Representations of disability on television are fairly rare (and usually seem to be male – which is another post), and it is even rarer for these parts to be played by an actor with a disability. As Anna at FWD/Forward notes, this “crip drag” can make for problematic representations and can further exclude disabled actors. When a character with a disability is played by an actor with a disability, it is worthy of some attention, and thus I offer a clip of Brothers – a FOX sitcom almost certainly not long for this world.
Darryl “Chill” Mitchell was a comic actor in the 1990s (you may remember him from Veronica’s Closet, Galaxy Quest or as the teacher in the film 10 Things I Hate About You) who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 2001. Since then, he has used a wheelchair in both his personal and professional life, first on Ed and now on Brothers. The show focuses on Mitchell, his parents, and his brother (Michael Strahan), who is a former NFL star and whom Michell’s character blames for his accident.
While I don’t want to exaggerate the possible causality here, the fact that his character’s disability is treated as a fact of life that can be joked about is a welcome antidote to common storylines of disability as tragedy or inspiration for able-bodied characters, and may be tied to the lived experience Mitchell brings to the role. Certainly, he is aware of the risks and possible rewards involved in the representation of an African-American man with a disability on network TV, telling The Atlantan:
“And Iâ€™m not only part of an African-American family, Iâ€™m a person who uses a wheelchair. Iâ€™m not pitching for one community. Iâ€™m pitching for two. This isnâ€™t just a TV show. Itâ€™s a movement.”
Brothers, however, has had terrible ratings, is not particularly funny, and is rumored to be already quietly canceled by FOX.
Turning to a brother on a different low-budget series, Make It or Break It on ABC Family focuses on four teenage girls who are also elite gymnasts. Our protagonist, Emily, has a younger brother who uses a wheelchair. Yet, Brian’s health is never discussed, and he seems to be a peripheral character within the series and his own family, dominated as it is by his sister’s gymnastics, his mother’s sexuality, and the family’s poverty. In fact, Brian seems to perpetuate the representation of PWD as saintly characters who take care of and inspire those around them. So far, Brian is practically a contemporary Tiny Tim, preserving his family’s optimism in the face of other challenges and minimizing his own needs. For whatever it’s worth, Brian is not played by an actor with disabilities. And, of course, this tween-focused dramedy is far from well-written on any level.
Yet, the contrast between Brothers and Make It or Break It is notable for their very different approaches to fairly similar stories of sibling, elite athletics and disability. Apart from the presentations of brothers with disabilities, I find their athletic siblings an interesting counterpoint. To some extent, the same contrast between athletics and disability is present in Friday Night Lights, as well. Why are disabled bodies invoked in these series, in particular? One possibility is that these characters are an attempt to to humanize their physically impressive siblings, bringing them “down to earth” from elite athletics by showing interactions with “pitiable” or “vulnerable” people with disabilities. Related to this, the contrast in bodily representation seems to underscore the skills of the non-disabled athletes by presenting them in connection with a perceived Other; Emily leaps across the uneven bars at nationals and Brian watches her on television while sitting in his chair, at home. Make It or Break It will be back for another season this winter – let’s hope that the characterization of Brian can take a page from Chill and present a somewhat less cliched family dynamic around disability.
For more reading on disability in the media (because I certainly won’t post often enough to keep you up to date!) the series of posts on disability in media and popular culture at FWD/Forward has been fascinating reading lately. I was particularly impressed with Ouyang Dan’s post on House, as well as posts on Torchwood and Joan of Arcadia, and heartily recommend the series and the blog.