these different sources, and it took me like months to figure out, because [with] the range of autism, you could be anywhere on the spectrum. While it offers me the opportunity to do anything, you have to find the specifics of each person. That’s where I started looking. I just talked to people [and read].”
The fact that Perrineau took the time to research autism before diving into his characterization—particularly learning about how people along the autism spectrum manifest the potpourri of symptoms in different ways, and not always exhibiting all of the possible symptoms along the spectrum—is appropriate, to say the least. In fairness, Perrineau’s work on developing Dean as a character has paid off in some respects. The fact that he has added a layer of humor and relatability to Dean that isn’t often found in other portrayals of autism is better than most. Dean comes off as someone who is entirely aware of himself and his unique view of the world. He’s an artist and is also someone who is well aware of his own emotions and how to relate to others, including his sister and Judy Reyes’ Quiet Ann. He knows how to form friendships and feels loss just like anyone else. By approaching Dean from a humanistic perspective, Perrineau has elevated the character of Dean from just a basic stereotype.
However, there’s still the fact that Perrineau himself isn’t autistic. He’s putting on the mantle of autism in a role that could have been given to an autistic actor (unknown or otherwise). Then, there wouldn’t be any confusion or overwhelm when portraying Dean because the actor would be able to draw from his own experiences with autism.
The particular expression of Dean’s autism that Perrineau chose is something I have a tug of war with, personally. Even though Perrineau stated that he pulled from tons of sources, it doesn’t seem as if he referenced one person in particular. This is of particular concern because without a clear reference, there’s a window open for the usual autism stereotypes to come through. And to a degree, they do, despite everything Perrineau has done to give Dean more life than most autistic characters on screen. Dean still has a moment in which he loses self-control of his emotions. He still has movements that harken back to Dustin Hoffman’s movements when portraying Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. Even with the amount of emotional depth Perrineau gives Dean, Dean still has moments of portraying the childlike, non-sexual stereotype assigned to many disabled people, including autistic people. This is not to say that Perrineau’s characterization of Dean speaks to no one with autism—on the contrary, as stated above, the autism spectrum ranges from those with mild expressions of autism, such as Asperger syndrome (borderline and high functioning) and Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), to what is called “classic” autism, which has its own range of severity even within that diagnosis.
Things get even more complex for girls, particularly girls with ASD (otherwise known as Asperger Syndrome); from what I’ve looked up about the subject in relation to myself, the “symptoms” of ASD in girls can manifest in very sly, nearly undetectable ways, much differently than how they can manifest in boys. This is not even counting the possible relationship there is to ASD and being highly-sensitive. As someone who has looked up both and counts herself as highly sensitive and as a candidate for being diagnosed with a high-functioning form of Asperger Syndrome, I definitely think there’s some validity in considering the possibility of hypersensitivity being another side of the coin of the autism spectrum, since it seems the key emotional component in autism is experiencing emotional overwhelm that goes unnoticed or misunderstood by non-autistic people. That emotional overwhelm is explained especially well in this video:
In any case, the point is that autism has a number of different expressions, and full knowledge of the spectrum itself is still a mystery to doctors studying the condition, since there are many people who area along the spectrum who haven’t been diagnosed because their symptoms go undetected. With all of this knowledge out there, and with all of Perrineau’s research on the topic, for his characterization to still fall back on elements of the standard autism portrayal in the media is a sticking point. While Dean is a great character, a character I actually like despite the possible anti-Dean tone of this article, there still seems to be the perception that all people on the autism spectrum have the same symptoms and showcase them with the same severity. As you’ve seen in the video and read in the links above, that’s not the case, and science has yet to get to the bottom of the well of understanding autism’s complexity.
To reiterate, while Dean does showcase one version of autism, Dean’s case is not the only way in which autism can manifest. It would be great if television and film did more to outwardly showcase autistic characters that demonstrated the diversity of the condition.
Real experiences with autism can’t be taught
There’s a lot more that goes into the autism spectrum experience. Actor Mickey Rowe gave The Huffington Post a perfect description of what it feels like to be along the spectrum. Rowe became one of the first actors with autism to play an autistic character on a major stage when he was cast to play 15-year-old autistic character Christopher in Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He was also the first autistic actor to play that specific character.
Rowe, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 21 years old, wrote to The Huffington Post in an email about the types of challenges people along the spectrum face, and how those challenges helped him play Christopher.
“Autistics use scripts every day. We use scripting for daily situations that we can predict the outcome of, and stick to those scripts. My job as an autistic is to make you believe that I am coming up with words on the spot, that this is spontaneous, the first time the conversation has ever happened in my life; this is also my job on stage as an actor…As an autistic, I have felt vulnerable my entire life. To be vulnerable on stage is no biggie.”
In his main interview with The Huffington Post, he said that someone with autism playing an autistic character is better than someone putting on the mannerisms.
“There is so much information and so many stereotypes around autism because we nearly always learn about autism from others instead of going straight to the source and learning about autism from autistic adults.
Ideally someone with a disability could play any role, and not have that role be about disability. A wheelchair user could play Hamlet and not ever mention the wheelchair, or someone who is legally blind and autistic like I am could play Puck. But until we see that happening, the least we can do is give disabled people a voice to represent our own communities in a way that is more about honest and less about stereotypes.”
Here’s Rowe in his own words:
And here he is playing Christopher, a character with a different expression of autism than his own:
And here he is playing Christopher again as well as other characters, including one from Shakespeare:
Rowe is a great example of how an autistic actor can not only lend authenticity to autistic characters, but also successfully play any character that’s usually ascribed to a non-autistic person. One of the key ways an autistic actor provides authenticity to an autistic character, aside from being autistic themselves, is showcasing the amount of stress autistic people are under to appear “normal.”
Speaking from personal experience, I might not look, sound, or act non-autistic in day-to-day life. At most, I might not look you directly in the eye when I’m talking (despite training myself on this since I’ve had to do in-person interviews for my various jobs). But, with my neurodivergence (
as I write above, I’m somewhere in between being highly-sensitive and having high-functioning ASD see edit at the top of the page), I’ve experienced a vast amount of stress trying to appear “normal,” even though most of my life is spent consumed by emotion, much like how that one guy in the video above described with the “Spock” analogy. The stress and vulnerability Rowe mentioned is something that is an innate experience to those who are neurodivergent, and it’s an element I’m not sure is quite as apparent in Dean’s characterization as it should be, despite the effort being shown to illustrate Dean as a caring person who wants to look after his sister. This particular element is why it’s important for autistic actors to get cast more often.
The character of Dean would have been a great opportunity for a black actor along the spectrum to be discovered and cast. There are so few instances of black autistic characters onscreen, with Billy from Power Rangers being the most notable one. However even then, actor RJ Cyler is playing at autism since he himself isn’t autistic. But that’s a footnote at the bottom of what has been hailed a nuanced performance by Cyler. Overall, Hollywood should do more to showcase a varied range of characters with autism. They don’t all have to be stereotypically marked, and neither do they all have to have “passing” privilege. But there should be a wide assortment of characters autistic viewers can choose from and be able to see themselves in those characters.
Hollywood continues to mystify the masses asking for proper (keyword: proper) representation with HBO’s upcoming project, My Dinner with Hervé, detailing a moment in time with Fantasy Island star Hervé Villechaize. According to The A.V. Club, HBO’s project supposedly recounts “‘a life-changing’ encounter Villechaize…and a struggling journalist in 1993, the year the Fantasy Island star killed himself at the age of 50.” HBO has released the first image the TV movie starring Jamie Dornan as the journalist in question, Danny Tate, and Peter Dinklage as Villechaize.
If the image looks weird, it’s because Dinklage, unfortunately, pulling a brownface moment. In real life, Villechaize was half-Filipino and half-English. Dinklage, on the other hand, isn’t.
What was the thought process behind this casting decision? More importantly, what was the thought process behind Dinklage, who understands the annoyance of playing stereotypical roles, taking it?
Dinklage, who has achondroplasia (one of the common causes of dwarfism), has been very outspoken about the types of roles he feels are stereotypical for actors with dwarfism. As he told The New York Times in a 2012 interview, he acted onstage and would refuse to book commercial jobs that would have him playing leprechauns or elves. As the article quotes Dinklage as saying in past interview to a theater website, “What I really want is to play the romantic lead and get the girl.”
Even though Dinklage’s defining role as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones turned out to be the best of all possible worlds as far as a role goes, Dinklage was initially hesitant about it because of his hesitancy about playing dwarves in fantasy in general, particularly after just playing dwarf character Trumpkin in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, in which he acted under a huge beard. He wanted to make sure the character in Game of Thrones wouldn’t have a beard or pointy shoes.
“Dwarves in these genres always have this look,” he said. “My guard was up. Not even my guard—my metal fence, my barbed wire was up. Even The Lord of the Rings had dwarf-tossing jokes in it. It’s like, Really?”
Of course, as we know now, Tyrion Lannister is nothing like a stereotypical fantasy character, which led to Dinklage signing on.
With Dinklage’s clear awareness at the issues facing actors with a disability such as his own, why choose this role, which is essentially taking an opportunity from someone else who needs a big break and could crush it? It seems like the answer lies in one main issue: the lack of roles that are available to actors with dwarfism–in other words, the pervading practice of ableism as the code of business for Hollywood casting.
At the risk of sounding like I’m giving Dinklage an out (I’m certainly not), a role like Hervé Villechiaze doesn’t come around everyday—a role that specifically highlights an actor with dwarfism in an attempt to show the human behind the limiting role he played on television. The casting process, being what it is, was probably HBO making a beeline to Dinklage’s agent, since Dinklage is practically the only hot actor who can fill the role and bring an authenticity to it. With the role being what it is, it’s not a surprise that Dinklage would take it. In all of these films with whitewashing, it’s never a surprise as to why the actors take it—with roles in “swords and sandals” movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings or sci-fi films like Ghost in the Shell, the draw is money, higher star wattage, and more big roles down the road.
However, while Dinklage will most certainly bring authenticity to the role from his experience as a person with dwarfism, he clearly can’t bring authenticity to it as far as racial experiences go, and biracial experiences to be specific. If you have to darken your skin because the person you’re playing is a person of color, it’s clear you probably shouldn’t be playing the part.
As a whole, Hollywood isn’t a place that utilizes lateral thinking often; it might seem like Dinklage is the only game in town, but there are, in fact, tons of actors with dwarfism who have been playing fantasy dwarves and dehumanizing roles for years who could also be just as good as Dinklage in this role, if not better. Take for instance, Ronald Lee Clark, an actor who appeared alongside other veteran character actors with dwarfism like Martin Klebba, Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, and Jordan Prentice in Mirror, Mirror. While Clark might not be Filipino, he is actually Asian, which for Hollywood standards would be a step in the right direction. If Clark was given the chance to audition, who’s to say he wouldn’t have aced it? At the very least, the makeup team wouldn’t need to commit the movie-making sin of brownface.
Also, if I could find Clark by utilizing my memory and an IMDB search, couldn’t the casting office have done the same? Specifically, couldn’t they have scoured Hollywood for an actor who had dwarfism and was also Filipino? Of course, if they actually wanted to. Sure, they wouldn’t get a “big name,” as it were, but arguably, Dinklage himself wasn’t a super big name, even with the Chronicles of Narnia credit, before he was given a chance with Game of Thrones. His role could have easily gone to another actor of typical size who’d be willing to play smaller with the help of movie magic. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with Gary Oldman playing a dwarf in the film Tiptoes, a film where Dinklage himself played a family friend (as referenced in the New York Times interview).
For this article, I reached out to Vilissa Thompson, disability advocate and owner of Ramp Your Voice!. Her take expresses much of the same confusion and irritation about Dinklage being cast as a disabled person of color.
“Authentic representation of disabled people, whether fictional characters or real-life persons, is hard to come by due to many factors, such as cripping up, stereotypical portrayals, and a resistance to show diverse disabled perspectives,” she said. “What occurred with the Peter Dinklage situation is upsetting because we finally have a role that a disabled person should be casted in, and even that was done incorrectly by the whitewashing.”
“This is classic Hollywood, but it’s perplexing to me how you get one aspect of the casting correct (hiring an actually disabled actor) and not the whole thing (hiring a white man instead of an actor of color),” sie said. “It’s disappointing that Hollywood continues to not support disabled actors of color. What a missed opportunity for little people of color to be represented fully. Hollywood has a #DisabilityTooWhite issue when it comes to disabled people of color and media representation – this adds to it. Not only do we not see our stories on the big and small screens; now we have to be concerned about being whitewashed, too?”
It would seem that fear of whitewashing is yet another hurdle disabled actors of color and audience members of color alike have to face when it comes to proper representation. Time will tell if My Dinner with Hervé will get the same social media treatment Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Iron Fist received when it tried to pass off a white actor as an Asian character.
If you told anyone that the movie that was going to shake up the superhero genre in the best way would be the film adaptation of Power Rangers, they would be shocked and probably, in some strange, elitist, I’m-too-old-for-Power Rangers way, appalled. But Power Rangers has come out of the blue as the film when it comes to portraying a diverse group of people in a way that is both organic and makes sense for today’s world and today’s multicultural and diverse audience.
The two characters that have set Power Rangers apart from other films are Trini (the Yellow Ranger), played by Empire star and pop singer Becky G., and Billy (the Blue Ranger), played by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘s RJ Cyler. Trini is the first LGBT character in the Power Rangers universe and her story includes her coming to terms with her sexuality and her “girlfriend problems.”
“For Trini, really she’s questioning a lot about who she is. She hasn’t fully figured it out yet,” said director Dean Israelite to The Hollywood Reporter. “I think what’s great bout that scene and what that scene propels for the rest of the movie is, ‘That’s OK.’ The movie is saying, ‘That’s OK,’ and all of the kids have to own who they are and find their tribe.”
Cyler talked to ScreenRant about how he got into character as Billy and what he learned about respectfully playing a person on the autism spectrum.
“I wanted to show a different…viewpoint of people that are seen as bieng on the spectrum…Or people dignosed with autism, ’cause it’s like I feel like us being outsiders looking in and I take that, I cast my own stone when I say that, ’cause there’s a lot that I didn’t know before,” he said.
“I actually sat down and shut my mouth and actually just listened and you know, accepted every bit of information with no judgement,” he said. “I know that it was my job to show, you know, that people that are on the spectrum are just regular people, literally just how we talk, how me and [Becky G] talk, they feel the same way, they have the same emotions, they wanna be loved…they want relationships; they want, you know, connections, and it’s just like I was really excited to be able to play tthat ’cause I know it means so much to so many people, ’cause all of us are affected by it…and it’s something I feel like we needed to have in this movie to be honest.”
If you’re an O.G. Power Rangers fan, then you know that the show has always included a diverse cast, which, in retrospect, might have been kinda daring for the time (despite the fact that the black and Asian cast members were the Black and Yellow Rangers…) I know for sure that, despite for the subject color naming, I was positively affected by Power Rangers, since I saw myself in both Zack Taylor (Walter Jones) and Trini Kwan (Thuy Trang, RIP), who was the only woman of color on the original season, I should add. It seems like we’re seeing another generation of action fans being positively influenced by Power Rangers again, if Twitter is anything to go by.
— Autism Trust (@AutismTF) March 25, 2017
Power Rangers gave use a gay Latina super hero, a poor Asian super hero and a black super hero with autism. Representation matters.
— Tuxedo Mask Off (@RexTestarossa) March 25, 2017
They handled Billy's autism really well in Power Rangers as well, maybe the best representation of it I have seen on film?
— DP (@Dragonpiece) March 24, 2017
Praise the lord the new Power Rangers film has a ranger with autism, a gay ranger & a diverse cast of heroes. How can u say it isn't badass?
— Zaynah (@Lazanyah) March 24, 2017
As someone with autism, I think it's so cool that the Blue Ranger in the upcoming #PowerRangers film will have a form of autism.
— Connor Behrens (@ConnorFilm) March 20, 2017
Power Rangers 2017 defying my expectations:
-yellow ranger: gay
-blue ranger: has autism
— NickLungless Is Cunk (@spidersigma) March 20, 2017
I just saw @PowerRangers and it was good movie. The one thing that stood to me that blue ranger was was on autism spectrum. I was so happy.
— Sean (whovian brown) (@bobie2491) March 27, 2017
One of the power rangers in the new movie has autism and it gives me so much hope for my life
— frannie sheinberg (@FlavaFran) March 26, 2017
One of the @PowerRangers, Billy, will now be a role model for autism children around the world to strive and dream bigger than before 🙌🏽
— Lowkey Papi (@FatmanDaJefe) March 26, 2017
Thank you for bring my childhood to life, @PowerRangers. Also, thank you again for shining a positive light on the Autism community.
— Lowkey Papi (@FatmanDaJefe) March 26, 2017
Saw Power Rangers tonight. It was pretty great to see a character with autism be a hero. Highly recommend this movie.
— Madisyn Bowen (@ThatMadisyn) March 26, 2017
— Saif Almuhairbi (@kboom22) March 26, 2017
In short Power Rangers has shown all of these other blockbuster films how it’s done when it comes to representation. There’s no time to worry about box office returns or any other political machinations when it comes to showing people as they exist in the world. I’ll definitely have to check out Power Rangers for myself, because it might just help me with my own increasing knowledge about where I sit on the autism spectrum (since, from research I’ve done and from personal anecdotes I’ve heard about myself, I believe I’m a prime candidate to be diagnosed with ASD). Growing up during a time when your own vision of autism was Rain Man, it’ll be refreshing to see a different portrayal of a condition that affects all of those affected in many different ways.
What do you think about Power Rangers? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
A couple of weeks ago, PBS aired The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, and while there were great moments in the miniseries, there were some not so great moments, chief of which being Benedict Cumberbatch’s Richard III.
I recently held a Google Hangout chat with Ramp Your Voice! founder Vilissa Thompson about the miniseries. As you’ll read below, we discuss the problematic portrayal of Richard, including how his outward appearance (due to a kpyhosis) became linked to villainy, and how King Henry’s (Tom Sturridge) exhibition of Highly Sensitive traits go unrecognized or looked down upon by other characters. We also talk about how Sophie Okonedo stole the show.
Vilissa Thompson (VT): Richard III is truly something else. I finished the rewatch of Part 3 today, and I wrote down some of the ableist things he said about himself, & what others said/referred to him as.
Monique Jones (MJ): Where do you want to start? I suppose we could start with his big speech at the end of Part 2. His first monologue was the beginning of the end for me.
VT: It was. To hear him call himself cursed, and describe the occurrences of his birth was troubling for me.
MJ: I found it fascinating in a macabre way how the same ableist sentiments he said about himself—about how no one loved him because of his appearance is why he’s evil, for instance—are the same tropes repeated today. I don’t know why I thought things would have been different back in the day, but I was shocked at how 21st century Richard’s speech still sounded, esp. when you compare it to movies like Split and Don’t Breathe.
VT: The ableism didn’t surprise me, but the fact that he became the evil he was seen as was like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And his fascination to acquire the crown was his means of obtaining “heaven,” which meant that people had to respect him, and he goes beyond the disdain reputation he has and internalized. The ableism of viewing oneself and disabled body as curses/inconveniences are real. That kind of internalization is so common in our community, and even harder to unlearn. It makes you wonder how many times Richard heard about the circumstances of his birth, and how that transformed him into the “monster” he was, in both body and brutality of violence.
MJ: Yeah. I did feel sympathy for him because his internal dialogue seemed like something that was internalized from what he’s heard from everyone else. He was actually a sad, broken soul who just decided to become what he felt everyone else viewed him as. His ambition is understandable—he wants the respect he’s never gotten from people, including his family–but I just wish there was 1) a character who actually wanted to get to know him 2) if Shakespeare had delved more into Richard’s character with more sympathy. What I hated was that there was no serious investigation into Richard as a person. He was just a plot device.
VT: I agree with you. I think the myths/superstitions surrounding the disabled prevented that closeness to occur. I think having a genuine and meaningful human relationship, even if platonic, would’ve changed things tremendously for him. He was. He was the misshapen being who was blood and power thirsty. There was no depth to his character besides what he desired.
MJ: I don’t know how you feel about Tyler Perry, but to me, Shakespeare is the Tyler Perry of the 1600s. He’s almost always comically broad with his characterizations. Benedict Cumberbatch’s broad acting didn’t help matters.
VT: I can see that comparison. The depiction does nothing to expand understanding of how complicated people are, or dispel stereotypes about people who are underrepresented on the stage (or big or small screen, in Perry’s art).
And the cripping up of the role by allowing Benedict to play Richard definitely doesn’t help at all.
MJ: Yeah. That reminds me: I really didn’t like how in an early part in Part 3 portrayed Richard as body horror. Like, how the camera was revolving around his naked torso in near darkness. Didn’t like that at all.
VT: That was a gross display of his body. That scene was solely to shock at his form; to pair with how you feel about his schemes for power. That scene was hard to look at – it made the disabled body look grotesque, when it’s not.
There is nothing sensational or horrifying about the disabled body.
MJ: Right. I was really turned off by the whole thing; I wish the director hadn’t gone that route. But the whole thing made me feel more sympathy for Richard; that’s the gaze the world has probably had on him his whole life.
VT: It does make you sympathize with him. I did feel for him; you can tell he hated himself and how that kind of hate manifested to hating people who had what he wanted – power, respect, love, a family – things that seemed unattainable to him.
MJ: Yep. What was the nail in the coffin for me was when everyone started calling him “The Dog.” It was much more about his appearance than his actual evil deeds as to why they were calling him that, and at that point, I was just like, “OKAY, SHOW, I GET IT.”
VT: They also called him a bunchbacked toad, a beast – all of these names stripped him of his mere humanness. The dehumanization of Richard with the name-calling was more disturbing than his actual plots.
All of the names we didn’t need to see how they saw him as a “thing” and not as a person.
MJ: Yep. What’s so aggravating is that everyone in the entire story are awful people (save for the kids), but he’s the only one put on a sub-human level. If he didn’t have his condition, he’d be accepted just like everyone else, despite the fact that he’s a killer. Case in point is how Margaret becomes allies with the new queen and the Queen Mother, even though Margaret killed the Queen Mother’s son and husband. But the past gripes go out the window just to get rid of “The Dog.”
VT: I agree. Focusing on Richard’s disability allowed them to separate their evil actions & doings from his – he’s evil because his body is deformed, & I’m better than him… though I’m not. The hypocrisy of all the characters was stark.
Honestly, that mentality about thinking you’re better than a disabled person, regardless of whether they’re a good person or not, is real. The “I may be this, but at least I’m not crippled/disfigured” thinking is common.
I think that Shakespeare perfectly illustrated ableism before the term existed.
MJ: Yep. I know we talked a little bit about Cumberbatch’s acting, but what did you think of his performance overall? I was a little let down, honestly. He’s much better in “Sherlock.”
VT: I wasn’t impressed at all. I think he was as evil in the role as he needed to be, but the cripping up factor made it more offensive and underwhelming for me. The fact that there is no true substance for Richard, & all you feel is pity/sympathy for him instead, makes the character very bad for disability representation. I’m not against disabled characters being evil or vicious, but I am against characters not having depth and relying solely on stereotypes/misconceptions about what having a disability is.
MJ: Yeah. The whole “putting on a disability as a costume” was bad, and Cumberbatch’s acting as a whole was Snidely Whiplash. I had expected him to at least add another layer of depth to the character, which is what a lot of actors do when they get 1D characters. But no, not him. He was just evil. The glimmers of another aspect to Richard weren’t explored nearly enough. And again, the “Creature Feature” aspect of the direction was gross.
VT: It was profoundly gross. To see that driven home by almost every character was hard to watch. Shakespeare’s embodied exactly why non-disabled writers/playwrights shouldn’t write disabled actors – their inability to add depth, humanness, and realism are deep. These depictions end up doing more harm to better seeing disabled people as equal and not curses or sub-human.
MJ: Indeed. The fact that this is supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s “greatest plays” makes me even more suspect of Shakespeare’s supposed mastery of the art of writing than I was before. I already side-eyed Shakespeare just because we are always taught literature from a Eurocentric point of view, but now I’m even more secure in my belief that Shakespeare isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. I do like Othello and Hamlet, but that’s about it.
VT: I feel the same. I think if we were to analyze his plays, we’d see a lot of problematic depictions, themes, and lack of masterful writing. Those are the two plays I like as well.
MJ: Is there anything we haven’t covered? I guess I do want to touch on King Henry a little bit; Henry’s arc was a lot more subtle than Richard’s, but it seemed like Henry was Richard’s foil in many ways–in temperament, but also in disability or perceived disability. Henry’s delicate mental state was often showcased as a detriment to his ability to rule, which could be some kind of commentary on mental disability or just a difference in thinking. Like, I read Henry as being Highly Sensitive (like me), which some people might perceive as a type of disability. I don’t think so, but a study is trying to place it on the autism spectrum [a 2011 theory on introversion also links it to the autism spectrum]. In any case, a big deal was made about the fact that he took things to heart more deeply than other people.
VT: Henry’s mental state and the criticism of how sensitive he was stood out to me too. I think his sensitivity made him more human than the rest of the characters – he held up a moral mirror of sorts to the evils they wanted to enact and justify. I think depicting him as weak because of his sensitive nature allowed for ableism to exist regarding his capabilities to lead. I think his attachment to religion compounded the ableism with his sensitive nature. Henry wasn’t perfect, but he did have a heart, moreso than the others.
MJ: Right. And also, women like Joan of Arc, who are in the same mental ballpark as Henry (Joan’s a little extreme, though) were seen as villains because of ableism and just because they were women.
VT: Exactly. Joan represented resistance to male power, & her religiosity was used against her to declare her mental state unstable. Sexism in Shakespeare’s plays are prevalent, and the status of women and those who are considered too strong or weak are well seen.
MJ: Yep. In a way, France comes out looking good because they actually allowed themselves to be led by Joan. But I wonder if that’s also some sly propagandized statement about what England thought about France—as weak-willed, frilly people.
VT: I think that’s an accurate guess. France, like women, got in their way of things, & needed to know their place.
MJ: To go back to Henry a bit, it’s unfortunate that Henry’s mindset is viewed as a detriment, esp. since that Henry’s way of thinking is still ridiculed today—Highly Sensitive People (HSP) are often told by Western societies specifically that they’re too weak, when our way of being is actually hardwired into us–our nervous systems that take in information a completely different way than non-HSPs. To write HSPs off in that way is completely erasing an entire population of people just because they feel things more intently. And often, folks who are sensitive make great leaders, so Henry had all the tools to be a terrific king.
VT: As someone who is sensitive, I think I had more sympathy for Henry than I did for Richard. I know for me, I try to hide how sensitive I can be to matters because of the fear of being misperceived incorrectly. To have the ability to see beyond yourself and to empathize with the world you live in is a powerful ability. My sensitivity makes me more conscious of suffering, pain, and how to support people who need it. I think Henry’s sensitivity was a gift that he wasn’t given the safe space to nurture in his role as King, and was chastised severely.
MJ: Yep. In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. He existed in the wrong time period, to me. I mean, 2017 isn’t that equal for sensitive folks, either, but at least there’s more knowledge about sensitivity out there and more of a community and scientific study.
VT: I agree. Our society still isn’t safe to care for sensitive people, but is way better than the times Henry lived in, for sure. I think the hesitation to value sensitivity rests on the idea that if we’re in touch with our feelings, that relinquishes power and makes us vulnerable. I find that a lot of people who are anti-sensitivity are the main ones not comfortable with expressing themselves and allowing vulnerability to be seen by others.
MJ: Yeah. And in turn, that can make sensitive people internalize anti-vulnerability attitudes since (at least with some of my experiences) you feel like you’re going to get shunned anyway. I guess it goes back to Richard, too–if the world sees you in a certain way, then you’re going to start believing it’s true until someone else tells you otherwise or you yourself start realizing the world is full of BS.
VT: Preach it. I know that the fear of being shunned if I display my sensitivity is something I’m working on (esp when it comes opposite sex interactions). The internalization, whether due to disability, sensitivity, or both, can be detrimental to us in so many ways. Richard represented what that looked like regarding disability, & Henry represented what external forces look like for sensitive individuals.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. I can identify with Henry’s wish to just be left alone and study the Bible; I’ve actually thought “Maybe I should just become a nun” several times. At least my solitude would be seen as a noble thing and not a weird/hermit thing.The world gets too overwhelming sometimes, especially if you’re a sensitive person. But the world doesn’t respect the sensitive person’s boundaries or the fact that they’re just as capable of the loud extrovert.
Not that all extroverts are loud, but you get what I’m saying—it’s those qualities that are lauded more than contemplation.
VT: I agree. I go back and forth with being introverted and extroverted, but I do crave my alone time, especially when I’m feeling down. I need the space to vent feelings/emotions, but working it out in my head alone is how I cope with things. For me, because I’m a social person, it’s sometimes hard to tell people to back off & let me be. Being an only child, I’m used to being alone and it doesn’t bother me. There are times when I need a lot of noise & people, but when I need quiet & solitude, I have to have it or I can’t function.
MJ: I’ve always been introverted, some of it by my environment, but most of it is my personality. I’d rather be alone, writing or drawing, only choosing to be around people when I feel like it. People really drain me a lot. Henry looked pretty weary through most of the show, and I understand why—dealing with the demands of society is tough.
VT: It is. I could relate to that draining feeling he displayed. Though I love people, the older I’ve gotten, the more I can see myself drained. For someone who is a social worker, that’s part of the reason I’m not a traditional one – having to deal with people with such intensity would be too much emotionally (this is why I could never work with kids or the elderly, their needs are so great and I’d fear not saving them all). With Henry, he didn’t have the support he needed to be King effectively to his liking, or to his country. That added extra strain to an already stressful predicament.
MJ: And the one person who was there to help him, who seemed to realize he needed an extra arm, so to speak, to deal with the world was his uncle, who those scheming factions had killed. That left Henry even more defenseless.
VT: Exactly. Who knew that the Hollow Crown would have so many problematic layers?
MJ: Yep. It was even more problematic than I realized at first!
VT: I know!
MJ: I think we’ve about covered everything. Is there anything you think we left out of the conversation?
VT: I think we covered it all.
MJ: The reason it caught my interest was for the actress playing Queen Margaret, a Black woman in that role intrigued me greatly. She played her role well.
VT: I know it may sound scandalous, but I’m sure Somerset was the father of her son.
MJ: I totally think Somerset is the father, too!
VT: I don’t see her willingly engaging with Henry to give him a heir
MJ: Yeah, me neither!
VT: I wished something about the paternity of the son would’ve came up… Henry couldn’t have been that naive.
MJ: Right. There should have been a non-canonical thing thrown in there just to let us know that Henry knew. He had to have known.
VT: I think we got that inkling when Somerset was beheaded that he knew she wouldn’t have grieved for him as she did for Somerset… but that could’ve been easily missed if you weren’t paying attention. But I think not allowing that knowledge to be made public goes back to Henry being perceived as weak and not catching on to things. But Henry had to know, as we both indicated.
MJ: Yeah. I wish that line or Margaret’s reaction to that line were amplified in some way. Something just wasn’t explored like it needed to be. But I do have to say that Sophie Okonedo was the GOAT in that role. She really put her foot in it.
VT: She really did. You loved her, you hated her… perfect portrayal. But I agree—that scene should’ve been explored further, that could’ve given us that hint.
MJ: It seemed like she was the only one who got the right tone for Shakespearean play. She was broad/campy enough without going overboard, and she was just serious enough to make Margaret believable.
VT: And near the end, the haunting of Margaret as the prophetess was perfect.
MJ: Yeah, that was so good. Such a good role. I’d say Hugh Bonneville was great too. He’s always kinda Shakespearean in his acting. He really knows how to chew scenery.
VT: I agree. If it wasn’t for Queen Margaret/Sophie O playing that role, I don’t think the series would’ve held my attention as well as it did.
MJ: Yep. That was the only reason I kept tuning in, to see what she was going to do.
VT: Lol… me too girl. Glad it wasn’t just me!
MJ: Nope, definitely not! I could have just tuned out after the first episode once Hugh Bonneville died. But I remembered Sophie was going to be in all three parts, so I stuck with it.
VT: Thank god for Margaret, the real MVP of the Hollow Crown
MJ: When she killed Plantagenet, she was so amazingly cruel. Loved it.
VT: The villainess we needed. So unapologetic about it, too
MJ: The villainess who would have had all of England on lock if she had a chance to rule.
VT: Oh yes, Queen Margaret would’ve been legendary. Imagine her rule… goodness.
MJ: There needs to be a show like this! Someone needs to make a Queen Margaret show. I’d watch that every day.
MJ: I’ll have to put a pin in that–another idea I need to utilize my screenwriting abilities for.
VT: DO IT!!!! I need this in my life.
MJ: Maybe that’ll be my claim to fame! I’m totally getting some ideas now. WGA, here I come!
VT: Girl, go get that fame, & write!
MJ: YES! Well, with that, I think we’ve covered every inch of The Hollow Crown. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this! It was a lot of fun!
VT: It was! I had a true blast!
Vilissa Thompson, LMSW
Originally posted on Ramp Your Voice!
Luke Cage was one of Netflix’s original series I had waited all summer to watch. Being a blerd and someone who enjoys comics, I was proudly a part of the #Cagetember fandom seen on Twitter. What excited me was not just Luke’s amazing abilities, but the fact that he was a Black disabled character, an existence that does not receive enough attention or respect within comic spaces. Luke represents so much to disabled blerds like myself, and I felt that it would only be justly to share why Luke’s existence matters, and the need for more Black disabled characters.
Luke’s Disabled Body: A Man-Made Creation
Luke Cage’s body is invincible against bullets, and he has supernatural strength. This is a man who can bend guns like they are made of Play-Doh, throw vehicles across the street without breaking a sweat, and can take a full clip of bullets without blinking. Luke Cage, in a time where Black bodies are brutally victimized at the hands of the police, is the superhero Black America needs. He wears a hoodie in homage to Trayvon Martin and those targeted in our community, and has taken on the “Harlem protector” role that he fought internally against. Luke does not see himself as a hero, but to Harlem, and fans of the series, he IS our hero against crime and police brutality. It has been quite humorous to see discomfort displayed towards a character who is unapologetically Black. Luke Cage embodies the kind of Blackness that many of the majority fear – a Black man who cannot be harmed and a Black man who uses his superhuman powers for good.
Luke’s body, as amazing as it is with its seemingly endless capabilities, was man-made – he was a part of a scientific experiment that was unethically conducted while he served time at Seagate prison. It was due to an accident when he was under experimentation that caused him to become powerful; he is the only known person with his abilities. Due to this, Luke has remained low-key about his strengths, and was reluctant to be casted into the spotlight when his abilities gained attention in the community. Luke knew that his powers, if he was not careful, could attract the attention of those who would want to use him for their own personal interests and possibly do harm. One of the many things I love about this character is how humble and self-reflective Luke is. He understands fully how his strength can be used for good and evil, and when it comes time to do the right thing, he does not hesitate to do so.
Though Luke’s physical capacities causes him to be perceived as either friend or foe to others in the series, we must not overlook Luke’s hidden disabilities – the trauma he endured while in prison that has had lasting effects on his psyche. While at Seagate, Luke was forced by beatings and manipulation to be a part of a corrupt prison fighting scheme. To ensure he would participate, the livelihoods of those Luke befriended were put at risk if he did not do what the prison guards wanted of him. The emotional and mental traumatization Luke endured can be seen early on when he has flashbacks of his imprisonment, and the pacing he does in attempt to calm himself. The mental anguish of being dehumanized while incarcerated is not uncommon; though Luke is a fictional character, the trauma he lives with is the reality for many in our criminal system.
Luke’s body is disabled due to the encounters he has had at the hands of people – those of authority and those who sought to make him submit for their own gains. This realization stood out to me profoundly as I watch the series unfold; the causations of Luke’s body to be disabled cannot be ignored by lovers of the series, or comic book enthusiasts.
The Portrayal of Black Masculinity in Luke Cage
What pleasantly surprised me while watching the series was the many facets of Black masculinity depicted that goes against typical media representation. Every male character – Luke, Pop, and Cottonmouth especially – were deeply complicated and sides of their humanness, no matter how grotesque or gentle, were equally shown in order for us to see the full person. As I described earlier with Luke, we got to understand why he was so guarded about his abilities, and yet saw his tender spots when it came to those he loved. Cottonmouth, the villain we love to hate, was not a hard-hearted individual by nature; his environment helped to shape him into who he became as a man. Seeing Cottonmouth’s “evolution” sadden me because he embodied how nurture (in this case, familial makeup) can drastically influence how a person becomes. He had so much potential with his musical abilities that were not fully supported, and we learned how that was a regret he had towards his family. Pop displayed a different type of evolution – he was a “big man/hustler” in his community who turned into the father figure many desperately needed and relied on. Pop represented the “we can all change and become a better person” character; Pop’s barbershop was considered Switzerland, a safe space against the harshness of Harlem.
The complexities of these three characters specifically showed that Black men are more than the stereotypes the media and society attempts to box them into. The depth of their humanity and flaws were significant for a series where Black and Brown characters dominated. Luke Cage is a prime example as to why we need better representation of people of color; this accurate portrayal should not be considered an anomaly to viewers like myself.
Black Disabled Comic Book Characters Matter
As one can easily gauged by this piece, Black disabled characters matter to me, and good representation matters more. Though Luke is the center focus of this piece, I would be remiss if I did not shine a light on the other Black disabled character in the series, Mercedes “Misty” Knight. Though Misty is not disabled in this particular series (Misty becomes disabled when she loses her arm in a bomb explosion while on the job for the NYPD; Iron Man makes her a bionic arm), she is one of the few Black disabled female characters in comic books.
Excuse my language, but Misty is one badass woman, and we see that badassery in Luke Cage from her hard-nosed approach in handling the bad guys. Though Misty is perceived as no-nonsense when it comes to doing her job for the NYPD, her vulnerability, sensuality, and softness as a Black woman were also captured fully in the story. Seeing the complexity of Black female characters is just as important as it is for Black male characters. Black people are not incapable of experiencing emotions beyond anger and aggression; Luke Cage does an excellent job of debunking those myths with characters like Misty. Misty is hands-down my favorite comic book character of all time, and to see her have such a resonating role in Luke Cage made me fangirl hard.
Though there are not many Black disabled characters in comics, their absence is definitely apparent when the publicity and fandom of white disabled characters in comics are the visible faces of disability. Yes, this is a good example of #DisabilityTooWhite in literature, and must be recognized and corrected. Disabled people of color need comics with characters that look and live like them; the limited visibility is not lost on us who desire for more Lukes and Mistys in these fantasy universes. For me, characters like Luke and Misty displays a different type of Blackness that goes unseen; my Black experience matters just as much as anyone else’s, and disabled characters drives that truth deeply home.
It has almost been a month since #Cagetember took place, and I still cannot get over the awesomeness of Luke Cage. My excitement for season two cannot be contained; I want to see Luke and Claire together, #ShadyMariah got my goat (the “so bad it’s good” ship you cannot help to root for), and to see some of the new players we will be introduced to. Though I am still geeking over the show, the soundtrack deserves equal appreciation because the performances were too fire for words. (The song that had my head bobbing was “Bulletproof Love” by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad featuring Method Man.) It will be interesting to see what transpires next season (and if Netflix will experience another shut down again – be ready, ‘Flix), and I know my heart will feel as if it will jump out of my chest with every battle Luke faces. He is indeed the superhero I need.
Thank you for existing, Luke Cage, from the bottom of my disabled blerd heart.
Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant “tire track mark” on the world.
On July 26, 2016, 19 disabled residents of the Tsukui Yamayuri En care facility in Sagamihara, Japan were murdered by 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu, a former facility employee. As reported by the Guardian, Uematsu turned himself him in to police and admitted his crime. “I did it,” he said. “It is better that disabled people disappear.”
Tonight at 8 pm ET (which would be 9 am on Aug. 5 in Japan), Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project and disabled filmmaker/activst Dominick Evans will have an online vigil for those killed and the 20 wounded. The vigil and chat will include Dr. Gillan Peckitt who runs disability-related site The Limping Philospher and resides in Nada-Ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.
The conversation and vigil will give those participating a chance to share grief, express solidarity, and highlight the lack of coverage the attack garnered in the media. “There will be discussions of violence, ableism, murder, and death,” wrote Wong in her blog post about the event. “Please practice self-care.” She also wrote that while everyone is welcome to attend and participate, “this online vigil will be centered on the voices and lives of disabled people, especially disabled people of color who have been so impacted.”
You can learn more about the event at The Disability Visibility Project.
By Vilissa Thompson, LMSW
I am Black.
I am physically disabled.
I am a woman.
It has taken me almost 30 years to embrace all of my identities at the same time.
Growing up, I never felt fully included within any of the three groups. Being in a wheelchair made me stand out in the Black community like a sore thumb – people were friendly, but never knew how to approach the “little disabled Black girl in the chair.” In school, I was in mainstream classes, & was dubbed “the smart disabled girl.” This meant that I was separated from the other disabled children in my schools because I wasn’t “like” them; I was treated as a super cripple – cute, sweet, well-mannered kid who was incredibly smart despite being in the chair. And as a girl, the boys didn’t date me – they didn’t want a disabled girlfriend, but thought that my crushes on them were funny.
Within each identity, I had battling roles to overcome: felt outcasted as black and disabled; to those able-bodied I was the “right” kind of disabled that allowed me to not be seen as “useless;” and I wasn’t deemed attractive or dateable by the boys I liked. However, there were dynamic moments and connections that reshaped how I viewed these identities, & how I grew to love the woman I saw in the mirror.
The first was the fact that I was incredibly fortunate to have been raised by a Grandmother who acted as a buffer for me against the ignorance – my Grandmother loved me unconditionally, and I knew this with every fiber of my being at a young age. She was my carer, my advocate, and I was (and still is) the apple of her eye. The bond was further strengthened by the fact that I had part of her name, which is something she adamantly wanted that my mother obliged. That connection, plus her love for me, showed me that I was loveable, special, and valued, even in a society that tried to say otherwise. It was her example that taught me what being a Black woman was about, and as I grew into my own womanhood, I used her as a model for what I could become, but as a disabled version.
In addition to having my Grandmother’s unwavering love, I learned what I was good at: excelling in my classes, and writing. The praise I received as a honor roll student soothed the exclusion pain I felt in school – I was “good” at something someone my age was expected to be, and I liked the attention I received from the adults, and enjoyed watching my able-bodied peers get envious that the “girl in the chair” was better than them. In a twisted sense, these strengths laid sturdier bricks onto the foundation for my self-esteem and confidence as I navigated an ableist, ignorant world.
Though those bricks solidified the foundation, they also made me feel like a unicorn: there were not a lot of disabled people of color around me in my classes. The attention I received for doing well in my classes was positive, but it also created pressure for me to be “perfect.” I knew that I was representing two main groups of my identities, being disabled and black. Because there were not many of us in these settings, I knew that I couldn’t “mess up” or misbehave as other students (plus I knew what would happen to me at home if I did… Grandmother did not play when it comes to acting up in school). I have always felt a sense of weight from the identities I carried; I never thought of it as a burden, but having eyes on me and knowing the opinions of others about my existence was the burdensome I felt.
It was when I ventured off to college that I began to meet other disabled people who understood my plight, and who also carried the unicorn weight I held up. Those friendships allowed me to see that my life mattered greatly, and so did my voice. Though I enjoyed my friendships, I noticed one thing: I had not befriended many disabled people of color, or women of color with disabilities like myself. Not having individuals who understood the unique challenges of being of color and disabled left a gaping hole that needed to desperately be filled.
It was not until 2013 when I created my self-advocacy organization that I finally began connecting with disabled people of color, and finally, disabled women of color. Being of color is a huge part of who I am, that exceptionally grew in definition when I undertook African American Studies (AAMS) in college to learn more about my history as a Black American. It is only fitting that connecting with disabled Black women, and other minorities, would make me feel complete in this experience. What I found from meeting and befriending these women was that we were all desiring to meet each other, and struggled to find women who looked like us in the disabled community, in our schools, and in our communities. They shared similar issues with feeling accepted in the racial group they were members of, struggled with embracing their sexuality and femininity, and worried about finding a partner who would love them – basically all of the matters I had been concerned about all of my life. Connecting with each other had a powerful effect on validating our struggles and achievements. These are my disabled Sistas – no other friendships come close to what I experience when I reach out to them. They “get” me, and have closed the hole that previously existed. I finally felt accepted for who I was as an African American disabled woman because I saw other women who looked just like me – I no longer felt like a unicorn, or an outcast.
The triple jeopardy hand I have been dealt with in life has not been easy by any means, but quite frankly, I would not change it either. I am proud of the reflection that stares back at me in the mirror; I am fearless, I am strong, and most importantly, I am perfectly imperfect. The experiences I endured along the journey to embracing my three identities greatly shaped how I view and interact with the world around me – I would not hold the strong levels of compassion, understanding, and empathy I possess if I was not born the way I am. My differences are my strengths, not weaknesses, and at almost 30, I understand that to be fervently true. I am strong enough to live this life because it is who I am meant to be.
When I go out into the world, I hold my head up high because I have no reason to doubt my worth – I am fearlessly and unapologetically me.
About Vilissa Thompson
Vilissa Thompson is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) from Winnsboro, SC. Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among people with disabilities. Being a Disability Rights Consultant, Writer, & Advocate affords Vilissa the opportunity to become a prominent leader and expert in addressing and educating the public and political figures about the plight of people with disabilities, especially women of color with disabilities. Being a disabled woman of color herself, sharing her life experiences, and tales from the women she has encountered during her advocacy work, has empowered her immensely because it validated the struggles and successes she endured in her young life.
Ways to connect with Vilissa:
Do you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory? Share your story of self-acceptance at email@example.com, or fill out the #RepresentYourStory questionnaire! Read more about #RepresentYourStory here.
Post provided by Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project
On June 25th, I saw Finding Dory after reading many positive reviews and recommendations from my disabled friends. I wasn’t disappointed. There was so much to unpack and process when I got home that I decided to write this review/essay.
Finding Dory is film depicts more than disability, it depicts disability culture.*
Warning: Spoilers to Finding Dory, Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3
People with disabilities do not see themselves very often reflected in popular culture with authenticity steeped in the lived experience. Not only are many disabled characters played bynon-disabled people; the storytellers are usually non-disabled who craft narratives about disability by using stereotypes and cliched tropes, robbing disabled characters and stories of agency and diversity.
Finding Dory has multiple characters with disabilities that live in the community (the ocean) and in institutions (the aquarium, the quarantine section of the aquarium). The characters are part of ecosystems (the coral reef) integrated with non-disabled aquatic creatures. Best yet, Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, is a disabled character that is front-and-center. She is the hero on a journey.
She saves the day not in spite of but because of her disability.
When was the last time a live-action Hollywood film had this type of disability diversity and this many disabled characters interacting with each other?!?
3 ways Finding Dory kept it real about the disability experience
#1: Parental anxiety and support
We see Dory as a young Pacific Regal Blue tang with her parents, Jenny and Charlie, voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy.
Jenny and Charlie are patient parents who help Dory to be upfront about her disability, encouraging her to practice, “Hi, my name is Dory and I suffer from short-term memory loss.” Not a fan of the term “suffer” but anyhoo…Seeing the group of little tangs swimming nearby, I think Jenny and Charlie were preparing Dory as she planned to venture out to socialize with her peer group. We also see Jenny and Charlie help Dory with her memory by using songs and accommodations such as seashells that enable her to find her way home.
Jenny and Charlie are like many parents of kids with disabilities:
- They worry about her future
- They teach her life skills that she will need
- They are protective about Dory and her safety (“Watch for the undertow!”)
- They show joy and love of Dory being Dory
I got very verklempt near the end of the film when Dory was reunited with her parents. Jenny and Charlie re-constructed their environment with rows of shells radiating from their home in the hopes that Dory will find her way back. When I saw the wide shot of their home and the long rows of seashells like streaming sun beams, I thought about Jenny and Charlie’s dedication and labor. They had every confidence that Dory would find them–they did their best at preparing Dory for the outside world and believed in her abilities. I teared up thinking about my parents and the sacrifices they made for me, such as purchasing a van with a lift (no small feat for a middle class family) and various modifications to our home when I started using an electric wheelchair.
#2: Social Exclusion and Ableism
Pixar kept it real, yo! There are the warm fuzzies and SO many feels that are de rigueur for every. Single. Pixar. Film. The filmmakers balanced the feels with moments of cruelty in Finding Dory in the form of Fluke and Rudder, the two sea lions that Marlin and Nemo encounter during their search for Dory.
Fluke and Rudder (voiced by former cast members from The Wire Iris Elba and Dominic West) are oafish bros who occupy a prime piece of rock real estate near the aquarium. Fluke and Rudder love to sleep and guffaw in a Cockney accent. They help Marlin and Nemo get into the aquarium by calling Becky the loon to transport them via pail of water.
Fluke and Rudder get the pail by luring in Gerald, a non-verbal sea lion who is clearly a sea lion that’s on the fringes of his social group. Gerald looks a bit goofy with his bushy eyebrows and wide-eyed expression and it reinforces his lower status within a larger hierarchy where verbal and physical ability is privileged. Fluke and Rudder bullies Gerald, taking his pail and aggressively pushing him off their rock. They pretend to include Gerald, but then they bray in their loutish sea lion voices, “Off, off, off,” chasing him from their territory.
The treatment of Gerald didn’t go unnoticed. My friend Heather Ure, a “neurodivergent femme-writer-mom” according to her Twitter bio, tweeted:
I took my little ones to see "Finding Dory" this afternoon, & overall, it was a good disability narrative, both for adults & kids. #FilmDis
— Heather Ure (@riotheatherrr) June 20, 2016
& into giving up his sand pail because he lacked "marbles." :/ That was pretty shocking ableism esp. in the context of this movie. #FilmDis
— Heather Ure (@riotheatherrr) June 20, 2016
I relate to Gerald intensely, his wanting to be accepted and being taken advantage of by faux friends/allies. I was angry for Gerald but was delighted to see him in a scene after the credits where he manages to nestle himself on the rock behind Rudder and Fluke and gives a bit of a snicker. He does have agency and is tenacious in getting his place in the sun.
Isn’t that what we all want and deserve at the end of the day, a rock of one’s own and the warmth of the sun?
In another example of ableism, Marlin the clownfish, voiced by Albert Brooks, did a lot of male fishsplaining in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Some of it was subtle and came in the form of microaggressions to Dory (when he subtly tried to dissuade Dory from attending Nemo’s field trip because the teacher didn’t want to worry about her safety in case she wandered) and more explicit instances when he blamed Dory for their predicament due to her disability.
When Fluke and Rudder call Becky, Marlin takes one look at her ‘eccentric’ appearance and automatically discounts her abilities. Marlin’s inability to trust the disabled animals in his life and presume competence leads them into more danger. His doubts of Becky and insistence that he knows what to do is called out by Nemo, his son with a disabled fin.
Only after Nemo points out Marlin’s ableism does he flip the script and ‘thinks like Dory’ as a way to find a creative solution. This is a clear celebration of neurodiversity and neurodivergence. Heather Ure tweeted:
knows something about neurodivergence and learning self-care. I was moved and truly surprised to find this in a kids' movie. #FindingDory
— Heather Ure (@riotheatherrr) June 21, 2016
Writer David Chen commented on Finding Dory‘s disability hierarchy in an article where he described both Gerald and Becky:
…it separates animals who are able to speak from those who can’t. The animals who can speak have inner lives, go on adventures, have the ability to help others, possess emotional richness, and generally feel and act like full human beings…Both of these characters feel like cheap jokes. For the kids that are in the audience, they send a pretty clear message: It’s okay to laugh at people who are different, or who aren’t as smart as you are.
To me, this is part of the disability experience of many people: ableism, social exclusion, discrimination, and segregation. You can laugh, celebrate, feel distressed and disturbed, and think critically at the same time. This is what great art does.
I’m glad the filmmakers included those scenes of ableist mistreatment of Gerald and Becky. I cringed during those scenes but I could appreciate the spectrum of the social experience of disabled people. It’s not all happy endings and the struggle is totes real.
There will always be playground bullies and people who underestimate you. Many disabled people know these subtle and not-so-subtle signs when we are not welcome or accepted: the long sighs, the eye-rolls, the sudden change of plans, the concerns about safety or accommodations, the ‘accidental’ exclusion to a party or meeting, etc.
Dory may have memory loss, but she can sense frustration by others as if she’s a burden to them. In fact, she blames herself for losing her parents and apologizes constantly to everyone for simply existing and asking for help (i.e., internalized ableism).
The characterization of Gerald and Becky may result in laughs by some in the audience but this could also serve as an opportunity for adults and children to reflect and wonder, “Why did I laugh when Gerald was pushed in the water? Why is it ok to judge Becky’s abilities based on her looks?”
Pixar films have never shied away from the harsh realities of life. Even with animated films geared for children or featuring young characters, it is a misconception that these films must be positive and idealistic in their storylines and characterization. Think Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and the moments of violence in Finding Nemo (the death of Coral, Nemo’s mother) or heartbreak and rejection in Toy Story 3 (Lotso the bear being replaced and forgotten).
#3: Collective Access
The scene that screamed disability culture to me was the one where Destiny (a whale shark with myopia voiced by Kaitlin Olson), Bailey (a beluga whale with a head injury voiced by Ty Burrell) worked together to provide access for Dory who needed someone to guide her through the pipes to find her parents. Dory communicated her needs. Destiny heard her and relayed them Bailey, encouraging him to attempt echolocation.
Bailey is able to echolocate Dory’s location in the pipe system, relays directions to Destiny, and Destiny speaks to Dory in whale (the language of access through pipes) guiding her all the way with a slight detour into Marlin and Dory.
Patty Berne, Co-Founder and Director of Sins Invalid, described collective access in a June 10, 2015 blog post as one of ten principles of disability justice:
…we value exploring and creating new ways of doing things that go beyond able-bodied/minded normativity. Access needs do not need to be held in shame — we all have various capacities which function differently in various environments…We can share responsibility for our access needs without shame, we can ask our needs be met without compromising our integrity, we can balance autonomy while being in community, we can be unafraid of our vulnerabilities knowing our strengths are respected.
Get a bunch of disabled people together and witness the collective access organically takes place. This isn’t the kind of access mandated by law or provided by an entity or the state. Collective access is community-based and relies on each person’s talents and abilities in a web of interdependence and understanding. It feels good to see people use what they have and share it with others. I love it when I can provide access to a disabled friend in my own small way like typing or reaching for something. And there’s no hesitation or worry about asking my friends for help because they get it, no lengthy explanation or apologies required.
The scenes of collective access in Finding Dory fill me with such pride and solidarity for these disabled animated sea creatures.
Disabled life forms, doing it for themselves. Each in their own way!!
Another two demonstrations of collective access occurs when Hank the septopus (voiced by Ed O’Neill) moves the baby stroller through the aquarium w/ Dory inside a sippy cup.
He’s near the ground navigating while Dory reads the signage and gives him directions.
Dory does the same when they hijack a truck (you have to see it to believe it) and Hank’s tentacles are on the pedals and wheel. Collective access, ya’ll!
Final Random Thoughts
- As a wheelchair user, I laughed out loud when Hank stole the truck and said, “Suck it, bipeds!” This is something I’ve uttered a million times.
- Another major theme is about building families–both chosen families and biological ones.
- Hank reads to me as an someone with trauma in addition to being an amputee since he does not want to be touched.
- It’s nice to see Marlin embrace and respect Dory not out of gratitude (she played a larger role in saving Nemo) but because of who she is by the end of the movie.
- The ending is wonderful when Dory accepts credit for everything she’s accomplished. She is content and comfortable in her own scales.
- Note: I am not exactly sure who voiced the roles of Gerald and Becky. In one wiki, Torbin Xan Bullock is listed the voice of Becky. In imdb.com, the same actor is listed as the voice of Gerald.
Like science fiction and fantasy, animation gives flexibility and space for new ways of telling stories and depicting characters. Perhaps that is one reason why Finding Dory is a massively better movie about disability and disability culture without explicitly being framed as one.
Alice Wong is a San Francisco-based disability advocate and Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Currently, she is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorpsand an online community dedicated to recording, amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture. She is a co-partner with Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan for #CripTheVote, a non-partisan online campaign encouraging the political participation of people with disabilities. You can find her on Twitter: @SFdirewolf and online: DisabilityVisibilityProject.com
*Footnote: Disability culture is described by scholar Steven E. Brown as:
People with disabilities have forged a group identity. We share a common history of oppression and a common bond of resilience. We generate art, music, literature, and other expressions of our lives and our culture, infused from our experience of disability. Most importantly, we are proud of ourselves as people with disabilities. We claim our disabilities with pride as part of our identity. We are who we are: we are people with disabilities.
Other articles/blog posts about Finding Dory
Elizabeth Picciuto, June 19, 2016, Daily Beast
David Chen, June 19, 2016, SlashFilm.com
Stacia L. Brown, June 24, 2016, The Washington Post