Monday, September 16, 2013

Ironside I: The Non-Disabled Role/Roll Again

A non-disabled actor is taking on the role of a wheelchair user.  I know.  It's still so common that this particular instance is not really a shocking headline.  But NBC's remake of Ironside does bear some discussion: because the main character, acted by Blair Underwood, is African-American; because there is so much PR about the casting decision; because that PR keeps stressing that Mr. Underwood has a personal connection to disability; and because of the ways the series uses and understands the disability community.

That's a lot to handle in one post, so I am going to create my own Ironside mini-series.  The first episode will be about Hollywood, disability, and casting.  The second will be about Ironside's wheelchair!  Yes, the chair is one of the most important characters in the show; it connects us to the series' discussion of sexuality and masculinity.  The third will respond to the media culture created around the show.  In the fourth, I will look at some of the intersections of disability and race.

Casting: The Flashbacks 

The conventional reason for not casting disabled actors is that the story lines require significant flashbacks to the characters' non-disabled state.  Though I've seen some debate about blindness, the impairment most often in question is spinal cord injury with paralysis.  Wheelchair use is the shorthand for disability, so wheelchair use is the case most often in play.  For most film and television producers, a wheelchair user cannot walk, so he or she cannot play that part.  This is a limited understanding of wheelchair use -- some wheelchair users can walk, not every wheelchair user has paralysis, and some people with paralysis can walk.  But since I cannot imagine getting that into the average producer's head, let's begin with non-walking wheelchair users with paralysis.

The excuse is that actors with this kind of embodiment cannot fulfill a significant part of the role, so they cannot be cast.  A typical example of the explanation can be found in this piece in The Wrap by Tim Molloy: "The producers said the show is about 10 percent flashbacks, which would have made it impossible to use special effects to make a paraplegic actor appear to walk."  All right, then.  So, why can't they use a stunt or body double?  Oh my!  What if Hollywood were to think of walking as a stunt.  Not that I think of Hollywood as needing money, but this has to be cheaper than filming car crashes, explosions and other such routine stunts.  Can you imagine?

Let's just take that thought seriously for a second. Body doubles are used for all kinds of things -- dangerous stunts, sex scenes -- why not walking?  NBC is already paying Horace Knight to act as a stunt double for Blair Underwood ....  Why couldn't they just have a walking double for a disabled actor?  ABC hired a disabled body double for Arizona, Jessica Capshaw's character on Grey's Anatomy and proceeded to develop a position for ongoing and complicated work.  Arizona seems not to have been written out of the series, and she isn't staying at home in a single position with a blanket over her leg.  To keep Arizona's character the same, ABC has had to commit to and invest in a body double.  If you can use a double to make an actor appear disabled, surely the reverse is also possible?

In the course of the show, we learn, from Stacy Jenel Smith for the AARP, that:
Underwood has worked hard to master his wheelchair technique. He’s endured tumbling over. He’s learning how to pop wheelies. After being shot — as we see in the pilot’s flashbacks – Ironside, he pointed out, had to learn “how to drive, how to get in and out of his car, which is a big deal, how to get in and out of bed, how to work out. He had to learn his center of balance. He’s paralyzed from the armpits down, so he’s a little different from [the previous] Ironside, who was from paralyzed from the waist down.”
I get the feeling that Mr. Underwood and Ms. Smith want the reader to see how hard it is to act disabled.  Having to endure tumbling over?  Laughable.  But this laundry list is both helpful and familiar.  Underwood has had to learn how to do the activities of daily living as a wheelchair user.  We are so accustomed to non-disabled people learning how to act disabled that it is now fairly easy to do.  But what if the reverse were also true?  A similar list could be drawn up for the walking body double.  We will need to know how to create shots of you standing, reaching, walking, running, ....  We have broken down what we think we need to know to make someone seem disabled.  How hard would it be to break down what we think we need to know to make someone seem able-bodied?

But We Need That Back Story

Time and time again, producers emphasize the importance of the non-disabled state.  I've only seen the first episode of Ironside, so it is too early to tell whether other episode story arcs are going to depend on incidents that happened prior to the shooting.  But usually, people are only talking about needing to go back to the moment of disablement.

Sure enough, the first episode of Ironside does feature flashbacks.  We see the setup for the arrest that goes wrong.  We see the surveillance, the running, the shooting and the falling.  But how long can this go on?  I mean, how many times during a series do we have to experience the story of the "tragedy" of Ironside becoming disabled.  Surely, once we know and we've seen his partner's grief, we know.  How much interest in this backstory is there?

In part, the blame lies with our societal fascination with the transition into disability.  We love the dramatic stories of accident, tragedy, loss, and ensuing helplessness or supercrip overcomingness.  This is television -- we know how this plays out.  And so it is in Ironside.  Tech N9ne's Demons plays throughout that scene as Underwood works out and punchballs his anger; he then slaps and punches his legs.  Finally, he crashes his wheelchair into the wall in frustration -- and this gives him the insight that breaks the case.  Yawn.

It is true that plenty of us acquire disability; I did.  But the Hollywood approach to that moment does not capture most of our experiences.  We all have to negotiate the transition, yes, but for the most part we don't handle it in these ways.  Even if you grant mainstream culture some interest in the transition, this isn't the whole story.

Further, there is a completely different side to the disability experience that we almost never see on primetime.  Beside those of us who acquire disability are those of us who are born disabled. Where are their stories?  I want disability to be more than incidental -- you know?  It's nice that Breaking Bad cast R.J. Mitte, but I want more.  I want disability to be visible as the "normal" part of human variation that it is.  I also want to see disability as it is experienced by many of us: integrated into a rich history and culture.  Mainstream television could be a leader here; it could be a purveyor of our work.  Instead, Hollywood consumes and regurgitates simple, useless stereotypes.

His Mother Is Disabled

In almost every piece I have read, Mr. Underwood's mother is mentioned -- never by name, but always by diagnosis and means of locomotion: she has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.  This is wrong on so many fronts.  She is a person in her own right; she has a name; she might have liked her diagnosis to remain private.  She might liked her wheelchair use to remain private.

We don't know of course, because the press has blared her story all over her son's success at landing this role.  Every mention of her disability is used in support for the rightness of the casting decision: Mr. Underwood may not be disabled, but his mother uses a wheelchair; this makes it all right.  Ms. Underwood's disability is leveraged to argue that Mr. Underwood has special insight into the life of a wheelchair user.

I encounter this kind of illogical reasoning often, and I still fail to see why or how it works.  Knowing someone does not mean that you have access to knowing what it means or is like to be them.  We acknowledge this all the time.  It's one thing to know about an issue; it's another thing to be affected directly by it.  Unless, that issue is disability.  So, let me be clear: Mr. Underwood may see how his mother moves through the world, but that is not the same as knowing what it is like.  Nor, critically, is it the same as being able to take it into his body.  Mr. Underwood does not have a body that requires the use of a wheelchair.  He cannot know what it is like, and from what I can see of the show he does not get it.

Under the headline that Ms. Underwood is proud of Mr. Underwood in his new role, one story quotes Mr. Underwood as saying: "She was very moved when she saw me like that. It has opened up many conversations we never had before."  Like that?  That?  No, he doesn't get it.  It took this preposterous fakery for Mr. Underwood to deeply engage with his mother about her experience?  For shame.

Does He Do It Right?

After saying that Mr. Underwood cannot know what it is like, I'm willing to bet that many of you are interested in seeing how well Mr. Underwood does disabled.  Is he better than, say, Kevin McHale?  I say that these are pointless and wrong-headed questions.  Who cares whether Underwood can fake paralyzed legs better than McHale -- strap vs. oddly positioned legs?  Who cares whether Underwood looks more disabled or behaves more like a disabled person than McHale?  

If you are looking here, you are looking from the perspective of a society that thinks it can assess disability and disablement by visual inspection.  You are acting as if you think you know how disabled people live and move in the world.  Disability and disabled people come in all ways, shapes, forms, and habits.  There is no one, right way to be disabled.  

Television shows like this narrow the experience to their imaginings about our embodiments.  We do not have to and should not take them on as definitive.


  1. Anonymous8:07 AM

    Hi dancr it's Mia, Once again your perception of the situation was spot on, to me having an ablebodied person play dis or otherwise abled is the new blackface because in the early days of movies noone wanted to see people of color on the screen or god forbid a mixed race kiss. Hollywood likes the cowboy to ride off into the sunset with the girl, timmy to have lassie get him out of the well and to make people warm and fuzzy by assuring them noone was really disabled when cut was yelled blair walked to his trailer.

    The previous stated concepts are as outdated as the people who make the movies, as you know dancr we climb mountains, we race cars we teach martial arts, we dance like pavlova all while oh yeah having wheels under our ass. When you dance your chair disappears into the grace and beauty of your movement, as it would when a great talented actor who happenned to be disabled propelled the audience through the story line with the excellence of her acting craft.
    Hollywood needs to have what an old baptist friend of mine called a"come to jesus meeting" on the subject of disabled playing the disabled, this isn't the Globe theatre where men must play the womens part, or 1930 where a jew from Brooklyn called Al jolson must play black face this is the 21st century. We can create whole planets in a I-pad that make you belive there are planets far far away so lets give the disabled their due and their jobs as they deserve.

  2. ... I know a disabled person, so that is a qualification for the role of portraying a disabled person is as to saying, "I know a person of color, so it is a qualification to play that role. I know an astronaut, a former CIA spy, a surgeon, why I even know a dead person!" Well, perhaps the last one doesn't apply, as it isn't categorically quite the same.

    If the syllogism :: I have experience of being in the same environment with someone who has the characteristics of a role: this makes me more qualified for the role: it should count towards consideration of me for the role :: is applied, then since I live in Portland Oregon, home of "Artemis of the wildland," I have qualifications bonus points over the rest of the population to play the role of a bigot menacing the disabled. Since I am disabled and live in the "targeted" area, then that should carry even more weight.

    Yet, my actual disability breaks the syllogism, as it seems it would create a hindrance to acquiring a role playing a person with that disability.

    So, the syllogism proves=false, so what *is* the real reason that "exposure experience" is credited as more capable for the role?

  3. I cannot wait to read the rest of this series (and that's an understatement)! I'm quite passionate about studying portrayals of disability in the media, and I'm a huge advocate for having ACTUAL disabled people casted in such roles. I wrote my honors thesis to graduate on portrayals of disabled people in romantic and sexual situations in popular media and I analyzed how these portrayals influenced the perceptions of nondisabled people.

    I particularly liked this concept: "Oh my! What if Hollywood were to think of walking as a stunt."

    And you make an excellent point which I have hoped media outlets will finally realize: Having any kind of association with disability still does not make you qualified to portray something that you haven't experienced from the inside out. Just because your uncle's cousin's grandmother has a disability, doesn't mean you "get it."

    Thanks for writing this.