Why my body is not a narrative device

I just read a wonderful article by Christopher Shinn that appeared in The Atlantic last week. In it, he argues that disabled actors need to be cast in disabled roles. I’m not going to say anything more, because you should just read it.

And you should read it because he’s being brave and real and putting himself out there even though he’s part of the culture he’s writing about (he’s the head of playwriting at the New School of Drama in New York), and that takes major guts. It’s what I’m trying to do with this blog.

You should read it because it hasn’t been said enough. And those are the kinds of things that tend to be the most important.

Needless to say, I completely agree with him.

I agree with him because, if there’s one thing that really bothers me, it’s this notion that disabled bodies are this metaphor for loss, suffering, weakness, and all the other negative things that nobody else wants to embody. We are used in film and literature alike not as a supporting role but as the role. As if our lives have to revolve around the fact that we’re disabled.

I’ve been struggling with this in my own writing as well. How can I possibly celebrate disability when the main character has gone through some really awful things in her life? How can I emphasize the agony that disability can sometimes be, while at the same time portray that it’s not as big a deal as everyone thinks it is; when, in those precious moments, the disabled experience is actually quite fun and enjoyable?

It feels like I’m at a crossroads of sorts, one that seems oddly familiar, maybe because I seem to be circling around and around the issue without ever getting a satisfactory answer.

But maybe it’s the issue that needs reframing, not my examination of it.

The disabled body can be a rich metaphor, one that is made up of trauma, adversity, achievement, and despair – the list goes on and on. And as a culture, we seem to love our metaphors (especially English majors, a.k.a. me). We like our stories. We can’t really help it.

But the important part is that the metaphor ends somewhere. A metaphor in and of itself should not be just a metaphor – and if it is, that’s a pretty weak metaphor. It should not automatically be assumed that the vessel for the metaphor is any or all of the attributes thrown at it.

Basically, just because a disabled body may look weak, or vulnerable, or abnormal (with a dash of freakery thrown in there for good measure), doesn’t mean that’s the reality. Metaphors are used as a narrative device. They should not be perceived as truth just because metaphors are the Key to All Things Literary and, therefore, should be revered.

Disabled people are people, after all. They are not made-up beings that only appear in sappy films and books where the disabled person is there to make the other supporting characters look good and like they have all their shit together. They are dynamic. They live and breathe. They screw up. They love. They hate. They are not only one thing at a time.

Nobody is.

But this seems to be how disabled people are type-casted. I hope that’s changing. In fact, I think it must change in order to, you know … move on from the land of perpetual metaphors.

I’m not saying it will be easy, and in fact English majors may have the most difficult time with this (that’s ok, as we’re awesome in other ways). I’m only saying that it’s necessary.

Because that feeling of watching a movie where the main character is disabled and you feel all awkward once the lights come on, knowing that your body was used as a symbol of weakness and fear?

That sucks. And it sucks because it’s not real. That’s only part of the story.

And if anyone is most likely to get it right, guaranteed it’ll be the person who has lived it themselves and not someone who thinks they’ve lived something like it.

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