Tuesday, July 10, 2012

10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (6-10)

(6 and 7 are sexually explicit. Keep calm.)

6. There aren't many reasons for disabled people not to have sex

...let alone romantic relationships. In likely order of prevalence:
  • Not having a suitable partner at this time.
  • Psychological reasons, e.g. past trauma, depression, low confidence and many others.
  • Asexuality, which like all sexualities and sexual proclivities, can coincide with disability.
  • Sexual acts or orgasm causing physical pain or danger.  
None of these are unique to disabled people, but they may all be more common in disabled people. Although disabled people fight hard against being seen as asexual (although I'd argue the problem is being seen as sexless, which is something else), the few openly asexual people I've come across have happened to be disabled. I don't know whether having one outsider identity gives us the confidence to explore and embrace other identities which might otherwise have remained hidden.
Reasons for disabled people not having sex do not include:
  • People whose legs don't work can't have sex.
  • People whose genitals don't work can't have sex.
  • People on the autistic spectrum are not interested in sex. 
  • People with intellectual impairments are not intelligent enough to have sex.
  • People with mental ill health are only interested in really weird sex.
  • Medical conditions, injuries and pain make people disinterested in sex.  
  • Disabled people aren't attractive enough to have sex. 
  • Disabled people don't experience sexuality. 
The way sex is sometimes written about, you get the impression that some people (almost always straight, non-disabled people) conceive sex as merely the baby-making act, in the missionary position, and anyone who can't do that isn't having sex. Anyone who can't penetrate or be penetrated can't have sex. Anyone who can't orgasm can't have sex. Any man who can't sustain an erection can't have sex.

Folks, not only is none of this true, but accepting this fact is likely to improve your own sex life, however you happen to be equipped.

People often remember Lady Chatterley's Lover as a story about an aristocrat who has an affair with the gamekeeper because her husband has become paralysed. In fact, D H Lawrence wasn't nearly so clumsy.

Clifford Chatterley is emasculated, in his own eyes, by his paraplegia, the events of the First World War and the social upheaval in its aftermath (being a Lord isn't quite the big deal it used to be). Constance is still interested in him, but he rejects her. Clifford is very much wedded to the Sick RoleThere's talk of physical improvement, but Clifford dismisses the signs. The doctors say that he should be able to father children, but he tells Constance to have an affair and conceive a child - an heir - with someone else. He can't have sex any more because he can no longer meet the standards of a very particular kind of masculinity

Lawrence makes it very clear that it is not Clifford's impairment which destroys his sexual relationship, but Clifford's reaction to it and the massive sense of rejection and frustration Constance is left with.  If Mellors had a spinal cord injury, he would most probably continue to have a rich and fulfilling sex life, and given the obstacles against being a wheelchair-using gamekeeper in the 1920s, would probably spend even more time weaving flowers into people's pubic hair.  Maybe marketing his technique as a kind of eco-friendly no-wax-necessary vajazzle. 

On the subject of private parts:

7. Focusing on disabled people's penises is objectification.

In the second season of the US rip-off of The Killing (no, I don't know why we're still watching either), the freshly paralysed mayoral candidate Darren Richmond is beginning to come to terms and look towards the future, when he suffers an inevitable humiliation. We already know that his penis is now a special disabled penis. He is incontinent and doesn't notice when he is catheterised (by a beautiful young nurse - which makes it much worse). We also know he needs help in the bathroom - from women.

Then, chatting to another beautiful young woman, Richmond urinates upwards and doesn't notice until the hotty draws attention to the massive puddle in the lap of his hospital gown.

I'm no expert in spinal cord injury (especially as I always have to correct cord from chord), but I am guessing that someone with complete incontinence rarely gets a full bladder and someone with no feeling in their penis is unlikely to get a psychogenic erection. But apart from this, The Killing doesn't feature other characters going to the toilet, menstruating, having sex or even eating or drinking very often. There's all sorts of problems with pacing in this series (goodness me, are there problems!), but almost everything we've seen with Richmond in six or seven episodes involves repeated and sexualised humiliations*.

The Man With The Plan in Things to do in Denver when you're dead speaks about the hard-ons he can't feel. The paralysed veterans in Born on the Forth of July get together in order to hire women to have sex with them. This isn't the alternative to presenting disabled men as sexless - any more than Horny Nymphos 3 is the alternative to presenting women as sexually passive.

The curiosity surrounding the disabled person's penis is handled much better in The Book Group, where it is only other people who imagine that Kenny's penis has magical and complex qualities. However, really, if the fiction doesn't focus on the genitals and bodily functions of other characters, then it is unnatural to focus on someone's genitals just because they're disabled.

This is kind of like when you have a cast of white characters with one black character, and you write several paragraphs about the black person's skin, hair and accent, when nobody else's skin, hair or accent is remarked upon. Yes, yes, there are contexts where this would be pertinent, and there are contexts where it is pertinent to talk about a disabled character's penis. But in the absence of such context, it's objectifying. The treatment of Richmond in The Killing is the writerly equivalent of approaching a wheelchair-user in a pub and asking him if he can get it up.

If you want to be a right-on writer who recognises that disabled people have sexuality, then treat these character's sexuality and body parts in the same way as you treat everyone else's. Which sometimes means ignoring them completely.

8. Not all disabled people live in accessible accommodation, but most of us will if we can.

I can't remember much about Notting Hill, but I do remember the lovely Gina McKee, who I had a crush on at the time, playing the very rare role of a female wheelchair-user. I can forgive her the rest of the film for that, including the fact that this wealthy middle-class woman - so wealthy that she lives in a two storey house in a (even then) very fashionable part of London - has to be physically carried upstairs to bed every night by her husband. I think we were supposed to think, "Ah, how sweet, how romantic, what dedication!" but instead I thought, "Ah, I imagine the lovely Gina is as light as air itself! But why would such a wealthy wheelie live in a place with stairs?"

This is so common in fiction, however wealthy a disabled character is. In Gattica, Jude Law's paraplegic character is forced to crawl up his own spiral staircase - yes, this is a dystopian disablist future, but he is rich and it is his home. Even some disabled villains, who you know would be prepared to flout any planning regulation that got in their way, nevertheless fail to make their homes and underground lairs DDA-compliant.

It is as if some writers are afraid that we're going to forget that a character is disabled. The answer to this is to ask the question, Would it matter if we forgot?  Is being disabled so central to who this person is?  If so, if they are the disabled one, does anyone exist like that in real life?

There are lots of disabled people who live in accommodation which isn't fully accessible. I spend half my time in a building with stairs which, while I can physically get up and down most of the time, are a real bane. However, this isn't my house or somewhere I'd chosen to live.

9. Disabled people know other disabled people

Women and members of minorities are well used to tokenism in fiction; worlds that look like our own but mysteriously feature only one woman, one person of colour, one gay person etc.. But the idea of disabled people being acquainted with other disabled people, let alone some sense of community among disabled people outside institutions is extremely rare indeed (I have never come across fiction which acknowledges the disabled community as a social and political movement, although I can kind of understand that - Marilyn French's The Women's Room is the only successful novel which significantly features any egalitarian movement).

All the fiction that features community among disabled people I can think of is set in or around institutions; care homes (Skallegrigg, Inside I'm DancingBubba Ho-Tep), schools (The Drool Room) and hospitals (The Officer's Ward, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and the brilliant Taking Over The Asylum).

Otherwise, the only place where disabled people live and work in close proximity are for the enemies of Bond, Batman and all those other superheroes - disabled villains are invariably equal opportunities employers. To be honest, right now, I'm struggling to think of other fiction where two disabled characters are friends. Oh yeah, Forest Gump. Great.

However, disabled people meet in all kinds of circumstances - we are everywhere, after all - and  for a great variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with disability. We're just about.  Disability sometimes means we have stuff in common - I find other disabled people are generally more likely to fit in with my passive social life - but even when not, two disabled people are no less likely to get on and be friends than any two people. We're slightly more likely to be related to other disabled people.

Whilst in real life, disabled people are sometimes introduced to one another because we are disabled, the oh-so-special tragic heroic status of disabled characters in fiction usually means that they must be the only one around. After all, if there's a blind person, a double amputee and someone with MS living in the same street, none of those things is all that tragic or all that special. Which they're not!

 And finally, perhaps most importantly

10. Disability is not a conflict that has to be resolved.

Honestly.  It's not!  Most disabled people live into old age and do not become non-disabled.

A personal little rant.  Do you know how it feels when other people understand your life as a battle which you either have to persist in fighting, struggling, trying to be other than you are, or else give up and accept defeat?  Maybe you do. It's wearing. It's also incredibly frustrating when you have a reasonable life expectancy and yet your health is not likely to dynamically improve. And if it did, it would take ages and happen behind the scenes. Meanwhile, you have a life to be lived and all sorts of dreams and schemes which you want to get on with - dreams and schemes made a fair bit more difficult by your circumstances - and yet other people think you should be putting all that on hold and concentrate on being an ill person and fighting your illness until you can be a normal person once again! Rant over.

Sometimes disabled people are cured by love (The Boy In the Bubble, As Good As It Gets, Avatar) or friendship (Heidi, The Secret Garden) or just by being such brilliant mad geniuses that the genius magically overcomes the mad (A Beautiful Mind, Proof). But overwhelmingly, disabled people are cured because they are good. Keep being good and sooner or later, you'll be a non-disabled normal Norman. Disabled villains never get cured. They almost always die (although of course, that doesn't necessarily finish them off).

Lots of good disabled characters die as well (by good, I mean virtuous - quality is quite another matter), but our deaths are bitter-sweet. Our deaths help other people to appreciate their lives in some way. And quite frankly, our deaths happen because our lives are seen as less valuable or more miserable than the lives of others, so we are expendable and maybe death is a release anyway.

Our deaths are romanticised, often without any particular medical cause. Even in the brilliant Skallergrigg, a main character with cerebral palsy appears to simply fade away while still a young woman.

I shan't accuse Dickens of starting it, but despite a wealth of disabled characters, I think the only one that survives and remains disabled is Esther in Bleak House who remains scarred by smallpox. Okay, so maybe few others with mild disfigurements and speech impairments, but nobody with so much as a limp. Smike dies. Everyone with mental illness dies and usually soon into their illness. Anyone vaguely weak and pretty dies (in Victorian times, weak and pretty was itself a medical condition). Tiny Tim is going to die but is now going to get much stronger (although the book doesn't take this as far as certain films do - I enjoy Scrooged where the Tiny Tim of the TV production Bill Murray is overseeing is played by an acrobat).

Of course, there are a few good stories to be told about people coming to terms with impairment (The Officers Ward is a good example of this - I usually hate this kind of thing, but that was really beautiful). However, as I've said, most of our stories have nothing to do with our impairments. Most of our stories began when we were already disabled, and concluded without death or medical miracle.

Here's a link to 10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (1-5) - the comments now feature a vast number of disabled fictional detectives I'd not heard of before.

Meanwhile, Feminist Philosophers have a post up called Moving Beyond The Stereotypes about disability in fiction, complete with lively comments thread (although it does descend into a row about what literature is - that's philosophers for you!)

* In between writing this, I caught up with several episodes of the Killing and you'll be pleased to learn that, I don't know, 72 hours after being shot and paralysed, Richmond has now become an inspiration hit on Youtube by playing wheelchair basketball badly. Super.


Sarah Lewthwaite said...

There's some very interesting stuff coming out of Disability/Cultural studies in the US and elsewhere on disability and it's use in fiction, specifically around Narrative Prosthesis, how disability is used as a device to drive narrative, that really chimes with some of your thoughts here. Great post. You should write a paper!


Matthew Smith said...

About "Notting Hill": within living memory, Notting Hill was a slummy part of London that was dominated by the notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman (the Notting Hill Carnival has its origins in that era). It's possible that someone who may live there now and be land-rich by virtue of owning a house in Notting Hill bought the house when it was still a poor area. Nowadays it's quite fashionable and many people like the vibe, the diversity of shops and so on that having a lot of council estates and rented accommodation nearby provide even if most of the houses are staggeringly expensive.

I'm not sure there are a lot of accessible properties anywhere nearby - buying up *another* Notting Hill house and making it accessible might well have been beyond their finances. If there were accessible council properties available, they might be reserved for over-50s or not available to her because she is too rich. Even a bit beyond Notting Hill, it's difficult to think of anywhere there are a lot of accessible properties, i.e. spacious bungalows. She could probably more than afford a bungalow in some place like Croydon or Uxbridge, but that's not even London to someone used to Notting Hill. So the lack of accessibility might be the price she's willing to pay to live in a hip area where all her friends live (at least some of the time - assuming she doesn't also have a place in the country).

Unknown said...

Great essays, Goldfish! I just used them as an impetus for the critique of the latest Spider-Man movie;


Unknown said...

D'oh, link is actually here;


Holly said...

Such a great follow up post. I really love your thoughts about this and nod my head all the way through. Thanks!f

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for all your comments - sorry if I'm a bit slow at the moment but am away from home and able to access the internet intermittently.

Everyone, do check out Lisa linked to this: Writing the invisible visible - and doing it well!" on disabled characters on TV and some of the bad reasons there are so few.

GirlWithTheCane said...

Excellent post. I've seen "Notting Hill" several times and hadn't even considered how odd it is that they live in a house with stairs (although it does make a bit more sense now that I've read Matthew Smith's comment). I think that your insights need to part a of fiction writing classes...

Alicia said...

I loved this post, the only disabled characters I remember right now and like are the ones from Percy Jackson (most characters have ADHD and dyslexia) and the disabled character I like the most is Ayase Shinomiya from an anime called Guilty Crown, I don't like the rest of the anime and it's full of flaws in other points but I think she was well written, they do talk about her wheelchair but she is more than that. How often do you see a disabled girl in a wheelchair saying things like: "This wheelchair is something that makes me who I am.". She has personality, a love interest and she is part of action scenes. Sadly the anime is terrible with most female characters, too much sexualization for annoying fanservice and cliches.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Dickens: have you ever read "Our Mutual Friend"? Jenny Wren is really kind of an odd character as far as Victorian depictions of disabled young women go. She's, among other things, a mixture of sentimentalized waif and a more modern "disabled snarker" type - and she doesn't, as far as I can recall, end the story dead or cured. I was really rather surprised.

Alasdair said...

On Gattaca - I'm not disabled myself, and I first saw that movie when I was about 12 or 13 and didn't know any disabled people. Even so, I remember that it *still* bugged me that Jude Law's character lived in a house with stairs. The obvious reason was so they could have a thrilling/inspirational scene where he drags himself up the stairs before the investigators arrive, but in-universe, it makes no sense! If I could see that, I don't know if the scriptwriters couldn't, or more likely they just didn't care.