Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ironside II: The Rough Rider Condom Chair

My almost favourite character in the show is Ironside's chair.  I stress the almost because the character of the chair connects to my next set of issues with the program.

The production team -- and hence also the media team -- have done a lot of work around choosing a wheelchair.  Instead of showing the primary character in an old E&J hospital style chair or even the Glee style Quickie alternative, Ironside uses what looks to me like one of Ralf Hotchkiss's creations -- the RoughRider from Whirlwind Wheelchairs.

Whirlwind makes beautiful chairs that are designed to survive environments tougher than North America. They are unusual in their long front end design, with the large foot rests and dedicated plates for each foot.  They also have really responsive front casters; sturdy is key.

Given how important the chair is, I'm am surprised no one is actually acknowledging the brand of chair and its design.  I don't think the chairs are easily accessible in mainstream distribution in the United States.  I imagine you can request one, but I don't know anyone who uses one as their primary chair -- except Ralf.  So, they had to work to find the chair.  And since the distinction between this set of wheels and the average television chair is critical to the character of Ironside, they should have been clear about its origin.  Whirlwind is doing good stuff; they could use the brand recognition and support.

On set, the chair plays a role in the series' exposition of disability, sexuality, and masculinity.  Yes, the chair is all about the sex.  [I feel as if I should say it again, louder.]  The chair is all about the SEX!

Independence: The American Way

I have long been frustrated by the representation of wheelchair use on television.  All too many of the non-disabled wheelchair users seem to labor under the delusion that chair handles and being pushed are the best way to communicate their "disablement."  They seem to be caught in a self-reinforcing misunderstanding of what disability is and what it means.  To be disabled in a wheelchair-using kind of way must be an experience of utter helplessness; the best way to signal that is to show the person being pushed around; being pushed around means that wheelchair users must be weak and dependent on others; therefore, being disabled is an experience of utter helplessness.

With Ironside, television has apparently discovered that wheelchairs can come without handles and that the absence of handles means that people push themselves around.  That may not seem like much to you, but the fact that Blair Underwood will self-locomote is critical to the ethos of the new Ironside.

Sadly, the mere fact of self-propulsion does not mean that the show escapes the old way of thinking.  Rather, it reinforces the old ideas, because self-locomotion is immediately treated as akin to "independence."  And independence is what makes the show, according to David Bryant, a disabled technical advisor, "bad-ass" [here].  You can google Mr. Bryant to get the details on his disability story.  All I can say is being disabled doesn't necessarily mean that you understand and are committed to the nuances of the movement.

In a Think Progress interview on how technical advisers help television programmes get it right (?!), Alyssa Rosenberg shows Mr. Underwood learning from his advisor:
“Before we shot the pilot we spent many, many hours together just kind of doing what he does, going out in public. He [Bryant] said, ‘Just take the chair and go around your neighborhood, and go out.’

We’d go out to dinner and everything, and spend a lot time. The first thing I noticed was there were no handles on his wheelchair. And I said, ‘Dude, why don’t you have handles on your wheelchair, man?’

 He said, ‘Why would I want to? Why would I want somebody to help me out? I’m independent–whatever I can do for myself, I’m going to do for myself.’ So the first thing we did was cut the handles off the wheelchair.”
Funnily enough, Mr. Underwood seems to face no environmental barriers -- where did he go, I wonder? -- his experience is only about personal independence.  Let me be clear.  Being able to push  yourself does not make you independent.  Not even being able to complete all of your activities of daily living without assistance makes you independent.  Equally, accepting help does not make you dependent.

Indeed, self-locomotion might only mean independence if I were able to move through the world without encountering any barriers, environmental or social.  And if I could do all that without having to once refer, depend on, use the work of those who came before me and who are beside me.  If all this were true, well then, perhaps I could be independent.  But the reality is that while my ability to push myself is physical (and contingent), my ability to go down the street depends on the people who designed my chair, who made usable chairs, who removed environmental barriers, who changed social attitudes and so forth.  A physical capacity does not independence make.

And what if I were to accept help with, say, dressing -- even if I were technically able to do it by myself?  What if I were to accept help with cleaning my house, parenting, or shopping?  Significant numbers of people watching the show will have lives in which they are "assisted" in some way.  It's less about actual independence -- no one is independent -- than the kinds of work and assistance we value and the kinds we stigmatize.  Independence as interpreted by Mr. Bryant and Mr. Underwood is a myth.  It is a false fiction that serves to isolate disabled people from the community as a whole.

Mia Mingus's articulation of how disability community and justice are tied to interdependence not independence is beautiful.  Read it here.

Oh!  While I am at it.  It is wholly unacceptable that this so called physical independence, "bad-ass"ness, is also expressed as disability superiority.  When Ironside calls his partner an "emotional cripple" and tell him to get his "loony-bin" ticket out of the force, he repeats all of the stereotypes about physical disabilities being the only real disabilities.  The potential for social and cultural harm here is huge.  Further, propagating intra-disability prejudice is hardly the way to build support for a television show from members of the disability community as a whole.

Disability, Sexuality, and Masculinity: Independence Gets You The Girl

The show is careful to emphasize that Ironside lives alone -- independently even.  Like all the other major television show detectives, he is prone to "going it alone," getting the case-breaking insight alone, doing it all on his own, wandering off on his own, etc.  He's a maverick and rebel.  As in other television shows where the solitary man, detective, cowboy, whatever gets a woman who is drawn to that aloneness/independence, Ironside gets his turn.  It's not just in disability-related shows that independence signifies successful adherence to the Hollywood code of masculinity.  In disability shows, however, the sex and independence combination carries extra freight, most of which is born by Ironside's chair.

Ironside goes there.  We see a couple of seconds of what might become sex in the chair.  To be honest, the chair performs well!  The woman leaps into Ironside's lap, is flipped somewhat to the side, faces him and straddles.  During all this time, the chair looks good.  Stable.  Firm.  Responsive.  Quite the studly base for any encounter: one of the advantages of the long front end.  Consummation is interrupted by the narrative demands of the case, though the woman returns, full of promise, at the end of the episode.  The chair that gives Ironside his independence is both platform for and symbol of his sexuality.  It's no coincidence that Ironside uses a Rough Rider chair.  The play on the hyper-masculine brand of condom is right there.

I suppose sex was inevitable.  Mr. Underwood seems to have learned that everyone with spinal cord injury is different and that sex with spinal cord injury is possible.  This being television though, the fact of disabled sexuality cannot be left alone.  Ironside doesn't just have sex; he has Murderball sex, i.e, sex for disabled men with able-bodied women.  In the masculine, athletic, independent and, yes, rough-rider world, disabled women are not desirable sexual partners.  Only able-bodied women can signal that no masculinity is lost in disability.  Does the RoughRider chair brand make sense?  Yes, it does.

The Los Angeles Times has a short piece by Greg Braxton that nails it: "Said Underwood, 'Every spinal cord injury is different.' He referenced the documentary Murderball, about quadriplegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby.  'Everyone in that movie has an able-bodied girlfriend.'"  That's not technically true; I believe there is one example of a disabled man and woman together.  But it is certainly true enough.  The prevalence of (mostly white), aggressive, athletic men with their blonde able-bodied girlfriends stands out in that film.

The message is clear: These men can still get the societally desirable girl despite their disability.  Despite their disability, they have not lost any of their masculinity.  They are to be seen in the same ways that we see any of our athletes: as prime examples of desirable men.  The fact that Ironside here continues years' worth of prejudice by stereotyping disabled women as "not good enough" seems not to matter.

I know where this awful stuff is coming from.  That is, I am familiar with the stereotypes that are at question here.  I know why there is such an emphasis on masculinity and sexuality.  I know that this junk is responding to a set of incorrect thinkings that go something like this.

Society will tell you that disability represents a loss of masculinity.  Once you hit that wheelchair, things change: You lose your autonomy and place in the world.  People treat you as if/you come to feel as if you are powerless, weak, helpless, etc.    This act of rendering someone thus powerless is named/experienced as either infantilization or feminization.  Reclaiming your adult, read heterosexual, masculinity is thus essential to reclaiming your self.

I'm going to rewrite that last sentence.  Reclaiming the things that society says makes you masculine is thus essential to reclaiming your self.  The "society says" part is critical.  Because gender does not come in simple masculine and feminine binaries.  Because there's no reason that a disability experience has to be expressed as a gender experience.  Because there's no reason for making disabled and infantile similar things.

These perspectives have a long and complicated history in our culture; they need to be unwound carefully and at length.  Riding the horse of conventional heterosexual masculinity is not the way out of the situation; it just reconfirms the initial problematic framework.  Being seen to get it on in this way does not a man make or indicate, regardless of disability status.   [And oh, the horrible irony of this thinking being confirmed by a film about disabled men.]

Are these perspectives too complicated for primetime television? I hope not.  But I am beginning to think that the public does not want to understand disability and that Hollywood chooses not to lead.  After all, the feel good of Ironside is Underwood's race.  They've cast a black man in a title role, a role that formerly was held by a white man.  Then, they disabled him.  What do disability and race mean in this show?  That's for the next post.


  1. thanks for this. i am looking forward to the show, tho i am disappointed that, like every other disabled person portrayed on TV, here's another able-bodied actor pretending to be disabled. to me, it's as if they cast, say, james franco and put him in blackface.

  2. hey, hi.

    thank you for this.

    it means much to me.

  3. I was thrilled to see your second part was up already and devoured it right after finishing part one. You're spot on, and this just about says it all: "But I am beginning to think that the public does not want to understand disability and that Hollywood chooses not to lead." Looking forward to your analysis of disability/race in media.