handicapped characters are people, not lessons.

| Monday, April 25, 2011
Today's Tune: Wake Up (live)

There are times when I'm reading a story or watching a film and I come across an odd sort of predicament: a character who was obviously created with a writer's best intentions in mind, but in doing so, that character is robbed of personality and development. They're rendered unrealistic. Flat. Even irritating.

For me personally, one such character is the (usually mentally) handicapped individual who is reduced to a happy-go-lucky child; whose purpose it is to teach abled characters about The Beauty of Life. This character kills me a little inside every time I see it in fiction or television. It's a well-meaning creation that ends up hurting my heart.

But why, you ask?

My little sister has Down Syndrome. She's blond and green-eyed and petite. She's a high school graduate. She's an actress. She loves to sing and dance. She throws tantrums like you wouldn't believe. Sometimes she can be mean. Sometimes she's a brat. Sometimes she cries and rages and manipulates. Sometimes she's personable and hilarious. She tans a lot easier than I do. She's smart. She loves to eat sushi. She hates the feeling of shaving cream. She laughs and smiles and wants to fit in. She hurts and weeps over things she knows she'll never get to have. She wants to be loved. She's perfect. She's imperfect.

My point is this: she is a person. She has hopes, dreams, flaws, and secrets.

She is not a lesson about the finding The Beauty of Life.

The reason the aforementioned character bothers me so much is that it robs a very real person of her chance to be... a person. It reduces her to a vehicle through which another character can learn something. It tends to follow the misleading and frankly insulting assumption that a mentally handicapped person is permanently a child, and thus permanently "innocent" and happy and able to see *magic* everywhere. It discounts that these are individuals with flaws, who make mistakes, who are human and thus subject to the human condition of questioning their lot in life and being justly pissed off about it.

In essence, this is a flat, two-dimensional character who exists not to be an individual of their own merit, but to make other people feel better. I say again: they are people. They are not lessons.

This is sort of a difficult post to write, because most writers who create a character like this have all the best intentions in mind. However, just because the character is portrayed in a positive light (sweet, kind, loving, full of Simple But Poignant Secrets) doesn't make the portrayal less condescending. My goal isn't to make anyone feel bad, but to hopefully give people a position they may not normally think about while writing a handicapped character.

As always, just remember that a character should always be a person, not a prop.

Can you think of any portrayals of handicapped individuals that you found really powerful and moving?


{ aspiring_x } at: April 25, 2011 at 7:29 AM said...

well put. and i can't think of any off the top of my head, but that could be because my morning-squeaky-brain-gears are trying to make sure to process and apply this lesson!

{ Emily White } at: April 25, 2011 at 8:45 AM said...

I couldn't agree with you more. My brother is mentally handicapped and I see these flat characters and I want to scream. It's just another example of society cramming people into molds that they have to work a lifetime to get out of.

Great post, Maybe!

{ Justine Dell } at: April 25, 2011 at 9:25 AM said...

What a great post! I can't think of any specifically, but I understand the sentiment.


{ Melinda } at: April 25, 2011 at 9:37 AM said...

I'm in the great-post club. I can't think of any example in YA offhand, but I also have morning brain. But in Wally Lamb's I Know this Much is True, there was a schizophrenic character I thought was 3D.

{ Andrew Leon } at: April 25, 2011 at 10:21 AM said...

I think Glee does a great job handling this issue. At least, better than the majority of shows have. You get a lot from Sue's relationship with her sister and with the cheerleader assistant she has.

And I loved Bill, but that may have had more to do with Mickey Rooney than anything else. And I haven't seen that in, probably, 20 years, so I don't actually remember much about how the character was handled.

{ Old Kitty } at: April 25, 2011 at 10:59 AM said...

This is the second time in my comments that I've mentioned this book "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter". :-) I guess it's so embedded in my consciousness!

I would add Lennie of Mice and Men too.

Take care

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: April 25, 2011 at 11:42 AM said...

Thanks for the support and comments, all. I love the examples :)

Emily - Nice to hear from someone who can relate. It just makes me want to bang my head on my desk sometimes.

Andrew - Becky from Glee is a favorite of mine, too ;)

{ Matthew MacNish } at: April 25, 2011 at 12:20 PM said...

It's hard to avoid, but very true. Characters are people, not vehicles for making a point.

{ February Grace } at: April 25, 2011 at 9:18 PM said...

Wow. Well, first thing I think to say to tell you my views on this is to link a post that I wrote last year on the subject of disabled characters, penned in response to a post someone else wrote about being angry at so-called 'super-crips' in stories. (here it is if you want to have a look http://februarywriter.blogspot.com/2010/08/disabled-characters-and-life.html)

I have known and adored people with many disabilities- Down Syndrome being one of them. I do not claim to understand what it's like to have a sibling living with it--and I hear, very clearly, your frustration. Though my situation is different, I think it might be kind of the same frustration I feel every time I see a character on a TV show losing their sight or having a stroke or genetic disorder. It's never portrayed as it really is.

I think the problem may lie in people not sticking to the old maxim 'write what you know'. They think that they're doing a good thing by bringing these characters to the world- to perhaps shine light on them in a way that someone else hasn't done before. And you know what? I still think maybe they are. Because even if we're sensitive to the (bad) portrayals- most people in the everyday world would just ignore people like me- so at least if the audience is made to pause and think a moment "hey, maybe someone like that does bring a lot to the world" it's not such a horrible thing?

Yes, maybe the characters are flat but so are many of the 'able' characters in books (do NOT get me started on my personal view of Nicholas Sparks...or Gray's Anatomy...) maybe it's the execution that is failing them here.

Maybe what has to happen is more people who do know what they're talking about writing them into books as they really are- and into TV shows too. I'm sure you've heard of the show called Life Goes On. I think that the Corky character (and later his girlfriend too) helped show how people with Down Syndrome are people with loves, hates, strengths and faults as we all have. In short- it portrayed them as people. Their families too.

So, what's the solution? Is there one? I don't know. There will always be bad, cardboard cut outs of people with issues (mental illness, spinal cord injuries, brain injuries...etc. even addiction- glamorized when they are anything but glamorous) in books and on TV. There will always be bad able-bodied characters too. So what do we do?

If we're disabled (and I have multiple disabilities so I know of what I speak)or love someone who is, we had better put some thought into writing characters that broaden people's views of people like us. Why? Because I'd really like someone struggling with issues I've faced to be able to pick up a book and feel for even a moment a little less alone. Especially if that happened to be a teen, but adults are cool too. I'd really like to be able to pick up a book with a character who happens to have a disability and really care about their whole personality, not just what they can't do. I don't want to write worlds that pretend that people with disabilities and challenges don't exist.

If we want people to hear, we have to give them (or in my own case, myself) a voice. Otherwise, who will?

I'm sorry that it's such a frustration for you. Again, my heart goes out to you for it. No one can know what your family has coped with- but I can say that your sister is lucky to have a sister like you who is so aware of, and concerned about, how the world sees her.

Be the change, they say. That's what I want to do.


{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: April 25, 2011 at 9:46 PM said...

Thank you for the lovely, insightful comment, Bru. I completely agree with you. This is a hard subject to bring up, since I know most writers who write a disabled character are doing so with the very best intentions. I like to hope that bringing this subject to the forefront and talking about it more will at least help people dig a little deeper, so they can rethink how they're portraying certain disabilities. It's part of the baby steps toward writing more realistic characters.

Again, thanks so much for sharing your views. I'll be sure to go read your post!

{ Vanora } at: April 26, 2011 at 3:27 PM said...

I would put my 2 cents in but it seems Andrew Leon beat me to it. I was about to mention Glee as well. I have no personal experience with my immediate family but my best friend's little brother is severely autistic and he's the happiest (usually) child I have ever seen! He has such a personality that shines on days he's feeling good, and has tantrums when he's not. He's been going to a school that teaches him how to feed himself, dress himself it's wonderful.

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