Wake Up (live)Today's Tune:
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?